Creating a humoral garden

One of my inherited projects slated to begin in spring 2020 is the design and installation of something called a humoral garden. For some context, Plimoth is a living history museum that depicts 17th c. life about the Colonial English community as well as the native Wampanoag people. With the former, Pilgrims coming over from England and Holland did so at a time when modern medicine wasn’t to be realized until at least one hundred years later after the industrial revolution. Instead, Europeans relied on various medical theories to heal and treat illness. Most everyone has probably heard of an herb, apothecary, or even physic garden as spaces designed to grow plants that were known to exhibit specific properties for healing, cooking, or similar activities.

In the medieval ages leading up to the industrial revolution there were several medical theories abounding in Europe. One of my favorites is called the doctrine of signatures, where herbs resembling various parts of the body can be used by herbalists to treat ailments of those body parts. A walnut, for example, looks like a brain and can be used to improve brain function. Perhaps the prevailing theory of the time was the doctrine of humors. In the 17th century, an apothecary’s work making medicines was still based on the Doctrine of Humors, a theory popularized by ancient Greek physician Hippocrates (460 BCE – 375 BCE).

The Doctrine of Humors teaches that the human body is made up of four substances — or humors. Each humor is tied to one of the four elements that make up the world: earth, air, water, or fire. Each humor also has a unique combination of qualities; it is either “hot” or “cold”, and either “wet” or “dry”. Each food was thought to have qualities like the humors, and could thereby help keep the person healthy by keeping their humors “balanced.” A choleric person — too hot and dry — could be treated with cold, wet foods such as lettuce or pears. Likewise, a phlegmatic person, who
was cold and wet, could be balanced with hot and dry foods like onions and mustard. When a housewife cooked for her family, she needed to
keep the qualities of the ingredients in mind to make sure the meal was as balanced — and balancing — for her family as it could be.

So now that you have an idea about the doctrine of humors in the context of Plimoth, you can follow along as I explain my task of translating this medical theory into landscape design as a museum exhibit. The general concept and desire from the client, the museum experience group here at Plimoth, was to literally arrange the plants by humor to best aid learning and experience in real time while also providing an English medieval garden experience. In terms of case studies, as far i could research there were no known cases of humoral gardens arranged by humor existing in the United States. Some, such as Evergreen College in Washington State had an apothecary garden with plant labels expressing the various humors, but no such arrangement. Abroad, the most clear precedent i could locate was the circular Minerva Garden at the Medical School of Salerno, Italy, which features a medicinal garden arranged by humors dating from at least the 17th century. Its very handsome as you can see.

Minerva Gardens, Salerno.

At the very basic level in concept design, a starting point was translating the four humors diagram above into a 2D plan. Site conditions such as light, pedestrian circulation, and space constraints were all taken into consideration along with real world feasibility realities. The onset of Covid-19, for example, created challenges in funding, man hours, and materials availability to name a few. However, I am pleased to announce that my department was part of a larger team that was later awarded a significant grant that directly targeted the labor and material coasts associated with the project and enabled us to resume progress. However, the budget was still very low and the grant now stipulated that everything must be built using in-house labor using only people who were listed on the grant. Luckily, our very experienced and patient carpenter was on the short list, and we used this to our advantage. The slideshow images shown below show the progression of the small postage stamp space transforming from an underutilized patch fronting our Craft Center into a new garden.

As seen above, the new humoral garden honors a four parterre garden layout, which perfectly supports a literal arrangement of the four humors. A myriad of material surfaces were unified through the use of packed gravel, while reclaimed cobble once used as ballast on the Mayflower II was once again repurposed for curbing. Because the site was so small, we opted to limited pedestrian access to only the periphery of the space to greater maximize the amount of plants to safely pack into the area.

Concept design of humoral garden with draft plant list for each humor

Next to go in are plants for each bed, along with a sun dial in the middle of the garden. A plant list was devised for each bed with considerations for aesthetics, maintenance, and relatability to the public. For example, we aim to showcase period plants that might be less familiar to the public such as skirrets and lovage, but also recognize the importance of being able to connect one’s current experience with the concept by adding familiar plants such as blueberries and dill. The spreadsheet below illustrate this attempt through the creation of a matrix highlighting such criteria.

The plant selection for the humoral garden required thorough consultation of various 17th c. sources to confirm humors for various plants.

I hope to update this post next year when plants have been in the ground for a full season!

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