Garden Literature


In the following part, under the chapter on agriculture, there will be plenty on Islamic farming and botanic literature, so, here, the interest in such literature will be kept minimal, just enough to illustrate the Muslim use of scientific writing on gardens and gardening.


The two successive superintendents of the gardens at Toledo , Ibn Wafid (997-1074)[1] and Ibn Bassal (fl. 11th century),[2] were amongst the most significant figures in the history of gardening. Their garden was very large, being outside the city on the opposite bank of the Tagus near the modern railways station, and is still known as the Huerta del Rey, the King’s Garden.[3] The sultan whom they served, Al-Mamun, made use of the best hydraulic science to provide the gardens with irrigation and himself with a pavilion cooled by streams poured down upon it on each side.[4] Both Ibn Wafid and Ibn Bassal wrote treatises that have survived to be rediscovered in recent years. Ibn Wafid’s main work is on simple drugs (Kitab al-adwiya al-mufrada), and is partly extant in a Latin  translation (De medicamentis simplicibus).[5] According to a later Muslim writer, Ibn Wafid spent twenty five years gathering the information he included in his treatise, which was five hundred pages long, and of which the Latin translation is only a fragment.[6] There are also translations of it into Catalan and also Hebrew.[7] Whilst Ibn Wafid included a chapter on flowering and aromatic plants, Ibn Bassal was primarily a botanist and also a horticulturist of distinction.[8] He wrote for Al-Mamun a lengthy treatise on agronomy: Diwan al-Filaha, which was eventually abridged into one volume with sixteen chapters.[9] The 16 chapters deal with waters, soils, manures, the choice of ground and its preparation;  trees, methods of planting, pruning, grafting and the secrets of grafting; pulse and industrial crops, roots, vegetables and salads, aromatic and ornamental plants, etc.[10] The most interesting chapter deals with flowers such as the rose, the wallflower and stock, violet, lily, narcissus, basil, marjoram, balm, rue, camomile, etc.[11] From his list, as well as his reference to the blue lily and various sorts of jasmine he studied on his travels, we can see that the purely ornamental garden was already highly developed. Ibn Bassal’s work is original, based upon his own practical experience.[12] His personal experiments were remarked upon by his contemporaries, notably al-Tignari of Albolote near Grenada .[13] From al-Tignari and from other sources we get scraps of information on Ibn Bassal’s experimental writing:

‘The eminent master Ibn Bassal was learned both in theoretical and experimental agriculture, an expert cultivator who has mastered the subject. He told me that he had seen the Blue lily (?) Iris germanica)  in Sicily  and in Alexandria; ‘I saw this species of garden asparagus sown by Ibn Basal in the sultan’s garden: ‘all these sorts of jasmine are found in the neighbourhoods of Valencia , Sicily, Alexandria and Khorasan, as I have been told by Ibn Bassal among others.’ Al-Tignari gives details of Ibn Bassal’s method of dealing with a disease that infected the orange trees, cutting down and burning those infected, and later making choices among the new shoots from the root. He also carried out experiments in planting the pomegranate, and discovered that the fig and the vine could be planted in any season. Ibn Bassal had travelled widely and collected plants in Sicily, Egypt , Mecca, Khorasan, as well as in various parts of Spain. In his later career at Seville  he experimented in the cultivation of imported seeds.’[14] 


What the Muslim gardeners regarded as correct rules for planting, and some of the garden plants which they favoured, can be gathered from an authoritative 12th century work on agriculture and horticulture written by the agronomist Yahia Ibn Muhammad (Abu Zakaria), Ibn al-Awwam (fl end of 12th century).[15] He wrote a treatise on agriculture, Kitab al-filaha (Book of Agriculture),[16] which is the most important Muslim work as well as the most important mediaeval one on the subject.[17] Ibn al-'Awwam's treatise covers 585 plants, and explains the cultivation of more than fifty different fruit trees, besides containing striking observations on the different kinds of soil and manure and their respective properties, on various methods of grafting, on sympathies and antipathies between plants, etc.[18] This book of Agriculture relies on the practical experience of the author.[19] In relation to gardening,  Ibn Al-Awwam, besides dealing with a much larger number of species, breaks new grounds by suggesting, here and there, principles of design.[20] Thus, cypresses, for instance, might be used to mark corners of beds and in rows alongside main walks, and other trees suitable for planting in rows were cedars and pines, with citrus fruits and sweet bay, while jasmines were presumably intended to be trained on trellis or pergolas.[21] Ibn al-Awwam says that all garden doorways should be framed by clipped evergreens, that cypresses should be used to line paths and grouped to mark the junctions of paths, and he objects to the mixing of evergreen with deciduous trees.[22] He liked to see canals and pools shaded by trees or bowers, to prevent excessive loss of water by evaporation.[23] Pools of water should be shaded by the planting of trees nearby, such as the pomegranate, with the elm, poplar and willow.[24] Plants named in his text include lemon and orange trees, pines and most of our common deciduous trees, cypresses, oleander, myrtle and rose as the only flowering shrubs; violets, lavender, balm, mint, thyme, marjoram, iris, mallow, box and bay laurel.[25] He lays much stress on aromatics, as, indeed, did all the Islamic gardeners.[26] For hedges, box and laurel could be used, as well as climbing plants such as ivy, jasmine, and the grapevine was considered as an ornament.[27]

Between Ibn Bassal and Ibn al-Awwam (1080-1180) there was a great deal of introduction of exotic plants into Spain, as well as the bringing into cultivation of wild native, expressly advocated by Ibn al-Awwam in connection with ivy and with a great binkweed known as poor man’s rope, bearing handsome bell shaped flowers: these, he suggests, could be trained on a trellis for display.[28] Violets should be sown  in shady and sheltered beds, and also in new perforated flower pots, in either case, laying a bed of crumbled brick and builder’s rubbish mixed with a like quantity of pigeon’s dung. The author had himself seen them grown in this way at Seville  and Cordova.[29] 


Muslims were extremely fond of flowers, and from early Islamic manuscripts, Dickie compiled a list of the fifty two common flowers mentioned by Muslims up to the 11th century.[30] Pleasurable scents as well as colours were sought, with jasmine, narcissus, violet, mauve stock, yellow wallflower, red rose, white lily, blue iris, water lily, almond blossom, marguerite, camomile, trumpet narcissus, poppy, pomegranate blossom; myrtle, basil, lavender, carnation, orange blossom, marjoram, oleander, thyme, mint, saffron, lupin, as well as other flowering trees and shrubs: laurel, pear, plum, etc.[31]

[1] E. H. F. Meyer: Geschichte der Botanik; I-IV, Konigsberg (1854-7); vol. 3, pp. 205-8;

E. Calvo: Ibn Wafid: in the Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology , and Medicine in Non Western Cultures; H. Selin Editor (Kluwer Academic Publishers; Dordrecht/Boston/London, 1997), p.438.

[2] Ibn Bassal: Libro de agricultura, Jose M.Millas Vallicrosa and Mohammed Azinan eds (Tetuan: Instituto Muley al-Hasan, 1953).

[3] J. Harvey: Medieval Gardens ; op cit; p. 40.

[4] Ibid.

[5] F. Wustenfeld: Geschichte der arabischen Aerzte (Gottingen; 1840), p. 82.

[6] L Leclerc: Histoire de la medecine arabe; vol. 1 (Paris; 1876); p. 546.

[7] Emilia Calvo: Ibn Wafid; op cit;  p.438.

[8] J. Harvey: Medieval Gardens ; p. 40.

[9] G.S. Colin: Filaha; Encyclopaedia of Islam: New edition (Leiden; 1986), Vol 2, p. 901.

[10] Ibn Bassal: Libro de agricultura, In J. Harvey: Medieval Gardens ; p. 41.

[11] J. Harvey: Medieval Gardens ; p. 41.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid; p. 40.

[14] Ibid.

[15] E. Hyams: A History of Gardens  and Gardening ;  op cit; p. 84.

[16] Spanish version by Joseph A. Banqueri; 2 vols., folio (Madrid 1802); French version: Le Livre de l'agriculture, by Clement-Mullet; 2 tomes in 3 vols (Paris 1864-1867).

[17] G. Sarton: Introduction; op cit; vol 2; pp. 424-5.

[18] Ibid; p. 425.

[19] E. Hyams: A History of Gardens  and Gardening ;  op cit; p. 84.

[20] J. Harvey: Medieval Gardens ;  op cit; p. 41.

[21] Ibid.

[22] E. Hyams: A History of Gardens  and Gardening ;  op cit; p. 84.

[23] Ibid.

[24] J. Harvey: Medieval Gardens ; op cit; p. 41.

[25] E. Hyams: A History of Gardens  and Gardening ; p. 84.

[26] Ibid.

[27] J. Harvey: Medieval Gardens ; op cit; p. 41.

[28] Ibid; pp. 41-2.

[29] Ibid.

[30] In F.R. Cowell: The Garden as a Fine Art; op cit; p. 76.

[31] Ibid.