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Horticulture at The Met Cloisters: A Conversation with Carly Still

With the arrival of spring, the expert staff at The Met Cloisters are busy readying the gardens for the season ahead

Carly Still is the managing horticulturist at The Met Cloisters, the Museum’s branch devoted to the art and architecture of medieval Europe. A native of New York’s Hudson Valley, she is thoroughly at home amid the verdant and beloved gardens that grow in northern Manhattan. We recently discussed her work—and its relationship to some of this season’s newest Met Store offerings.

How did you first get involved in horticulture? I started gardening while in college for a family friend who owned Back to the Garden in the Mid-Hudson Valley. I immediately fell in love with the work. I found it to be soothing, and I liked the quiet in the garden. Plants make the best company! It was clear from the start it would be a lifelong passion. After graduating with a degree in printmaking, I went on to complete my certificate in horticulture from the New York Botanical Garden while working in the gardens department at the museum.

Carly Still, Managing Horticulturist, The Met Cloisters

How long have you been at The Met Cloisters? It’s wild to say that I’ve been here for 10 years.

The gardens at The Met Cloisters have different themes. Can you tell us about them? We have three interior gardens. The Judy Black Garden in Cuxa Cloister [at top and below] takes your breath away. It is absolutely stunning. This is our medieval pleasure garden, commonly known as an ornamental garden. We have fewer restrictions on species that we can grow here, which allows the garden to be in flower from March–November. We grow fragrant herbs, such as sage and thyme, and mix them with garden favorites: gaura, liatris, foxgloves, ammi, sedum… the list goes on. There are fragrant flowers, such as the David Austin English rose “Heritage,” which is my favorite. The bulb display is just beginning, so be sure to come visit!

The Judy Black Garden in Cuxa Cloister. Photograph by John M. Hall

 

The Bonnefont Herb Garden [below] is a collection of medieval herbs. We grow over 300 different species in thematic garden beds. We have vegetables, medicinal herbs, fiber and dye plants, plants used in magic and ceremony, and brewing herbs. We also have a collection of potted plants, which includes citrus, olives and jasmines, as well as plants that were imported into medieval Europe, such as ginger and black pepper. Each herb unlocks a story about how it was used, by whom, and why. The uses and lore are fascinating, and it keeps the work interesting. Plants were, and still are, an essential part of daily life. This connection to plants is something that allows people to imagine life hundreds of years ago. Many of the herbs are still used similarly today. There’s also great reward in simply appreciating and enjoying a flower for its beauty and fragrance. For me, this is actually the best part.

The Bonnefont Herb Garden. Photograph by John M. Hall

 

Trie Cloister Garden [below] is a recently renovated garden that has always had ties to the plants in the Unicorn Tapestries. The tapestry and garden is a romanticized weaving of a meadow, a somewhat wild garden. Essentially, we are trying to copy nature’s mastery. In this garden you will find favorites from the tapestry: primrose, violets, campanulas, columbine, iris, dianthus, strawberry, forget-me-not, etc. We also grow different species of grasses and ferns to keep a consistent backdrop of green.

Trie Cloister Garden. Photograph by John M. Hall

 

Many Met Store products feature herbs. We have jewelry that suggests sage and rosemary, and table accessories with mixed herbs. What else can you tell us about herbs at The Met Cloisters? Herbs are at home in the gardens. You will find all your essential cooking herbs, such as rosemary, thyme, sage and oregano, growing in every garden, and likely growing in pots as well. And the wonderful herbs parsley, basil, cilantro, tarragon, and sorrels are grown in Bonnefont Herb Garden. These herbs were, of course, used for seasoning and invigorating fresh salads, but they also were healing herbs. Rosemary and sage were used to ward against infection, so keeping them close at hand was a common practice in medieval times. 

Mixed Herb Napkin Ring Set in gold over copper, $135

 

Other jewelry designs we’re offering have cast-glass “petals” that resemble succulents and forget-me-nots. Do these grow at The Met Cloisters? Yes, we grow both of them. We have dozens of pots of Hens and Chicks (Sempervivum tectorum), which is a popular succulent. This thrives in pots in a sunny location, and requires very little water because the chunky leaves are a natural reservoir. It had associations with being a protector against lightning, so it was a common practice to plant this on roofs in the middle ages.

Succulent Plant Statement Necklace, $175

 

Forget-me-nots (Myosotis scorpioides) are so sweet! We grow them in the Trie Cloister garden, and occasionally have them in pots. They are a wonderful spring flower, associated with love and remembrance.

Forget-Me-Not Drop Earrings, $85

 

Our customers love products that evoke berries. Berries appear, for example, in the millefleur background of the Unicorn Tapestries. Do berries grow at The Met Cloisters? Yes! We grow strawberries. One will find the sweet and small Fragaria vesca, a European woodland strawberry that grows in Trie Cloister Garden and also in Bonnefont Herb Garden. Although absolutely tiny (think dime-sized berry), they are full of flavor and sweetness. Our large, juicy, modern strawberries are actually a cross between a Chilean and a North American strawberry. Medieval strawberries were thought to quench thirst, and also help to whiten teeth. As with the pomegranate, all the little seeds were associated with fertility.

How are the gardens faring lately? You and the staff must be busy with spring. We are! We’re busy with our displays of forced bulbs, which are intermixed with our potted plant collection in the Cuxa Cloister; propagation in our new greenhouse; and general cleanup of the gardens. Spring is here and the gardens are waking up! This is my favorite time of year; it offers a fresh start. The crocus bulbs are beginning to bloom, and it feels wonderful to see an array of color in the gardens. We have a large tulip display in the Judy Black Garden in Cuxa Cloister, and it is glorious. You must come to see it! May is a great time to visit all three gardens.  

Do you have a favorite work of art at The Met Cloisters? A favorite plant? The recently acquired Book of Flower Studies [below] is a treasure. The detail of the flowers is simply amazing, and it is the perfect link between our living collection and permanent collection. I also love the Adoration of the Magi. It’s a very small piece that is a cartapesta (papier-mâché). The artistry achieved is awesome.

Folio 32: Wild Pea (Pisum sativum) with a moth, from Book of Flower Studies. Master of Claude de France. Made in Tours, France. Opaque watercolor, organic glazes, gold and silver paint, iron and carbon-based ink and charcoal on parchment; ca. 1510–1515. Purchase, The Cloisters Collection, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, and Rogers Fund, 2019 2019.197

 

Favorite plant?! I’m drawn to fragrant flowers, so the roses (Rosa x alba, Rosa damascena, and our Rosa “Heritage”) are wonderful. The jonquil narcissus are excellent. I also love the pheasant’s eye (Adonis aestivalis), the heart’s ease (Viola tricolor), and I’m excited to be growing the garden pea (Pisum sativum “Blue-podded Capucijner”) this spring in Bonnefont Herb Garden. I look forward to seeing visitors back in our beautiful and rejuvenating gardens!

Shop all the latest spring offerings at The Met Store.

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