The spectacular rise of ornamental plants

Aesthetic appeal may have played a role in the domestication of plants and animals, but the rise of pure ornamentals, that is, plants cultivated only for their aesthetic characteristics, is a much later development. Long after the emergence of urban civilization, ornamental and economic uses of plants seem not to have been distinguished. For example, the elegant gardens depicted in Egyptian tombs of the 18th Dynasty (ca. 1415 BCE) consisted, as far as we can tell, of multiple-use plants. Among those that have been identified are date palms, grapes, pomegranates, papyruses, and figs.

The earliest gardens that seem to have been intended primarily for pleasure were in Mesopotamia. The Gilgamesh epic, which refers to events in 2700 BCE, contains descriptions of what may have been ornamental gardens; however, the first unmistakable evidence of plants cultivated for pleasure is from Assyria. There, kings had hunting preserves and parklike tree plantations. Tiglath Pilesar I, who reigned about 1100 BCE, brought back cedars and box from lands he conquered. Other Assyrian kings left records of parks planted with palms, cypresses, and myrrh.

We do not know what these parks looked like. The first nonutilitarian gardens that can be loosely reconstructed date from the sixth century BCE. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were created by Nebuchadnezzar, who, the story goes, built them for his Persian wife, who was homesick for the mountains of her childhood. Babylon was situated on a river plain. The terraced gardens, which covered three or four acres, were said to resemble a green mountain. The earliest records of the Hanging Gardens are by the Greek historians Diodorus and Strabo, but no remains have ever been found. However, remnants of Cyrus the Great’s (ca. 585-ca. 529 BCE) garden at Pasargadae still exist. It had trees and shrubs planted symmetrically in plots.

Read the complete article at www.thereader.mitpress.mit.edu.


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