Fairy Lore and Plants, by T. F.
Many plants have gained a notoriety from their connection with
fairyland, and although the belief in this romantic source of
superstition has almost died out, yet it has left its traces in the
numerous legends which have survived amongst us. Thus the delicate white
flowers of the wood-sorrel are known in Wales as "fairy bells," from a
belief once current that these tiny beings were summoned to their
moonlight revels and gambols by these bells. In Ireland they were
supposed to ride to their scenes of merrymaking on the ragwort, hence
known as the "fairies' horse." Cabbage-stalks, too, served them for
steeds, and a story is told of a certain farmer who resided at
Dundaniel, near Cork, and was considered to be under fairy control. For
a long time he suffered from "the falling sickness," owing to the long
journeys which he was forced to make, night by night, with the fairy
folk on one of his own cabbage stumps. Sometimes the good people made
use of a straw, a blade of grass, or a fern, a further illustration of
which is furnished by "The Witch of Fife:"
"The first leet night, quhan the new moon set,
Quhan all was douffe and mirk,
We saddled our naigis wi' the moon-fern leif,
And rode fra Kilmerrin kirk.
Some horses were of the brume-cow framit,
And some of the greine bay tree;
But mine was made of ane humloke schaw,
And a stour stallion was he."
In some folk-tales fairies are represented as employing nuts for their
mode of conveyance, in allusion to which Shakespeare, in "Romeo and
Juliet," makes Mercutio speak of Queen Mab's arrival in a nut-shell.
Similarly the fairies selected certain plants for their attire. Although
green seems to have been their popular colour, yet the fairies of the
moon were often clad in heath-brown or lichen-dyed garments, whence the
epithet of "Elfin-grey." Their petticoats, for instance, were composed
of the fox-glove, a flower in demand among Irish fairies for their
gloves, and in some parts of that country for their caps, where it is
nicknamed "Lusmore," while the Cuscuta epithymum is known in Jersey as
"fairies' hair." Their raiment was made of the fairy flax, and the
wood-anemone, with its fragile blossoms, was supposed to afford them
shelter in wet weather. Shakespeare has represented Ariel reclining in
"a cowslip's bell," and further speaks of the small crimson drops in its
blossom as "gold coats spots"—"these be rubies, fairy favours." And at
the present day the cowslip is still known in Lincolnshire as the "fairy
cup." Its popular German name is "key-flower;" and no flower has had in
that country so extensive an association with preternatural wealth. A
well-known legend relates how "Bertha" entices some favoured child by
exquisite primroses to a doorway overgrown with flowers. This is the
door to an enchanted castle. When the key-flower touches it, the door
gently opens, and the favoured mortal passes to a room with vessels
covered over with primroses, in which are treasures of gold and jewels.
When the treasure is secured the primroses must be replaced, otherwise
the finder will be for ever followed by a "black dog."
Sometimes their mantles are made of the gossamer, the cobwebs which may
be seen in large quantities on the furze bushes; and so of King Oberon
we are told:
"A rich mantle did he wear,
Made of tinsel gossamer,
Bestarred over with a few
Diamond drops of morning dew."
Tulips are the cradles in which the fairy tribe have lulled their
offspring to rest, while the Pyrus japonica serves them for a fire.
Their hat is supplied by the Peziza coccinea; and in Lincolnshire,
writes Mr. Friend, "A kind of fungus like a cup or old-fashioned
purse, with small objects inside, is called a fairy-purse." When mending
their clothes, the foxglove gives them thimbles; and many other flowers
might be added which are equally in request for their various needs. It
should be mentioned, however, that fairies, like witches, have a strange
antipathy to yellow flowers, and rarely frequent localities where they
In olden times, we read how in Scandinavia and Germany the rose was
under the special protection of dwarfs and elves, who were ruled by the
mighty King Laurin, the lord of the rose-garden:
"Four portals to the garden lead, and when the gates are
No living might dare touch a rose, 'gainst his strict command
Whoe'er would break the golden gates, or cut the silken
Or who would dare to crush the flowers down beneath his
Soon for his pride would have to pledge a foot and hand;
Thus Laurin, king of Dwarfs, rules within his land."
We may mention here that the beautiful white or yellow flowers that grow
on the banks of lakes and rivers in Sweden are called "neck-roses,"
memorials of the Neck, a water-elf, and the poisonous root of the
water-hemlock was known as neck-root.
In Brittany and in some parts of Ireland the hawthorn, or, as it is
popularly designated, the fairy-thorn, is a tree most specially in
favour. On this account it is held highly dangerous to gather even a
leaf "from certain old and solitary thorns which grow in sheltered
hollows of the moorlands," for these are the trysting-places of the
fairy race. A trace of the same superstition existed in Scotland, as may
be gathered from the subjoined extract from the "Scottish Statistical
Report" of the year 1796, in connection with New parish:—"There is a
quick thorn of a very antique appearance, for which the people have a
superstitious veneration. They have a mortal dread to lop off or cut any
part of it, and affirm with a religious horror that some persons who had
the temerity to hurt it, were afterwards severely punished for their
One flower which, for some reason or other, is still held in special
honour by them, is the common stichwort of our country hedges, and which
the Devonshire peasant hesitates to pluck lest he should be pixy-led. A
similar idea formerly prevailed in the Isle of Man in connection with
the St. John's wort. If any unwary traveller happened, after sunset, to
tread on this plant, it was said that a fairy-horse would suddenly
appear, and carry him about all night. Wild thyme is another of their
favourite plants, and Mr. Folkard notes that in Sicily rosemary is
equally beloved; and that "the young fairies, under the guise of snakes,
lie concealed under its branches." According to a Netherlandish belief,
the elf-leaf, or sorceresses' plant, is particularly grateful to them,
and therefore ought not to be plucked.
The four-leaved clover is a magic talisman which enables its wearer to
detect the whereabouts of fairies, and was said only to grow in their
haunts; in reference to which belief Lover thus writes:
"I'll seek a four-leaved clover
In all the fairy dells,
And if I find the charmed leaf,
Oh, how I'll weave my spells!"
And according to a Danish belief, any one wandering under an elder-bush
at twelve o'clock on Midsummer Eve will see the king of fairyland pass
by with all his retinue. Fairies' haunts are mostly in picturesque spots
(such as among the tufts of wild thyme); and the oak tree, both here and
in Germany, has generally been their favourite abode, and hence the
superstitious reverence with which certain trees are held, care being
taken not to offend their mysterious inhabitants.
An immense deal of legendary lore has clustered round the so-called
fairy-rings—little circles of a brighter green in old pastures—within
which the fairies were supposed to dance by night. This curious
phenomenon, however, is owing to the outspread propagation of a
particular mushroom, the fairy-ringed fungus, by which the ground is
manured for a richer following vegetation. Amongst the many other
conjectures as to the cause of these verdant circles, some have ascribed
them to lightning, and others have maintained that they are produced by
ants. In the "Tempest" (v. i) Prospero invokes the fairies as the
"By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites; and you, whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrooms."
And in the "Merry Wives of Windsor" (v. 5) Mistress Quickly says:
"And nightly, meadow-fairies, look, you sing,
Like to the Garter's compass, in a ring;
The expressure that it bears, green let it be,
More fertile-fresh than all the field to see."
Drayton, in his "Nymphidia" (1. 69-72), tells how the fairies:
"In their courses make that round,
In meadows and in marshes found,
Of them so called the fayrie ground,
Of which they have the keeping."
These fairy-rings have long been held in superstitious awe; and when in
olden times May-dew was gathered by young ladies to improve their
complexion, they carefully avoided even touching the grass within them,
for fear of displeasing these little beings, and so losing their
personal charms. At the present day, too, the peasant asserts that no
sheep nor cattle will browse on the mystic patches, a natural instinct
warning them of their peculiar nature. A few miles from Alnwick was a
fairy-ring, round which if people ran more than nine times, some evil
was supposed to befall them.
It is generally agreed that fairies were extremely fond of dancing
around oaks, and thus in addressing the monarch of the forest a poet has
"The fairies, from their nightly haunt,
In copse or dell, or round the trunk revered
Of Herne's moon-silvered oak, shall chase away
Each fog, each blight, and dedicate to peace
Thy classic shade."
In Sweden the miliary fever is said by the peasantry to be caused by the
elf-mote or meeting with elves, as a remedy for which the lichen aphosus
or lichen caninus is sought.
The toadstools often found near these so-called fairy-rings were also
thought to be their workmanship, and in some localities are styled
pixy-stools, and in the North of Wales "fairy-tables," while the
"cheeses," or fruit of the mallow, are known in the North of England as
A species of wood fungus found about the roots of old trees is
designated "fairy-butter," because after rain, and when in a certain
degree of putrefaction, it is reduced to a consistency which, together
with its colour, makes it not unlike butter. The fairy-butter of the
Welsh is a substance found at a great depth in cavities of limestone
rocks. Ritson, in his "Fairy Tales," speaking of the fairies who
frequented many parts of Durham, relates how "a woman who had been in
their society challenged one of the guests whom she espied in the market
selling fairy-butter," an accusation, however, which was
Browne, in his "Britannia's Pastorals," makes the table on which they
feast consist of:
"A little mushroom, that was now grown thinner
By being one time shaven for the dinner."
Fairies have always been jealous of their rights, and are said to resent
any infringement of their privileges, one of these being the property of
fruit out of season. Any apples, too, remaining after the crop has been
gathered in, they claim as their own; and hence, in the West of England,
to ensure their goodwill and friendship, a few stray ones are purposely
left on the trees. This may partially perhaps explain the ill-luck of
plucking flowers out of season. A Netherlandish piece of folk-lore
informs us that certain wicked elves prepare poison in some plants.
Hence experienced shepherds are careful not to let their flocks feed
after sunset. One of these plants, they say, is nightwort, "which
belongs to the elves, and whoever touches it must die." The disease
known in Poland as "elf-lock" is said to be the work of evil fairies or
demons, and is cured by burying thistle-seed in the ground. Similarly,
in Iceland, says Mr. Conway, "the farmer guards the grass around his
field lest the elves abiding in them invade his crops." Likewise the
globe-flower has been designated the troll-flower, from the malignant
trolls or elves, on account of its poisonous qualities. On the other
hand, the Bavarian peasant has a notion that the elves are very fond of
strawberries; and in order that they may be good-humoured and bless his
cows with abundance of milk, he is careful to tie a basket of this fruit
between the cow's horns.
Of the many legendary origins of the fairy tribe, there is a popular one
abroad that mortals have frequently been transformed into these little
beings through "eating of ambrosia or some peculiar kind of herb."
According to a Cornish tradition, the fern is in some mysterious manner
connected with the fairies; and a tale is told of a young woman who,
when one day listlessly breaking off the fronds of fern as she sat
resting by the wayside, was suddenly confronted by a "fairy widower,"
who was in search of some one to attend to his little son. She accepted
his offer, which was ratified by kissing a fern leaf and repeating
"For a year and a day
I promise to stay."
Soon she was an inhabitant of fairyland, and was lost to mortal gaze
until she had fulfilled her stipulated engagement.
In Germany we find a race of elves, somewhat like the dwarfs, popularly
known as the Wood or Moss people. They are about the same size as
children, "grey and old-looking, hairy, and clad in moss." Their lives,
like those of the Hamadryads, are attached to the trees; and "if any one
causes by friction the inner bark to loosen a Wood-woman dies."
Their great enemy is the Wild Huntsman, who, driving invisibly through
the air, pursues and kills them. On one occasion a peasant, hearing the
weird baying in a wood, joined in the cry; but on the following morning
he found hanging at his stable door a quarter of a green Moss-woman as
his share of the game. As a spell against the Wild Huntsman, the
Moss-women sit in the middle of those trees upon which the woodcutter
has placed a cross, indicating that they are to be hewn, thereby making
sure of their safety. Then, again, there is the old legend which tells
how Brandan met a man on the sea, who was, "a thumb long, and
floated on a leaf, holding a little bowl in his right hand and a pointer
in his left; the pointer he kept dipping into the sea and letting water
drop from it into the bowl; when the bowl was full, he emptied it out
and began filling it again, his doom consisting in measuring the sea
until the judgment-day." This floating on the leaf is suggestive of
ancient Indian myths, and reminds us of Brahma sitting on a lotus and
floating across the sea. Vishnu, when, after Brahma's death, the waters
have covered all the worlds, sits in the shape of a tiny infant on a
leaf of the fig tree, and floats on the sea of milk sucking the toe of
his right foot.
Another tribe of water-fairies are the nixes, who frequently assume the
appearance of beautiful maidens. On fine sunny days they sit on the
banks of rivers or lakes, or on the branches of trees, combing and
arranging their golden locks:
"Know you the Nixes, gay and fair?
Their eyes are black, and green their hair,
They lurk in sedgy shores."
A fairy or water-sprite that resides in the neighbourhood of the Orkneys
is popularly known as Tangie, so-called from tang,, the seaweed with
which he is covered. Occasionally he makes his appearance as a little
horse, and at other times as a man.
Then there are the wood and forest folk of Germany, spirits inhabiting
the forests, who stood in friendly relation to man, but are now so
disgusted with the faithless world, that they have retired from it.
Hence their precept—
"Peel no tree,
Relate no dream,
Pipe no bread, or
Bake no cumin in bread,
So will God help thee in thy need."
On one occasion a "forest-wife," who had just tasted a new baked-loaf,
given as an offering, was heard screaming aloud:
"They've baken for me cumin bread,
That on this house brings great distress."
The prosperity of the poor peasant was soon on the wane, and before long
he was reduced to abject poverty. These legends, in addition to
illustrating the fairy mythology of bygone years, are additionally
interesting from their connection with the plants and flowers, most of
which are familiar to us from our childhood.
1. See Crofton Croker's "Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South
of Ireland," 1862, p. 98.
2. Folkard's "Plant-lore Legends and Lyrics," p. 30.
3. Friend, "Flowers and Flower Lore," p. 34.
4. Thorpe's "Northern Mythology," ii. 81-2.
5. Thorpe's "Northern Mythology," iii. 266.
6. See "The Phytologist," 1862, p. 236-8.
7. "Folk-lore of Shakespeare," p. 15.
8. See Friend's "Flower Lore," i. 34.
9. Thorpe's "Northern Mythology," iii. 266.
10. Friend's "Flower Lore," i. 27.
11. See Keightley's "Fairy Mythology," p. 231.
12. Grimm's "Teut. Myth.," 1883, ii. 451;
13. "Asiatic Researches," i. 345.
14. See Keightley's "Fairy Mythology," p. 173.
15. Thorpe's "Northern Mythology," i. 251-3.