Tired Of Succulents? Try These Bizarre Garden Trends From History
by JR Thorpe

Whether you're a green thumb or, like me, have never met a green plant you couldn't kill, you can still thoroughly enjoy National Garden Month. These days, gardening has become more lo-fi and adaptable to small indoor spaces than ever; "smart gardens" that water and sun themselves have been a big thing in recent years, and the ēdn WallGarden from this year's Shark Tank has been a smash hit. And if you're not into full-fuss flowers or veggies, there are always incredibly low-maintenance cactuses and succulents, which are Having A Moment (read: found in every hipster bar from here to Oregon).

If you're planning a garden and need a bit more, well, interesting inspiration, though, history is here to help. Well, depending on how you define "help".

The most famous gardens in antiquity are, of course, Babylon's Hanging Gardens, one of the seven wonders of the world — though it's still open to debate as to whether they actually existed or where they may have been sited. Gardens maintained for pleasure, religious purposes, the cultivation of practical herbs and flowers or showing off one's wealth have existed as a constant through most civilizations that were stationary enough (and in a kind enough climate) to have them. If the history of humanity is any guide, we're gardeners at heart.

But that doesn't mean we've kept it strictly sensible at all times. Not if ornamental hermits, sun-birth pools and the evil eye have anything to say about it.

Maintain A Nice Pool In Your Garden For Giving Birth To The Sun

This one dates from the ceremonial gardens of ancient Egypt; the state religion, intertwined with the Nile, often incorporated water as a symbol, and there are remnants of pools and lakes at temples all over the country. Temple lakes, according to gardening historian Linda Farrar, would be populated with lotus flowers that would then become the center of an elaborate boating ceremony about giving birth to the sun. Yes, you read that correctly.

Various Egyptian gods were thought to have been born or sprung from the buds of the lotus, which are beautiful floating surface flowers found all the way along the Nile. To "greet the sun," for Egyptian priests, seems to have meant rowing out into a lake to greet the sun-god Ra as he was "born" out of his vegetative manifestation. (Papyrus was grown for the same reasons; the god Horus was meant to have come out of that.)

Design A Garden Symbolizing The Entirety Of Existence

Ancient Persian gardens were a lavish and detailed art; it's from the old Persian word for "walled garden," pardeiza, that we get our word "paradise." Many of these gardens were divided into four sections by canals, and designed to symbolize the four elements that comprised everything, according to the religion of Zoroastrianism: water, wind, soil and fire. They could also be divided up into the four seasons, but the end result was always an insane geometric mix of plants, pavilions and viewing-points, all within a high brick wall. Persian gardens, Landscape Online explained in 2016, "were designed with a sacred geometry representing and illustrating a union of mortal/material world and the eternal universe." Definitely low-pressure then.

Protect Your Garden With Statues Of Satyrs, Phalluses & The Evil Eye

One of the most-repeated stories in Roman lore indicates how they viewed gardens: as places of slightly worrying symbolism. One of Rome's mythic first kings, Lucius Superbus, apparently silently told a messenger to kill his uppity eldest son by cutting off the tops of the tallest poppies in his garden (hence "tall poppy syndrome"). From that point on, gardens became a bit of a threatening environment for Romans; while they adored them, they were also inclined to put protection in them to stop anything wild or unearthly getting out.

Pliny the Elder mentions that statues of satyrs who were placed in gardens were often consecrated to protect everybody from "evil spells and sorcery;" satyrs were mischievous troublemakers who could doubtless see off whatever came over the garden wall. And the garden was also seen as a place to mount defenses against the "evil eye", or look of bad luck: huge phalluses were apparently placed in them to protect against envy and bad wishes. Beats a boring geranium.

Throw A Public Sex Garden Party

Public pleasure gardens in ancient India were, at least according to the Kama Sutra and other texts, places where people felt free to get a little bit naughty in natural surroundings. The Kama Sutra gives rules for udyanagamana, a kind of elite garden party in which people implicitly were able to engage in sexual flings as part of large groups of friends. It notes:

"Gentlemen should go there on horseback, well-dressed and accompanied by courtesans... There they should pass the day in agreeable diversions and should engage themselves, to pass the time, in witnessing such pleasant pastimes as cock-fights, quail fights, ram-fights, games of chess.... They should also in the summer months join in water sports in artificial tanks where there are no noxious creatures like crocodiles."

Courtesans were presumably there to offer another kind of pleasant pastime if the gentlemen so chose, though whether the artificial tanks were involved in those activities, too, is not mentioned.

Mythical Fountains And Imaginary Flowers

Medieval European gardens were relatively close to modern ideas of gardening, but their biggest and weirdest trend was their love for a purely imaginary garden that showed up constantly in love poetry and art, and was frankly completely bonkers. It was the Garden of Love, made particularly famous in a text called the Romance Of The Rose, by the excellently named Guillaime de Lorris. Lorris's garden, like all of its imitators, was walled against "the enemies of love", and had a magical fountain of life (or Narcissus, or whatever else suited other poets), lavish plants, and a general air of overwhelming eroticism. People could come and do as they liked in it, mostly romantic things. However, they were mostly completely imaginary, as were the flowers and shrubs within them, which must have felt very unhelpful to amorous lovers looking for a place to smooch.

Puzzle Mazes To Confound The Devil

From the late medieval period to around the 17th century, mazes were a feature of many English gardens and public village greens, though for slightly eccentric reasons. Puzzle mazes aren't the same as labyrinths; they don't necessarily have one safe route through them, and can incorporate fake-outs and confusions to help disorient visitors. "Turf" mazes, where different bits of grass are allowed to grow out in the shape of puzzle mazes, were a much less terrifying variant, because nobody could get utterly lost on a field of grass. Why they were built, though, is slightly odd. Some seem to have been about making pilgrims suffer on their way to their holy object, while others may have been about confounding the Devil, who was supposed to only travel anywhere in straight lines. There's one from 1690 still standing in a stately home's garden in England, but Thomas Cromwell and the Puritans outlawed "maze games" in the 1700s because they were, well, too fun.

The Ornamental Hermit

Tired of life? Want to run away to sea, or become a nun? In 18th century England, you'd have another option available to you. There was a craze for "landscape" gardens, which looked like extremely attractive natural landscapes (despite being deeply unnatural and requiring years of work). The man to call if you wanted one was named Lancelot 'Capability' Brown, and if that doesn't make you pleased I cannot help you. However, many owners of these vast landscapes wanted to add one final romantic touch: a hermit who could live in a cave or suitably rustic-chic cottage, Thinking Deep Thoughts, dressing like a monk and either offering sage advice or simply looking nice and authentic for visitors. It was an extremely strange idea, but the hermits were apparently well-paid, even if the jobs were very few and far between (you have to be a certain kind of wealthy to afford both your own landscape and your own hermit).