Botany in Romeo and Juliet - a summary

Martin Dub é martin at UMCE.CA
Wed Sep 14 18:14:39 CDT 2005

Dear All,

Thank you very much for all your replies.

I got the following guesses about the id of that plant:

Nerium oleander
Convallaria majalis
Daphne mezereum
Conium maculatum
Solanum sp.
Digitalis purpurea
Atropa belladonna
Papaver somniferum

Then I got a reference about Shakespeare's plant:

World of Shakespeare's Plants by Alan Dent
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $4.95

and I found on internet an other book of the same kind:

However, you will agree with me that the following answer from Harry
Jorgenden is certainly the most enlightning:
I (Freek Vrugtman) passed the question to Harry Jongerden, author of "This
Other Eden", a book about the Shakespeare garden at Stratford, Ontario,
and plant imagery in the Bard's plays. For many years Jongerden was in
charge of this garden. You will find his response below.

Freek Vrugtman
Carlisle, Ontario
freek.vrugtman at

-------- Original Message --------
Subject:  RE: [Fwd: [TAXACOM] Botany in Romeo and Juliet]
Date:  Mon, 12 Sep 2005 09:51:49 -0400
From:  Harry Jongerden <hjongerden at>
To:  'freek.vrugtman at' <freek.vrugtman at>

Hi Freek,
Nice to meet you, if only by email!

No one, to my knowledge, has deduced a particular plant from this
passage.  I have read all the books on Shakespeare's plants and no one
suggests that Shakespeare had a particular plant in mind here.  It's
possible that someone has written a scholarly article and attempted an
i.d., but this is unlikely and it would be unwise.

It is typical of Shakespeare that if he has a particular plant or flower
in mind, he says so, either directly, or indirectly and poetically, by
giving more clues.  In this passage Fr. Laurence is stating what was
common knowledge to doctors and apothecaries of the day, that a small dose
of a particular medicine can cure, while a large dose can kill. Many
plants fit this category of medicine/poison.  Digitalis (Foxglove) or
Aconitum (Monkshood or Wolfbane) come to mind.  Both would be impractical
to have at hand for the run of this play unless they're available as
artificial flowers.  If I was to pick the likeliest example of Fr.
Laurence's general description, it would be Digitalis - reviver of hearts
or stopper of hearts.

It's interesting how this passage presages the action of the play.  Both
Romeo and Juliet take potions near the play's end.  Keeping in mind that
nearly all medicine was plant-based in Shakespeare's day, we see Juliet
take a potion from Fr. Laurence to put her to sleep and feign death, while
Romeo gets a deadly potion to kill himself from the apothecary.

I'm happy to answer any more questions,

Harry Jongerden
Royal Botanical Gardens
hjongerden at

Nice isn't it :)


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