Emerald-green gardens, with flowering shrubs and fluttering songbirds, still bloom on a frescoed wall from Pompeii’s Casa del Bracciale d’Oro, nearly 2,000 years after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
From paintings and plant remains preserved beneath mounds of ash and pumice, botanists have identified specific plant varieties—such as laurel, viburnum, myrtle, cyprus and acanthus—that thrived in Pompeii’s rich volcanic soil.
Many of the trees and shrubs planted in Pompeian gardens were prized for qualities other than their beauty. Willow compresses were used to treat arthritis; the leaves and bark of oak trees were applied to festering wounds; dried figs eased sore throats; and poppy seeds crushed in milk produced a potent soporific. Scented flowers, including roses, lilies and violets, were macerated in olive oil to produce perfume, often worn by city dwellers to mask the odor of unwashed bodies and urine-bleached clothing.
The interior walls and the porticoes of many Pompeian houses were painted with scenes combining representations of real plants, religious motifs and exotic images from the Nile, including ibises, crocodiles, date palms and lotuses. These paintings remind us of what was lost in 79 A.D.—in the words of the great 18th-century German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “earthly paradises ... where volcanoes burst forth in hellish fury.”