Roman Monkey Garden Tour

So, a few blogs ago Kongo let it slip out that he was now a docent at the Getty Villa in Malibu.  The Villa is part of the Getty Museum complex in Los Angeles.  The Villa houses the Getty’s collection of Greek, Roman, and Etruscan artifacts and the architecture is designed after a real Roman villa discovered beneath 100 feet of volcanic material in Herculaneum on the Bay of Naples in Italy.  Herculaneum along with Pompeii and a few other Roman towns were completely buried when Mt. Vesuvius blew its top on August 24 in A.D. 79.

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Anyway, back to topic, one of the Monkeys duties as a docent is to lead culturally inclined visitors on  tours of the villa and its grounds.  As a site docent the Monkey gets to lead both architecture and garden tours and in between he divines livers for visitors needing a hint about what the Roman gods might have in mind for their future.  (See

Now the monkey is no botanist.  Except for bananas he’s never been into horticulture although things he plants usually grow (unlike Mrs. Kongo who experiments with plants to see how long they will live without water…)  One of the really cool things about working as a volunteer docent at the Getty is that you get to make up your own tours!  Really.  We get to make this stuff up!  Actually, that’s not entirely true.  Prospective docents undergo six or more weeks of intensive training in all things Roman and before they’re given their tour license they have to present a detailed description of their tour for review and approval as well as walk an expert around giving a tour.  So the totally educated and professional staff at at the Getty Villa keep a pretty close eye on the docents to make sure we don’t get carried away.   Although it’s not completely free form each docent develops a different view on how to give tours so every time you visit you can get a unique perspective on what you’re looking at.

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There are only about 400 different plants in the four gardens of the Getty Villa.  Kongo certainly doesn’t know them all.  But he knows enough and the trick is to talk about plants you can remember, tell a few stories about ancient gods and myths, and keep everyone moving while hoping that nobody asks about that green fuzzy thing in the far corner of the herb garden that you can’t remember.  The monkey tells his tour groups that if he’s talking about a plant then he knows something about it.  If he’s not talking about a particular plant he may or may not know anything about it.  That generally draws a smile and seems to manage visitor expectations.

The best part about the tours is that you get to tell stories.  Kongo is pretty sure visitors really don’t want you to just recite the latin names of a bunch of plants that don’t grow in their own gardens.  They want to learn something and Kongo tries to give them little kernels to chat about at their next cocktail party.  For example, did you know that the root of an Iris plant is called an Orris root?  When an Orris root is dried (this can take up to five years!) the Romans ground it up and used it for all kinds of things such as a fixative in perfume making.  It has a wonderfully fragment aroma that is akin to violets.  And here’s another tidbit that should get you going:  Orris root is a key ingredient in Bombay Sapphire gin!  So the next time you sip this concoction at your favorite watering hole, you can regale all your bar friends with stories about ancient Rome and the Orris root.  Who knew?

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A flower called Feverfew (shown above) looks a lot like an English Daisy but it’s not.  The Romans used it to treat migraine headaches and calm rattled nerves.  You can still buy this stuff today at your local herbal medicine store.  And its the leaves that you want, not the flowers.  If you’re prone to migraines simply chew up a few Feverfew leaves each day.  Of course, Kongo is no doctor so be sure you check with your own physician before you actually try this at home.  Feverfew leaves are somewhat bitter so you may want to dip those leaves in honey to make it go down easier.


So, you know those fancy ancient columns that have the scrolly leaves on its capital (that’s the top part of the column)?  That’s an acanthus plant also known as Boars Breech.  The Romans believed that the acanthus plant represented eternal life because you basically can’t kill an acanthus.  It sends out tubers and spreads and has a beautiful bloom stalk that peaks in June.  If you cut the bloom early enough the plant will remain green all year otherwise it will appear to die off only to come back the following season.  Greek mythology tells us that Acantha was a forest nymph that resisted Apollo’s romantic advances and was turned into an acanthus plant as punishment.  It’s bad form to resist the gods and in the case of Apollo, there are other stories about fetching forest nymphs ending up as plants.  Kongo has planted acanthus in his own garden because after all, who wouldn’t want a bit of eternal life in the back yard?

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Bay Laurel Tree

On the subject of Apollo and forest nymphs, you must remember the story of the Bay Laurel tree, right?  Apollo had a testosterone fueled thing about forest nymphs.  So one day in the forest, Apollo begins teasing Cupid about his puny bow and arrow, suggesting it wasn’t fit for a real god-warrior like Apollo.  To get even, Cupid shoots a gold-tipped arrow and strikes Apollo.  This causes the son of Zeus to fall madly in love with the first thing he sees, which happens to be Daphne, a virginal forest nymph who was the daughter of a local river god named Peneus.  Then Cupid fires off a lead-tipped arrow striking Daphne and this causes her to hate Apollo.  Not known for self-restraint, Apollo begins chasing Daphne through the forest.  As Apollo closes in, Daphne calls out to her father for help.  Evidently not having much of a sense of humor, good Peneus changes Daphne into a bay laurel tree:  her hair becomes foliage, her legs become the trunk and her arms transform into limbs.  Apollo was devastated but he embraced the tree anyway and was said to ever after love, cherish, and protect the Bay Laurel.  The Bay  Laurel came to symbolize victory and a headband of laurel leaves was the highest honor a Roman could be awarded.  Since the tree was under the protection of Apollo, lighting never strikes a Laurel Tree.  Honestly.  Even the Emperor Tiberius used to go around wearing a little hat of laurel leaves to prevent getting struck by a bolt.  It worked too!  The emperor was never hit by lightning.  Middle school young ladies love this story!

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The Hellebore plant (shown above) makes another good story.  It’s a poisonous plant and was used by the ancient Greeks as a weapon of war!  Way back in 585 B.C. the Greek city of Kirrha was attacked by a bunch of tribes from Delphi.  Kirrha was a strong city and withstood the attacks until a medical officer named Nebros with the Delphian crowd suggested poisoning the city with Hellebore.  So the attacking armies gathered up tons of Hellebore and dumped it into the only stream supplying water to the besieged city.  Hellebore causes severe burning of the throat, stomach cramps, and uncontrolled diarrhea among other very unpleasant symptoms.  When the hapless defenders were laid low the Delphi group attacked again, overcame the sickly defenders, and slaughtered the entire population.  Even for ancient warfare this level of barbarity was pretty much over the top.  Hippocrates is said to be the grandson of the aforementioned Nebros and some speculate that the Hippocratic Oath was developed out of guilt from the recommendations of his grandfather.

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The Olive Tree was important to the Romans and Greeks.  It was a gift from Athena to the people of Athens so they ended up naming their city after the goddess.

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The black wheat shown above is one of Kongo’s favorite plants in the herb garden.  By the first century B.C. Rome had more than a million inhabitants and was unable to feed itself.  Roman leaders required constant imports of food from Egypt and North Africa to keep the plebeians happy.  A daily “dole” of wheat and grain was distributed to the masses from the Temple of Ceres (goddess of cereal) and is the origin of the expression about someone on welfare “being on the dole.”  Keeping the grain imports coming into Rome was the single most important element of the empire’s national security policy.  When Caesar and Mark Anthony journeyed to Egypt they were not really heading out to cavort with Cleopatra…that was kind of an afterthought.  Despite what Hollywood would have us believe, the real reason these guys went to Egypt was to secure the grain supply.

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There are plenty more plants and stories but you need to come visit Kongo (or one of the other creative docents) at the Getty Villa to learn more.  The Getty Villa is located on Pacific Coast Highway at the southern end of Malibu.  It’s technically in Pacific Palisades but the Getty claims Malibu.  Entry to the museum is free but you do have to pay to park and you need an online reservation but you can frequently get one on the same day if you’re more of a spur of the moment person.  Find out more here.

And if you live in the Los Angeles area, the Getty is hiring!  We’re looking for new docents so if you like history, enjoy meeting people from all over the world, and want to give back a little to your community, please consider joining the great docent team at the Getty.  You can find more information at:  Getty Docents

Travel safe.  Have fun!

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