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Bigging-up Bill’s botany

Mr Guilfoyle’s Shakespearian Botany, Edited by Diana E Hill and Edmée Cudmore, 2018. The Miegunyah Press.

It is acknowledged that English wordsmith William Shakespeare (Bill…) was well-versed in matters botanical. Quite how numerous and widespread are references to plants in the works attributed to the British ‘Bard’ is demonstrated by William Guilfoyle who devoted some of his considerable talents to cataloguing the plants in Shakespeare’s writings. His efforts were rewarded with publication in the Bankers’ Magazine of Australasia* of a series of articles that commenced with No. 1 in June 1899, and culminated 24 consecutive monthly issues later in June 1901. Those 25 articles deal with Shakespeare’s plants alphabetically, from Aconitum to yew. And yet, as interesting, relevant, and useful as this series of scholarly articles sounds to this plants-and-people devotee, I was completely unaware of this compendium of phytoshakespeariana until I received a review copy of Mr Guilfoyle’s Shakespearian Botany [hereafter styled Guilfoyle’s Shakespeariana], edited by Diana E Hill and Edmée Cudmore.

As befits this collection of Guilfoyle’s botanical essays, there is appropriate appreciation of the man in the Foreword by both Tim Entwisle (Director and Chief Executive of the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, Australia), and in the unattributed Introduction. But, and rightly so, the bulk – over 86% – of the book’s 220 pages is taken up by reproductions [in what is presumed to be the original font, etc.] of Guilfoyle’s 25 articles. Although Shakespeare included mention of plants in many of his written outputs, the focus of Guilfoyle’s papers is exclusively on the literary giant’s plays, and specifically plants common to Europe, and Australia (in keeping with Guilfoyle’s status as Director of the Melbourne Botanic Garden (which is in Australia)).

Guilfoyle is not the first to present a plant-based appreciation of the Bard of Avon (see e.g. Watson, 2015), and in the first article he acknowledges his debt to older publications including Henry N Ellacombe’s The plant-lore of Shakespeare, and Sidney Beisley’s Shakespeare’s Garden. However, although appropriate credits – to those and several other works – are made in-text, Guilfoyle’s articles are unlike modern-day scientific papers, and do not include full bibliographic information. Trying to track down the original sources – for those interested in following-up Guilfoyle’s interpretations of those works, etc. – is therefore challenging**.

What you get…

Each plant’s entry begins with a fairly formulaic set of notes that – usually – cover:

Taxonomy – Linnaean binomials are used, but with the old habit of capitalising both the genus and the specific epithet (although the latter not consistently…);

Common names – frequently several of these are listed, and, as is their way, are often more ‘instructive’ of the nature of the plant than its scientific name…;

The plant’s ‘natural order’ – which, given the frequently encountered suffix –aceae in this category, is inferred to be today’s family;

Habitat notes – which tend to be the plant’s geographical range rather than insights of a more ecological nature;

and ‘medicinal uses’ – where known.

Given the 100-plus years that separate the original publication dates and their appearance in this 2018-dated collection, it’s probably not too surprising that the taxonomy used by Guilfoyle is in need of some updating. For example, ‘nettles’ (by which is here meant stinging nettles rather than dead nettles) and hemp are no longer in the same family as stated in Guilfoyle’s article No. 13. Whilst stinging nettles (Urtica spp.) remain in the Urticaceae, hemp (Cannabis sativa) has now been placed in its own family, the Cannabaceae (Christenhusz et al., 2017). And box (Buxus sempervirens) now no longer languishes within the Euphorbiaceae, but is today in its own family, the Buxaceae (Christenhusz et al., 2017). I suspect several more taxonomic anachronisms lurk within. But, that’s no great problem – it’s the scientific name of the plants that’s arguably the most important. Additionally, the text needs some ‘translation’ for modern readers, especially regarding the meanings of such medicinal phrases as dropsy, antiscorbutic, sudorific, alterative, and emmenagogue. But, that’s what a good dictionary – or even the internet – is for! And, if in looking up such terms, you learn even more, that’s a bonus.

The individual plant entries themselves are variable in length (e.g. 0.5 page for ash, 2 pages for holly, 3 pages for wheat (a combination of 1.5 pages as ‘wheat’ AND 1.5 pages as ‘corn’…), 3.75 pages for oak, and vine, c. 4.25 pages for palm (since it has separate entries under ‘date’ and ‘palm tree’), and approx. 8 pages for rose (which extends over 2 articles and has an additional two watercolour pages – and to which can be added another page if the separate entry for briar is included). As I hope you’d expect, each entry is replete with relevant quotations from Shakespeare’s plays that mention the plant. Amongst each plant entry is included much that is of plants-and-people fascination. And, quite often Guilfoyle includes horticultural notes and tips. This not only relates to his extensive horticultural background and experience, but also testifies to how he was “keen to share his knowledge with others” (Introduction, p. 17); Guilfoyle was seemingly eager for his readers to have the necessary instruction to consider growing these flowers for themselves. Altogether, approx. 138 plants are considered in Guilfoyle’s Shakespeariana; although heavily biased towards flowering plants and conifers, it also includes ferns, moss, and even mushrooms.

Pictures help, but sometimes hinder…

The book is illustrated throughout, but, although the back cover proudly claims that each of the articles [my emphasis] is “accompanied by Basilius Besler’s groundbreaking illustrations and delicate watercolours by Jacques le Moyne”, that isn’t quite the case. Whilst most of the articles have at least one watercolour, Nos 2, 5, 8, 13, 21, 24 and 25 have none. Furthermore, Nos 5, 8, and 25 contain no illustrations of any kind. Redressing that balance somewhat, article Nos 6, 15, 16, 17, 19 and 23 each have two watercolour plates. So, a little ‘economy of truth’ from the publisher there? But, if you weren’t expecting every article to be illustrated [and the illustrations are assumed to be additions post-original publication and specifically for this new collection, but I couldn’t find that explicitly stated anywhere], you’d be none the wiser – and all’s well that ends well, as a certain Mr Shakespeare might have us believe?

Where present, the watercolours are splendid and do help to give form to the words. But, there is an oddity that baffles me. Presumably to illustrate the entry for lily (Lilium candidum) – natural ‘order’ Liliaceae – we have a watercolour portrait of a plant on p. 93 that is unnamed, but is adorned with Shakespearian quotations regarding the lily. However, the plant featured looks like a member of the Araceae, the arum lily family, not a member of the true lily family, the Liliaceae. A likely clue to the mystery plant’s identity is the word ‘Serpentaria’ on the watercolour, at bottom left. I’m not an expert on that group but the illustration appears to be of Dracunculus vulgaris, dragon arum or voodoo lily, for which serpentaria appears to be its common name in several languages of the Iberian peninsula.

And, to add to the confusion, the ‘gilded lily’ quote (spoken by the Earl of Salisbury in Act IV, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s play The Life and Death of King John) is correctly cited [per my copy of the Abbey Library’ publication of The Complete Works of Shakespeare] on the ‘Serpentaria watercolour’. However, this quote is stated as coming from Act IIII, Scene 1 of the same play for the shortened version of the quotation in the lily’s entry on page 94, i.e. in the text from Guilfoyle’s original article. Is this an uncharacteristic lapse from one who was otherwise such a great attender to detail [we are told that his Annual Director’s Reports “are meticulous and precise” – Introduction, p. 17]? I’m no Shakespeare scholar, but, if this is an error, I do wonder how many others there might be in the collection of articles.  Is this much ado about nothing? Methinks not; this is supposed to be a scholarly article, after all, so veracity and accuracy is expected and required if it is to have real and lasting value. These 25 articles are undoubtedly a real labour of love by Wm Guilfoyle. Let’s hope that love’s labour is not entirely lost by this revelation. However, this does raise the question of how carefully have the original text and the quotations that adorn the watercolours been checked by those involved in production of this collection – if only to avoid duplication of quotes, as in this instance, and which thereby seemingly ‘gilds’ the arum lily.

Irritating as those sorts of thing are, they can be considered somewhat marginal; they didn’t spoil my overall enjoyment of the book, which is primarily from the plants-and-people perspective. In that regard the collection of plant stories – phytoshakespeariana? – and etymological derivation of their names is – and remains – a fascinating one.

To whet your appetite…

As examples of the insights and revelations you can expect to find within the pages of Guilfoyle’s Shakespeariana, here are a few of my favourites:

Apparently, the baked remnants of almond are a good food for diabetic sufferers; aspen was used for arrows in Henry V’s reign, and also for the manufacture of gun-powder; barley was known as the beer-plant in times before Henry V; there’s a great ‘legend’ about the bat, the cormorant, and the bramble who were joined in common enterprise as wool merchants; broom’s antique name of Planta genista is the etymological origin of the Royal House known as the Plantagenets; an old name for carrot is bees’ nest; cedar oil has a fascinating connection with bank note forgery; and there’s the tale of the siege-sustaining gum of the cherry tree…

And that’s the thing about Guilfoyle’s Shakespeariana; Shakespeare used plants a lot to help tell his stories; Guilfoyle has identified those Shakespearian species and told his own stories about them, in his series of educational, informative, and entertaining articles.


Mr Guilfoyle’s Shakespearian Botany is a great service to lovers of plants-and-people – and, no doubt, to scholars of Shakespeare. To have compiled the 25 separate articles into a single volume should ensure that these wonderful tales reach a bigger – and wider – audience than the readers of the Bankers’ Magazine of Australasia they were originally intended for at beginning of the last century. Well done to Diana Hill and Edmée Cudmore (and not forgetting William Guilfoyle in the first place)!


Christenhusz MJM, Fay MF and Chase MW (2017). Plants of the World: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Vascular Plants. Kew Publishing/University of Chicago Press.

Watson NJ (2015) Gardening with Shakespeare. In: Calvo, Clara and Kahn, Coppélia eds. Celebrating Shakespeare: Commeoration [sic.] and Cultural Memory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 301–329.

* Which, as far as I’ve managed to determine, is a magazine for those involve in banking activities in Australasia, i.e. it’s not a botany journal, and nothing to do with devotees of Banksia, that endemic Australian genus of curious plants.


** Notes on selected sources cited by Guilfoyle

Whilst I’ve yet to locate an accessible copy of Sidney Beisly’s Shakespeare’s Garden, it does look like that source is more fully titled Shakespeare’s Garden, or the Plants and Flowers named in his Works Described and Defined (1864), per Nicola Watson. That book may be available from book-sellers, such as Amazon.

I couldn’t track down the article by Henry Nicholson Ellacombe, “The plant-lore of Shakespeare” published in The Garden which Guilfoyle cited as a major source and resource on p. 19. However, I did locate free-to-access copies of Nicholson’s 1896 book entitled The plant-lore and garden-craft of Shakespeare [here; and here], which might be even more useful since apparently this is the collected articles by that author.

Richard Folkard’s Plant Lore, Legends, and Lyrics Embracing the Myths, Traditions, Superstitions, and Folk-Lore of the Plant Kingdom is freely-accessible here.

William Guilfoyle’s own Australian Botany, specially designed for the use of schools is free-to-access here.

F Edward Hulme’s multi-volumed Familiar Wild Flowers can be read here.

J Lindley and T Moore’s The treasury of botany: a popular dictionary of the vegetable kingdom; with which is incorporated a glossary of botanical terms – which is presumed to be text cited in Guilfoyle as simply “Treasury of Botany” – is viewable here.

Baron Von Mueller’s Select Extratropical Botany is free-to-access here.

Nigel Chaffey

I am a Botanist and former Senior Lecturer in Botany at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany I contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international phytological organ for almost 10 years. I am now a freelance plant science communicator and Visiting Research Fellow at Bath Spa University. I also continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience at Botany One. In that guise my main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way) others about plants and plant-people interactions, and thereby improve humankind's botanical literacy. I'm happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities.
[ORCID: 0000-0002-4231-9082]

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