Sacred Plants, by T. F. Thiselton-Dyer
Folklore of Plants
Closely allied with plant-worship is the sacred and superstitious
reverence which, from time immemorial, has been paid by various
communities to certain trees and plants.
In many cases this sanctity originated in the olden heathen mythology,
when "every flower was the emblem of a god; every tree the abode of a
nymph." From their association, too, with certain events, plants
frequently acquired a sacred character, and occasionally their specific
virtues enhanced their veneration. In short, the large number of sacred
plants found in different countries must be attributed to a variety of
causes, illustrations of which are given in the present chapter.
Thus going back to mythological times, it may be noticed that trees into
which persons were metamorphosed became sacred. The laurel was sacred to
Apollo in memory of Daphne, into which tree she was changed when
escaping from his advances:—
"Because thou canst not be
My mistress, I espouse thee for my tree;
Be thou the prize of honour and renown,
The deathless poet and the poet's crown;
Thou shalt the Roman festivals adorn,
And, after poets, be by victors won."
But it is unnecessary to give further instances of such familiar
stories, of which early history is full. At the same time it is
noteworthy that many of these plants which acquired a sanctity from
heathen mythology still retain their sacred character—a fact which has
invested them with various superstitions, in addition to having caused
them to be selected for ceremonial usage and homage in modern times.
Thus the pine, with its mythical origin and heathen associations, is an
important tree on the Continent, being surrounded with a host of
legends, most of which, in one shape or another, are relics of early
forms of belief. The sacred character of the oak still survives in
modern folk-lore, and a host of flowers which grace our fields and
hedges have sacred associations from their connection with the heathen
gods of old. Thus the anemone, poppy, and violet were dedicated to
Venus; and to Diana "all flowers growing in untrodden dells and shady
nooks, uncontaminated by the tread of man, more especially belonged."
The narcissus and maidenhair were sacred to Proserpina, and the willow
to Ceres. The pink is Jove's flower, and of the flowers assigned to Juno
may be mentioned the lily, crocus, and asphodel.
Passing on to other countries, we find among the plants most conspicuous
for their sacred character the well-known lotus of the East (Nelunibium
speciosum), around which so many traditions and mythological legends
have clustered. According to a Hindu legend, from its blossom Brahma
"A form Cerulean fluttered o'er the deep;
Brightest of beings, greatest of the great,
Who, not as mortals steep
Their eyes in dewy sleep,
But heavenly pensive on the lotus lay,
That blossom'd at his touch, and shed a golden ray.
Hail, primal blossom! hail, empyreal gem,
Kemel, or Pedma,  or whate'er high name
Delight thee, say. What four-formed godhead came,
With graceful stole and beamy diadem,
Forth from thy verdant stem." 
Buddha, too, whose symbol is the lotus, is said to have first appeared
floating on this mystic flower, and, indeed, it would seem that many of
the Eastern deities were fond of resting on its leaves; while in China,
the god Pazza is generally represented as occupying this position. Hence
the lotus has long been an object of worship, and as a sacred plant
holds a most distinguished place, for it is the flower of the,
"Old Hindu mythologies, wherein
The lotus, attribute of Ganga—embling
The world's great reproductive power—was held
We may mention here that the lotus, known also as the sacred bean of
Egypt, and the rose-lily of the Nile, as far back as four thousand years
ago was held in high sanctity by the Egyptian priests, still retaining
its sacred character in China, Japan, and Asiatic Russia.
Another famous sacred plant is the soma or moon-plant of India, the
Asclepias acida, a climbing plant with milky juice, which Windischmann
has identified with the "tree of life which grew in paradise." Its milk
juice was said to confer immortality, the plant itself never decaying;
and in a hymn in the Rig Veda the soma sacrifice is thus described:—
"We've quaffed the soma bright
And are immortal grown,
We've entered into light
And all the gods have known.
What mortal can now harm,
Or foeman vex us more?
Through thee beyond alarm,
Immortal God! we soar."
Then there is the peepul or bo-tree (Ficus religiosa), which is held
in high veneration by the followers of Buddha, in the vicinity of whose
temples it is generally planted. One of these trees in Ceylon is said to
be of very great antiquity, and according to Sir J. E. Tennant, "to it
kings have even dedicated their dominions in testimony of their belief
that it is a branch of the identical fig-tree under which Gotama Buddha
reclined when he underwent his apotheosis."
The peepul-tree is highly venerated in Java, and by the Buddhists of
Thibet is known as the bridge of safety, over which mortals pass from
the shores of this world to those of the unseen one beyond. Occasionally
confounded with this peepul is the banyan (Ficus indica), which is
another sacred tree of the Indians. Under its shade Vishnu is said to
have been born; and by the Chinese, Buddha is represented as sitting
beneath its leaves to receive the homage of the god Brahma. Another
sacred tree is the deodar (Cedrus deodara), a species of cedar, being
the Devadara, or tree-god of the Shastras, which in so many of the
ancient Hindu hymns is depicted as the symbol of power and majesty. 
The aroka, or Saraca indica, is said to preserve chastity, and is
dedicated to Kama, the Indian god of love, while with the negroes of
Senegambia the baobab-tree is an object of worship. In Borneo the
nipa-palm is held in veneration, and the Mexican Indians have their
moriche-palm (Mauritia flexuosa). The Tamarindus Indica is in Ceylon
dedicated to Siva, the god of destruction; and in Thibet, the jambu or
rose-apple is believed to be the representative of the divine
amarita-tree which bears ambrosia.
The pomegranate, with its mystic origin and early sacred associations,
was long reverenced by the Persians and Jews, an old tradition having
identified it as the forbidden fruit given by Eve to Adam. Again, as a
sacred plant the basil has from time immemorial been held in high repute
by the Hindus, having been sacred to Vishnu. Indeed it is worshipped as
a deity itself, and is invoked as the goddess Tulasî for the protection
of the human frame. It is further said that "the heart of Vishnu, the
husband of the Tulasî, is agitated and tormented whenever the least
sprig is broken of a plant of Tulasî, his wife."
Among further flowers holding a sacred character may be mentioned the
henna, the Egyptian privet (Lawsonia alba), the flower of paradise,
which was pronounced by Mahomet as "chief of the flowers of this world
and the next," the wormwood having been dedicated to the goddess Iris.
By the aborigines of the Canary Islands, the dragon-tree (Dracoena
draco) of Orotava was an object of sacred reverence;  and in Burmah
at the present day the eugenia is held sacred. 
It has been remarked that the life of Christ may be said to fling its
shadow over the whole vegetable world.  "From this time the trees and
the flowers which had been associated with heathen rites and deities,
began to be connected with holier names, and not unfrequently with the
events of the crucifixion itself."
Thus, upon the Virgin Mary a wealth of flowers was lavished, all white
ones, having been "considered typical of her purity and holiness, and
consecrated to her festivals."  Indeed, not only, "were the finer
flowers wrested from the classic Juno and Diana, and from the Freyja and
Bertha of northern lands given to her, but lovely buds of every hue were
laid upon her shrines."  One species, for instance, of the
maiden-hair fern, known also as "Our Lady's hair," is designated in
Iceland "Freyja's hair," and the rose, often styled "Frau rose," or
"Mother rose," the favourite flower of Hulda, was transferred to the
Virgin. On the other hand, many plants bearing the name of Our Lady,
were, writes Mr. Folkard, in Puritan times, "replaced by the name of
Venus, thus recurring to the ancient nomenclature; 'Our Lady's comb'
becoming 'Venus's comb.'" But the two flowers which were specially
connected with the Virgin were the lily and the rose. Accordingly, in
Italian art, a vase of lilies stands by the Virgin's side, with three
flowers crowning three green stems. The flower is generally the large
white lily of our gardens, "the pure white petals signifying her
spotless body, and the golden anthers within typifying her soul
sparkling with divine light." 
The rose, both red and white, appears at an early period as an emblem of
the Virgin, "and was specially so recognised by St. Dominic when he
instituted the devotion of the rosary, with direct reference to
her."  Among other flowers connected with the Virgin Mary may be
mentioned the flowering-rod, according to which Joseph was chosen for
her husband, because his rod budded into flower, and a dove settled upon
the top of it. In Tuscany a similar legend is attached to the oleander,
and elsewhere the white campanula has been known as the "little staff of
St. Joseph," while a German name for the white double daffodill is
Then there is "Our Lady's bed-straw," which filled the manger on which
the infant Jesus was laid; while of the plant said to have formed the
Virgin's bed may be mentioned the thyme, woodroof, and groundsel. The
white-spotted green leaves of "Our Lady's thistle" were caused by some
drops of her milk falling upon them, and in Cheshire we find the same
idea connected with the pulmonaria or "lady's milk sile," the word
"sile" being a provincialism for "soil," or "stain." A German tradition
makes the common fern (Polypodium vulgare) to have sprung from the
Numerous flowers have been identified with her dress, such as the
marigold, termed by Shakespeare "Mary-bud," which she wore in her bosom.
The cuckoo-flower of our meadows is "Our Lady's smock," which
Shakespeare refers to in those charming lines in "Love's Labour's
"When daisies pied and violets blue,
And lady's smocks all silver white,
And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue
Do paint the meadows with delight,
The cuckoo then on every tree
Mocks married men, for thus sings he,
And one of the finest of our orchids is "Our Lady's slipper." The ribbon
grass is "Our Lady's garters," and the dodder supplies her "laces." In
the same way many flowers have been associated with the Virgin herself.
Thus, there is "Our Lady's tresses," and a popular name for the
maiden-hair fern and quaking-grass is "Virgin's hair." The lilies of the
valley are her tears, and a German nickname for the lungwort is "Our
Lady's milk-wort." The Anthlyllis vulneraria is "Our Lady's fingers,"
and the kidney-wort has been designated "lady's navel." Certain orchids,
from the peculiar form of their hand-shaped roots, have been popularly
termed "Our Lady's hands," a name given in France to the dead-nettle.
Of the many other plants dedicated to the Virgin may be mentioned the
snowdrop, popularly known as the "fair maid of February," opening its
floweret at the time of Candlemas. According to an old monkish tradition
it blooms at this time, in memory of the Virgin having taken the child
Jesus to the temple, and there presented her offering. A further reason
for the snowdrop's association with the Virgin originated in the custom
of removing her image from the altar on the day of the Purification, and
strewing over the vacant place with these emblems of purity. The
bleeding nun (Cyclamen europoeum) was consecrated to the Virgin, and
in France the spearmint is termed "Our Lady's mint." In Germany the
costmary (Costaminta vulgaris) is "Our Lady's balsam," the
white-flowered wormwood the "smock of our Lady," and in olden days the
iris or fleur-de-lis was held peculiarly sacred.
The little pink is "lady's cushion," and the campanula is her
looking-glass. Then there is "Our Lady's comb," with its long, fragile
seed-vessels resembling the teeth of a comb, while the cowslip is "Our
Lady's bunch of keys." In France, the digitalis supplies her with
gloves, and in days gone by the Convallaria polygonatum was the
"Lady's seal." According to some old writers, the black briony went by
this name, and Hare gives this explanation:—"'Our Lady's seal'
(Sigillum marioe) is among the names of the black briony, owing to the
great efficacy of its roots when spread in a plaster and applied as it
were to heal up a scar or bruise." Formerly a species of primula was
known as "lady's candlestick," and a Wiltshire nickname for the common
convolvulus is "lady's nightcap," Canterbury bells in some places
supplying this need. The harebell is "lady's thimble," and the plant
which affords her a mantle is the Alchemilla vulgaris, with its
grey-green leaf covered with a soft silky hair. This is the Maria
Stakker of Iceland, which when placed under the pillow produces sleep.
Once more, the strawberry is one of the fruits that has been dedicated
to her; and a species of nut, popularly known as the molluka bean, is in
many parts called the "Virgin Mary's nut." The cherry-tree, too, has
long been consecrated to the Virgin from the following tradition:—
Being desirous one day of refreshing herself with some cherries which
she saw hanging upon a tree, she requested Joseph to gather some for
her. But he hesitated, and mockingly said, "Let the father of thy child
present them to you." But these words had been no sooner uttered than
the branch of the cherry-tree inclined itself of its own accord to the
Virgin's hand. There are many other plants associated in one way or
another with the Virgin, but the instances already given are
representative of this wide subject. In connection, too, with her
various festivals, we find numerous plants; and as the author of
"Flower-lore" remarks, "to the Madonna were assigned the white iris,
blossoming almond-tree, narcissus, and white lily, all appropriate to
the Annunciation." The flowers appropriate to the "Visitation of Our
Lady" were, in addition to the lily, roses red and white, while to the
"Feast of Assumption" is assigned the "Virgin's bower," "worthy to be so
called," writes Gerarde, "by reason of the goodly shadow which the
branches make with their thick bushing and climbing, as also for the
beauty of the flowers, and the pleasant scent and savour of the same."
Many plants have been associated with St. John the Baptist, from his
having been the forerunner of Christ. Thus, the common plant which bears
his name, St. John's wort, is marked with blood-like spots, known as the
"blood of St. John," making their appearance on the day he was beheaded.
The scarlet lychnis, popularly nicknamed the "great candlestick," was
commonly said to be lighted up for his day. The carob tree has been
designated "St. John's bread," from a tradition that it supplied him
with food in the wilderness; and currants, from beginning to ripen at
this time, have been nicknamed "berries of St. John." The artemisia was
in Germany "St. John's girdle," and in Sicily was applied to his beard.
In connection with Christ's birth it may be noted that the early
painters represent the Angel Gabriel with either a sceptre or spray of
the olive tree, while in the later period of Italian art he has in his
hand a branch of white lilies. The star which pointed out the place
of His birth has long been immortalised by the Ornithogalum
umbellatum, or Star of Bethlehem, which has been thought to resemble
the pictures descriptive of it; in France there is a pretty legend of
the rose-coloured sainfoin. When the infant Jesus was lying in the
manger the plant was found among the grass and herbs which composed his
bed. But suddenly it opened its pretty blossom, that it might form a
wreath around His head. On this account it has been held in high repute.
Hence the practice in Italy of decking mangers at Christmas time with
moss, sow-thistle, cypress, and holly. 
Near the city of On there was shown for many centuries the sacred
fig-tree, under which the Holy Family rested during their "Flight into
Egypt," and a Bavarian tradition makes the tree under which they found
shelter a hazel. A German legend, on the other hand, informs us that as
they took their flight they came into a thickly-wooded forest, when, on
their approach, all the trees, with the exception of the aspen, paid
reverential homage. The disrespectful arrogance of the aspen, however,
did not escape the notice of the Holy Child, who thereupon pronounced a
curse against it, whereupon its leaves began to tremble, and have done
so ever since:—
"Once as our Saviour walked with men below,
His path of mercy through a forest lay;
And mark how all the drooping branches show
What homage best a silent tree may pay.
Only the aspen stood erect and free,
Scorning to join the voiceless worship pure,
But see! He cast one look upon the tree,
Struck to the heart she trembles evermore."
The "rose of Jericho" has long been regarded with special reverence,
having first blossomed at Christ's birth, closed at His crucifixion, and
opened again at the resurrection. At the flight into Egypt it is
reported to have sprung up to mark the footsteps of the sacred family,
and was consequently designated Mary's rose. The pine protected them
from Herod's soldiers, while the juniper opened its branches and offered
a welcome shelter, although it afterwards, says an old legend, furnished
the wood for the cross.
But some trees were not so thoughtful, for "the brooms and the
chick-peas rustled and crackled, and the flax bristled up." According to
another old legend we are informed that by the fountain where the Virgin
Mary washed the swaddling-clothes of her sacred infant, beautiful bushes
sprang up in memory of the event. Among the many further legends
connected with the Virgin may be mentioned the following connected with
her death:—The story runs that she was extremely anxious to see her Son
again, and that whilst weeping, an angel appeared, and said, "Hail, O
Mary! I bring thee here a branch of palm, gathered in paradise; command
that it be carried before thy bier in the day of thy death, for in three
days thy soul shall leave thy body, and thou shalt enter into paradise,
where thy Son awaits thy coming." The angel then departed, but the
palm-branch shed a light from every leaf, and the apostles, although
scattered in different parts of the world, were miraculously caught up
and set down at the Virgin's door. The sacred palm-branch she then
assigned to the care of St. John, who carried it before her bier at the
time of her burial. 
The trees and flowers associated with the crucifixion are widely
represented, and have given rise to many a pretty legend. Several plants
are said to owe their dark-stained blossoms to the blood-drops which
trickled from the cross; amongst these being the wood-sorrel, the
spotted persicaria, the arum, the purple orchis, which is known in
Cheshire as "Gethsemane," and the red anemone, which has been termed the
"blood-drops of Christ." A Flemish legend, too, accounts in the same way
for the crimson-spotted leaves of the rood-selken. The plant which has
gained the unenviable notoriety of supplying the crown of thorns has
been variously stated as the boxthorn, the bramble, the buckthorns, 
and barberry, while Mr. Conway quotes an old tradition, which tells how
the drops of blood that fell from the crown of thorns, composed of the
rose-briar, fell to the ground and blossomed to roses.  Some again
maintain that the wild hyssop was employed, and one plant which was
specially signalled out in olden times is the auberpine or white-thorn.
In Germany holly is Christ-thorn, and according to an Eastern tradition
it was the prickly rush, but as Mr. King  remarks, "the belief of the
East has been tolerably constant to what was possibly the real plant
employed, the nabk (Zizyphus spina-Christi), a species of buckthorn."
The negroes of the West Indies say that, "a branch of the cashew tree
was used, and that in consequence one of the bright golden petals of the
flower became black and blood-stained."
Then again, according to a Swedish legend, the dwarf birch tree afforded
the rod with which Christ was scourged, which accounts for its stunted
appearance; while another legend tells us it was the willow with its
drooping branches. Rubens, together with the earlier Italian painters,
depict the reed-mace  or bulrush (Typha latifolia) as the rod given
to Him to carry; a plant still put by Catholics into the hands of
statues of Christ. But in Poland, where the plant is difficult to
procure, "the flower-stalk of the leek is substituted."
The mournful tree which formed the wood of the cross has always been a
disputed question, and given rise to a host of curious legends.
According to Sir John Maundeville, it was composed of cedar, cypress,
palm, and olive, while some have instituted in the place of the two
latter the pine and the box; the notion being that those four woods
represented the four quarters of the globe. Foremost amongst the other
trees to which this distinction has been assigned, are the aspen,
poplar, oak, elder, and mistletoe. Hence is explained the gloomy
shivering of the aspen leaf, the trembling of the poplar, and the
popular antipathy to utilising elder twigs for fagots. But it is
probable that the respect paid to the elder "has its roots in the old
heathenism of the north," and to this day, in Denmark, it is said to be
protected by "a being called the elder-mother," so that it is not safe
to damage it in any way.  The mistletoe, which exists now as a mere
parasite, was before the crucifixion a fine forest tree; its present
condition being a lasting monument of the disgrace it incurred through
its ignominious use.  A further legend informs us that when the Jews
were in search of wood for the cross, every tree, with the exception of
the oak, split itself to avoid being desecrated. On this account,
Grecian woodcutters avoid the oak, regarding it as an accursed tree.
The bright blue blossoms of the speedwell, which enliven our wayside
hedges in spring-time, are said to display in their markings a
representation of the kerchief of St Veronica, imprinted with the
features of Christ.  According to an old tradition, when our Lord was
on His way to Calvary, bearing His Cross, He happened to pass by the
door of Veronica, who, beholding the drops of agony on His brow, wiped
His face with a kerchief or napkin. The sacred features, however,
remained impressed upon the linen, and from the fancied resemblance of
the blossom of the speedwell to this hallowed relic, the plant was
A plant closely connected by tradition with the crucifixion is the
passion-flower. As soon as the early Spanish settlers in South America
first glanced on it, they fancied they had discovered not only a
marvellous symbol of Christ's passion, but received an assurance of the
ultimate triumph of Christianity. Jacomo Bosio, who obtained his
knowledge of it from certain Mexican Jesuits, speaks of it as "the
flower of the five wounds," and has given a very minute description of
it, showing how exactly every part is a picture of the mysteries of the
Passion. "It would seem," he adds, "as if the Creator of the world had
chosen it to represent the principal emblems of His Son's Passion; so
that in due season it might assist, when its marvels should be explained
to them, in the condition of the heathen people, in whose country it
grew." In Brittany, vervain is popularly termed the "herb of the cross,"
and when gathered with a certain formula is efficacious in curing
In legendary lore, much uncertainty exists as to the tree on which Judas
hanged himself. According to Sir John Maundeville, there it stood in the
vicinity of Mount Sion, "the tree of eldre, that Judas henge himself
upon, for despeyr," a legend which has been popularly received.
Shakespeare, in his "Love's Labour's Lost," says "Judas was hanged on an
elder," and the story is further alluded to in Piers Plowman's vision:—
"Judas, he japed
With Jewen silver,
And sithen on an eller,
Gerarde makes it the wild carob, a tree which, as already stated, was
formerly known as "St. John's bread," from a popular belief that the
Baptist fed upon it while in the wilderness. A Sicilian tradition
identifies the tree as a tamarisk, and a Russian proverb, in allusion to
the aspen, tells us "there is an accursed tree which trembles without
even a breath of wind." The fig, also, has been mentioned as the
ill-fated tree, and some traditions have gone so far as to say that it
was the very same one as was cursed by our Lord.
As might be expected, numerous plants have become interwoven with the
lives of the saints, a subject on which many works have been written.
Hence it is unnecessary to do more than briefly note some of the more
important items of sacred lore which have been embodied in many of the
early Christian legends. The yellow rattle has been assigned to St.
Peter, and the Primula veris, from its resemblance to a bunch of keys,
is St. Peter's wort. Many flowers, too, from the time of their
blossoming, have been dedicated to certain saints, as the square St.
John's wort (Hypericum quadrangulare), which is also known as St.
Peter's wort; while in Germany wall-barley is termed Peter's corn. Of
the many legends connected with the cherry we are reminded that on one
occasion Christ gave one to St. Peter, at the same time reminding him
not to despise little things.
St. James is associated with several plants—the St. James' wort
(Senecio Jacoboea), either from its having been much used for the
diseases of horses, of which the saint was the patron, or owing to its
blossoming on his festival. The same name was applied to the shepherd's
purse and the rag-weed. Incidentally, too, in our chapter on the
calendar we have alluded to many flowers associated with the saints, and
spoken of the customs observed in their honour.
Similarly the later saints had particular flowers dedicated to their
memory; and, indeed, a complete catalogue of flowers has been
compiled—one for each day in the year—the flower in many cases having
been selected because it flowered on the festival of that saint. Thus
the common bean was dedicated to St. Ignatius, and the blue hyacinth to
St. Dorothy, while to St. Hilary the barren strawberry has been
assigned. St. Anne is associated with the camomile, and St. Margaret
with the Virginian dragon's head. Then there is St. Anthony's turnips
and St. Barbara's cress—the "Saints' Floral Directory," in "Hone's
Every-Day Book," giving a fuller and more extensive list. But the
illustrations we have already given are sufficient to show how fully the
names of the saints have been perpetuated by so many of our well-known
plants not only being dedicated to, but named after them, a fact which
is perhaps more abundantly the case on the Continent. Then, as it has
been remarked, flowers have virtually become the timepieces of our
religious calendar, reminding us of the various festivals, as in
succession they return, in addition to immortalising the history and
events which such festivals commemorate. In many cases, too, it should
be remembered, the choice of flowers for dedication to certain saints
originated either in their medical virtues or in some old tradition
which was supposed to have specially singled them out for this honour.
1. Sanscrit for lotus.
2. Hindu poem, translated by Sir William Jones.
3. "Flower-lore," p. 118.
4. Folkard's "Plant Legends," p. 245.
5. "Flower-lore," p. 120.
6. Quarterly Review, cxiv. 231.
7. "Flower-lore," p. 2.
9. Quarterly Review, cxiv. 235.
10. Ibid., p. 239.
12. Folkard's "Plant Legends," p. 44.
13. Folkard's "Plant Legends," p. 395.
14. "Flower-lore," p. 13.
15. Fraser's Magazine, 1870, p. 714.
16. "Flower-lore," p. 14.
17. "Flower-lore," p. 14.
18. Quarterly Review, cxiv. 233; "Flower-lore," p. 15.
19. See Baring-Gould's "Myths of the Middle Ages."
20. "Flower-lore," p. 12.
21. See chapter on Folk-Medicine.