“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” – Marcus Tullius Cicero

I love stories.

I love plants.

So when you put the two together, I love it even more!

We at Highfield Discovery Garden are always trying to find ways to excite children about gardening and learning in general. I mean it is a Discovery garden after all! So curl up and find some warm tea as I explain some of the plants found in our most beloved children’s tales and how you can live out these stories in real life with your children!


Ah, Thumbelina. The girl no bigger than your thumb, who grew from a barley seed that turned into a tulip flower. She slept in a walnut shell upon a bed of violet petals with rose petals as her cover. She was seized by an ugly toad to be the bride for his ugly son (Perhaps he hopped off to the Frog & Toad Pond). Thumbelina escapes with the help of a white butterfly (a cabbage white, may-haps) only to be taken by every small creature in the forest from may-flies to moles to living with a field mouse. Yet poor Thumbelina longs to be among her own kind, a human, how-be-it small. That is, until a swallow comes and scoops her up to meet the King of the Flowers. And the King of the Flowers names her Queen of the Flowers and you know how the story ends with an “and they lived happily ever after.”

An illustration shows the character Thumbelina sleeping in a bed.
Eleanor Vere Boyle, ‘Thumbelina’ by sofi01 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Thumbelina is a gardener’s delight! It makes you want to crawl on your belly and wish you were only 1 inch tall as you gaze up at the flowers in the garden. To sit upon a hammock woven out of grass, and drink the dew off of leaves. To eat only a few grains of barley and it be enough. Yes, I love to get down really low and see the garden from the eyes of Thumbelina, the girl no bigger than a thumb, and you should too every once in a while. It’s nice to get a change of perspective!


Rapunzel, Rapunzel let down your hair!

OK, who names their kid Rapunzel? First off, do you know what a “Rapunzel” is?

It’s lettuce.

Yes, they named the kid lettuce. I mean really … come on.

The story goes that a woman really wanted a child but for a long time was unable to have one. Every day she looked out from her back window into the witch’s garden next door (because apparently everyone in fairy tales lives next to a witch) and could see beds of rapunzel growing in the garden. She wanted the rapunzel so badly that she became sick. Her husband, not wanting to see his wife die (good man) climbed the wall into the witch’s garden to steal some of the rapunzel. The witch catches him and asks for their first born – you know, standard stuff. Locked in a tower, long hair, magic tears, prince climbing hair, etcetera, etcetera. You know the plot.

A drawing of the Rapunzel plant.
There is some debate as to what plant exactly is meant by rapunzel, as that is the common name, but all the plants that have been identified as “rapunzel” are all generally eaten as salad greens.

And they name their kid Rapunzel.

I mean, come on!

But wait, it gets better.

In other retellings of the same story, her name changes, but it’s always some kind of green leafy vegetable. In Italy, her name is Petrosinella (translating as ‘Little Parsley’). In other German versions, her name is Rampion, which is another salad green.

I like to imagine if I were going to name my kid after a plant it would be violet or rose, but never lettuce. So ask your kids if they could name someone after a plant what would they name them and why. Hopefully, they come up with something better than lettuce.

The Princess and the Pea

The last story is one of my favorites. It is the Princess and the Pea. There was once a prince seeking a wife but since he was a prince, he had to marry a princess. Now there were many women seeking to marry a prince (as one might imagine), and since he had to be sure he was getting the real deal, they come up with a challenge. The princess had to be able to feel a pea – a single, solitary pea – under a certain amount of mattresses, as a real princess would be very sensitive, indeed. As you could imagine, this was a very high bar.

An illustration of Smedley's Garden Can Peas.
I doubt in the book they used canned peas. I think I’d have more luck feeling for a frozen pea!

Enter our heroine who just wants some shelter from the cold. She was caught in a rain storm and just looking for a place for the night, and she also happens to be a princess – or so she says. So up on top of 20 mattresses with a single pea at the bottom they place her on for the night. In the morning they ask how she slept and she says, “Simply horrid! If you don’t mind me asking what do you stuff your mattress around here with? Rocks?” Ta-da! She must be a real princess!

Now I don’t know about you, but I doubt I’d feel a pea under that many mattresses. But see if your children could. Place a pea under various layers of material (cloth, pillows, etc.) and see if you can run your hand over it and find where the pea is. Perhaps when they find they cannot feel it under their “mattress,” spring for a watermelon instead!

Gardens are full of whimsy and fun. They are full of heroes and heroines. The next time you’re enjoying a salad or crawling on your belly under a bush, think about all the stories and memories you are creating!

Allyson Ernst
Nature Interpreter, Glenwood Gardens