Garden History/Garden Words: Cloister


If it can be done, the monastery should be so situated that all the necessaries, such as water, the mill, the garden, are enclosed, and the various arts may be plied inside of the monastery, so that there may be no need for the monks to go about outside, because it is not good for their souls.         —The Holy Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter LXVI

The medieval cloister garden is one of the most famous traditions in garden history. Rich in flowers, fruit trees and medicinal plants—the monastic cloister was as a place for spiritual retreat for monks and nuns who had already withdrawn from the temptations of the secular world.

But the cloister garden is more than a retreat. It often served as a gathering point connecting many of the monastery’s buildings. The central water source symbolized paradise and the four garden quadrants recalled the Garden of Eden.


Our word “cloister” can be both a noun and a verb. It derives from the Medieval Latin word claustrum—meaning a sheltered and closed space.

The cloister “garth” is the central space itself, the garden open to the sky and surrounded on four sides by ambulatories.


The garth at Salsbury Cathedral, founded in the 14th century

Whereas “cloister” derives from Latin, garth derives from the Old Norse garðr and is related to the Old English geard, meaning an enclosed space or yard. Our words “yard” and “garden” are descended from this root.

The cloister garth and garden was a key space in the social life of the monastery. Beyond a place of spiritual contemplation, the garth was a place for socializing, washing laundry in the fountains, and hanging it to dry in the arcades.


Advertisement for Toro lawn mowers, c 1955

Contrary to the modern American sense of the front yard as an open, pastoral lawn, yards were long considered walled spaces, often with a purpose. Larger monasteries often had specialized cloisters for medicinal plants, infirmaries, and other functions.

Think of Harvard Yard, Train Yards, and Graveyards. Such enclosures protect and foster human needs including youthful learning, movement, death and memory. Rather than the restrictive sense that we now associate with “cloistered”—an older sense of gardens, yards and cloisters implied the opening of possibilities for nourishment and the events of life.


Harvard Yard, c 1900

With the rise of medical terminology in the 19th century, many new words were created from combined Latin and Greek roots. In 1879, the English physician Dr. Benjamin Ball coined the term “Claustrophobia” to denote the “morbid fear of being shut up in a confined space.” Here is a very different sense of enclosure from the protective and nurturing one dating to the Middle Ages.


Photo card, 1906

In the end, many of our words for gardens and landscapes are historically connected. Looking to their origins helps us to think anew, to reconsider older meanings long forgotten.

image at top: Ruins of gothic cloister at Kilconnel Abbey in County Galway, Ireland. 19th c. engraving.








Garden History/Garden Words: Salad

We gain new garden insights by looking to the origins of many words we take for granted. For this mid-summer entry, we explore the history of our word—



Salads are a part of summer, the daily produce of even the smallest garden. You can grow salad greens and leafy herbs like basil and sage in pots, out on the window ledge, in the middle of the city. Small tomatoes too.


Kale, Arugula, Raddichio, Endive, Cabbage, and Dandelion leaves are all salad “greens”—even though they can be reddish or purple. We grind pepper onto salads. Rarely is salt considered as an ingredient. But it’s a key ingredient in the etymology of the term dating back to Greek and Roman recipies.

The word “salad” is traceable in English to the 14th century. It comes from the French saladeand originally from the Latin salta, meaning “salty”. As John Ayto explains, the Romans used salt in brine and seasoning:

“Etymologically, the key ingredient of salad, and the reason for its getting its name, is the dressing. The Romans were enthusiastic eaters of salads, many of their differing hardly at all from present-day ones—a simple selection of raw vegetables…and they always used a dressing of some sort: oil, vinegar, and often brine. And hence the name salad, which comes from Vulgar Latin Herba salata, literally ‘salted herb’.”
An A-Z of Food and Drink, John Ayto [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 2002 (p. 294)


There are many other words that derive from the Latin root for salt such as “salary” (one was paid in salt). But the connection with salads seems more surprising. The history of words can tell us much about the history of food and the landscape itself.

American Inventions


In the 19th century, salads became a part of the American diet—even though the tastes of their leafy greens were often lost in heavy dressings of many types. The term “salad bar” can be traced to the 1970s, probably in the United States. Somehow, this seems an appropriate time and place to bring salads and bars together with a “make your own” option.


19th century print of Kale

On an older note, the term “Coleslaw” is also an American invention dating to the 1790s. The term stems from the Dutch koolsla: a combination of the Dutch terms kool (meaning kale) and sla derived from the Latin root for “salad”. Coleslaw is the invented word combination that means essentially—a chopped kale or cabbage salad.

How timely for today. Part of the cabbage family, kale is once again in fashion as a super-food, rich in minerals and vitamins. It appears in many kinds of salads.

Salad Days

More than ever, salads are considered healthful, young, fresh and green. And for this reason, we cannot complete our salad tour without considering the idea of “Salad Days”—the fleeting time when we are also young and hopeful, fresh and somewhat green to the vicissitudes of the world.

The phrase “salad days” carries a light and lively sound; and it serves as an elegant metaphor connecting fresh herbs and greens to the innocence of youth. “Salad Days” is a wistful notion that may have first appeared in Shakespeare‘s Antony and Cleopatra, written in 1606. In her speech at the end of Act One, Cleopatra regrets her youthful flirtations with Julius Caesar, recalling their trysts as from:

…My salad days…When I was green in judgment, cold in blood…

Yet, while youth can pose its reckless moments, its also evokes the fresh scent of optimism and hope that we sometimes find in gardens, in the morning dew when the day seems young.

This is the more positive sense of “salad days” that Queen Elizabeth II conveyed in a speech during her Silver Jubilee in 1977. She recalled then the vow to God and her people that she made in her 21st birthday radio address 30 years earlier in 1947.


She was still a princess then and gave the address over BBC while in South Africa with her parents. She called out to young people from her generation around the Commonwealth and the world to rebuild their societies after the devastation of war.

Elizabeth probably had little sense of how much the world and the British Empire would soon change. After 25 years on the throne, Queen Elizabeth looked back on her radio speech and proclaimed:

“Although that vow was made in my salad days, when I was green in judgment, I do not regret nor retract one word of it.”


For the full text of the 1947 speech, click here






Garden History/Garden Words: Cornucopia

We find new possibilities in gardens by looking to the origins of the words we use to describe them.  In this second entry, we explore the history of our word —



…a horn of plenty, an unending harvest.

From the Late Latin cornu copiaemeaning “horn of abundance.” Today, our English word, Cornucopia has several plausible origins in Greek mythology, one of the most prominent being the story of the endless supply of produce from the horn of the goat Amalthea, who nurtured the infant Zeus with her milk.

One day, as young Zeus played with Amalthea, he accidentally broke off her horn. To make amends and as a sign of gratitude, Zeus blessed the broken horn so that its owner could find everything they desired in it. It became known as the Horn of Amalthea or the Cornucopia, an eternal symbol of abundance.

Cornucopia reflects the merger of the Latin cornu (for horn) and copaie (implying abundance.) From cornu we also inherit the words: Unicorn, Acorn, and Horn (as in the musical instrument).
chinquapin-oak-acorn_1_md                                French_Horn_(PSF)

The Latin root copaie underlies modern words implying abundance, including “Copious” and “Opus“—meaning a significant work…and the plural, “Opera”. The idea of a “gift of flowing abundance”—a continuous wellspring of water, food, music and youth—has long been a part of human storytelling.


The horn—defined as a wind instrument that flares outward from its mouthpiece, serves as a channels a distinctive sound to summon troops, begin the hunt or, as with a French or Viennese horn, perform in an orchestra. A horn can play alone or as part of an ensemble.


The French Horn section of the New York Philharmonic. Photo by Margaret Bourke-White

A cornucopia is as a horn of plenty that shares nourishment and life over time. We can also say this about well-tended gardens and fields. The story of Zeus and Amalthea raises important questions for today:

—When we discuss sustainable and resilient landscapes, what kind of continuity of care and abundance are we seeking?

—In gardening and agriculture, how can we consider a piece of ground as an opening and channel for life, one that can go on generations if we care for it?

Cornucopias are more than mythic; they represent a commitment to nurture a mortal or a god over time…as with the goat Amalthea’s gift to the young Zeus and his gratitude to her. We can also make such nurturing commitments to the places and small landscapes that we tend. It’s really more of a relationship. But such bonds require patience, humility in expectations, and a long-term view.

Cornucopias by nature offer a diversity of fruits—and not large-scale commodities. They promise the comfort of enough and not excess. Their well-scaled abundance reminds us that the “green revolution” and immense monocultures may not stay green forever. Such industrial approaches represent more of a dictation to the land than a conversation with it.

lupoeverythingCornucopias are more gentle. When we think of gardens, neighborhoods and regions not so much as resources but with gratitude for their endurance, our way of life can support their longevity, and ours.