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Transplants in the Medieval Garden

Caleb Leech, Managing Horticulturist, The Cloisters Museum and Gardens

Posted: Thursday, May 8, 2014

A beet root (Beta vulgaris ssp. vulgaris) and the author's hand

A beet root (Beta vulgaris ssp. vulgaris) and the author's hand

«As I sat down to write a post to introduce myself, I began to pursue a topic that had been forming in my mind the week I accepted the position as managing horticulturist here at The Cloisters museum and gardens: the spread of horticultural knowledge and plants throughout medieval Europe. There is ample evidence of a thriving nursery trade and seed exchange at this point in time. Horticultural techniques and knowledge, primarily passed down orally, proliferated in monasteries. These solitary communities served as repositories of learning, safeguarding, and practicing the science and art of horticulture.»

Caleb LeechMy prior garden, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's Herb Garden, showcased the global origins of the plants that comprise our modern diet. We grew as wide a variety of the world's crops as Brooklyn's climes would allow. Visitors passing through the gardens shared how they used plants "back home," which, for visitors to a botanic garden in New York, represented many diverse countries and culinary traditions. In my experience, few vocations engage and elicit advice from people more than horticulture. Perhaps it is the act of gardening that spurs a deep curiosity and desire to share. Perhaps it is the plants themselves and their offerings that foster the collector's habit. Regardless of the cause, people have been moving plants and developing and sharing horticultural skills for a long time.

Left: Caleb Leech, the new managing horticulturalist at The Cloisters

Take, for example, the wild sea beet (Beta vulgaris ssp. maritima), which grows wild along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and the European North Atlantic coastline. While the lime-green leaves of the sea beet are markedly different from modern cultivars in appearance, the variety is the progenitor of our ruby red chard and the richly pigmented, sweet, bulbous roots that grace our table. We know that the beet has been highly regarded as a leafy vegetable from antiquity. Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris ssp. cicla), for instance, was selected and prized for its aerial parts, and Aristotle remarked upon its vivid leaves. By the Middle Ages, there is ample evidence of its being cultivated for its roots. At what point did the gardener or forager first discover their sweetness? And, upon this discovery, share them with a neighbor or an itinerant traveler who carried the seeds to distant lands?

Or take wild cabbage (Brassica oleracea), another maritime plant found growing along Europe's coasts. Cabbage has been important since classical antiquity; the Romans used it for many reasons, including as the base for a broth to cure hangovers. Many of its cultivated varieties, including Brussels sprouts and kohlrabi, likely originated or became widely dispersed during medieval times.

Leaves of the wild cabbage (Brassica oleracea) alongside curly kale, cilantro, parsley, and mache

Leaves of the wild cabbage (Brassica oleracea), located at the top of the photograph, alongside curly kale, cilantro, parsley, and mâche

As the newest transplant to this cloistered, leafy oasis in northern Manhattan, I thought plant migrations and the spread of horticultural knowledge a fitting subject. Leaving Brooklyn after almost a decade was exciting but also prompted a certain amount of reflection. My career choice as a gardener necessitated that I stay put. I tended a garden throughout the seasons, finding nature's rhythms amid the city's cacophony. But, seeking new challenges and an abiding appreciation of this Museum, I uprooted. Ferrying seeds and knowledge gained from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, I landed at The Cloisters to learn a new plot of soil and pursue a new direction and body of knowledge.

As I began my research, I found it incredibly illuminating to discover how broad medieval horticulture is as a subject. Plant migrations are vast; from the Crusades to the thriving spice trade, plants were well on their way to their global reach by the Middle Ages. As the newest horticulturist for The Cloisters, I am excited and humbled to continue this exploration, and I look forward to sharing a little of what I learn along the way with our visitors.


  • Karen Orlando says:

    I was so happy to read this post Caleb. I just heard this week from some BBG hort interns 2010 (Anne and Susan) that you had moved to the Cloisters and I said that I hoped I would be seeing you on this very blog! I was remembering your joy in showing me even the plant labels for the herbs at BBG, the interesting details from history selected for the labels. I hope you really enjoy this new plot.

    Posted: May 11, 2014, 1:17 p.m.

  • Ailsa says:

    Hi Caleb,
    Congratulations on your new position! That is awesome. I visited the Cloisters years ago but it is on my list for another venture, along with Wave Hill and the Conservatory Garden -- and now the BBG's herb garden! I'm also a horticulturist and write a bi-weekly garden column at our city's newspaper in Ottawa, Canada. I'm writing a piece on hellebores and wonder if you might have a photo that I could use of the garden *with* hellebores blooming? I mention the cloisters and would love to put an image with the words. Thank you so much for considering my request.

    Posted: May 12, 2014, 9:47 a.m.

  • Ruth Leech says:

    This is our introduction to the Cloisters and can hardly wait to visit!
    As a boy he had to work in the garden and now, as a man, he loves
    to work in the garden, our son Caleb.

    Posted: May 13, 2014, 5:21 p.m.

  • caleb leech says:

    Hi Karen, Thanks so much! The Cloisters is an amazing place. I am glad you make your way to this blog. It is a great way to share the stories and lore that make our experiences with plants and gardens meaningful. It is also great to reconnect virtually with BBG family. Hope you are still enjoying your plot out at Floyd Bennett Field!

    Posted: May 14, 2014, 5:01 p.m.

  • caleb leech says:

    Hi Ailsa, Thank you! Our hellebores are a bit past their prime at this point in the season but I shared a few photos from the archives with our communications dept. I believe you contacted them as well. Please look us up on your next visit and say hi!

    Posted: May 14, 2014, 5:01 p.m.

  • caleb leech says:

    Thanks mom, I can't wait to show you The Cloisters. I know it will be your favorite place in New York!

    Posted: May 14, 2014, 5:10 p.m.

  • Becca says:

    Excellent post! I never appreciated the care that went into the gardens as an extension of the medieval knowledge in the museum! Looking forward to more introductions to old medieval garden standards!

    Posted: May 16, 2014, 8:51 p.m.

  • caleb leech says:

    Thanks Becca,
    The gardens are an integral part of The Cloisters and we strive to feature as many medieval species as possible. It is a dynamic experience to see the flora represented in the art and then witness it in the garden. As we go along, I am also excited to learn and share more medieval horticultural practices and techniques.
    Thanks for making your way here!

    Posted: May 23, 2014, 2:03 p.m.

  • Maria E. Andreu says:

    Congrats on the new position, Mr. Leech! I was just at the gardens this weekend and was reminded that it truly is one of my favorite places on Earth. Do you have a volunteer program? If not, I hope you start one! I am an avid gardener and would love to help out.

    Posted: June 2, 2014, 11:27 a.m.

  • caleb leech says:

    Hi Maria,
    Thank you! Our work here is fully a collaborative process. We have a dedicated and talented group of volunteers in the gardens. The first step to get involved is through the Museum's website. Under the heading About the Museum, you can make your way to the application.
    Thanks for your interest and participation!

    Posted: June 4, 2014, 12:35 p.m.

  • tony bielaczyc says:

    Dear Mr. Leech, I've always loved the gardens at the Cloisters and have admired the steady improvement in design and care. Very nice work by you and the gardeners. I would love to know where you found the quince tree replacement at the garden. I am searching for one of similar age and character. Can you offer any leads or contacts? Kind regards, Tony

    Posted: June 8, 2015, 10:21 a.m.

  • Caleb Leech says:

    Dear Mr. Bielaczyc, Thank you for your nice comments. The trees are the original plantings. We love the character and age of our 'Smyrna' quince. Their gnarled branch structure is not easily replicated. We are on the lookout for 15- 20 year old trees. If you happen to find a source to share, we would be grateful. In the meantime, we continue to care for our old trees and train young plants as potential replacements. Best Regards, Caleb

    Posted: June 12, 2015, 12:13 p.m.

  • Connie Schumacher says:

    I am always delighted to visit the Cloisters. I make a different observation each time I visit. I have been planting herbs in my gardens for the past 20 years (Ohio and Illinois). I am happy to see the herb gardens and its collection of mature specimen plants. I wanted to know if a plant list is available on-line of the plants located at the Cloisters. Perhaps you can direct me to a link, or let me know if I may write for one. I would like to start incorporating some of the rarer varieties of herbs into my new garden in Norwalk, CT.

    Posted: July 11, 2015, 11:54 a.m.

  • Caleb Leech says:

    Dear Connie Schumacher,

    Thank you for your interest in the gardens. We do not currently have an on-line plant list. We do however offer them at the Museum. Please call the Gardens Office at (212) 650-2287 and I will find a way to share with you.

    Best Regards,

    Posted: July 13, 2015, 4:18 p.m.

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About the Author

Caleb Leech is the managing horticulturist at The Cloisters museum and gardens.

About this Blog

In Season features all the latest news about The Cloisters museum and gardens, the branch of the Museum in northern Manhattan devoted to the art and architecture of medieval Europe.