There are times when the vast, debauched machine of the metropolis becomes too much for the mere creature of flesh and blood and even the city-bred must seek refuge from its vertiginous glass-and-steel modernity and subterranean velocities. In the northern reaches of heat-struck Manhattan, I found a garden oasis and the unexpected blooms of a well-known vegetable. Do you recognize it?
A friend's offhand suggestion led me to the Cloisters, a medieval outpost of the Metropolitan Museum of Art built in 1938 as a composite of French monasteries from the twelfth through fifteenth centuries to house their collection from that time period. After picking up another friend's Schwinn cruiser in Harlem, I cycled carefully in the bike lane up Frederick Douglass through Washington Heights to Fort Tryon Park, where I visited the museum and then napped on a park bench overlooking a flower garden and the Hudson River, undisturbed except for the occasional falling leaf or passing jogger (the greenway bike path along the Hudson was a good downhill route for the way back).
and I was soon ready to venture outdoors again for the Cloisters garden tour.
The tour was delightfully laden with vegetable lore, but before that I learned that cloisters are "quadrangles enclosed by a roofed or vaulted passageway, or arcade," common to monasteries, and that a garth (Garth? yes!) is the square or rectangular courtyard that these passageways surround. The tour takes you through the three museum gardens, with a brief visit to the woven plants in the famous unicorn tapestries, which I know from a long-ago furtive and absorbing interlude with Tracy Chevalier's historical romance The Lady and the Unicorn.
The three gardens are the Cuxa Cloister Garden, which is modeled on the medieval pleasure garden (full of flowers and sweet-smelling plants), the Trie Cloister Garden, which is meant to resemble a wilder mix of meadow life and evoke the millefleur pattern (thousand flowers) of medieval tapestries, and finally the Bonnefont Cloister Herb Garden, which is planted according to "a ninth-century edict of emperor Charlemagne, naming 89 species to be grown on his estates," as the brochure tells us. This last garden was where my weird veg antennae starting twangling in all directions, as we admired the white pompoms of the leek blooms pictured at the top (did you guess correctly?) and all sorts of MAGIC PLANTS.
I've always preferred magic to the disenchantments of modern science, except of course for when my health is on the line and the medieval medicine man suggests a dose of herbs followed by bloodletting. This magical patch included mandrake, sweet basil, Italian arum, vervain, the poisonous thornapple, and St. John's wort.
It wasn't surprising to learn that many monks preferred to eat raw vegetables, out of a sense of asceticism, though I hadn't ever pictured monks munching on radishes before. They also preferred their salads more on the bitter side than most present-day Americans, mixing in strong herbs, like sage and rue.
But what did astound me was that the intricate scenes of the 16th-century unicorn tapestries were dyed with colors from only three plants: weld for yellow (left), madder for red, and woad for blue. There was so much more that I learned but I'll let you take the tour for yourself. Or the botanically curious but far from New York can read the very informative blog that the gardeners write called The Medieval Garden Enclosed.