The familiar garden gnome, usually a ceramic statue of an old man in a pointy red hat, began to appear in Germany in the 19th Century and soon spread to England and all over the world.
Gnomes are descended from nature spirits in ancient Northern European folklore. Most likely the idea of gnomes was adapted in the Middle Ages from old tales about dwarves.
In legend, gnomes live in dark places such as deep forests. Though they have an affinity for trees, they are especially at home underground and can move through the earth as easily as humans move above it. They are rarely seen or heard by people, although they have become less shy since they started appearing in gardens.
A charming world was created for these friendly folk in the book “Gnomes” by the Dutch author Wil Huygen and illustrator Rien Poortvliet (available in The Arboretum Store, $29.95). In the form of a field guide, Huygen explains that gnomes have a lifespan of 400 years and are vegetarians who enjoy applesauce, hazelnuts, and mushrooms. They are said to live beneath the roots of trees, in cozy homes with elaborate tunnel systems (shown in diagrams) and chimney vents that may be mistaken for woodpecker holes.
Poortvliet’s whimsical pictures portray several subspecies, including farm gnomes, house gnomes, woodland gnomes, dunes gnomes, and, of course, gnomes of old gardens.
Young gnomes develop gray beards early, Huygen writes, but no one knows whether they are bald or not because they never take off their hats.