Walafrid Stabo, Hortulus (My Little Garden): The Gourd


Walahfrid Strabo, Hortulus, translated by Raef Payne, with commentary by Wilfrid Blunt (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Hunt Botanical Library, 1966). This facsimile edition includes the full text in Latin and English, and images of the St. Gall manuscript of the poem. The extract below comes from pp. 35 and 37 (Payne’s English translation, facing the corresponding Latin text on pp. 34 and 36). The entire volume is available on open access at https://www.huntbotanical.org/admin/uploads/hibd-hortulus-facsimile.pdf (accessed 27 November 2022).

Much of the extract below is also available at   https://bunnyjadwiga.dreamwidth.org/249064.html (13 August 2020).

The source notes above and the brief introduction below are by Martha Carlin (27 November 2022).

The Gourd

Walafrid Strabo (809-849) wrote Hortulus (My Little Garden), a long Latin poem (440 lines), about his love of gardening and all the plants that he grew at Reichenau Abbey. This discussion of the gourd plant (Latin Cucurbita) is an extract, representing lines 99-151 of the poem.


The gourd too aspires to grow high from a humble beginning.
Like shields are the leaves that cast those great shadows; like cables
The stems it puts out so thickly. You have seen how ivy twines
Its leaves round a lofty elm, from the earth’s bosom
Lapping its supple arms around the whole tree till it finds
A way to the very top, and hides all the wrinkled bark
With a mantle of green — You have seen how a vine, trained to a tree,
Scrambles over it, festooning the topmost branches
With clusters of grapes, and pulls  itself of its own accord
Up and up: the branches hang there for all to see,
Blushing in the place they have made their own; the green storeys
Sag with Bacchus, whose broad leaves part the lofty foliage —
Even so my gourd, rising on brittle stems,
Welcomes the props that are put there for it, hugging the alder
In the grip of its curly tentacles. It’s so determined
Not to be wrenched away by even the wildest storm
That it thrusts out a cable at every joint and, each
Extending two strands, seizes support on this side and that.
It reminds me too of girls spinning, when they draw
The soft heaps of wool to their spindles, and in great twists
Measure off the endless thread into trim balls– Just so
The wandering thongs of my gourd twist and cling; quick
To wrap their coils round the smooth sticks set as ladders for them
They learn to use borrowed strength and, with a swimmer’s thrust,
Climb the steep rooms of the covered cloister. Oh, who now
Can praise as he ought the fruits that hang from its branches
Everywhere? They are as perfectly formed from every angle
As a piece of wood that is turned and shaved on a lathe.
They hang on a slender stalk and swell from a long, thin neck
Into huge bodies, their great mass broadening at the flanks.
They are all belly, all paunch. Inside
That cavernous prison are nourished, each in its place, the many
Seeds that promise another harvest as good as this one.
At the approach of tardy autumn, while yet they are tender
And before the hidden moisture that is sealed inside them dries
To leave but the withered shells, we often see the fruit
Handed round among the good things of the dinner-table
And soaking up the rich fat in a piping dish;
For often these juicy slices, served as dessert,
Delight the palate. But if you let the gourd stay
Enjoying the summer sun on its parent tree and only
Set your blade to it late in the year, then after scooping
The flesh from its ponderous belly and shaving the sides
On a nimble lathe, you can put it to practical use as a vessel.
A pint this mighty paunch will sometimes hold, sometimes
Half a gallon or more; and if you seal your jar
With gummy pitch it will keep wine good for many a day.