Skip to main content
Folger Story

Inside the Elizabethan Garden

Update: The Elizabethan Garden will be closed to the public as construction fencing goes up around the Folger for our building renovation project. Learn more about the Folger’s new plans for its future gardens and landscaping. The article below gives a history of the garden and its distinctive sculptures.

Photo by Leon Swerdel-Rich

Ever since it opened in 1989, the Folger’s Elizabethan Garden has served as a quiet green space on Capitol Hill, a place for reflection inspired in part by herbal references in Shakespeare’s plays. The garden has many charms, from its flowerbeds and statues to the armillary sphere in the center of the garden.

The Elizabethan Garden’s design is a modern version of the formal gardens owned by wealthy people in Renaissance England. Such a garden might cover several acres, but it was divided into small areas like the rooms of a house and surrounded by “walls”—fences and thorny hedges—to keep out animals and intruders.

In the summer, wealthy hosts and their guests socialized outdoors in gardens like these, moving from one outdoor room to another for dessert and after-dinner music and dramatic performances. Instead of sitting on hard benches, however, an English lady or gentleman enjoyed the softer cushion of planted herbs, literally sitting down on a thick mass of fragrant plants, which would scent their clothing.

In Shakespeare’s day, herbs like these were not used in cooking. Instead, Elizabethans used them as medicines, dyes, household cleaners, air fresheners, cosmetics, and—most interesting of all—magic and sexual potions.

The central feature of the Folger’s Elizabethan Garden is a knot garden, a popular design in Shakespeare’s time, which contains thyme, rosemary, lavender, and other herbs. The armillary sphere in the knot garden is a memorial to former Folger director O.B. Hardison that serves as a garden ornament and a sundial.

To the east of the knot garden is an arbor planted with Rosa alba, the white rose of York, and behind the rose is a linden tree (called the “lime” or “line” tree in Shakespeare’s works).

The Elizabethan Garden as a whole is enclosed by a hedge of English holly. In the spring, you’ll see daffodils emerging through beds of English ivy. The magnolia trees that stand on either end, giving shade to the garden’s benches, were planted by Emily Jordan Folger, who founded the Folger with her husband, Henry.

Some of the many plants found in the garden crop up in Shakespeare’s plays, such as rosemary (“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.” –Hamlet)  or holly (“Heigh-ho, sing heigh-ho, unto the green holly.” –As You Like It ). Others are plants that were simply popular in his time. Learn more about these plants in this blog post on Shakespeare & BeyondThe Elizabethan Garden: 11 plants Shakespeare would have known well.

According to Elizabethan folklore, thyme had magical properties. Learn more about the history of thyme during this video tour of the Elizabethan Garden with Docent Jennifer Newton.

In 2003 and 2004, the Folger added sculptures to the Elizabethan Garden evoking the characters and themes of eight of Shakespeare’s plays: The TempestJulius CaesarKing LearHamletTwelfth NightA Midsummer Night’s DreamHenry IV, Part 2, and Macbeth. The sculptures are half-size replicas of works by Greg Wyatt on display at the site of Shakespeare’s Stratford home, New Place. Each sculpture represents a different scene with a speech from the play inscribed on the base.

The text for this article is adapted from the Summer 2009 issue of  Folger Magazine.