THE FOLK-LORE OF PLANTS
T. F. THISELTON-DYER
Apart from botanical science, there is perhaps no subject of inquiry
connected with plants of wider interest than that suggested by the study
of folk-lore. This field of research has been largely worked of late
years, and has obtained considerable popularity in this country, and on
Much has already been written on the folk-lore of plants, a fact which
has induced me to give, in the present volume, a brief systematic
summary—with a few illustrations in each case—of the many branches
into which the subject naturally subdivides itself. It is hoped,
therefore, that this little work will serve as a useful handbook for
those desirous of gaining some information, in a brief concise form, of
the folk-lore which, in one form or another, has clustered round the
November 19, 1888.
I. PLANT LIFE
II. PRIMITIVE AND SAVAGE NOTIONS RESPECTING PLANTS
III. PLANT WORSHIP
IV. LIGHTNING PLANTS
V. PLANTS IN WITCHCRAFT
VI. PLANTS IN DEMONOLOGY
VII. PLANTS IN FAIRY-LORE
X. PLANTS AND THE WEATHER
XI. PLANT PROVERBS
XII. PLANTS AND THEIR CEREMONIAL USE
XIII. PLANT NAMES
XIV. PLANT LANGUAGE
XV. FABULOUS PLANTS
XVI. DOCTRINE OF SIGNATURES
XVII. PLANTS AND THE CALENDAR
XVIII. CHILDREN'S RHYMES AND GAMES
XIX. SACRED PLANTS
XX. PLANT SUPERSTITIONS
XXI. PLANTS IN FOLK-MEDICINE
XXII. PLANTS AND THEIR LEGENDARY HISTORY
XXIII. MYSTIC PLANTS
The fact that plants, in common with man and the lower animals, possess
the phenomena of life and death, naturally suggested in primitive times
the notion of their having a similar kind of existence. In both cases
there is a gradual development which is only reached by certain
progressive stages of growth, a circumstance which was not without its
practical lessons to the early naturalist. This similarity, too, was
held all the more striking when it was observed how the life of plants,
like that of the higher organisms, was subject to disease, accident, and
other hostile influences, and so liable at any moment to be cut off by
an untimely end. On this account a personality was ascribed to the
products of the vegetable kingdom, survivals of which are still of
frequent occurrence at the present day. It was partly this conception
which invested trees with that mystic or sacred character whereby they
were regarded with a superstitious fear which found expression in sundry
acts of sacrifice and worship. According to Mr. Tylor, there is
reason to believe that, "the doctrine of the spirits of plants lay deep
in the intellectual history of South-east Asia, but was in great measure
superseded under Buddhist influence. The Buddhist books show that in the
early days of their religion it was matter of controversy whether trees
had souls, and therefore whether they might lawfully be injured.
Orthodox Buddhism decided against the tree souls, and consequently
against the scruple to harm them, declaring trees to have no mind nor
sentient principle, though admitting that certain dewas or spirits do
reside in the body of trees, and speak from within them." Anyhow, the
notion of its being wrong to injure or mutilate a tree for fear of
putting it to unnecessary pain was a widespread belief. Thus, the
Ojibways imagined that trees had souls, and seldom cut them down,
thinking that if they did so they would hear "the wailing of the trees
when they suffered in this way." In Sumatra certain trees have
special honours paid to them as being the embodiment of the spirits of
the woods, and the Fijians believe that "if an animal or a plant die,
its soul immediately goes to Bolotoo." The Dayaks of Borneo assert
that rice has a living principle or spirit, and hold feasts to retain
its soul lest the crops should decay. And the Karens affirm, too,
that plants as well as men and animals have their "la" or spirit. The
Iroquois acknowledge the existence of spirits in trees and plants, and
say that the spirit of corn, the spirit of beans, and the spirit of
squashes are supposed to have the forms of three beautiful maidens.
According to a tradition current among the Miamis, one year when there
was an unusual abundance of corn, the spirit of the corn was very angry
because the children had thrown corn-cobs at each other in play,
pretending to have suffered serious bodily injury in consequence of
their sport. Similarly, when the wind blows the long grass or waving
corn, the German peasant will say, "the Grass-wolf," or "the Corn-wolf"
is abroad. According to Mr. Ralston, in some places, "the last sheaf of
rye is left as a shelter to the Roggenwolf or Rye-wolf during the
winter's cold, and in many a summer or autumn festive rite that being is
represented by a rustic, who assumes a wolf-like appearance. The corn
spirit was, however, often symbolised under a human form."
Indeed, under a variety of forms this animistic conception is found
among the lower races, and in certain cases explains the strong
prejudice to certain herbs as articles of food. The Society Islanders
ascribed a "varua" or surviving soul to plants, and the negroes of Congo
adored a sacred tree called "Mirrone," one being generally planted near
the house, as if it were the tutelar god of the dwelling. It is
customary, also, to place calabashes of palm wine at the feet of these
trees, in case they should be thirsty. In modern folk-lore there are
many curious survivals of this tree-soul doctrine. In Westphalia, the
peasantry announce formally to the nearest oak any death that may have
occurred in the family, and occasionally this formula is employed—"The
master is dead, the master is dead." Even recently, writes Sir John
Lubbock, an oak copse at Loch Siant, in the Isle of Skye, was held
so sacred that no persons would venture to cut the smallest branch from
it. The Wallachians, "have a superstition that every flower has a soul,
and that the water-lily is the sinless and scentless flower of the lake,
which blossoms at the gates of Paradise to judge the rest, and that she
will inquire strictly what they have done with their odours." It is
noteworthy, also, that the Indian belief which describes the holes in
trees as doors through which the special spirits of those trees pass,
reappears in the German superstition that the holes in the oak are the
pathways for elves; and that various diseases may be cured by
contact with these holes. Hence some trees are regarded with special
veneration—particularly the lime and pine—and persons of a
superstitious turn of mind, "may often be seen carrying sickly children
to a forest for the purpose of dragging them through such holes." This
practice formerly prevailed in our own country, a well-known
illustration of which we may quote from White's "History of Selborne:"
"In a farmyard near the middle of the village," he writes, "stands at
this day a row of pollard ashes, which by the seams and long cicatrices
down their sides, manifestly show that in former times they had been
cleft asunder. These trees, when young and flexible, were severed and
held open by wedges, while ruptured children, stripped naked, were
pushed through the apertures."
In Somersetshire the superstition still lingers on, and in Cornwall the
ceremony to be of value must be performed before sunrise; but the
practice does not seem to have been confined to any special locality. It
should also be added, as Mr. Conway has pointed out, that in all
Saxon countries in the Middle Ages a hole formed by two branches of a
tree growing together was esteemed of highly efficacious value.
On the other hand, we must not confound the spiritual vitality ascribed
to trees with the animistic conception of their being inhabited by
certain spirits, although, as Mr. Tylor remarks, it is difficult at
times to distinguish between the two notions. Instances of these tree
spirits lie thickly scattered throughout the folk-lore of most
countries, survivals of which remain even amongst cultured races. It is
interesting, moreover, to trace the same idea in Greek and Roman
mythology. Thus Ovid tells a beautiful story of Erisicthon's impious
attack on the grove of Ceres, and it may be remembered how the Greek
dryads and hamadryads had their life linked to a tree, and, "as this
withers and dies, they themselves fall away and cease to be; any injury
to bough or twig is felt as a wound, and a wholesale hewing down puts an
end to them at once—a cry of anguish escapes them when the cruel axe
In "Apollonius Rhodius" we find one of these hamadryads imploring a
woodman to spare a tree to which her existence is attached:
"Loud through the air resounds the woodman's stroke,
When, lo! a voice breaks from the groaning oak,
'Spare, spare my life! a trembling virgin spare!
Oh, listen to the Hamadryad's prayer!
No longer let that fearful axe resound;
Preserve the tree to which my life is bound.
See, from the bark my blood in torrents flows;
I faint, I sink, I perish from your blows.'"
Aubrey, referring to this old superstition, says:
"I cannot omit taking notice of the great misfortune in the family of
the Earl of Winchelsea, who at Eastwell, in Kent, felled down a most
curious grove of oaks, near his own noble seat, and gave the first blow
with his own hands. Shortly after his countess died in her bed suddenly,
and his eldest son, the Lord Maidstone, was killed at sea by a
Modern European folk-lore still provides us with a curious variety of
these spirit-haunted trees, and hence when the alder is hewn, "it
bleeds, weeps, and begins to speak." An old tree in the Rugaard
forest must not be felled for an elf dwells within, and another, on the
Heinzenberg, near Zell, "uttered a complaint when the woodman cut it
down, for in it was our Lady, whose chapel now stands upon the
An Austrian Märchen tells of a stately fir, in which there sits a fairy
maiden waited on by dwarfs, rewarding the innocent and plaguing the
guilty; and there is the German song of the maiden in the pine, whose
bark the boy splits with a gold and silver horn. Stories again are
circulated in Sweden, among the peasantry, of persons who by cutting a
branch from a habitation tree have been struck with death. Such a tree
was the "klinta tall" in Westmanland, under which a mermaid was said to
dwell. To this tree might occasionally be seen snow-white cattle driven
up from the neighbouring lake across the meadows. Another Swedish legend
tells us how, when a man was on the point of cutting down a juniper tree
in a wood, a voice was heard from the ground, saying, "friend, hew me
not." But he gave another stroke, when to his horror blood gushed from
the root. Then there is the Danish tradition relating to the
lonely thorn, occasionally seen in a field, but which never grows
larger. Trees of this kind are always bewitched, and care should be
taken not to approach them in the night time, "as there comes a fiery
wheel forth from the bush, which, if a person cannot escape from, will
In modern Greece certain trees have their "stichios," a being which has
been described as a spectre, a wandering soul, a vague phantom,
sometimes invisible, at others assuming the most widely varied forms. It
is further added that when a tree is "stichimonious" it is dangerous for
a man, "to sleep beneath its shade, and the woodcutters employed to cut
it down will lie upon the ground and hide themselves, motionless, and
holding their breath, at the moment when it is about to fall, dreading
lest the stichio at whose life the blow is aimed with each stroke of the
axe, should avenge itself at the precise moment when it is
Turning to primitive ideas on this subject, Mr. Schoolcraft mentions an
Indian tradition of a hollow tree, from the recesses of which there
issued on a calm day a sound like the voice of a spirit. Hence it was
considered to be the residence of some powerful spirit, and was
accordingly deemed sacred. Among rude tribes trees of this kind are held
sacred, it being forbidden to cut them. Some of the Siamese in the same
way offer cakes and rice to the trees before felling them, and the
Talein of Burmah will pray to the spirit of the tree before they begin
to cut the tree down. Likewise in the Australian bush demons whistle
in the branches, and in a variety of other eccentric ways make their
presence manifest—reminding us of Ariel's imprisonment:
"Into a cloven pine; within which rift
Imprison'd, thou didst painfully remain,
A dozen years; …
… Where thou didst vent thy groans,
As fast as mill-wheels strike."
Similarly Miss Emerson, in her "Indian Myths" (1884, p. 134), quotes the
story of "The Two Branches":
"One day there was a great noise in a tree under which Manabozho was
taking a nap. It grew louder, and, at length exasperated, he leaped into
the tree, caught the two branches whose war was the occasion of the din,
and pulled them asunder. But with a spring on either hand, the two
branches caught and pinioned Manabozho between them. Three days the god
remained imprisoned, during which his outcries and lamentations were the
subject of derision from every quarter—from the birds of the air, and
from the animals of the woods and plains. To complete his sad case, the
wolves ate the breakfast he had left beneath the tree. At length a good
bear came to his rescue and released him, when the god disclosed his
divine intuitions, for he returned home, and without delay beat his
Furthermore, we are told of the West Indian tribes, how, if any person
going through a wood perceived a motion in the trees which he regarded
as supernatural, frightened at the prodigy, he would address himself to
that tree which shook the most. But such trees, however, did not
condescend to converse, but ordered him to go to a boie, or priest, who
would order him to sacrifice to their new deity. From the same
source we also learn how among savage tribes those plants that
produce great terrors, excitement, or a lethargic state, are supposed to
contain a supernatural being. Hence in Peru, tobacco is known as the
sacred herb, and from its invigorating effect superstitious veneration
is paid to the weed. Many other plants have similar respect shown to
them, and are used as talismans. Poisonous plants, again, from their
deadly properties, have been held in the same repute; and it is a
very common practice among American Indians to hang a small bag
containing poisonous herbs around the neck of a child, "as a talisman
against diseases or attacks from wild beasts." It is commonly supposed
that a child so protected is proof against every hurtful influence, from
the fact of its being under the protection of the special spirits
associated with the plant it wears.
Again, closely allied to beliefs of this kind is the notion of plants as
the habitation of the departing soul, founded on the old doctrine of
transmigration. Hence, referring to bygone times, we are told by
Empedocles that "there are two destinies for the souls of highest virtue
—to pass either into trees or into the bodies of lions." Amongst the
numerous illustrations of this mythological conception may be noticed
the story told by Ovid, who relates how Baucis and Philemon were
rewarded in this manner for their charity to Zeus, who came a poor
wanderer to their home. It appears that they not only lived to an
extreme old age, but at the last were transformed into trees. Ovid,
also, tells how the gods listened to the prayer of penitent Myrrha, and
eventually turned her into a tree. Although, as Mr. Keary remarks,
"she has lost understanding with her former shape, she still weeps, and
the drops which fall from her bark (i.e., the myrrh) preserve the
story of their mistress, so that she will be forgotten in no age
The sisters of Phaëthon, bewailing his death on the shores of Eridanus,
were changed into poplars. We may, too, compare the story of Daphne and
Syrinx, who, when they could no longer elude the pursuit of Apollo and
Pan, change themselves into a laurel and a reed. In modern times, Tasso
and Spenser have given us graphic pictures based on this primitive phase
of belief; and it may be remembered how Dante passed through that
leafless wood, in the bark of every tree of which was imprisoned a
suicide. In German folk-lore the soul is supposed to take the form
of a flower, as a lily or white rose; and according to a popular belief,
one of these flowers appears on the chairs of those about to die. In the
same way, from the grave of one unjustly executed white lilies are said
to spring as a token of the person's innocence; and from that of a
maiden, three lilies which no one save her lover must gather. The sex,
moreover, it may be noted, is kept up even in this species of
metempsychosis. Thus, in a Servian folk-song, there grows out of the
youth's body a green fir, out of the maiden's a red rose, which entwine
together. Amongst further instances quoted by Grimm, we are told how,
"a child carries home a bud which the angel had given him in the wood,
when the rose blooms the child is dead. The Lay of Eunzifal makes a
blackthorn shoot out of the bodies of slain heathens, a white flower by
the heads of fallen Christians."
It is to this notion that Shakespeare alludes in "Hamlet," where Laertes
wishes that violets may spring from the grave of Ophelia (v. I):
"Lay her in the earth,
And from her fair and unpolluted flesh
May violets spring."
A passage which is almost identical to one in the "Satires" of Persius
"E tumulo fortunataque favilla,
And an idea, too, which Tennyson seems to have borrowed:
"And from his ashes may be made,
The violet of his native land."
Again, in the well-known story of "Tristram and Ysonde," a further
reference occurs: "From his grave there grew an eglantine which twined
about the statue, a marvel for all men to see; and though three times
they cut it down, it grew again, and ever wound its arms about the image
of the fair Ysonde." In the Scottish ballad of "Fair Margaret and
Sweet William," it is related—
"Out of her breast there sprang a rose,
And out of his a briar;
They grew till they grew unto the church top,
And there they tied in a true lovers' knot."
The same idea has prevailed to a large extent among savage races. Thus,
some of the North-Western Indians believed that those who died a natural
death would be compelled to dwell among the branches of tall trees. The
Brazilians have a mythological character called Mani—a child who died
and was buried in the house of her mother. Soon a plant sprang out of
the grave, which grew, flourished, and bore fruit. This plant, says Mr.
Dorman, was the Mandioca, named from Mani, and Oca, house. By
the Mexicans marigolds are known as "death-flowers," from a legend that
they sprang up on the ground stained by, "the life-blood of those who
fell victims to the love of gold and cruelty of the early Spanish
settlers in America."
Among the Virginian tribes, too, red clover was supposed to have sprung
from and to be coloured by the blood of the red men slain in battle,
with which may be compared the well-known legend connected with the lily
of the valley formerly current in St. Leonard's Forest, Sussex. It is
reported to have sprung from the blood of St. Leonard, who once
encountered a mighty worm, or "fire-drake," in the forest, engaging with
it for three successive days. Eventually the saint came off victorious,
but not without being seriously wounded; and wherever his blood was shed
there sprang up lilies of the valley in profusion. After the battle of
Towton a certain kind of wild rose is reported to have sprung up in the
field where the Yorkists and Lancastrians fell, only there to be found:
"There still wild roses growing,
Frail tokens of the fray;
And the hedgerow green bears witness
Of Towton field that day."
In fact, there are numerous legends of this kind; and it may be
remembered how Defoe, in his "Tour through Great Britain," speaks of a
certain camp called Barrow Hill, adding, "they say this was a Danish
camp, and everything hereabout is attributed to the Danes, because of
the neighbouring Daventry, which they suppose to be built by them. The
road hereabouts too, being overgrown with Dane-weed, they fancy it
sprung from the blood of Danes slain in battle, and that if cut upon a
certain day in the year, it bleeds."
Similarly, the red poppies which followed the ploughing of the field of
Waterloo after the Duke of Wellington's victory were said to have sprung
from the blood of the troops who fell during the engagement; and the
fruit of the mulberry, which was originally white, tradition tells us
became empurpled through human blood, a notion which in Germany explains
the colour of the heather. Once more, the mandrake, according to a
superstition current in France and Germany, sprang up where the presence
of a criminal had polluted the ground, and hence the old belief that it
was generally found near a gallows. In Iceland it is commonly said that
when innocent persons are put to death the sorb or mountain ash will
spring up over their graves. Similar traditions cluster round numerous
other plants, which, apart from being a revival of a very early
primitive belief, form one of the prettiest chapters of our legendary
tales. Although found under a variety of forms, and in some cases sadly
corrupted from the dress they originally wore, yet in their main
features they have not lost their individuality, but still retain their
In connection with the myths of plant life may be noticed that curious
species of exotic plants, commonly known as "sensitive plants," and
which have generally attracted considerable interest from their
irritability when touched. Shelley has immortalised this curious freak
of plant life in his charming poem, wherein he relates how,
"The sensitive plant was the earliest,
Up-gathered into the bosom of rest;
A sweet child weary of its delight,
The feeblest and yet the favourite,
Cradled within the embrace of night."
Who can wonder, on gazing at one of these wonderful plants, that
primitive and uncultured tribes should have regarded such mysterious and
inexplicable movements as indications of a distinct personal life.
Hence, as Darwin in his "Movements of Plants" remarks: "why a touch,
slight pressure, or any other irritant, such as electricity, heat, or
the absorption of animal matter, should modify the turgescence of the
affected cells in such a manner as to cause movement, we do not know.
But a touch acts in this manner so often, and on such widely distinct
plants, that the tendency seems to be a very general one; and, if
beneficial, it might be increased to any extent." If, therefore, one of
the most eminent of recent scientific botanists confessed his inability
to explain this strange peculiarity, we may excuse the savage if he
regard it as another proof of a distinct personality in plant life.
Thus, some years ago, a correspondent of the Botanical Register,
describing the toad orchis (Megaclinium bufo), amusingly spoke as
follows of its eccentric movements: "Let the reader imagine a green
snake to be pressed flat like a dried flower, and then to have a road of
toads, or some such speckled reptiles, drawn up along the middle in
single file, their backs set up, their forelegs sprawling right and
left, and their mouths wide open, with a large purple tongue wagging
about convulsively, and a pretty considerable approach will be gained to
an idea of this plant, which, if Pythagoras had but known of it, would
have rendered all arguments about the transmigration of souls
superfluous." But, apart from the vein of jocularity running through
these remarks, such striking vegetable phenomena are scientifically as
great a puzzle to the botanist as their movements are to the savage, the
latter regarding them as the outward visible expression of a real inward
But, to quote another kind of sympathy between human beings and certain
plants, the Cingalese have a notion that the cocoa-nut plant withers
away when beyond the reach of a human voice, and that the vervain and
borage will only thrive near man's dwellings. Once more, the South Sea
Islanders affirm that the scent is the spirit of a flower, and that the
dead may be sustained by their fragrance, they cover their newly-made
graves with many a sweet smelling blossom.
1. See Tylor's "Primitive Culture," 1873, i. 474-5; also Dorman's
"Primitive Superstitions," 1881, p. 294.
2. "Primitive Culture," i. 476-7.
3. Jones's "Ojibways," p. 104.
4. Marsden's "History of Sumatra," p. 301.
5. Mariner's "Tonga Islands," ii. 137.
6. St. John, "Far East," i. 187.
7. See Tylor's "Primitive Culture," i. 475.
8. Dorman's "Primitive Superstitions," p. 294; also Schoolcraft's
9. See Thorpe's "Northern Mythology," iii. 61.
10. "Origin of Civilisation," 1870, p. 192. See Leslie Forbes' "Early
Races of Scotland," i. 171.
11. Folkard's "Plant-lore, Legends, and Lyrics," p. 463.
12. Conway's "Mystic Trees and Flowers," Blackwood's Magazine, 1870,
13. Thorpe's "Northern Mythology," i. 212.
14. See Black's "Folk-Medicine."
15. "Mystic Trees and Flowers," p. 594.
16. "Primitive Culture," ii. 215.
17. Metam., viii. 742-839; also Grimm's Teut. Myth., 1883, ii. 953-4
18. Grimm's Teut. Myth., ii. 653.
19. Quoted in Tylor's "Primitive Culture," ii. 221.
20. Thorpe's "Northern Mythology," ii. 72, 73.
21. Ibid., p. 219.
22. "Superstitions of Modern Greece," by M. Le Baron d'Estournelles, in
Nineteenth, Century, April 1882, pp. 394, 395.
23. See Dorman's "Primitive Superstitions," p. 288.
24. "The Tempest," act i. sc. 2.
25. Dorman's "Primitive Superstitions," p. 288.
26. Ibid., p. 295.
27. See chapter on Demonology.
28. See Keary's "Outlines of Primitive Belief," 1882, pp. 66-7.
29. Metam., viii. 714:—
"Frondere Philemona Baucis,
Baucida conspexit senior frondere Philemon.
O conjux!' dixere simul, simul abdita texit
30. Thorpe's "Northern Mythology," i. 290, iii. 271.
31. Grimm's "Teut. Mythology," ii. 827.
32. Cox and Jones' "Popular Romances of the Middle Ages," 1880, p. 139
33. Smith's "Brazil," p. 586; "Primitive Superstitions," p. 293.
34. See Folkard's "Plant-lore, Legends, and Lyrics," p. 524.
35. See the Gardeners' Chronicle, 1875, p. 315.
36. According to another legend, forget-me-nots sprang up.
PRIMITIVE AND SAVAGE NOTIONS RESPECTING PLANTS
The descent of the human race from a tree—however whimsical such a
notion may seem—was a belief once received as sober fact, and even
now-a-days can be traced amongst the traditions of many races. This
primitive idea of man's creation probably originated in the myth of
Yggdrasil, the Tree of the Universe, around which so much legendary
lore has clustered, and for a full explanation of which an immense
amount of learning has been expended, although the student of mythology
has never yet been able to arrive at any definite solution on this
deeply intricate subject. Without entering into the many theories
proposed in connection with this mythical tree, it no doubt represented
the life-giving forces of nature. It is generally supposed to have been
an ash tree, but, as Mr. Conway points out, "there is reason to think
that through the confluence of traditions other sacred trees blended
with it. Thus, while the ash bears no fruit, the Eddas describe the
stars as the fruit of Yggdrasil."
Mr. Thorpe, again, considers it identical with the "Robur Jovis," or
sacred oak of Geismar, destroyed by Boniface, and the Irminsul of the
Saxons, the Columna Universalis, "the terrestrial tree of offerings,
an emblem of the whole world." At any rate the tree of the world, and
the greatest of all trees, has long been identified in the northern
mythology as the ash tree, a fact which accounts for the weird
character assigned to it amongst all the Teutonic and Scandinavian
nations, frequent illustrations of which will occur in the present
volume. Referring to the descent of man from the tree, we may quote the
Edda, according to which all mankind are descended from the ash and the
elm. The story runs that as Odhinn and his two brothers were journeying
over the earth they discovered these two stocks "void of future," and
breathed into them the power of life:
"Spirit they owned not,
Sense they had not,
Blood nor vigour,
Nor colour fair.
Spirit gave Odhinn,
Thought gave Hoenir,
Blood gave Lodr
And colour fair."
This notion of tree-descent appears to have been popularly believed in
olden days in Italy and Greece, illustrations of which occur in the
literature of that period. Thus Virgil writes in the AEneid:
"These woods were first the seat of sylvan powers,
Of nymphs and fauns, and savage men who took
Their birth from trunks of trees and stubborn oak."
Romulus and Remus had been found under the famous Ficus Ruminalis,
which seems to suggest a connection with a tree parentage. It is true,
as Mr. Keary remarks, that, "in the legend which we have received it
is in this instance only a case of finding; but if we could go back to
an earlier tradition, we should probably see that the relation between
the mythical times and the tree had been more intimate."
Juvenal, it may be remembered, gives a further allusion to tree descent
in his sixth satire:
"For when the world was new, the race that broke
Unfathered, from the soil or opening oak,
Lived most unlike the men of later times."
In Greece the oak as well as the ash was accounted a tree whence men had
sprung; hence in the "Odyssey," the disguised hero is asked to state his
pedigree, since he must necessarily have one; "for," says the
interrogator, "belike you are not come of the oak told of in old times,
nor of the rock." Hesiod tells us how Jove made the third or brazen
race out of ash trees, and Hesychius speaks of "the fruit of the ash the
race of men." Phoroneus, again, according to the Grecian legend, was
born of the ash, and we know, too, how among the Greeks certain families
kept up the idea of a tree parentage; the Pelopidae having been said to
be descended from the plane. Among the Persians the Achaemenidae had the
same tradition respecting the origin of their house. From the
numerous instances illustrative of tree-descent, it is evident, as Mr.
Keary points out, that, "there was once a fuller meaning than metaphor
in the language which spoke of the roots and branches of a family, or in
such expressions as the pathetic "Ah, woe, beloved shoot!" of
Euripides." Furthermore, as he adds, "Even when the literal notion of
the descent from a tree had been lost sight of, the close connection
between the prosperity of the tribe and the life of its fetish was often
strictly held. The village tree of the German races was originally a
tribal tree, with whose existence the life of the village was involved;
and when we read of Christian saints and confessors, that they made a
point of cutting down these half idols, we cannot wonder at the rage
they called forth, nor that they often paid the penalty of their
Similarly we can understand the veneration bestowed on the forest tree
from associations of this kind. Consequently, as it has been remarked,
"At a time when rude beginnings were all that were of the builder's art,
the human mind must have been roused to a higher devotion by the sight
of lofty trees under an open sky, than it could feel inside the stunted
structures reared by unskilled hands. When long afterwards the
architecture peculiar to the Teutonic reached its perfection, did it not
in its boldest creations still aim at reproducing the soaring trees of
the forest? Would not the abortion of miserably carved or chiselled
images lag far behind the form of the god which the youthful imagination
of antiquity pictured to itself throned on the bowery summit of a
It has been asked whether the idea of the Yggdrasil and the tree-descent
may not be connected with the "tree of life" of Genesis. Without,
however, entering into a discussion on this complex point, it is worthy
of note that in several of the primitive mythologies we find distinct
counterparts of the biblical account of the tree of life; and it seems
quite possible that these corrupt forms of the Mosaic history of
creation may, in a measure, have suggested the conception of the world
tree, and the descent of mankind from a tree. On this subject the late
Mr. R.J. King has given us the following interesting remarks in his
paper on "Sacred Trees and Flowers":
"How far the religious systems of the great nations of antiquity were
affected by the record of the creation and fall preserved in the opening
chapters of Genesis, it is not, perhaps, possible to determine. There
are certain points of resemblance which are at least remarkable, but
which we may assign, if we please, either to independent tradition, or
to a natural development of the earliest or primeval period. The trees
of life and of knowledge are at once suggested by the mysterious sacred
tree which appears in the most ancient sculptures and paintings of Egypt
and Assyria, and in those of the remoter East. In the symbolism of these
nations the sacred tree sometimes figures as a type of the universe, and
represents the whole system of created things, but more frequently as a
tree of life, by whose fruit the votaries of the gods (and in some cases
the gods themselves) are nourished with divine strength, and are
prepared for the joys of immortality. The most ancient types of this
mystical tree of life are the date palm, the fig, and the pine or
By way of illustration, it may be noted that the ancient Egyptians had
their legend of the "Tree of Life". It is mentioned in their sacred
books that Osiris ordered the names of souls to be written on this tree
of life, the fruit of which made those who ate it become as gods.
Among the most ancient traditions of the Hindoos is that of the tree of
life—called Soma in Sanskrit—the juice of which imparted immortality;
this marvellous tree being guarded by spirits. Coming down to later
times, Virgil speaks of a sacred tree in a manner which Grimm
considers highly suggestive of the Yggdrasil:
"Jove's own tree,
High as his topmost boughs to heaven ascend,
So low his roots to hell's dominions tend."
As already mentioned, numerous legendary stories have become interwoven
with the myth of the Yggdrasil, the following sacred one combining the
idea of tree-descent. According to a trouvere of the thirteenth
century, "The tree of life was, a thousand years after the sin of
the first man, transplanted from the Garden of Eden to the Garden of
Abraham, and an angel came from heaven to tell the patriarch that upon
this tree should hang the freedom of mankind. But first from the same
tree of life Jesus should be born, and in the following wise. First was
to be born a knight, Fanouel, who, through the scent merely of the
flower of that living tree, should be engendered in the womb of a
virgin; and this knight again, without knowing woman, should give birth
to St. Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary. Both these wonders fell out
as they were foretold. A virgin bore Fanouel by smelling the tree; and
Fanouel having once come unawares to that tree of life, and cut a fruit
from it, wiped his knife against his thigh, in which he inflicted a
slight wound, and thus let in some of the juice. Presently his thigh
began to swell, and eventually St. Anne was born therefrom."
But turning to survivals of this form of animism among uncultured
tribes, we may quote the Damaras, a South African race, with whom "a
tree is supposed to be the universal progenitor, two of which divide the
honour." According to their creed, "In the beginning of things there
was a tree, and out of this tree came Damaras, bushmen, oxen, and
zebras. The Damaras lit a fire which frightened away the bushmen and the
oxen, but the zebras remained."
Hence it is that bushmen and wild beasts live together in all sorts of
inaccessible places, while the Damaras and oxen possess the land. The
tree gave birth to everything else that lives. The natives of the
Philippines, writes Mr. Marsden in his "History of Sumatra," have a
curious tradition of tree-descent, and in accordance with their belief,
"The world at first consisted only of sky and water, and between these
two a glede; which, weary with flying about, and finding no place to
rest, set the water at variance with the sky, which, in order to keep it
in bounds, and that it should not get uppermost, loaded the water with a
number of islands, in which the glede might settle and leave them at
peace. Mankind, they said, sprang out of a large cane with two joints,
that, floating about in the water, was at length thrown by the waves
against the feet of the glede as it stood on shore, which opened it with
its bill; the man came out of one joint, the woman out of the other.
These were soon after married by the consent of their god, Bathala
Meycapal, which caused the first trembling of the earth, and from
thence are descended the different nations of the world."
Several interesting instances are given by Mr. Dorman, who tells us how
the natives about Saginaw had a tradition of a boy who sprang from a
tree within which was buried one of their tribe. The founders of the
Miztec monarchy are said to be descended from two majestic trees that
stood in a gorge of the mountain of Apoala. The Chiapanecas had a
tradition that they sprang from the roots of a silk cotton tree; while
the Zapotecas attributed their origin to trees, their cypresses and
palms often receiving offerings of incense and other gifts. The
Tamanaquas of South America have a tradition that the human race sprang
from the fruits of the date palm after the Mexican age of water.
Again, our English nursery fable of the parsley-bed, in which little
strangers are discovered, is perhaps, "A remnant of a fuller tradition,
like that of the woodpecker among the Romans, and that of the stork
among our Continental kinsmen." Both these birds having had a mystic
celebrity, the former as the fire-singing bird and guardian genius of
children, the latter as the baby-bringer. In Saterland it is said
"infants are fetched out of the cabbage," and in the Walloon part of
Belgium they are supposed "to make their appearance in the parson's
garden." Once more, a hollow tree overhanging a pool is known in many
places, both in North and South Germany, as the first abode of unborn
infants, variations of this primitive belief being found in different
localities. Similar stories are very numerous, and under various forms
are found in the legendary lore and folk-tales of most countries.
1. See Keary's "Outlines of Primitive Belief," 1882, pp. 62-3.
2. See Grimm's "Teutonic Mythology," 1883, ii. 796-800; Quarterly
Review, cxiv. 224; Thorpe's "Northern Mythology," i. 154;
"Asgard and the Gods," edited by W. S. W. Anson, 1822, pp. 26, 27.
3. Fraser's Magazine, 1870, p. 597.
4. "Northern Mythology," i. 154-5.
5. See Max Miller's "Chips from a German Workshop."
6. See Keary's "Outlines of Primitive Belief," p. 64.
7. Book viii. p. 314.
8. "Outlines of Primitive Belief," p. 63.
10. Kelly's "Indo-European Folk-lore," p. 143.
11. Keary's "Outlines of Primitive Belief," p. 63; Fiske, "Myth
and Myth Makers," 1873, pp. 64-5.
12. "Primitive Belief," p. 65.
13. Grimm's "Teutonic Mythology," i. 69.
14. Quarterly Review, 1863, cxiv. 214-15.
15. See Bunsen's "The Keys of St Peter," &c., 1867, p. 414.
16. "Teutonic Mythology."
17. Quoted by Mr. Keary from Leroux de Lincy, "Le Livre des
Légendes," p. 24.
18. Gallon's "South Africa," p. 188.
19. "Primitive Superstitions," p. 289.
20. Folkard's "Plant Lore," p. 311.
21. "Indo-European Folk-lore," p. 92.
22. Grimm's "Teutonic Mythology," ii. 672-3.
A form of religion which seems to have been widely-distributed amongst
most races of mankind at a certain stage of their mental culture is
plant-worship. Hence it holds a prominent place in the history of
primitive belief, and at the present day prevails largely among rude and
uncivilised races, survivals of which even linger on in our own country.
To trace back the history of plant-worship would necessitate an inquiry
into the origin and development of the nature-worshipping phase of
religious belief. Such a subject of research would introduce us to those
pre-historic days when human intelligence had succeeded only in
selecting for worship the grand and imposing objects of sight and sense.
Hence, as Mr. Keary observes, "The gods of the early world are the
rock and the mountain, the tree, the river, the sea;" and Mr.
Fergusson is of opinion that tree-worship, in association with
serpent-worship, must be reckoned as the primitive faith of mankind. In
the previous chapter we have already pointed out how the animistic
theory which invested the tree and grove with a conscious personality
accounts for much of the worship and homage originally ascribed to
them—identified, too, as they were later on, with the habitations of
certain spirits. Whether viewed, therefore, in the light of past or
modern inquiry, we find scattered throughout most countries various
phases of plant-worship, a striking proof of its universality in days
According to Mr. Fergusson, tree-worship has sprung from a perception of
the beauty and utility of trees. "With all their poetry," he argues,
"and all their usefulness, we can hardly feel astonished that the
primitive races of mankind should have considered trees as the choicest
gifts of the gods to men, and should have believed that their spirits
still delighted to dwell among their branches, or spoke oracles through
the rustling of their leaves." But Mr. McLennan does not consider
that this is conclusive, adding that such a view of the subject, "Does
not at all meet the case of the shrubs, creepers, marsh-plants, and
weeds that have been worshipped." He would rather connect it with
Totemism, urging that the primitive stages of religious evolution go
to show that, "The ancient nations came, in pre-historic times, through
the Totem stage, having animals, and plants, and the heavenly bodies
conceived as animals, for gods before the anthropomorphic gods
appeared;" While Mr. Herbert Spencer again considers that,
"Plant-worship, like the worship of idols and animals, is an aberrant
species of ancestor-worship—a species somewhat more disguised
externally, but having the same internal nature." Anyhow the subject is
one concerning which the comparative mythologist has, at different
times, drawn opposite theories; but of this there can be no doubt, that
plant-worship was a primitive faith of mankind, a fact in connection
with which we may quote Sir John Lubbock's words, how, "By man in
this stage of progress everything was regarded as having life, and being
more or less a deity." Indeed, sacred rivers appear in the very earliest
mythologies which have been recovered, and lingered among the last
vestiges of heathenism long after the advent of a purer creed. As, too,
it has been remarked, "Either as direct objects of worship, or as
forming the temple under whose solemn shadow other and remoter deities
might be adored, there is no part of the world in which trees have not
been regarded with especial reverence.
'In such green palaces the first kings reigned;
Slept in their shade, and angels entertained.
With such old counsellors they did advise,
And by frequenting sacred shades grew wise.'
Even Paradise itself, says Evelyn, was but a kind of 'nemorous temple or
sacred grove,' planted by God himself, and given to man tanquam primo
sacerdoti; and he goes on to suggest that the groves which the
patriarchs are recorded to have planted in different parts of Palestine
may have been memorials of that first tree-shaded paradise from which
Adam was expelled."
Briefly noticing the antecedent history of plant-worship, it would seem
to have lain at the foundation of the old Celtic creed, although few
records on this point have come down to us. At any rate we have
abundant evidence that this form of belief held a prominent place in the
religion of these people, allusions to which are given by many of the
early classical writers. Thus the very name of Druidism is a proof of
the Celtic addiction to tree-worship, and De Brosses, as a further
evidence that this was so, would derive the word kirk, now softened into
church, from quercus, an oak; that species having been peculiarly
sacred. Similarly, in reviewing the old Teutonic beliefs, we come across
the same references to tree-worship, in many respects displaying little
or no distinction from that of the Celts. In explanation of this
circumstance, Mr. Keary suggests that, "The nature of the Teutonic
beliefs would apply, with only some slight changes, to the creed of the
predecessors of the Germans in Northern and Western Europe. Undoubtedly,
in prehistoric days, the Germans and Celts merged so much one into the
other that their histories cannot well be distinguished."
Mr. Fergusson in his elaborate researches has traced many indications of
tree-adoration in Germany, noticing their continuance in the Christian
period, as proved by Grimm, whose opinion is that, "the festal universal
religion of the people had its abode in woods," while the Christmas tree
of present German celebration in all families is "almost undoubtedly a
remnant of the tree-worship of their ancestors."
According to Mr. Fergusson, one of the last and best-known examples of
the veneration of groves and trees by the Germans after their conversion
to Christianity, is that of the "Stock am Eisen" in Vienna, "The sacred
tree into which every apprentice, down to recent times, before setting
out on his "Wanderjahre", drove a nail for luck. It now stands in the
centre of that great capital, the last remaining vestige of the sacred
grove, round which the city has grown up, and in sight of the proud
cathedral, which has superseded and replaced its more venerable shade."
Equally undoubted is the evidence of tree-worship in Greece—particular
trees having been sacred to many of the gods. Thus we have the oak tree
or beech of Jupiter, the laurel of Apollo, the vine of Bacchus. The
olive is the well-known tree of Minerva. The myrtle was sacred to
Aphrodite, and the apple of the Hesperides belonged to Juno. As a
writer too in the Edinburgh Review remarks, "The oak grove at
Dodona is sufficiently evident to all classic readers to need no
detailed mention of its oracles, or its highly sacred character. The
sacrifice of Agamemnon in Aulis, as told in the opening of the 'Iliad,'
connects the tree and serpent worship together, and the wood of the
sacred plane tree under which the sacrifice was made was preserved in
the temple of Diana as a holy relic so late, according to Pausanias, as
the second century of the Christian era." The same writer further adds
that in Italy traces of tree-worship, if not so distinct and prominent
as in Greece, are nevertheless existent. Romulus, for instance, is
described as hanging the arms and weapons of Acron, King of Cenina, upon
an oak tree held sacred by the people, which became the site of the
famous temple of Jupiter.
Then, again, turning to Bible history, the denunciations of
tree-worship are very frequent and minute, not only in connection with
the worship of Baal, but as mentioned in 2 Kings ix.: "And they (the
children of Israel) set themselves up images and groves in every high
hill, and under every green tree." These acts, it has been remarked,
"may be attributable more to heretical idolatrous practices into which
the Jews had temporarily fallen in imitation of the heathen around them,
but at the same time they furnish ample proof of the existence of tree
and grove worship by the heathen nations of Syria as one of their most
solemn rites." But, from the period of King Hezekiah down to the
Christian era, Mr. Fergusson finds no traces of tree-worship in Judea.
In Assyria tree-worship was a common form of idolatrous veneration, as
proved by Lord Aberdeen's black-stone, and many of the plates in the
works of Layard and Botta. Turning to India, tree-worship probably
has always belonged to Aryan Hinduism, and as tree-worship did not
belong to the aboriginal races of India, and was not adopted from them,
"it must have formed part of the pantheistic worship of the Vedic system
which endowed all created things with a spirit and life—a doctrine
which modern Hinduism largely extended."
Thus when food is cooked, an oblation is made by the Hindu to trees,
with an appropriate invocation before the food is eaten. The Bo tree is
extensively worshipped in India, and the Toolsee plant (Basil) is held
sacred to all gods—no oblation being considered sacred without its
leaves. Certain of the Chittagong hill tribes worship the bamboo,
and Sir John Lubbock, quoting from Thompson's "Travels in the Himalaya,"
tells us that in the Simla hills the Cupressus toridosa is regarded as
a sacred tree. Further instances might be enumerated, so general is this
form of religious belief. In an interesting and valuable paper by a
Bengal civilian—intimately acquainted with the country and
people—the writer says:—"The contrast between the acknowledged
hatred of trees as a rule by the Bygas, and their deep veneration
for certain others in particular, is very curious. I have seen the
hillsides swept clear of forests for miles with but here and there a
solitary tree left standing. These remain now the objects of the deepest
veneration. So far from being injured they are carefully preserved, and
receive offerings of food, clothes, and flowers from the passing Bygas,
who firmly believe that tree to be the home of a spirit." To give
another illustration, it appears that in Beerbhoom once a year the
whole capital repairs to a shrine in the jungle, and makes simple
offerings to a ghost who dwells in the Bela tree. The shrine consists of
three trees—a Bela tree on the left, in which the ghost resides, and
which is marked at the foot with blood; in the middle is a Kachmula
tree, and on the right a Saura tree. In spite of the trees being at
least seventy years old, the common people claim the greatest antiquity
for the shrine, and tradition says that the three trees that now mark
the spot neither grow thicker nor increase in height, but remain the
same for ever.
A few years ago Dr. George Birwood contributed to the Athenaeum some
interesting remarks on Persian flower-worship. Speaking of the Victoria
Gardens at Bombay, he says:—"A true Persian in flowing robe of blue,
and on his head his sheep-skin hat—black, glossy, curled, the fleece of
Kar-Kal—would saunter in, and stand and meditate over every flower he
saw, and always as if half in vision. And when the vision was fulfilled,
and the ideal flower he was seeking found, he would spread his mat and
sit before it until the setting of the sun, and then pray before it, and
fold up his mat again and go home. And the next night, and night after
night, until that particular flower faded away, he would return to it,
and bring his friends in ever-increasing troops to it, and sit and play
the guitar or lute before it, and they would all together pray there,
and after prayer still sit before it sipping sherbet, and talking the
most hilarious and shocking scandal, late into the moonlight; and so
again and again every evening until the flower died. Sometimes, by way
of a grand finale, the whole company would suddenly rise before the
flower and serenade it, together with an ode from Hafiz, and depart."
Tree-worship too has been more or less prevalent among the American
Indians, abundant illustrations of which have been given by travellers
at different periods. In many cases a striking similarity is noticeable,
showing a common origin, a circumstance which is important to the
student of comparative mythology when tracing the distribution of
religious beliefs. The Dacotahs worship the medicine-wood, so called
from a belief that it was a genius which protected or punished them
according to their merits or demerits. Darwin mentions a tree
near Siena de la Ventana to which the Indians paid homage as the altar
of Walleechu; offerings of cigars, bread, and meat having been suspended
upon it by threads. The tree was surrounded by bleached bones of horses
that had been sacrificed. Mr. Tylor speaks of an ancient cypress
existing in Mexico, which he thus describes:—"All over its branches
were fastened votive offerings of the Indians, hundreds of locks of
coarse black hair, teeth, bits of coloured cloth, rags, and morsels of
ribbon. The tree was many centuries old, and had probably had some
mysterious influence ascribed to it, and been decorated with such simple
offerings long before the discovery of America."
Once more, the Calchaquis of Brazil have been in the habit of
worshipping certain trees which were frequently decorated by the Indians
with feathers; and Charlevoix narrates another interesting instance of
tree-worship:—"Formerly the Indians in the neighbourhood of Acadia had
in their country, near the sea-shore, a tree extremely ancient, of which
they relate many wonders, and which was always laden with offerings.
After the sea had laid open its whole root, it then supported itself a
long time almost in the air against the violence of the winds and waves,
which confirmed those Indians in the notion that the tree must be the
abode of some powerful spirit; nor was its fall even capable of
undeceiving them, so that as long as the smallest part of its branches
appeared above the water, they paid it the same honours as whilst it
In North America, according to Franklin, the Crees used to hang
strips of buffalo flesh and pieces of cloth on their sacred tree; and in
Nicaragua maize and beans were worshipped. By the natives of Carolina
the tea-plant was formerly held in veneration above all other plants,
and indeed similar phases of superstition are very numerous. Traces of
tree-worship occur in Africa, and Sir John Lubbock mentions the
sacred groves of the Marghi—a dense part of the forest surrounded with
a ditch—where in the most luxuriant and widest spreading tree their
god, Zumbri, is worshipped. In his valuable work on Ceylon, Sir J.
Emerson Tennent gives some interesting details about the consecration of
trees to different demons to insure their safety, and of the ceremonies
performed by the kattadias or devil-priests. It appears that whenever
the assistance of a devil-dancer is required in extreme cases of
sickness, various formalities are observed after the following fashion.
An altar is erected, profusely adorned with garlands and flowers, within
sight of the dying man, who is ordered to touch and dedicate to the evil
spirit the wild flowers, rice, and flesh laid upon it.
Traces of plant-worship are still found in Europe. Before sunrise on
Good Friday the Bohemians are in the habit of going into their gardens,
and after falling on their knees before a tree, to say, "I pray, O green
tree, that God may make thee good," a formula which Mr. Ralston
considers has probably been altered under the influence of Christianity
"from a direct prayer to the tree to a prayer for it." At night they run
about the garden exclaiming, "Bud, O trees, bud! or I will flog you." On
the following day they shake the trees, and clank their keys, while the
church bells are ringing, under the impression that the more noise they
make the more fruit will they get. Traces, too, of tree-worship, adds
Mr. Ralston, may be found in the song which the Russian girls sing
as they go out into the woods to fetch the birch tree at Whitsuntide,
and to gather flowers for wreaths and garlands:
"Rejoice not, oaks;
Rejoice not, green oaks.
Not to you go the maidens;
Not to you do they bring pies,
So, so, Semik and Troitsa [Trinity]!
Rejoice, birch trees, rejoice, green ones!
To you go the maidens!
To you they bring pies,
The eatables here mentioned probably refer to the sacrifices offered in
olden days to the birch—the tree of the spring. With this practice we
may compare one long observed in our own country, and known as
"wassailing." At certain seasons it has long been customary in
Devonshire for the farmer, on the eve of Twelfth-day, to go into the
orchard after supper with a large milk pail of cider with roasted apples
pressed into it. Out of this each person in the company takes what is
called a clome—i.e., earthenware cup—full of liquor, and standing
under the more fruitful apple trees, address them in these words:
"Health to thee, good apple tree,
Well to bear pocket fulls, hat fulls,
Peck fulls, bushel bag fulls."
After the formula has been repeated, the contents of the cup are thrown
at the trees. There are numerous allusions to this form of
tree-worship in the literature of the past; and Tusser, among his many
pieces of advice to the husbandman, has not omitted to remind him
that he should,
"Wassail the trees, that they may bear
You many a plum and many a pear;
For more or less fruit they will bring,
As you do them wassailing."
Survivals of this kind show how tenaciously old superstitious rites
struggle for existence even when they have ceased to be recognised as
worthy of belief.
1. "Outlines of Primitive Belief," 1882, p. 54.
2. "Tree and Serpent Worship."
3. See Sir John Lubbock's "Origin of Civilisation," pp. 192-8.
4. Fortnightly Review, "The Worship of Animals and Plants," 1870,
5. Ibid., 1869, vi. 408.
6. "Principles of Sociology," 1885, i. p. 359.
7. "The Origin of Civilisation and Primitive Condition of Man."
8. Quarterly Review, cxiv. 212.
9. Keary's "Primitive Brlief," pp. 332-3; Edinburgh Review, cxxx.
10. "Du Culte des Dieux Fetiches," p. 169.
11. "Primitive Belief," pp. 332-3.
12. Fergusson's "Tree and Serpent Worship," p. 16.
13. cxxx. 492; see Tacitus' "Germania," ix.
14. See Edinburgh Review, cxxx. 490-1.
15. Edinburgh Review, cxxx. 491.
16. Mr. Fergusson's "Tree and Serpent Worship." See Edinburgh
Review, cxxx. 498.
17. See Lewin's "Hill Tracts of Chittagong," p. 10.
18. Cornhill Magazine, November 1872, p. 598.
19. An important tribe in Central India.
20. See Sherring's "Sacred City of the Hindus," 1868, p. 89.
21. Dorman's "Primitive Superstitions," p. 291.
22. See "Researches in Geology and Natural History," p. 79.
23. "Anahuac," 215, 265.
24. Dorman's "Primitive Superstitions." p. 292.
25. "Journeys to the Polar Sea." i. 221.
26. "The Origin of Civilisation."
27. "Songs of the Russian People." p. 219.
28. Ibid., p. 238.
29. See my "British Popular Customs." p. 21.
Amongst the legends of the ancient world few subjects occupy a more
prominent place than lightning, associated as it is with those myths of
the origin of fire which are of such wide distribution. In examining
these survivals of primitive culture we are confronted with some of the
most elaborate problems of primeval philosophy, many of which are not
only highly complicated, but have given rise to various conjectures.
Thus, although it is easy to understand the reasons which led our
ancestors, in their childlike ignorance, to speak of the lightning as a
worm, serpent, trident, arrow, or forked wand, yet the contrary is the
case when we inquire why it was occasionally symbolised as a flower or
leaf, or when, as Mr. Fiske remarks, "we seek to ascertain why
certain trees, such as the ash, hazel, white thorn, and mistletoe, were
supposed to be in a certain sense embodiments of it."
Indeed, however satisfactory our explanations may apparently seem, in
many cases they can only be regarded as ingenious theories based on the
most probable theories which the science of comparative folk-lore may
have suggested. In analysing, too, the evidence for determining the
possible association of ideas which induced our primitive forefathers to
form those mythical conceptions that we find embodied in the folk-tales
of most races, it is necessary to unravel from the relics of the past
the one common notion that underlies them. Respecting the origin of
fire, for instance, the leading idea—as handed down to us in myths of
this kind—would make us believe that it was originally stolen. Stories
which point to this conclusion are not limited to any one country, but
are shared by races widely remote from one another. This circumstance is
important, as helping to explain the relation of particular plants to
lightning, and accounts for the superstitious reverence so frequently
paid to them by most Aryan tribes. Hence, the way by which the Veda
argues the existence of the palasa—a mystic tree with the Hindus—is
founded on the following tradition:—The demons had stolen the heavenly
soma, or drink of the gods, and cellared it in some mythical rock or
cloud. When the thirsty deities were pining for their much-prized
liquor, the falcon undertook to restore it to them, although he
succeeded at the cost of a claw and a plume, of which he was deprived by
the graze of an arrow shot by one of the demons. Both fell to the earth
and took root; the claw becoming a species of thorn, which Dr. Kuhn
identifies as the "Mimosa catechu," and the feather a "palasa tree,"
which has a red sap and scarlet blossoms. With such a divine origin—for
the falcon was nothing less than a lightning god—the trees naturally
were incorporations, "not only of the heavenly fire, but also of the
soma, with which the claw and feather were impregnated."
It is not surprising, therefore, that extraordinary virtues were
ascribed to these lightning plants, qualities which, in no small degree,
distinguish their representatives at the present day. Thus we are told
how in India the mimosa is known as the imperial tree on account of its
remarkable properties, being credited as an efficacious charm against
all sorts of malignant influences, such as the evil eye. Not unlike in
colour to the blossom of the Indian palasa are the red berries of the
rowan or mountain-ash (Pyrus aucuparia), a tree which has acquired
European renown from the Aryan tradition of its being an embodiment of
the lightning from which it was sprung. It has acquired, therefore, a
mystic character, evidences of which are numerously represented
throughout Europe, where its leaves are reverenced as being the most
potent talisman against the darker powers. At the present day we still
find the Highland milkmaid carrying with her a rowan-cross against
unforeseen danger, just as in many a German village twigs are put over
stables to keep out witches. Illustrations of this kind support its
widespread reputation for supernatural virtues, besides showing how
closely allied is much of the folk-lore of our own with that of
continental countries. At the same time, we feel inclined to agree with
Mr. Farrer that the red berries of the mountain-ash probably singled it
out from among trees for worship long before our ancestors had arrived
at any idea of abstract divinities. The beauty of its berries, added to
their brilliant red colour, would naturally excite feelings of
admiration and awe, and hence it would in process of time become
invested with a sacred significance. It must be remembered, too, that
all over the world there is a regard for things red, this colour having
been once held sacred to Thor, and Grimm suggests that it was on this
account the robin acquired its sacred character. Similarly, the Highland
women tie a piece of red worsted thread round their cows' tails previous
to turning them out to grass for the first time in spring, for, in
accordance with an old adage:
"Rowan-ash, and red thread,
Keep the devils from their speed."
In the same way the mothers in Esthonia put some red thread in their
babies' cradles as a preservative against danger, and in China something
red is tied round children's wrists as a safeguard against evil spirits.
By the aid of comparative folk-lore it is interesting, as in this case,
to trace the same notion in different countries, although it is by no
means possible to account for such undesigned resemblance. The common
ash (Fraxinus excelsior), too, is a lightning plant, and, according to
an old couplet:
"Avoid an ash,
It counts the flash."
Another tree held sacred to Thor was the hazel (Corylus avellana),
which, like the mountain-ash, was considered an actual embodiment of the
lightning. Indeed, "so deep was the faith of the people in the relation
of this tree to the thunder god," says Mr. Conway, "that the Catholics
adopted and sanctioned it by a legend one may hear in Bavaria, that on
their flight into Egypt the Holy Family took refuge under it from a
Its supposed immunity from all damage by lightning has long caused
special reverence to be attached to it, and given rise to sundry
superstitious usages. Thus, in Germany, a twig is cut by the
farm-labourer, in spring, and on the first thunderstorm a cross is made
with it over every heap of grain, whereby, it is supposed, the corn will
remain good for many years. Occasionally, too, one may see hazel twigs
placed in the window frames during a heavy shower, and the Tyroleans
regard it as an excellent lightning conductor. As a promoter of
fruitfulness it has long been held in high repute—a character which it
probably derived from its mythic associations—and hence the important
part it plays in love divinations. According to a Bohemian belief, the
presence of a large number of hazel-nuts betokens the birth of many
illegitimate children; and in the Black Forest it is customary for the
leader of a marriage procession to carry a hazel wand. For the same
reason, in many parts of Germany, a few nuts are mingled with the seed
corn to insure its being prolific. But leaving the hazel with its host
of superstitions, we may notice the white-thorn, which according to
Aryan tradition was also originally sprung from the lightning. Hence it
has acquired a wide reverence, and been invested with supernatural
properties. Like, too, the hazel, it was associated with marriage rites.
Thus the Grecian bride was and is still decked with its blossoms,
whereas its wood formed the torch which lighted the Roman bridal couple
to their nuptial chamber on the wedding day. It is evident, therefore,
that the white-thorn was considered a sacred tree long before Christian
tradition identified it as forming the Crown of Thorns; a medieval
belief which further enhanced the sanctity attached to it. It is not
surprising, therefore, that the Irish consider it unlucky to cut down
this holy tree, especially as it is said to be under the protection of
the fairies, who resent any injury done to it. A legend current in
county Donegal, for instance, tells us how a fairy had tried to steal
one Joe M'Donough's baby, but the poor mother argued that she had never
affronted the fairy tribe to her knowledge. The only cause she could
assign was that Joe, "had helped Mr. Todd's gardener to cut down the old
hawthorn tree on the lawn; and there's them that says that's a very bad
thing to do;" adding how she "fleeched him not to touch it, but the
master he offered him six shillings if he'd help in the job, for the
other men refused." The same belief prevails in Brittany, where it is
also "held unsafe to gather even a leaf from certain old and solitary
thorns, which grow in sheltered hollows of the moorland, and are the
Then there is the mistletoe, which, like the hazel and the white-thorn,
was also supposed to be the embodiment of lightning; and in consequence
of its mythical character held an exalted place in the botanical world.
As a lightning-plant, we seem to have the key to its symbolical nature,
in the circumstance that its branch is forked. On the same principle, it
is worthy of note, as Mr. Fiske remarks that, "the Hindu commentators
of the Veda certainly lay great stress on the fact that the palasa is
trident-leaved." We have already pointed out, too, how the red colour of
a flower, as in the case of the berries of the mountain-ash, was
apparently sufficient to determine the association of ideas. The Swiss
name for mistletoe, donnerbesen, "thunder besom," illustrates its
divine origin, on account of which it was supposed to protect the
homestead from fire, and hence in Sweden it has long been suspended in
farm-houses, like the mountain-ash in Scotland. But its virtues are by
no means limited, for like all lightning-plants its potency is displayed
in a variety of ways, its healing properties having from a remote period
been in the highest repute. For purposes also of sorcery it has been
reckoned of considerable importance, and as a preventive of nightmare
and other night scares it is still in favour on the Continent. One
reason which no doubt has obtained for it a marked degree of honour is
its parasitical manner of growth, which was in primitive times ascribed
to the intervention of the gods. According to one of its traditionary
origins, its seed was said to be deposited on certain trees by birds,
the messengers of the gods, if not the gods themselves in disguise, by
which this plant established itself in the branch of a tree. The mode of
procedure, say the old botanists, was through the "mistletoe thrush."
This bird, it was asserted, by feeding on the berries, surrounded its
beak with the viscid mucus they contain, to rid itself of which it
rubbed its beak, in the course of flying, against the branches of trees,
and thereby inserted the seed which gave birth to the new plant. When
the mistletoe was found growing on the oak, its presence was attributed
specially to the gods, and as such was treated with the deepest
reverence. It was not, too, by accident that the oak was selected, as
this tree was honoured by Aryan tradition with being of lightning
origin. Hence when the mistletoe was found on its branches, the
occurrence was considered as deeply significant, and all the more so as
its existence in such a locality was held to be very rare. Speaking
of the oak, it may be noted, that as sacred to Thor, it was under his
immediate protection, and hence it was considered an act of sacrilege to
mutilate it in ever so small a degree. Indeed, "it was a law of the
Ostrogoths that anybody might hew down what trees he pleased in the
common wood, except oaks and hazels; those trees had peace, i.e., they
were not to be felled." That profanity of this kind was not treated
with immunity was formerly fully believed, an illustration of which is
given us by Aubrey, who says that, "to cut oakwood is unfortunate.
There was at Norwood one oak that had mistletoe, a timber tree, which
was felled about 1657. Some persons cut this mistletoe for some
apothecaries in London, and sold them a quantity for ten shillings each
time, and left only one branch remaining for more to sprout out. One
fell lame shortly after; soon after each of the others lost an eye, and
he that felled the tree, though warned of these misfortunes of the other
men, would, notwithstanding, adventure to do it, and shortly afterwards
broke his leg; as if the Hamadryads had resolved to take an ample
revenge for the injury done to their venerable and sacred oak." We can
understand, then, how the custom originated of planting the oak on the
boundaries of lands, a survival of which still remains in the so-called
gospel oaks of many of our English parishes. With Thor's tree thus
standing our forefathers felt a sense of security which materially added
to the peace and comfort of their daily life.
But its sacred attributes were not limited to this country, many a
legend on the Continent testifying to the safety afforded by its
sheltering branches. Indeed, so great are its virtues that, according to
a Westphalian tradition, the Wandering Jew can only rest where he shall
happen to find two oaks growing in the form of a cross. A further proof
of its exalted character may be gathered from the fact that around its
roots Scandinavian mythology has gathered fairyland, and hence in
Germany the holes in its trunk are the pathways for elves. But the
connection between lightning and plants extends over a wide area, and
Germany is rich in legends relative to this species of folk-lore. Thus
there is the magic springwort, around which have clustered so many
curious lightning myths and talismanic properties. By reason of its
celestial origin this much-coveted plant, when buried in the ground at
the summit of a mountain, has the reputation of drawing down the
lightning and dividing the storm. It is difficult, however, to procure,
especially as there is no certainty as to the exact species of plants to
which it belongs, although Grimm identifies it with the Euphorbia
lathyris. At any rate, it is chiefly procurable by the woodpecker—a
lightning-bearer; and to secure this much-prized treasure, its nest must
be stopped up, access to which it will quickly gain by touching it with
the springwort. But if one have in readiness a pan of water, a fire, or
a red cloth, the bird will let the plant fall, which otherwise it would
be a difficult work to obtain, "the notion, no doubt, being that the
bird must return the mystic plant to the element from which it springs,
that being either the water of the clouds or the lightning fire enclosed
Professor Gubernatis, referring to the symbolical nature of this
tradition, remarks that, "this herb may be the moon itself, which opens
the hiding-place of the night, or the thunderbolt, which opens the
hiding-places of the cloud." According to the Swiss version of the story
it is the hoopoe that brings the spring-wort, a bird also endowed with
mystic virtues, while in Iceland, Normandy, and ancient Greece it is
an eagle, a swallow, or an ostrich. Analogous to the talismanic
properties of the springwort are those of the famous luck or key-flower
of German folk-lore, by the discovery of which the fortunate possessor
effects an entrance into otherwise inaccessible fairy haunts, where
unlimited treasures are offered for his acceptance. There then, again,
the luck-flower is no doubt intended to denote the lightning, which
reveals strange treasures, giving water to the parched and thirsty land,
and, as Mr. Fiske remarks, "making plain what is doing under cover of
darkness." The lightning-flash, too, which now and then, as a lesson
of warning, instantly strikes dead those who either rashly or
presumptuously essay to enter its awe-inspiring portals, is exemplified
in another version of the same legend. A shepherd, while leading his
flock over the Ilsentein, pauses to rest, but immediately the mountain
opens by reason of the springwort or luck-flower in the staff on which
he leans. Within the cavern a white lady appears, who invites him to
accept as much of her wealth as he choses. Thereupon he fills his
pockets, and hastening to quit her mysterious domains, he heeds not her
enigmatical warning, "Forget not the best," the result being that as he
passes through the door he is severed in twain amidst the crashing of
thunder. Stories of this kind, however, are the exception, legendary
lore generally regarding the lightning as a benefactor rather than a
destroyer. "The lightning-flash," to quote Mr. Baring-Gould's words,
"reaches the barren, dead, and thirsty land; forth gush the waters of
heaven, and the parched vegetation bursts once more into the vigour of
life restored after suspended animation."
That this is the case we have ample proof in the myths relating to
plants, in many of which the life-giving properties of the lightning are
clearly depicted. Hence, also, the extraordinary healing properties
which are ascribed to the various lightning plants. Ash rods, for
instance, are still used in many parts of England for the cure of
diseased sheep, cows, and horses, and in Cornwall, as a remedy for
hernia, children are passed through holes in ash trees. The mistletoe
has the reputation of being an antidote for poisons and a specific
against epilepsy. Culpepper speaks of it as a sure panacea for apoplexy,
palsy, and falling sickness, a belief current in Sweden, where finger
rings are made of its wood. An old-fashioned charm for the bite of an
adder was to place a cross formed of hazel-wood on the wound, and the
burning of a thorn-bush has long been considered a sure preventive of
mildew in wheat. Without multiplying further illustrations, there can be
no doubt that the therapeutic virtues of these so-called lightning
plants may be traced to, in very many cases, their mythical origin. It
is not surprising too that plants of this stamp should have been
extensively used as charms against the influences of occult powers,
their symbolical nature investing them with a potency such as was
possessed by no ordinary plant.
1. See an article on "Myths of the Fire Stealer," Saturday Review,
June 2, 1883, p. 689; Tylor's "Primitive Culture."
2. "Myths and Myth Makers," p. 55.
3. See Keary's "Outlines of Primitive Belief," 1882, p. 98.
4. "Indo-European Tradition and Folk-lore," p. 159.
5. "Mystic Trees and Shrubs," Fraser's Magazine, Nov. 1870, p. 599.
6. "Sacred Trees and Flowers," Quarterly Review, July 1863, pp. 231, 232.
7. "Myths and Myth Makers," p. 55.
8. See "Flower Lore," pp. 38, 39.
9. Kelly's "Indo-European Folk-lore," p. 179.
10. "Natural History and Antiquities of Surrey," ii. 34.
11. Kelly's "Indo-European Folk-lore," p. 176; Grimm's "Teutonic
Mythology," 1884, chap, xxxii.; Gubernatis' "Zoological Mythology,"
ii. 266-7. See Albertus Magnus, "De Mirab. Mundi," 1601, p. 225.
12. Gubernatis' "Zoological Mythology," ii. 230.
13. "Myths and Mythmakers," p. 58. See Baring-Gould's "Curious
Myths of the Middle Ages," 1877, pp. 386-416.
14. Folkard's "Plant-lore Legends and Lyrics," p. 460.
15. See Kelly's "Indo-European Folk-lore," pp. 47-8.
PLANTS IN WITCHCRAFT.
The vast proportions which the great witchcraft movement assumed in
bygone years explains the magic properties which we find ascribed to so
many plants in most countries. In the nefarious trade carried on by the
representatives of this cruel system of sorcery certain plants were
largely employed for working marvels, hence the mystic character which
they have ever since retained. It was necessary, however, that these
should be plucked at certain phases of the moon or seasons of the year,
or from some spot where the sun was supposed not to have shone on it.
Hence Shakespeare makes one of his witches speak of "root of hemlock
digg'd i' the dark," and of "slips of yew sliver'd in the moon's
eclipse," a practice which was long kept up. The plants, too, which
formed the witches' pharmacopoeia, were generally selected either from
their legendary associations or by reason of their poisonous and
soporific qualities. Thus, two of those most frequently used as
ingredients in the mystic cauldron were the vervain and the rue, these
plants having been specially credited with supernatural virtues. The
former probably derived its notoriety from the fact of its being sacred
to Thor, an honour which marked it out, like other lightning plants, as
peculiarly adapted for occult uses. It was, moreover, among the sacred
plants of the Druids, and was only gathered by them, "when the dog-star
arose, from unsunned spots." At the same time, it is noteworthy that
many of the plants which were in repute with witches for working their
marvels were reckoned as counter-charms, a fact which is not surprising,
as materials used by wizards and others for magical purposes have
generally been regarded as equally efficacious if employed against their
charms and spells. Although vervain, therefore, as the "enchanters'
plant," was gathered by witches to do mischief in their incantations,
yet, as Aubrey says, it "hinders witches from their will," a
circumstance to which Drayton further refers when he speaks of the
vervain as "'gainst witchcraft much avayling." Rue, likewise, which
entered so largely into magic rites, was once much in request as an
antidote against such practices; and nowadays, when worn on the person
in conjunction with agrimony, maiden-hair, broom-straw, and ground ivy,
it is said in the Tyrol to confer fine vision, and to point out the
presence of witches.
It is still an undecided question as to why rue should out of all other
plants have gained its widespread reputation with witches, but M. Maury
supposes that it was on account of its being a narcotic and causing
hallucinations. At any rate, it seems to have acquired at an early
period in this country a superstitious reverence, for, as Mr. Conway
says, "We find the missionaries sprinkling holy water from brushes
made of it, whence it was called 'herb of grace'."
Respecting the rendezvous of witches, it may be noted that they very
frequently resorted to hills and mountains, their meetings taking place
"on the mead, on the oak sward, under the lime, under the oak, at the
pear tree." Thus the fairy rings which are often to be met with on the
Sussex downs are known as hag-tracks, from the belief that "they are
caused by hags and witches, who dance there at midnight." Their love
for sequestered and romantic localities is widely illustrated on the
Continent, instances of which have been collected together by Grimm, who
remarks how "the fame of particular witch mountains extends over wide
kingdoms." According to a tradition current in Friesland, no woman is
to be found at home on a Friday, because on that day they hold their
meetings and have dances on a barren heath. Occasionally, too, they show
a strong predilection for certain trees, to approach which as night-time
draws near is considered highly dangerous. The Judas tree (Cercis
siliquastrum) was one of their favourite retreats, perhaps on account
of its traditionary association with the apostle. The Neapolitan witches
held their tryst under a walnut tree near Benevento, and at Bologna
the peasantry tell how these evil workers hold a midnight meeting
beneath the walnut trees on St. John's Eve. The elder tree is another
haunt under whose branches witches are fond of lurking, and on this
account caution must be taken not to tamper with it after dark.
Again, in the Netherlands, experienced shepherds are careful not to let
their flocks feed after sunset, for there are wicked elves that prepare
poison in certain plants—nightwort being one of these. Nor does any man
dare to sleep in a meadow or pasture after sunset, for, as the shepherds
say, he would have everything to fear. A Tyrolese legend relates how
a boy who had climbed a tree, "overlooked the ghastly doings of certain
witches beneath its boughs. They tore in pieces the corpse of a woman,
and threw the portions in the air. The boy caught one, and kept it by
him; but the witches, on counting the pieces, found that one was
missing, and so replaced it by a scrap of alderwood, when instantly the
dead came to life again."
Similarly, also, they had their favourite flowers, one having been the
foxglove, nicknamed "witches' bells," from their decorating their
fingers with its blossoms; while in some localities the hare-bell is
designated the "witches' thimble." On the other hand, flowers of a
yellow or greenish hue were distasteful to them.
In the witchcraft movement it would seem that certain plants were in
requisition for particular purposes, these workers of darkness having
utilised the properties of herbs to special ends. A plant was not
indiscriminately selected, but on account of possessing some virtue as
to render it suitable for any design that the witches might have in
view. Considering, too, how multitudinous and varied were their actions,
they had constant need of applying to the vegetable world for materials
with which to carry out their plans. But foremost amongst their
requirements was the power of locomotion wherewith to enable them with
supernatural rapidity to travel from one locality to another.
Accordingly, one of their most favourite vehicles was a besom or broom,
an implement which, it has been suggested, from its being a type of the
winds, is an appropriate utensil "in the hands of the witches, who are
windmakers and workers in that element." According to the Asiatic
Register for 1801, the Eastern as well as the European witches
"practise their spells by dancing at midnight, and the principal
instrument they use on such occasions is a broom." Hence, in Hamburg,
sailors, after long toiling against a contrary wind, on meeting another
ship sailing in an opposite direction, throw an old broom before the
vessel, believing thereby to reverse the wind. As, too, in the case
of vervain and rue, the besom, although dearly loved by witches, is
still extensively used as a counter-charm against their machinations—it
being a well-known belief both in England and Germany that no individual
of this stamp can step over a besom laid inside the threshold. Hence,
also, in Westphalia, at Shrovetide, white besoms with white handles are
tied to the cows' horns; and, in the rites connected with the Midsummer
fires kept up in different parts of the country, the besom holds a
prominent place. In Bohemia, for instance, the young men collect for
some weeks beforehand as many worn-out brooms as they can lay their
hands on. These, after dipping in tar, they light—running with them
from one bonfire to another—and when burnt out they are placed in the
fields as charms against blight. The large ragwort—known in Ireland
as the "fairies' horse"—has long been sought for by witches when taking
their midnight journeys. Burns, in his "Address to the Deil," makes his
witches "skim the muirs and dizzy crags" on "rag-bred nags" with "wicked
speed." The same legendary belief prevails in Cornwall, in connection
with the Castle Peak, a high rock to the south of the Logan stone. Here,
writes Mr. Hunt, "many a man, and woman too, now quietly sleeping in
the churchyard of St. Levan, would, had they the power, attest to have
seen the witches flying into the Castle Peak on moonlight nights,
mounted on the stems of the ragwort." Amongst other plants used for a
similar purpose were the bulrush and reed, in connection with-which may
be quoted the Irish tale of the rushes and cornstalks that "turn into
horses the moment you bestride them." In Germany witches were
said to use hay for transporting themselves through the air.
When engaged in their various occupations they often considered it
expedient to escape detection by assuming invisibility, and for this
object sought the assistance of certain plants, such as the
fern-seed. In Sweden, hazel-nuts were supposed to have the power of
making invisible, and it may be remembered how in one of Andersen's
stories the elfin princess has the faculty of vanishing at will, by
putting a wand in her mouth. But these were not the only plants
supposed to confer invisibility, for German folk-lore tells us how the
far-famed luck-flower was endowed with the same wonderful property; and
by the ancients the heliotrope was credited with a similar virtue, but
which Boccaccio, in his humorous tale of Calandrino in the "Decameron,"
applies to the so-called stone. "Heliotrope is a stone of such
extraordinary virtue that the bearer of it is effectually concealed from
the sight of all present."
Dante in his "Inferno," xxiv. 92, further alludes to it:
"Amid this dread exuberance of woe
Ran naked spirits winged with horrid fear,
Nor hope had they of crevice where to hide,
Or heliotrope to charm them out of view."
In the same way the agate was said to render a person invisible, and to
turn the swords of foes against themselves. The Swiss peasants
affirm that the Ascension Day wreaths of the amaranth make the wearer
invisible, and in the Tyrol the mistletoe is credited with
But some plants, as we have already pointed out, were credited with the
magic property of revealing the presence of witches, and of exposing
them engaged in the pursuit of plying their nefarious calling. In this
respect the St. John's wort was in great request, and hence it was
extensively worn as an amulet, especially in Germany on St. John's Eve,
a time when not only witches by common report peopled the air, but evil
spirits wandered about on no friendly errand. Thus the Italian name of
"devil-chaser," from the circumstance of its scaring away the workers of
darkness, by bringing their hidden deeds to light. This, moreover,
accounts for the custom so prevalent in most European countries of
decorating doorways and windows with its blossoms on St. John's Eve. In
our own country Stowe speaks of it as its having been placed over
the doors together with green birch, fennel, orpine, and white lilies,
whereas in France the peasantry still reverence it as dispersing every
kind of unseen evil influence. The elder was invested with similar
properties, which seem to have been more potent than even those
attributed to the St. John's wort. According to an old tradition, any
baptized person whose eyes were anointed with the green juice of its
inner bark could see witches in any part of the world. Hence the tree
was extremely obnoxious to witches, a fact which probably accounts for
its having been so often planted near cottages. Its magic influence has
also caused it to be introduced into various rites, as in Styria on
Bertha Night (January 6th), when the devil goes about in great
force. As a safeguard, persons are recommended to make a magic
circle, in the centre of which they should stand with elder-berries
gathered on St. John's Night. By so doing the mystic fern seed may be
obtained, which possesses the strength of thirty or forty men. In
Germany, too, a species of wild radish is said to reveal witches, as
also is the ivy, and saxifrage enables its bearer to see witches on
But, in spite of plants of this kind, witches somehow or other contrived
to escape detection by the employment of the most subtle charms and
spells. They generally, too, took the precaution of avoiding such plants
as were antagonistic to them, displaying a cunning ingenuity in most of
their designs which it was by no means easy to forestall. Hence in the
composition of their philtres and potions they infused the juices of the
most deadly herbs, such as that of the nightshade or monkshood; and to
add to the potency of these baleful draughts they considered it
necessary to add as many as seven or nine of the most poisonous plants
they could obtain, such, for instance, as those enumerated by one of the
witches in Ben Jonson's "Masque of Queens," who says:—
"And I ha' been plucking plants among
Hemlock, Henbane, Adder's Tongue;
Nightshade, Moonwort, Libbard's bane,
And twice, by the dogs, was like to be ta'en."
Another plant used by witches in their incantations was the sea or
horned poppy, known in mediaeval times as Ficus infernolis; hence it is
further noticed by Ben Jonson in the "Witches' Song":
"Yes, I have brought to help our vows,
Horned poppy, cypress boughs,
The fig tree wild that grows on tombs,
And juice that from the larch tree comes."
Then, of course, there was the wondrous moonwort (Botrychium lunaria),
which was doubly valuable from its mystic virtue, for, as Culpepper
tells us, it was believed to open locks and possess other magic virtues.
The mullein, popularly termed the hag-taper, was also in request, and
the honesty (Lunaria biennis), "in sorceries excelling," was equally
employed. By Scotch witches the woodbine was a favourite plant, who,
in effecting magical cures, passed their patients nine times through a
girth or garland of green woodbine.
Again, a popular means employed by witches of injuring their enemies was
by the briony. Coles, in his "Art of Simpling," for instance, informs us
how, "they take likewise the roots of mandrake, according to some, or,
as I rather suppose, the roots of briony, which simple folk take for the
true mandrake, and make thereof an ugly image, by which they represent
the person on whom they intend to exercise their witchcraft." And Lord
Bacon, speaking of the mandrake, says—"Some plants there are, but rare,
that have a mossie or downy root, and likewise that have a number of
threads, like beards, as mandrakes, whereof witches and impostours make
an ugly image, giving it the form of a face at the top of the root, and
leave those strings to make a broad beard down to the foot."
The witchcraft literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries
contains numerous allusions to the diabolical practice—a superstition
immortalised by Shakespeare. The mandrake, from its supposed mysterious
character, was intimately associated with witches, and Ben Jonson, in
his "Masque of Queens," makes one of the hags who has been gathering
this plant say,
"I last night lay all alone
On the ground, to hear the mandrake groan;
And plucked him up, though he grew full low,
And, as I had done, the cock did crow."
We have already incidentally spoken of the vervain, St. John's wort,
elder, and rue as antagonistic to witchcraft, but to these may be added
many other well-known plants, such as the juniper, mistletoe, and
blackthorn. Indeed, the list might be greatly extended—the vegetable
kingdom having supplied in most parts of the world almost countless
charms to counteract the evil designs of these malevolent beings. In our
own country the little pimpernel, herb-paris, and cyclamen were formerly
gathered for this purpose, and the angelica was thought to be specially
noisome to witches. The snapdragon and the herb-betony had the
reputation of averting the most subtle forms of witchcraft, and dill and
flax were worn as talismans against sorcery. Holly is said to be
antagonistic to witches, for, as Mr. Folkard says, "in its name they
see but another form of the word 'holy,' and its thorny foliage and
blood-red berries are suggestive of the most Christian associations."
Then there is the rowan-tree or mountain-ash, which has long been
considered one of the most powerful antidotes against works of darkness
of every kind, probably from its sacred associations with the worship of
the Druids. Hence it is much valued in Scotland, and the following
couplet, of which there are several versions, still embodies the popular
"Rowan-tree and red thread,
Put the witches to their speed."
But its fame has not been confined to any one locality, and as far south
as Cornwall the peasant, when he suspects that his cow has been
"overlooked," twists an ashen twig round its horns. Indeed, so potent is
the ash as a counter charm to sorcery, that even the smallest twig
renders their actions impotent; and hence, in an old ballad entitled
"Laidley Wood," in the "Northumberland Garland," it is said:
"The spells were vain, the hag returned
To the queen in sorrowful mood,
Crying that witches have no power,
Where there is row'n-tree wood."
Hence persons carry an ashen twig in their pocket, and according to a
"If your whipsticks made of row'n,
You may ride your nag through any town;"
But, on the other hand, "Woe to the lad without a rowan-tree gall."
Possessed of such virtues, it is not surprising that the mystic ash
should have been held in the highest repute, in illustration of which we
find many an amusing anecdote. Thus, according to a Herefordshire
tradition, some years ago two hogsheads full of money were concealed in
an underground cellar belonging to the Castle of Penyard, where they
were kept by supernatural force. A farmer, however, made up his mind to
get them out, and employed for the purpose twenty steers to draw down
the iron door of the vault. On the door being slightly opened, a jackdaw
was seen sitting on one of the casks, but the door immediately closed
with a bang—a voice being heard to say,
"Had it not been
For your quicken tree goad,
And your yew tree pin,
You and your cattle
Had all been drawn in."
Another anecdote current in Yorkshire is interesting, showing how fully
superstitions of this kind are believed:—"A woman was lately in my
shop, and in pulling out her purse brought out also a piece of stick a
few inches long. I asked her why she carried that in her pocket. 'Oh,'
she replied, 'I must not lose that, or I shall be done for.' 'Why so?' I
inquired. 'Well,' she answered, 'I carry that to keep off the witches;
while I have that about me, they cannot hurt me.' On my adding that
there were no witches nowadays, she instantly replied, 'Oh, yes! there
are thirteen at this very time in the town, but so long as I have my
rowan-tree safe in my pocket they cannot hurt me.'"
Occasionally when the dairymaid churned for a long time without making
butter, she would stir the cream with a twig of mountain ash, and beat
the cow with another, thus breaking the witch's spell. But, to prevent
accidents of this kind, it has long been customary in the northern
countries to make the churn-staff of ash. For the same reason herd-boys
employ an ash-twig for driving cattle, and one may often see a
mountain-ash growing near a house. On the Continent the tree is in equal
repute, and in Norway and Denmark rowan branches are usually put over
stable doors to keep out witches, a similar notion prevailing in
Germany. No tree, perhaps, holds such a prominent place in
witchcraft-lore as the mountain-ash, its mystic power having rarely
failed to render fruitless the evil influence of these enemies
In our northern counties witches are said to dislike the bracken fern,
"because it bears on its root the initial C, which may be seen on
cutting the root horizontally." and in most places equally
distasteful to them is the yew, perhaps for no better reason than its
having formerly been much planted in churchyards. The herb-bennett
(Geum urbanum), like the clover, from its trefoiled leaf, renders
witches powerless, and the hazel has similar virtues. Among some of the
plants considered antagonistic to sorcery on the Continent may be
mentioned the water-lily, which is gathered in the Rhine district with a
certain formula. In Tuscany, the lavender counteracts the evil eye, and
a German antidote against the hurtful effects of any malicious influence
was an ointment made of the leaves of the marsh-mallow. In Italy, an
olive branch which has been blessed keeps the witch from the dwelling,
and in some parts of the Continent the plum-tree is used. Kolb, writes
Mr. Black, who became one of the first "wonder-doctors" of the
Tyrol, "when he was called to assist any bewitched person, made exactly
at midnight the smoke of five different sorts of herbs, and while they
were burning the bewitched was gently beaten with a martyr-thorn birch,
which had to be got the same night. This beating the patient with thorn
was thought to be really beating the hag who had caused the evil."
Some seasons, too, have been supposed to be closely associated with the
witches, as in Germany, where all flax must be spun before Twelfth
Night, for one who spins afterwards is liable to be bewitched.
Lastly, to counteract the spell of the evil eye, from which many
innocent persons were believed to suffer in the witchcraft period, many
flowers have been in requisition among the numerous charms used. Thus,
the Russian maidens still hang round the stem of the birch-tree red
ribbon, the Brahmans gather rice, and in Italy rue is in demand. The
Scotch peasantry pluck twigs of the ash, the Highland women the
groundsel, and the German folk wear the radish. In early times the
ringwort was recommended by Apuleius, and later on the fern was regarded
as a preservative against this baneful influence. The Chinese put faith
in the garlic; and, in short, every country has its own special plants.
It would seem, too, that after a witch was dead and buried,
precautionary measures were taken to frustrate her baneful influence.
Thus, in Russia, aspen is laid on a witch's grave, the dead sorceress
being then prevented from riding abroad.
1. See Moncure Conway's "Demonology and Devil Lore," 1880, ii. 324.
2. See Friend's "Flower Lore," ii. 529-30.
3. "Demonology and Devil Lore," ii. 324.
4. Grimm, "Teutonic Mythology," 1883, iii. 1051.
5. Folkard's "Plant Lore, Legends, and Lyrics," 1884, p. 91.
6. Thorpe's "Northern Mythology," iii. 19.
7. Grimm's "Teutonic Mythology," iii. 1052.
8. See Thorpe's "Northern Mythology," iii. 267.
9. See Folkard's "Plant Lore, Legends, and Lyrics," p. 209.
10. Ibid., p. 104.
11. See Kelly's "Indo-European Folk-lore," pp. 225-7.
12. See Hardwick's "Traditions, Superstitions, and Folk-lore," p. 117;
also Grimm's "Teutonic Mythology," 1883, iii. 1083.
13. See Thorpe's "Northern Mythology," 1852, iii. 21, 137.
14. "Popular Romances of the West of England," 1871, p. 330.
15. Grimm's "Teutonic Mythology," iii. 1084.
16. See Thorpe's "Northern Mythology," iii. 208-9.
17. See chap. "Doctrine of Signatures."
18. See Yardley's "Supernatural in Romantic Fiction," 1880, pp. 131-2.
19. See Fiske, "Myths and Mythmakers," p. 44; also Baring-Gould's
"Curious Myths of the Middle Ages," 1877, p. 398.
20. "Survey of London." See Mason's "Folk-lore of British Plants"
in Dublin University Magazine, September 1873, p. 326-8.
21. Mr. Conway's "Mystic Trees and Flowers," Fraser's Magazine,
22. "British Herbal."
23. See Folkard's "Plant-lore Legends and Lyrics," p. 380.
24. "Plant-lore Legends and Lyrics," p. 376.
25. Henderson's "Folk-lore of Northern Counties," 1879, p. 225.
26. "Folk-lore of Northern Counties," 1879.
27. "Folk-medicine," p. 202.
PLANTS IN DEMONOLOGY.
The association of certain plants with the devil forms an extensive and
important division in their folk-lore, and in many respects is closely
connected with their mystic history. It is by no means easy always to
account for some of our most beautiful flowers having Satanic
surroundings, although frequently the explanation must be sought in
their poisonous and deadly qualities. In some cases, too, the student of
comparative mythology may trace their evil reputation to those early
traditions which were the expressions of certain primitive beliefs, the
survivals of which nowadays are found in many an apparently meaningless
superstition. Anyhow, the subject is a very wide one, and is equally
represented in most countries. It should be remembered, moreover, that
rudimentary forms of dualism—the antagonism of a good and evil
deity—have from a remote period occupied men's minds, a system of
belief known even among the lower races of mankind. Hence, just as some
plants would in process of time acquire a sacred character, others would
do the reverse. Amongst the legendary stories and folktales of most
countries we find frequent allusion to the devil as an active agent in
utilising various flowers for his mischievous pursuits; and on the
Continent we are told of a certain evil spirit named Kleure who
transforms himself into a tree to escape notice, a superstition which
under a variety of forms still lingers here and there. It would seem,
too, that in some of our old legends and superstitions the terms Puck
and Devil are synonymous, a circumstance which explains the meaning,
otherwise unintelligible, of many items of plant-lore in our own and
other countries. Thus the word "Puck" has been identified with
Pogge—toad, under which form the devil was supposed to be
personified; and hence probably originated such expressions as
toadstools, paddock-stools, &c. The thorns of the eglantine are said to
point downwards, because when the devil was excluded from heaven he
tried to regain his lost position by means of a ladder composed of its
thorns. But when the eglantine was only allowed to grow as a bush, out
of spite he placed its thorns in their present eccentric position. The
seed of the parsley, "is apt to come up only partially, according as the
devil takes his tithe of it." In Germany "devil's oaks" are of
frequent occurrence, and "one of these at Gotha is held in great
regard." and Gerarde, describing the vervain, with its manifold
mystic virtues, says that "the devil did reveal it as a secret and
divine medicine." Belladonna, writes Mr. Conway, is esteemed in Bohemia
a favourite plant of the devil, who watches it, but may be drawn from it
on Walpurgis Night by letting loose a black hen, after which he will
run. Then there is the sow-thistle, which in Russia is said to belong to
the devil; and Loki, the evil spirit in northern mythology, is
occasionally spoken of as sowing weeds among the good seed; from whence,
it has been suggested, originated the popular phrase of "sowing one's
wild oats." The German peasantry have their "rye-wolf," a malignant
spirit infesting the rye-fields; and in some parts of the Continent
orchards are said to be infested by evil demons, who, until driven away
by various incantations, are liable to do much harm to the fruit. The
Italians, again, affirm that in each leaf of the fig-tree an evil spirit
dwells; and throughout the Continent there are various other demons who
are believed to haunt the crops. Evil spirits were once said to lurk in
lettuce-beds, and a certain species was regarded with ill favour by
mothers, a circumstance which, Mr. Folkard rightly suggests, may
account for a Surrey saying, "O'er much lettuce in the garden will stop
a young wife's bearing." Among similar legends of the kind it is said
that, in Swabia, fern-seed brought by the devil between eleven and
twelve o'clock on Christmas night enables the bearer to do as much work
as twenty or thirty ordinary men. According to a popular piece of
superstition current in our southern counties, the devil is generally
supposed to put his cloven foot upon the blackberries on Michaelmas Day,
and hence after this date it is considered unlucky to gather them during
the remainder of the year. An interesting instance of this superstition
is given by Mrs. Latham in her "West Sussex Superstitions," which
happened to a farmer's wife residing in the neighbourhood of Arundel. It
appears that she was in the habit of making a large quantity of
blackberry jam, and finding that less fruit had been brought to her than
she required, she said to the charwoman, "I wish you would send some of
your children to gather me three or four pints more." "Ma'am," exclaimed
the woman in astonishment, "don't you know this is the 11th October?"
"Yes," she replied. "Bless me, ma'am! And you ask me to let my children
go out blackberrying! Why, I thought every one knew that the devil went
round on the 10th October, and spat on all the blackberries, and that if
any person were to eat on the 11th, he or some one belonging to him
would either die or fall into great trouble before the year was out."
In Scotland the devil is said to but throw his cloak over the
blackberries and render them unwholesome, while in Ireland he is said to
stamp on them. Among further stories of this kind may be quoted one
current in Devonshire respecting St. Dunstan, who, it is said, bought up
a quantity of barley for brewing beer. The devil, knowing how anxious
the saint would be to get a good sale for his beer, offered to blight
the apple trees, so that there should be no cider, and hence a greater
demand for beer, on condition that he sold himself to him. St. Dunstan
accepted the offer, and stipulated that the trees should be blighted on
the 17th, 18th, and 19th May. Should the apple-blossom be nipped by cold
winds or frost about this time, many allusions are still made to
Of the plants associated personally with the evil one may be mentioned
the henbane, which is known in Germany as the "devil's eye," a name
applied to the stich-wort in Wales. A species of ground moss is also
styled in Germany the "devil's claws;" one of the orchid tribe is
"Satan's hand;" the lady's fingers is "devil's claws," and the plantain
is "devil's head." Similarly the house-leek has been designated the
"devil's beard," and a Norfolk name for the stinkhorn is "devil's horn."
Of further plants related to his Satanic majesty is the clematis, termed
"devil's thread," the toad-flax is his ribbon, the indigo his dye, while
the scandix forms his darning-needles. The tritoma, with its brilliant
red blossom, is familiar in most localities as the "devil's poker," and
the ground ivy has been nicknamed the "devil's candlestick," the
mandrake supplying his candle. The puff-balls of the lycoperdon form the
devil's snuff-box, and in Ireland the nettle is his apron, and the
convolvulus his garter; while at Iserlohn, in Germany, "the mothers,
to deter their children eating the mulberries, sing to them that the
devil requires them for the purpose of blacking his boots." The Arum
maculatum is "devil's ladies and gentlemen," and the Ranunculus
arvensis is the "devil on both sides." The vegetable kingdom also has
been equally mindful of his majesty's food, the spurge having long been
named "devil's milk" and the briony the "devil's cherry." A species of
fungus, known with us as "witches' butter," is called in Sweden "devil's
butter," while one of the popular names for the mandrake is "devil's
food." The hare-parsley supplies him with oatmeal, and the stichwort is
termed in the West of England "devil's corn." Among further plants
associated with his Satanic majesty may be enumerated the garden fennel,
or love-in-a-mist, to which the name of "devil-in-a-bush" has been
applied, while the fruit of the deadly nightshade is commonly designated
"devil's berries." Then there is the "devil's tree," and the "devil's
dung" is one of the nicknames of the assafoetida. The hawk-weed, like
the scabious, was termed "devil's bit," because the root looks as if it
had been bitten off. According to an old legend, "the root was once
longer, until the devil bit away the rest for spite, for he needed it
not to make him sweat who is always tormented with fear of the day of
judgment." Gerarde further adds that, "The devil did bite it for envy,
because it is an herb that hath so many great virtues, and is so
beneficial to mankind." A species of ranunculus supplies his
coach-wheels, and in some parts of the country ferns are said to supply
his brushes. His majesty's wants, therefore, have been amply provided
for by the vegetable kingdom, for even the wild garlic affords him a
posy. Once more, in Sweden, a rose-coloured flower, known as "Our
Lady's hand," "has two roots like hands, one white, the other black, and
when both are placed in water the black one will sink, this is called
'Satan's hand;' but the white one, called 'Mary's hand,' will float."
Hence this flower is held in deep and superstitious veneration among the
peasantry; and in Crete the basil is considered an emblem of the devil,
and is placed on most window-ledges, no doubt as a charm.
Some plants, again, have been used for exorcism from their reputed
antagonism to all Satanic influence. Thus the avens or herb-bennett,
when kept in a house, was believed to render the devil powerless, and
the Greeks of old were in the habit of placing a laurel bough over their
doorways to keep away evil spirits. The thistle has been long in demand
for counteracting the powers of darkness, and in Esthonia it is placed
on the ripening corn to drive and scare away malignant demons. In
Poland, the disease known among the poorer classes as "elf-lock" is
supposed to be the work of wicked spirits, but tradition says it will
gradually disappear if one buries thistle seed. The aloe, by the
Egyptians, is reputed to resist any baleful influence, and the lunary or
"honesty" is by our own country people said to put every evil influence
to flight. In Germany the juniper disperses evil spirits, and in ancient
times the black hellebore, peony, and mugwort were largely used for this
purpose. According to a Russian belief the elder-tree drives away evil
spirits, and hence this plant is held in high respect. Among further
plants possessing the same quality are the nettle and milfoil, and then
there is the famous St. John's wort, popularly nicknamed "devil's flight."
Closely allied with this part of our subject are those plants connected
with serpents, here forming a very numerous class. Indeed, it was only
natural that our ancestors, from their dread of the serpent on account
of its poisonous sting, as well as from their antipathy to it as the
symbol of evil, should ascertain those plants which seemed either
attractive, or antagonistic, to this much-dreaded reptile. Accordingly
certain plants, from being supposed to be distasteful to serpents, were
much used as amulets to drive them away. Foremost among these may be
mentioned the ash, to escape contact with which a serpent, it has been
said, would even creep into the fire, in allusion to which Cowley
"But that which gave more wonder than the rest,
Within an ash a serpent built her nest
And laid her eggs, when once to come beneath
The very shadow of an ash was death."
Gerarde notices this curious belief, and tells us that, "the leaves of
this tree are so great virtue against serpents that they dare not so
much as touch the morning and evening shadows of the tree, but shun them
Hence ash-sap was a German remedy for serpent bites. Lucan, in his
"Pharsalia" (915-921), has enumerated some of the plants burned for the
purpose of expelling serpents:
"Beyond the farthest tents rich fires they build,
That healthy medicinal odours yield,
There foreign galbanum dissolving fries,
And crackling flames from humble wallwort rise.
There tamarisk, which no green leaf adorns,
And there the spicy Syrian costos burns;
There centaury supplies the wholesome flame,
That from Therssalian Chiron takes its name;
The gummy larch tree, and the thapsos there,
Woundwort and maidenweed perfume the air,
There the long branches of the long-lived hart
With southernwood their odours strong impart,
The monsters of the land, the serpents fell,
Fly far away and shun the hostile smell."
The smoke of the juniper was equally repellent to serpents, and the
juice of dittany "drives away venomous beasts, and doth astonish them."
In olden times, for serpent bites, agrimony, chamomile, and the fruit of
the bramble, were held efficacious, and Gerarde recommends the root of
the bugloss, "as it keepeth such from being stung as have drunk it
before; the leaves and seeds do the same." On the other hand, some
plants had the reputation of attracting serpents, one of these being the
moneywort or creeping loosestrife, with which they were said to heal
themselves when wounded. As far back as the time of Pliny serpents were
supposed to be very fond of fennel, restoring to them their youth by
enabling them to cast their old skins. There is a belief in Thuringia
that the possession of fern seed causes the bearer to be pursued by
serpents till thrown away; and, according to a curious Eussian proverb,
"from all old trees proceeds either an owl or a devil," in reference, no
doubt, to their often bare and sterile appearance.
1. See Tylor's "Primitive Culture," ii. 316.
2. Thorpe's "Northern Mythology," iii. 193.
3. "Plant-lore Legends and Lyrics," p. 486.
4. Mr. Conway, Fraser's Magazine, 1870, p. 593.
5. Mr. Conway, Fraser's Magazine, 1870, p. 107.
6. "Plant-lore Legends and Lyrics," p. 411.
7. Folkard's "Plant-lore Legends and Lyrics," p. 448.
8. See Friend's "Flower-lore," i. 68.
9. Thorpe's "Northern Mythology," ii. 104.
10. "Mystic Trees and Flowers," Fraser's Magazine.
PLANTS IN FAIRY-LORE.
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.
Plants have always been largely used for testing the fidelity of lovers,
and at the present day are still extensively employed for this purpose
by the rustic maiden. As in the case of medical charms, more virtue
would often seem to reside in the mystic formula uttered while the
flower is being secretly gathered, than in any particular quality of the
flower itself. Then, again, flowers, from their connection with certain
festivals, have been consulted in love matters, and elsewhere we have
alluded to the knowledge they have long been supposed to give in dreams,
after the performance of certain incantations.
Turning to some of the well-known charm formulas, may be mentioned that
known as "a clover of two," the mode of gathering it constituting the
"A clover, a clover of two,
Put it in your right shoe;
The first young man you meet,
In field, street, or lane,
You'll get him, or one of his name."
Then there is the hempseed formula, and one founded on the luck of an
apple-pip, which, when seized between the finger and thumb, is supposed
to pop in the direction of the lover's abode; an illustration of which
we subjoin as still used in Lancashire:
"Pippin, pippin, paradise,
Tell me where my true love lies,
East, west, north, and south,
Pilling Brig, or Cocker Mouth."
The old custom, too, of throwing an apple-peel over the head, marriage
or single blessedness being foretold by its remaining whole or breaking,
and of the peel so cast forming the initial of the future loved one,
finds many adherents. Equally popular, too, was the practice of divining
by a thistle blossom. When anxious to ascertain who loved her most, a
young woman would take three or four heads of thistles, cut off their
points, and assign to each thistle the name of an admirer, laying them
under her pillow. On the following morning the thistle which has put
forth a fresh sprout will denote the man who loves her most.
There are numerous charms connected with the ash-leaf, and among those
employed in the North of England we may quote the following:
"The even ash-leaf in my left hand,
The first man I meet shall be my husband;
The even ash-leaf in my glove,
The first I meet shall be my love;
The even ash-leaf in my breast,
The first man I meet's whom I love best;
The even ash-leaf in my hand,
The first I meet shall be my man.
Even ash, even ash, I pluck thee,
This night my true love for to see,
Neither in his rick nor in his rear,
But in the clothes he does every day wear."
And there is the well-known saying current throughout the country:
"If you find an even ash or a four-leaved clover,
Rest assured you'll see your true love ere the day is over."
Longfellow alludes to the husking of the maize among the American
colonists, an event which was always accompanied by various ceremonies,
one of which he thus forcibly describes:
"In the golden weather the maize was husked, and the
Blushed at each blood-red ear, for that betokened a lover,
But at the crooked laughed, and called it a thief in the
Even the blood-red ear to Evangeline brought not her
Charms of this kind are common, and vary in different localities, being
found extensively on the Continent, where perhaps even greater
importance is attached to them than in our own country. Thus, a popular
French one—which many of our young people also practise—is for lovers
to test the sincerity of their affections by taking a daisy and plucking
its leaflets off one by one, saying, "Does he love me?—a
little—much—passionately—not at all!" the phrase which falls to the
last leaflet forming the answer to the inquiry:
"La blanche et simple Paquerette,
Que ton coeur consult surtout,
Dit, Ton amant, tendre fillette,
T'aime, un peu, beaucoup, point du tout."
Perhaps Brown alludes to the same species of divination when he writes
"The gentle daisy with her silver crown,
Worn in the breast of many a shepherd lass."
In England the marigold, which is carefully excluded from the flowers
with which German maidens tell their fortunes as unfavourable to love,
is often used for divination, and in Germany the star-flower and
Among some of the ordinary flowers in use for love-divination may be
mentioned the poppy, with its "prophetic leaf," and the old-fashioned
"bachelor's buttons," which was credited with possessing some magical
effect upon the fortunes of lovers. Hence its blossoms were carried in
the pocket, success in love being indicated in proportion as they lost
or retained their freshness. Browne alludes to the primrose, which
"maidens as a true-love in their bosoms place;" and in the North of
England the kemps or spikes of the ribwort plantain are used as
love-charms. The mode of procedure as practised in Northamptonshire is
thus picturesquely given by Clare in his "Shepherd's Calendar:":
"Or trying simple charms and spells,
Which rural superstition tells,
They pull the little blossom threads
From out the knotweed's button heads,
And put the husk, with many a smile,
In their white bosom for a while;
Then, if they guess aright the swain
Their love's sweet fancies try to gain,
'Tis said that ere it lies an hour,
'Twill blossom with a second flower,
And from the bosom's handkerchief
Bloom as it ne'er had lost a leaf."
Then there are the downy thistle-heads, which the rustic maiden names
after her lovers, in connection with which there are many old rhymes.
Beans have not lost their popularity; and the leaves of the laurel still
reveal the hidden fortune, having been also burnt in olden times by
girls to win back their errant lovers.
The garden scene in "Faust" is a well-known illustration of the
employment of the centaury or bluebottle for testing the faith of
lovers, for Margaret selects it as the floral indication whence she may
learn the truth respecting Faust:
"And that scarlet poppies around like a bower,
The maiden found her mystic flower.
'Now, gentle flower, I pray thee tell
If my love loves, and loves me well;
So may the fall of the morning dew
Keep the sun from fading thy tender blue;
Now I remember the leaves for my lot—
He loves me not—he loves me—he loves me not—
He loves me! Yes, the last leaf—yes!
I'll pluck thee not for that last sweet guess;
He loves me!' 'Yes,' a dear voice sighed;
And her lover stands by Margaret's side."
Another mode of love-divination formerly much practised among the lower
orders was known as "peascod-wooing." The cook, when shelling green
peas, would, if she chanced to find a pod having nine, lay it on the
lintel of the kitchen-door, when the first man who happened to enter was
believed to be her future sweetheart; an allusion to which is thus
given by Gay:
"As peascod once I pluck'd, I chanced to see
One that was closely fill'd with three times three,
Which, when I cropp'd, I safely home couvey'd,
And o'er the door the spell in secret laid.
The latch mov'd up, when who should first come in,
But, in his proper person, Lublerkin."
On the other hand, it was customary in the North of England to rub a
young woman with pease-straw should her lover prove unfaithful:
"If you meet a bonnie lassie,
Gie her a kiss and let her gae;
If you meet a dirty hussey,
Fie, gae rub her o'er wi' strae!"
From an old Spanish proverb it would seem that the rosemary has long
been considered as in some way connected with love:
"Who passeth by the rosemarie
And careth not to take a spraye,
For woman's love no care has he,
Nor shall he though he live for aye."
Of flowers and plants employed as love-charms on certain festivals may
be noticed the bay, rosebud, and the hempseed on St. Valentine's Day,
nuts on St. Mark's Eve, and the St. John's wort on Midsummer Eve.
In Denmark many an anxious lover places the St. John's wort between
the beams under the roof for the purpose of divination, the usual custom
being to put one plant for herself and another for her sweetheart.
Should these grow together, it is an omen of an approaching wedding. In
Brittany young people prove the good faith of their lovers by a pretty
ceremony. On St. John's Eve, the men, wearing bunches of green wheat
ears, and the women decorated with flax blossoms, assemble round an old
historic stone and place upon it their wreaths. Should these remain
fresh for some time after, the lovers represented by them are to be
united; but should they wither and die away, it is a certain proof that
the love will as rapidly disappear. Again, in Sicily it is customary for
young women to throw from their windows an apple into the street, which,
should a woman pick up, it is a sign that the girl will not be married
during the year. Sometimes it happens that the apple is not touched, a
circumstance which indicates that the young lady, when married, will ere
long be a widow. On this festival, too, the orpine or livelong has long
been in request, popularly known as "Midsummer men," whereas in Italy
the house-leek is in demand. The moss-rose, again, in years gone by, was
plucked, with sundry formalities, on Midsummer Eve for love-divination,
an allusion to which mode of forecasting the future, as practised in our
own country, occurs in the poem of "The Cottage Girl:"
"The moss-rose that, at fall of dew,
Ere eve its duskier curtain drew,
Was freshly gathered from its stem,
She values as the ruby gem;
And, guarded from the piercing air,
With all an anxious lover's care,
She bids it, for her shepherd's sake,
Awake the New Year's frolic wake:
When faded in its altered hue,
She reads—the rustic is untrue!
But if its leaves the crimson paint,
Her sick'ning hopes no longer faint;
The rose upon her bosom worn,
She meets him at the peep of morn."
On the Continent the rose is still thought to possess mystic virtues in
love matters, as in Thuringia, where girls foretell their future by
means of rose-leaves.
A ceremony belonging to Hallowe'en is observed in Scotland with some
trepidation, and consists in eating an apple before a looking-glass,
when the face of the desired one will be seen. It is thus described
"Wee Jenny to her granny says,
'Will ye gae wi' me, granny?
I'll eat the apple at the glass
I gat frae uncle Johnny.'
She fuff't her pipe wi' sic a lunt,
In wrath she was sae vap'rin,
She notic't na an aizle brunt
Her braw new worset apron
Out thro' that night.
'Ye little skelpie limmer's face!
I daur you try sic sportin'
As seek the foul thief ony place,
For him to spae your fortune;
Nae doubt but ye may get a sight!
Great cause ye hae to fear it,
For mony a ane has gotten a fright,
And lived and died deleeret
On sic a night.'"
Hallowe'en also is still a favourite anniversary for all kinds of
nut-charms, and St. Thomas was long invoked when the prophetic onion
named after him was placed under the pillow. Rosemary and thyme were
used on St. Agnes' Eve with this formula:
"St. Agnes, that's to lovers kind,
Come, ease the troubles of my mind."
In Austria, on Christmas Eve, apples are used for divination. According
to Mr. Conway, the apple must be cut in two in the dark, without being
touched, the left half being placed in the bosom, and the right laid
behind the door. If this latter ceremony be carefully carried out, the
desired one may be looked for at midnight near the right half. He
further tells us that in the Erzgebirge, the maiden, having slept on St.
Andrew's, or Christmas, night with an apple under her pillow, "takes her
stand with it in her hand on the next festival of the Church thereafter;
and the first man whom she sees, other than a relative, will become
Again, in Bohemia, on Christmas Eve, there is a pretty practice for
young people to fix coloured wax-lights in the shells of the first nuts
they have opened that day, and to float them in water, after silently
assigning to each the name of some fancied wooer. He whose little barque
is the first to approach the girl will be her future husband; but, on
the other hand, should an unwelcome suitor seem likely to be the first,
she blows against it, and so, by impeding its progress, allows the
favoured barque to win.
In very early times flowers were mcuh in request as love-philtres,
various allusions to which occur in the literature of most ages. Thus,
in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Oberon tells Puck to place a pansy on
the eyes of Titania, in order that, on awaking, she may fall in love
with the first object she encounters. Gerarde speaks of the carrot as
"serving for love matters," and adds that the root of the wild species
is more effectual than that of the garden. Vervain has long been in
repute as a love-philtre, and in Germany now-a-days endive-seed is sold
for its supposed power to influence the affections. The root of the male
fern was in years gone by used in love-philtres, and hence the following
"'Twas the maiden's matchless beauty
That drew my heart a-nigh;
Not the fern-root potion,
But the glance of her blue eye."
Then there is the basil with its mystic virtues, and the cumin-see and
cyclamen, which from the time of Theophrastus have been coveted for
their magic virtues. The purslane, crocus, and periwinkle were thought
to inspire love; while the agnus castus and the Saraca Indica (one of
the sacred plants of India), a species of the willow, were supposed to
drive away all feelings of love. Similarly in Voigtland, the common
basil was regarded as a test of chastity, withering in the hands of the
impure. The mandrake, which is still worn in France as a love-charm, was
employed by witches in the composition of their philtres; and in
Bohemia, it is said that if a maiden can secretly put a sprig of the
common clover into her lover's shoe ere he sets out on a journey, he
will be faithful to her during his absence. As far back as the time of
Pliny, the water-lily was regarded as an antidote to the love-philtre,
and the amaranth was used for curbing the affections. On the other hand,
Our Lady's bedstraw and the mallow were supposed to have the reverse
effect, while the myrtle not only created love, but preserved it. The
Sicilians still employ hemp to secure the affections of those they love,
and gather it with various formalities, fully believing in its
potency. Indeed, charms of this kind are found throughout the world,
every country having its own special plants in demand for this purpose.
However whimsical they may seem, they at any rate have the sanction of
antiquity, and can claim an antecedent history certainly worthy of a
1. Thorpe's "Northern Mythology."
2. Fraser's Magazine, 1870, p. 720.
The importance attached to dreams in all primitive and savage culture
accounts for the significance ascribed to certain plants found by
visitors to dreamland. At the outset, it may be noticed that various
drugs and narcotic potions have, from time immemorial, been employed for
producing dreams and visions—a process still in force amongst
uncivilised tribes. Thus the Mundrucus of North Brazil, when desirous of
gaining information on any special subject, would administer to their
seers narcotic drinks, so that in their dreams they might be favoured
with the knowledge required. Certain of the Amazon tribes use narcotic
plants for encouraging visions, and the Californian Indians, writes Mr.
Tylor, "would give children narcotic potions, to gain from the
ensuing visions information about their enemies;" whilst, he adds, "the
Darien Indians used the seeds of the Datura sanguinca to bring on in
children prophetic delirium, in which they revealed hidden treasure."
Similarly, the Delaware medicine-men used to drink decoctions of an
intoxicating nature, "until their minds became wildered, so that they
saw extraordinary visions."
The North American Indians also held intoxication by tobacco to be
supernatural ecstasy. It is curious to find a survival of this source of
superstition in modern European folk-lore. Thus, on the Continent, many
a lover puts the four-leaved clover under his pillow to dream of his
lady-love; and in our own country, daisy-roots are used by the rustic
maiden for the same purpose. The Russians are familiar with a certain
herb, known as the son-trava, a dream herb, which has been identified
with the Pulsatilla patens, and is said to blossom in April, and to
have an azure-coloured flower. When placed under the pillow, it will
induce dreams, which are generally supposed to be fulfilled. It has been
suggested that it was from its title of "tree of dreams" that the elm
became a prophetic tree, having been selected by Virgil in the Aeneid
(vi.) as the roosting-place of dreams in gloomy Orcus:
"Full in the midst a spreading elm displayed
His aged arms, and cast a mighty shade;
Each trembling leaf with some light visions teems,
And leaves impregnated with airy dreams."
At the present day, the yarrow or milfoil is used by love-sick maidens,
who are directed to pluck the mystic plant from a young man's grave,
repeating meanwhile this formula:
"Yarrow, sweet yarrow, the first that I have found, In the name of Jesus
Christ I pluck it from the ground; As Jesus loved sweet Mary and took
her for His dear, So in a dream this night I hope my true love
Indeed, many other plants are in demand for this species of
love-divination, some of which are associated with certain days and
festivals. In Sweden, for instance, "if on Midsummer night nine kinds of
flowers are laid under the head, a youth or maiden will dream of his or
her sweetheart." Hence in these simple and rustic love-charms may be
traced similar beliefs as prevail among rude communities.
Again, among many of the American Indian tribes we find, according to
Mr. Dorman, "a mythical tree or vine, which has a sacredness
connected with it of peculiar significance, forming a connecting-link
and medium of communication between the world of the living and the
dead. It is generally used by the spirit as a ladder to pass downward
and upward upon; the Ojibways having possessed one of these vines, the
upper end of which was twined round a star." He further adds that many
traditions are told of attempts to climb these heavenly ladders; and,
"if a young man has been much favoured with dreams, and the people
believe he has the art of looking into futurity, the path is open to the
highest honours. The future prophet puts down his dreams in pictographs,
and when he has a collection of these, if they prove true in any
respect, then this record of his revelations is appealed to as proof of
his prophetic power." But, without enumerating further instances of
these savage dream-traditions, which are closely allied with the
animistic theories of primitive culture, we would turn to those plants
which modern European folk-lore has connected with dreamland. These are
somewhat extensive, but a brief survey of some of the most important
ones will suffice to indicate their general significance.
Firstly, to dream of white flowers has been supposed to prognosticate
death; with which may be compared the popular belief that "if a white
rosebush puts forth unexpectedly, it is a sign of death to the nearest
house;" dream-omens in many cases reflecting the superstitions of daily
life. In Scotch ballads the birch is associated with the dead, an
illustration of which we find in the subjoined lines:—
"I dreamed a dreary dream last nicht;
God keep us a' frae sorrow!
I dreamed I pu'd the birk sae green,
Wi' my true love on Yarrow.
I'll redde your dream, my sister dear,
I'll tell you a' your sorrow;
You pu'd the birk wi' your true love;
He's killed,—he's killed on Yarrow."
Of the many plants which have been considered of good omen when seen in
dreams, may be mentioned the palm-tree, olive, jasmine, lily, laurel,
thistle, thorn, wormwood, currant, pear, &c.; whereas the greatest luck
attaches to the rose. On the other hand, equally numerous are the plants
which denote misfortune. Among these may be included the plum, cherry,
withered roses, walnut, hemp, cypress, dandelion, &c. Beans are still
said to produce bad dreams and to portend evil; and according to a
Leicestershire saying, "If you wish for awful dreams or desire to go
crazy, sleep in a bean-field all night." Some plants are said to
foretell long life, such as the oak, apricot, apple, box, grape, and
fig; and sickness is supposed to be presaged by such plants as the
elder, onion, acorn, and plum.
Love and marriage are, as might be expected, well represented in the
dream-flora; a circumstance, indeed, which has not failed to impress the
young at all times. Thus, foremost amongst the flowers which indicate
success in love is the rose, a fact which is not surprising when it is
remembered how largely this favourite of our gardens enters into
love-divinations. Then there is the clover, to dream of which foretells
not only a happy marriage, but one productive of wealth and prosperity.
In this case, too, it must be remembered the clover has long been
reckoned as a mystic plant, having in most European countries been much
employed for the purposes of divination. Of further plants credited as
auguring well for love affairs are the raspberry, pomegranate, cucumber,
currant, and box; but the walnut implies unfaithfulness, and the act of
cutting parsley is an omen that the person so occupied will sooner or
later be crossed in love. This ill-luck attached to parsley is in some
measure explained from the fact that in many respects it is an unlucky
plant. It is a belief, as we have noticed elsewhere, widely spread in
Devonshire, that to transplant parsley is to commit a serious offence
against the guardian genius who presides over parsley-beds, certain to
be punished either on the offender himself or some member of his family
within the course of the year. Once more "to dream of cutting cabbage,"
writes Mr. Folkard, "Denotes jealousy on the part of wife, husband,
or lover, as the case may be. To dream of any one else cutting them
portends an attempt by some person to create jealousy in the loved one's
mind. To dream of eating cabbages implies sickness to loved ones and
loss of money." The bramble, an important plant in folk-lore, is partly
unlucky, and, "To dream of passing through places covered with brambles
portends troubles; if they prick you, secret enemies will do you an
injury with your friends; if they draw blood, expect heavy losses in
trade." But to dream of passing through brambles unhurt denotes a
triumph over enemies. To dream of being pricked with briars, says the
"Royal Dream Book," "shows that the person dreaming has an ardent
desire to something, and that young folks dreaming thus are in love, who
prick themselves in striving to gather their rose."
Some plants are said to denote riches, such as the oak, marigold, pear
and nut tree, while the gathering of nuts is said to presage the
discovery of unexpected wealth. Again, to dream of fruit or flowers out
of season is a bad omen, a notion, indeed, with which we find various
proverbs current throughout the country. Thus, the Northamptonshire
peasant considers the blooming of the apple-tree after the fruit is ripe
as a certain omen of death—a belief embodied in the following
"A bloom upon the apple-tree when the apples are ripe,
Is a sure termination to somebody's life."
And once more, according to an old Sussex adage—
"Fruit out of season
Sounds out of reason."
On the other hand, to dream of fruit or any sort of crop during its
proper season is still an indication of good luck. Thus it is lucky
to dream of daisies in spring-time or summer, but just the reverse in
autumn or winter. Without enumerating further instances of this kind, we
may quote the subjoined rhyme relating to the onion, as a specimen of
many similar ones scattered here and there in various countries:
"To dream of eating onions means
Much strife in thy domestic scenes,
Secrets found out or else betrayed,
And many falsehoods made and said."
Many plants in dream-lore have more than one meaning attached to them.
Thus from the, "Royal Dream Book" we learn that yellow flowers "predict
love mixed with jealousy, and that you will have more children to
maintain than what justly belong to you." To dream of garlic indicates
the discovery of hidden treasures, but the approach of some domestic
Cherries, again, indicate inconstancy; but one would scarcely expect to
find the thistle regarded as lucky; for, according to an old piece of
folk-lore, to dream of being surrounded by this plant is a propitious
sign, foretelling that the person will before long have some pleasing
intelligence. In the same way a similar meaning in dream-lore attaches
to the thorn.
According to old dream-books, the dreaming of yew indicates the death of
an aged person, who will leave considerable wealth behind him; while the
violet is said to devote advancement in life. Similarly, too, the vine
foretells prosperity, "for which," says a dream interpreter, "we have
the example of Astyages, king of the Medes, who dreamed that his
daughter brought forth a vine, which was a prognostic of the grandeur,
riches, and felicity of the great Cyrus, who was born of her after this
Plucking ears of corn signifies the existence of secret enemies, and Mr.
Folkard quotes an old authority which tells us that the juniper is
potent in dreams. Thus, "it is unlucky to dream of the tree itself,
especially if the person be sick; but to dream of gathering the berries,
if it be in winter, denotes prosperity. To dream of the actual berries
signifies that the dreamer will shortly arrive at great honours and
become an important person. To the married it foretells the birth of a
Again, eating almonds signifies a journey, its success or otherwise
being denoted by their tasting sweet or the contrary. Dreaming of grass
is an auspicious omen, provided it be green and fresh; but if it be
withered and decayed, it is a sign of the approach of misfortune and
sickness, followed perhaps by death. Woe betide, too, the person who
dreams that he is cutting grass.
Certain plants produce dreams on particular occasions. The mugwort and
plantain have long been associated with Midsummer; and, according to
Thomas Hill in his "Natural and Artificial Conclusions," a rare coal is
to be found under these plants but one hour in the day, and one day in
the year. When Aubrey happened to be walking behind Montague House at
twelve o'clock on Midsummer day, he relates how he saw about twenty-two
young women, most of them well dressed, and apparently all very busy
weeding. On making inquiries, he was informed that they were looking for
a coal under the root of a plantain, to put beneath their heads that
night, when they would not fail to dream of their future husbands. But,
unfortunately for this credulity, as an old author long ago pointed out,
the coal is nothing but an old dead root, and that it may be found
almost any day and hour when sought for. By lovers the holly has long
been supposed to have mystic virtues as a dream-plant when used on the
eve of any of the following festivals:
New Year's Day,
According to the mode of procedure practised in the northern counties,
the anxious maiden, before retiring to rest, places three pails full of
water in her bedroom, and then pins to her night-dress three leaves of
green holly opposite to her heart, after which she goes to sleep.
Believing in the efficacy of the charm, she persuades herself that she
will be roused from her first slumber by three yells, as if from the
throats of three bears, succeeded by as many hoarse laughs. When these
have died away, the form of her future husband will appear, who will
show his attachment to her by changing the position of the water-pails,
whereas if he have no particular affection he will disappear without
even touching them.
Then, of course, from time immemorial all kinds of charms have been
observed on St. Valentine's Day to produce prophetic dreams. A popular
charm consisted of placing two bay leaves, after sprinkling them with
rose-water, across the pillow, repeating this formula:—
"Good Valentine, be kind to me,
In dream let me my true love see."
St. Luke's Day was in years gone by a season for love-divination, and
among some of the many directions given we may quote the subjoined,
which is somewhat elaborate:—
"Take marigold flowers, a sprig of
marjoram, thyme, and a little wormwood; dry them before a fire, rub them
to powder, then sift it through a fine piece of lawn; simmer these with
a small quantity of virgin honey, in white vinegar, over a slow fire;
with this anoint your stomach, breasts, and lips, lying down, and repeat
these words thrice:—
'St Luke, St. Luke, be kind to me,
In dream let me my true love see!'
This said, hasten to sleep, and in the soft slumbers of night's repose,
the very man whom you shall marry shall appear before you."
Lastly, certain plants have been largely used by gipsies and
fortune-tellers for invoking dreams, and in many a country village these
are plucked and given to the anxious inquirer with various formulas.
1. "Primitive Culture," 1873, ii. 416, 417.
2. See Dorman's "Primitive Superstition," p. 68.
3. Thorpe's "Northern Mythology," 1851, ii. 108.
4. "Primitive Superstitions," p. 67.
5. "Plant-lore Legends and Lyrics," p. 265.
6. Quoted in Brand's "Popular Antiquities," 1849, iii. 135.
7. See Friend's "Flower-Lore," i. 207.
8. Folkard's "Plant-lore Legends and Lyrics," p. 477.
PLANTS AND THE WEATHER.
The influence of the weather on plants is an agricultural belief which
is firmly credited by the modern husbandman. In many instances his
meteorological notions are the result of observation, although in some
cases the reason assigned for certain pieces of weather-lore is far from
obvious. Incidental allusion has already been made to the astrological
doctrine of the influence of the moon's changes on plants—a belief
which still retains its hold in most agricultural districts. It appears
that in years gone by "neither sowing, planting, nor grafting was ever
undertaken without a scrupulous attention to the increase or waning of
the moon;" and the advice given by Tusser in his "Five Hundred Points
of Husbandry" is not forgotten even at the present day:—
"Sow peas and beans in the wane of the moon,
Who soweth them sooner, he soweth too soon,
That they with the planet may rest and rise,
And flourish with bearing, most plentiful-wise."
Many of the old gardening books give the same advice, although by some
it has been severely ridiculed.
Scott, in his "Discoverie of Witchcraft," notes how, "the poor
husbandman perceiveth that the increase of the moon maketh plants
fruitful, so as in the full moone they are in best strength, decaying in
the wane, and in the conjunction do entirely wither and fade."
Similarly the growth of mushrooms is said to be affected by the weather,
and in Devonshire apples "shrump up" if picked during a waning moon.
One reason, perhaps, for the attention so universally paid to the moon's
changes in agricultural pursuits is, writes Mr. Farrer, "that they are
far more remarkable than any of the sun's, and more calculated to
inspire dread by the nocturnal darkness they contend with, and hence are
held in popular fancy nearly everywhere, to cause, portend, or accord
with changes in the lot of mortals, and all things terrestrial."
On this assumption may be explained the idea that the, "moon's wane
makes things on earth to wane; when it is new or full it is everywhere
the proper season for new crops to be sown." In the Hervey Islands
cocoa-nuts are generally planted in the full of the moon, the size of
the latter being regarded as symbolical of the ultimate fulness of the
In the same way the weather of certain seasons of the year is supposed
to influence the vegetable world, and in Rutlandshire we are told that
"a green Christmas brings a heavy harvest;" but a full moon about
Christmas Day is unlucky, hence the adage:
"Light Christmas, light wheatsheaf,
Dark Christmas, heavy wheatsheaf."
If the weather be clear on Candlemas Day "corn and fruits will then be
dear," and "whoever doth plant or sow on Shrove Tuesday, it will always
remain green." According to a piece of weather-lore in Sweden, there is
a saying that to strew ash branches in a field on Ash Wednesday is
equivalent to three days' rain and three days' sun. Rain on Easter Day
foretells a good harvest but poor hay crop, while thunder on All Fool's
Day "brings good crops of corn and hay." According to the "Shepherd's
Calendar," if, "Midsummer Day be never so little rainy the hazel and
walnut will be scarce; corn smitten in many places; but apples, pears,
and plums will not be hurt." And we are further reminded:—
"Till St. James's Day be come and gone,
There may be hops or there may be none."
Speaking of hops, it is said, "plenty of ladybirds, plenty of hops."
It is also a popular notion among our peasantry that if a drop of rain
hang on an oat at this season there will be a good crop. Another
agricultural adage says:—
"No tempest, good July, lest corn come off bluely."
Then there is the old Michaelmas rhyme:—
"At Michaelmas time, or a little before,
Half an apple goes to the core;
At Christmas time, or a little after,
A crab in the hedge, and thanks to the grafter."
On the other hand, the blossoming of plants at certain times is said to
be an indication of the coming weather, and so when the bramble blooms
early in June an early harvest may be expected; and in the northern
counties the peasant judges of the advance of the year by the appearance
of the daisy, affirming that "spring has not arrived till you can set
your foot on twelve daisies." We are also told that when many hawthorn
blossoms are seen a severe winter will follow; and, according to
Wilsford, "the broom having plenty of blossoms is a sign of a fruitful
year of corn." A Surrey proverb tells us that "It's always cold when the
blackthorn comes into flower;" and there is the rhyme which reminds
"If the oak is out before the ash,
'Twill be a summer of wet and splash;
But if the ash is before the oak,
'Twill be a summer of fire and smoke."
There are several versions of this piece of weather-lore, an old Kentish
one being "Oak, smoke; ash, quash;" and according to a version given in
Notes and Queries (1st Series v. 71):—
"If the oak's before the ash, then you'll only get a splash,
If the ash precedes the oak, then you may expect a soak."
From the "Shepherd's Calendar" we learn that, "If in the fall of the
leaf in October many leaves wither on the boughs and hang there, it
betokens a frosty winter and much snow," with which may be compared a
"If good apples you would have
The leaves must go into the grave."
Or, in other words, "you must plant your trees in the fall of the leaf."
And again, "Apples, pears, hawthorn-quick, oak; set them at
All-hallow-tide and command them to prosper; set them at Candlemas and
entreat them to grow."
In Germany, too, there is a rhyme which may be thus translated:—
"When the hawthorn bloom too early shows,
We shall have still many snows."
In the same way the fruit of trees and plants was regarded as a
prognostication of the ensuing weather, and Wilsford tells us that
"great store of walnuts and almonds presage a plentiful year of corn,
especially filberts." The notion that an abundance of haws betokens a
hard winter is still much credited, and has given rise to the familiar
Another variation of the same adage in Kent is, "A plum year, a dumb
year," and, "Many nits, many pits," implying that the abundance of nuts
in the autumn indicates the "pits" or graves of those who shall succumb
to the hard and inclement weather of winter; but, on the other hand, "A
cherry year, a merry year." A further piece of weather-lore tells us:—
"Many rains, many rowans;
Many rowans, many yawns,"
The meaning being that an abundance of rowans—the fruit of the
mountain-ash—denote a deficient harvest.
Among further sayings of this kind may be noticed one relating to the
onion, which is thus:—
"Onion's skin very thin,
Mild-winter's coming in;
Onion's skin thick and tough,
Coming winter cold and rough."
Again, many of our peasantry have long been accustomed to arrange their
farming pursuits from the indications given them by sundry trees and
plants. Thus it is said—
"When the sloe tree is as white as a sheet,
Sow your barley whether it be dry or wet."
With which may be compared another piece of weather-lore:—
"When the oak puts on his gosling grey,
'Tis time to sow barley night or day."
The leafing of the elm has from time immemorial been made to regulate
agricultural operations, and hence the old rule:—
"When the elmen leaf is as big as a mouse's ear,
Then to sow barley never fear.
When the elmen leaf is as big as an ox's eye,
Then say I, 'Hie, boys, hie!'"
A Warwickshire variation is:—
"When elm leaves are big as a shilling,
Plant kidney beans, if to plant 'em you're willing.
When elm leaves are as big as a penny,
You must plant kidney beans if you mean to have any."
But if the grass grow in January, the husbandman is recommended to "lock
his grain in the granary," while a further proverb informs us that:—
"On Candlemas Day if the thorns hang a drop,
You are sure of a good pea crop."
In bygone times the appearance of the berries of the elder was held to
indicate the proper season for sowing wheat:—
"With purple fruit when elder branches bend,
And their high hues the hips and cornels lend,
Ere yet chill hoar-frost comes, or sleety rain,
Sow with choice wheat the neatly furrowed plain."
The elder is not without its teaching, and according to a popular old
"When the elder is white, brew and bake a peck,
When the elder is black, brew and bake a sack."
According to an old proverb, "You must look for grass on the top of the
oak tree," the meaning being, says Ray, that "the grass seldom springs
well before the oak begins to put forth."
In the Western Counties it is asserted that frost ceases as soon as the
mulberry tree bursts into leaf, with which may be compared the words of
Autolycus in the "Winter's Tale" (iv. 3):—
"When daffodils begin to peer,
With heigh! the doxy over the dale,
Why, then conies in the sweet o' the year."
The dairyman is recommended in autumn to notice the appearance of the
"When the fern is as high as a ladle,
You may sleep as long as you are able.
When the fern begins to look red,
Then milk is good with brown bread."
Formerly certain agricultural operations were regulated by the seasons,
and an old rule tells the farmer—
"Upon St. David's Day, put oats and barley in the clay."
Another version being:—
"Sow peas and beans on David and Chad,
Be the weather good or bad."
A Somersetshire piece of agricultural lore fixes an earlier date, and
bids the farmer to "sow or set beans in Candlemas waddle." In connection
with the inclement weather that often prevails throughout the spring
months it is commonly said, "They that go to their corn in May may come
weeping away," but "They that go in June may come back with a merry
tune." Then there is the following familiar pretty couplet, of which
there are several versions:—
"The bee doth love the sweetest flower,
So doth the blossom the April shower."
In connection with beans, there is a well-known adage
"Be it weal or be it woe,
Beans should blow before May go."
Of the numerous other items of plant weather-lore, it is said that
"March wind wakes the ether (i. e., adder) and blooms the whin;" and
many of our peasantry maintain that:—
"A peck of March dust and a shower in May,
Makes the corn green and the fields gay."
It should also be noted that many plants are considered good barometers.
Chickweed, for instance, expands its leaves fully when fine weather is
to follow; but "if it should shut up, then the traveller is to put on
his greatcoat." The same, too, is said to be the case with the
pimpernel, convolvulus, and clover; while if the marigold does not open
its petals by seven o'clock in the morning, either rain or thunder may
be expected in the course of the day. According to Wilsford, "tezils, or
fuller's thistle, being gathered and hanged up in the house, where the
air may come freely to it, upon the alteration of cold and windy weather
will grow smoother, and against rain will close up its prickles." Once
more, according to the "Shepherd's Calendar," "Chaff, leaves,
thistle-down, or such light things whisking about and turning round
foreshows tempestuous winds;" And Coles, in his introduction to the
"Knowledge of Plants," informs us that, "If the down flieth off
colt's-foot, dandelion, and thistles when there is no wind, it is a sign
Some plants, again, have gained a notoriety from opening or shutting
their flowers at the sun's bidding; in allusion to which Perdita remarks
in the "Winter's Tale" (iv. 3):—
"The marigold, that goes to bed with the sun, and with him
It was also erroneously said, like the sun-flower, to
turn its blossoms to the sun, the latter being thus
described by Thomson:—
"The lofty follower of the sun,
Sad when he sets, shuts up her yellow leaves,
Drooping all night, and, when he warm returns,
Points her enamour'd bosom to his ray."
Another plant of this kind is the endive, which is said to open its
petals at eight o'clock in the morning, and to close them at four in the
afternoon. Thus we are told how:—
"On upland slopes the shepherds mark
The hour when, to the dial true,
Cichorium to the towering lark,
Lifts her soft eye, serenely blue."
And as another floral index of the time of day may be noticed the
goat's-beard, opening at sunrise and closing at noon—hence one of its
popular names of "Go to bed at noon." This peculiarity is described by
"And goodly now the noon-tide hour,
When from his high meridian tower
The sun looks down in majesty,
What time about, the grassy lea.
The goat's-beard, prompt his rise to hail,
With broad expanded disk, in veil
Close mantling wraps its yellow head,
And goes, as peasants say, to bed."
The dandelion has been nicknamed the peasant's clock, its flowers
opening very early in the morning; while its feathery seed-tufts have
long been in requisition as a barometer with children:—
"Dandelion, with globe of down,
The schoolboy's clock in every town,
Which the truant puffs amain
To conjure lost hours back again."
Among other flowers possessing a similar feature may be noticed the wild
succory, creeping mallow, purple sandwort, small bindweed, common
nipplewort, and smooth sow-thistle. Then of course there is the
pimpernel, known as the shepherd's clock and poor man's weather-glass;
while the small purslane and the common garden lettuce are also included
in the flower-clock.
Among further items of weather-lore associated with May, we are told how
he that "sows oats in May gets little that way," and "He who mows in May
will have neither fruit nor hay." Calm weather in June "sets corn in
tune;" and a Suffolk adage says:—
"Cut your thistles before St. John,
You will have two instead of one."
But "Midsummer rain spoils hay and grain," whereas it is commonly said
"A leafy May, and a warm June,
Bring on the harvest very soon."
Again, boisterous wet weather during the month of July is to be
deprecated, for, as the old adage runs:—
"No tempest, good July,
Lest the corn look surly."
Flowers of this kind are very numerous, and under a variety of forms
prevail largely in our own and other countries, an interesting
collection of which have been collected by Mr. Swainson in his
interesting little volume on "Weather Folk-lore," in which he has given
the parallels in foreign countries. It must be remembered, however, that
a great number of these plant-sayings originated very many years
ago—long before the alteration in the style of the calendar—which in
numerous instances will account for their apparent contradictory
character. In noticing, too, these proverbs, account must be taken of
the variation of climate in different countries, for what applies to one
locality does not to another. Thus, for instance, according to a Basque
proverb, "A wet May, a fruitful year," whereas it is said in Corsica,
"A rainy May brings little barley and no wheat." Instances of this kind
are of frequent occurrence, and of course are in many cases explained by
the difference of climate. But in comparing all branches of folk-lore,
similar variations, as we have already observed, are noticeable, to
account for which is often a task full of difficulty.
Of the numerous other instances of weather-lore associated with
agricultural operations, it is said in relation to rain:—
"Sow beans in the mud, and they'll grow like wood."
And a saying in East Anglia is to this effect:—
"Sow in the slop (or sop), heavy at top."
A further admonition advises the farmer to
"Sow wheat in dirt, and rye in dust;"
While, according to a piece of folk-lore current in East Anglia, "Wheat
well-sown is half-grown." The Scotch have a proverb warning the farmer
against premature sowing:—
"Nae hurry wi' your corns,
Nae hurry wi' your harrows;
Snaw lies ahint the dyke,
Mair may come and fill the furrows."
And according to another old adage we are told how:—
"When the aspen leaves are no bigger than your nail,
Is the time to look out for truff and peel."
In short, it will be found that most of our counties have their items of
weather-lore; many of which, whilst varying in some respect, are
evidently modifications of one and the same belief. In many cases, too,
it must be admitted that this species of weather-wisdom is not based
altogether on idle fancy, but in accordance with recognised habits of
plants under certain conditions of weather. Indeed, it has been pointed
out that so sensitive are various flowers to any change in the
temperature or the amount of light, that it has been noticed that there
is as much as one hour's difference between the time when the same
flower opens at Paris and Upsala. It is, too, a familiar fact to
students of vegetable physiology that the leaves of Porleria
hygrometrica fold down or rise up in accordance with the state of the
atmosphere. In short, it was pointed out in the Standard, in
illustration of the extreme sensitiveness of certain plants to
surrounding influences, how the Haedysarums have been well known ever
since the days of Linnseus to suddenly begin to quiver without any
apparent cause, and just as suddenly to stop. Force cannot initiate the
movement, though cold will stop it, and heat will set in motion again
the suspended animation of the leaves. If artificially kept from moving
they will, when released, instantly begin their task anew and with
redoubled energy. Similarly the leaves of the Colocasia esculenta—the
tara of the Sandwich Islands—will often shiver at irregular times of
the day and night, and with such energy that little bells hung on the
petals tinkle. And yet, curious to say, we are told that the keenest eye
has not yet been able to detect any peculiarity in these plants to
account for these strange motions. It has been suggested that they are
due to changes in the weather of such a slight character that, "our
nerves are incapable of appreciating them, or the mercury of recording
their accompanying oscillations."
1. Tylor's "Primitive Culture," 1873, i. 130.
2. See "English Folk-lore," pp. 42, 43.
3. "Primitive Manners and Customs," p. 74.
4. Dublin University Magazine, December 1873, p. 677.
5. See Swainson's "Weather-lore," p. 257.
6. See "Flower-lore," p. 226.
7. See Notes and Queries, 1st Ser. II. 511.
A host of curious proverbs have, from the earliest period, clustered
round the vegetable world, most of which—gathered from experience and
observation—embody an immense amount of truth, besides in numerous
instances conveying an application of a moral nature. These proverbs,
too, have a very wide range, and on this account are all the more
interesting from the very fact of their referring to so many conditions
of life. Thus, the familiar adage which tells us that "nobody is fond of
fading flowers," has a far deeper signification, reminding us that
everything associated with change and decay must always be a matter of
regret. To take another trite proverb of the same kind, we are told how
"truths and roses have thorns about them," which is absolutely true; and
there is the well-known expression "to pipe in an ivy leaf," which
signifies "to go and engage in some futile or idle pursuit" which cannot
be productive of any good. The common proverb, "He hath sown his wild
oats," needs no comment; and the inclination of evil to override good is
embodied in various adages, such, as, "The weeds o'ergrow the corn,"
while the tenacity with which evil holds its ground is further expressed
in such sayings as this—"The frost hurts not weeds." The poisonous
effects, again, of evil is exemplified thus—"One ill-bred mars a whole
pot of pottage," and the rapidity with which it spreads has, amongst
other proverbs, been thus described, "Evil weeds grow apace." Speaking
of weeds in their metaphorical sense, we may quote one further adage
"A weed that runs to seed
Is a seven years' weed."
And the oft-quoted phrase, "It will be a nosegay to him as long as he
lives," implies that disagreeable actions, instead of being lost sight
of, only too frequently cling to a man in after years, or, as Ray says,
"stink in his nostrils." The man who abandons some good enterprise for a
worthless, or insignificant, undertaking is said to "cut down an oak and
plant a thistle," of which there is a further version, "to cut down an
oak and set up a strawberry." The truth of the next adage needs no
comment—"Usurers live by the fall of heirs, as swine by the droppings
Things that are slow but sure in their progress are the subject of a
well-known Gloucestershire saying:—
"It is as long in coming as Cotswold barley."
"The corn in this cold country," writes Ray, "exposed to the winds,
bleak and shelterless, is very backward at the first, but afterwards
overtakes the forwardest in the country, if not in the barn, in the
bushel, both for the quantity and goodness thereof." According to the
Italians, "Every grain hath its bran," which corresponds with our
saying, "Every bean hath its black," The meaning being that nothing is
without certain imperfections. A person in extreme poverty is often
described as being "as bare as the birch at Yule Even," and an
ill-natured or evil-disposed person who tries to do harm, but cannot, is
commonly said to:—
"Jump at it like a cock at a gooseberry."
Then the idea of durableness is thus expressed in a Wiltshire proverb:—
"An eldern stake and a blackthorn ether [hedge],
Will make a hedge to last for ever"—
an elder stake being commonly said to last in the ground longer than an
iron bar of the same size.
A person who is always on the alert to make use of opportunities, and
never allows a good thing to escape his grasp, is said to "have a ready
mouth for a ripe cherry." The rich beauty, too, of the cherry, which
causes it to be gathered, has had this moral application attached
"A woman and a cherry are painted for their own harm."
Speaking of cherries, it may be mentioned that the awkwardness of eating
them on account of their stones, has given rise to sundry proverbs, as
"Eat peas with the king, and cherries with the beggar,"
"Those that eat cherries with great persons shall have their eyes
squirted out with the stones."
A man who makes a great show without a corresponding practice is said to
be like "fig-tree fuel, much smoke and little fire," and another
"Peel a fig for your friend, and a peach for your enemy."
This proverb, however, is not quite clear when applied to this country.
"To peel a fig, so far as we are concerned," writes Mr. Hazlitt, "can
have no significance, except that we should not regard it as a friendly
service; but, in fact, the proverb is merely a translation from the
Spanish, and in that language and country the phrase carries a very full
meaning, as no one would probably like to eat a fig without being sure
that the fruit had not been tampered with. The whole saying is, however,
rather unintelligible. 'Peeling a peach' would be treated anywhere as a
Of the many proverbs connected with thorns, there is the true one which
tells us how,
"He that goes barefoot must not plant thorns,"
The meaning of which is self-evident, and the person who lives in a
chronic state of uneasiness is said to, "sit on thorns." Then there is
the oft-quoted adage:—
"While thy shoe is on thy foot, tread upon the thorns."
On the other hand, that no position in life is exempt from trouble of
some kind is embodied in this proverb:—
"Wherever a man dwells he shall be sure to have a thorn bush
near his door,"
which Ray also explains in its literal sense, remarking that there "are
few places in England where a man can dwell, but he shall have one near
him." Then, again, thorns are commonly said to "make the greatest
crackling," and "the thorn comes forth with its point forward."
Many a great man has wished himself poor and obscure in his hours of
adversity, a sentiment contained in the following proverb:—
"The pine wishes herself a shrub when the axe is at her root."
A quaint phrase applied to those who expect events to take an unnatural
"Would you have potatoes grow by the pot-side?"
Amongst some of the other numerous proverbs may be mentioned a few
relating to the apple; one of these reminding us that,
"An apple, an egg, and a nut,
You may eat after a slut."
Selfishness in giving is thus expressed:—
"To give an apple where there is an orchard."
And the idea of worthlessness is often referred to as when it is said
that "There is small choice in rotten apples," with which may be
compared another which warns us of the contagious effects of bad
"The rotten apple injures its neighbour."
The utter dissimilarity which often exists between two persons, or
things, is jocularly enjoined in the familiar adage:—
"As like as an apple is to a lobster,"
And the folly of taking what one knows is paltry or bad has given rise
to an instructive proverb:—
"Better give an apple than eat it."
The folly of expecting good results from the most unreasonable causes is
the subject of the following old adage:—
"Plant the crab where you will, it will never bear pippins."
The crab tree has also been made the subject of several
amusing rhymes, one of which is as follows:—
"The crab of the wood is sauce very good for the crab of the
But the wood of the crab is sauce for a drab that will not her
The coolness of the cucumber has long ago become proverbial for a person
of a cold collected nature, "As cool as a cucumber," and the man who not
only makes unreasonable requests, but equally expects them to be
gratified, is said to "ask an elm-tree for pears." Then, again, foolish
persons who have no power of observation, are likened to "a blind goose
that knows not a fox from a fern bush."
The willow has long been a proverbial symbol of sadness, and on this
account it was customary for those who were forsaken in love to wear a
garland made of willow. Thus in "Othello," Desdemona (Act iv. sc. 3)
anticipating her death, says:—
"My mother had a maid called Barbara:
She was in love; and he she loved proved mad,
And did forsake her: she had a song of willow;
An old thing 'twas, but it expressed her fortune,
And she died singing it: that song to-night
Will not go from my mind."
According to another adage:—
"Willows are weak, yet they bind other wood,"
The significance of which is clear. Then, again, there is the not very
complimentary proverbial saying, of which there are several versions:—
"A spaniel, a woman, and a walnut-tree,
The more they're beaten, the better they be."
Another variation, given by Moor in his "Suffolk Words" (p. 465), is
"Three things by beating better prove:
A nut, an ass, a woman;
The cudgel from their back remove,
And they'll be good for no man."
A curious phrase current in Devonshire for a young lady who jilts a man
is, "She has given him turnips;" and an expressive one for those persons
who in spite of every kindness are the very reverse themselves
"Though you stroke the nettle
ever so kindly, yet it will sting you;"
With which may be compared a similar proverb equally suggestive:—
"He that handles a nettle tenderly is soonest stung."
The ultimate effects of perseverance, coupled with time, is thus
"With time and patience the leaf of the mulberry tree
A phrase current, according to Ray, in Gloucestershire for those "who
always have a sad, severe, and terrific countenance," is, "He looks as
if he lived on Tewkesbury mustard"—this town having been long noted for
its "mustard-balls made there, and sent to other parts." It may be
remembered that in "2 Henry IV." (Act ii. sc. 4) Falstaff speaks of "wit
as thick as Tewkesbury mustard." Then there is the familiar adage
applied to the man who lacks steady application, "A rolling stone
gathers no moss," with which may be compared another, "Seldom mosseth
the marble-stone that men [tread] oft upon."
Among the good old proverbs associated with flax may be mentioned the
following, which enjoins the necessity of faith in our actions:—
"Get thy spindle and thy distaff ready, and God will send the flax."
A popular phrase speaks of "An owl in an ivy-bush," which perhaps was
originally meant to denote the union of wisdom with conviviality,
equivalent to "Be merry and wise." Formerly an ivy-bush was a common
tavern sign, and gave rise to the familiar proverb, "Good wine needs no
bush," this plant having been selected probably from having been sacred
According to an old proverb respecting the camomile, we are told that
"the more it is trodden the more it will spread," an allusion to which
is made by Falstaff in "I Henry IV." (Act ii. sc. 4):—
"For though the camomile, the more it is trodden on, the faster it
grows; yet youth, the more it is wasted, the sooner it wears."
There are many proverbs associated with the oak. Referring to its
growth, we are told that "The willow will buy a horse before the oak
will pay for a saddle," the allusion being, of course, to the different
rates at which trees grow. That occasionally some trifling event may
have the most momentous issues is thus exemplified:—
"The smallest axe may fell the largest oak;"
Although, on the other hand, it is said that:—
"An oak is not felled at one chop."
A further variation of the same idea tells us how:—
"Little strokes fell great oaks,"
In connection with which may be quoted the words of Ovid to the same
"Quid magis est durum saxo? Quid mollius unda?
Dura taneu molli saxa cavantur aqua?"
Then, again, it is commonly said that:—
"Oaks may fall when seeds brave the storm."
And to give one more illustration:—
"The greatest oaks have been little acorns."
Similarly, with trees in general, we find a good number of proverbs.
Thus one informs us that "Wise men in the world are like timber trees in
a hedge, here and there one." That there is some good in every one is
illustrated by this saying—"There's no tree but bears some fruit." The
familiar proverb, that "The tree is no sooner down but every one runs
for his hatchet," explains itself, whereas "The highest tree hath the
greater fall," which, in its moral application, is equally true. Again,
an agricultural precept enjoins the farmer to "Set trees poor and they
will grow rich; set them rich and they will grow poor," that is, remove
them out of a more barren into a fatter soil. That success can only be
gained by toil is illustrated in this proverb—"He that would have the
fruit must climb the tree," and once more it is said that "He who plants
trees loves others beside himself."
In the Midland counties there is a proverbial saying that "if there are
no kegs or seeds in the ash trees, there will be no king within the
twelvemonth," the ash never being wholly destitute of kegs. Another
proverb refers to the use of ash-wood for burning:—
"Burn ash-wood green,
'Tis a fire for a queen,
Burn ash-wood dear,
'Twill make a man swear;"
The meaning being that the ash when green burns well, but when dry or
withered just the reverse.
A form of well-wishing formerly current in Yorkshire was thus:—
"May your footfall be by the root of an ash,"
In allusion, it has been suggested, to the fact that the ash is a
capital tree for draining the soil in its vicinity.
But leaving trees, an immense number of proverbs are associated with
corn, many of which are very varied. Thus, of those who contrive to get
a good return for their meagre work or money, it is said:—
"You have made a long harvest for a little corn,"
With which may be compared the phrase:—
"You give me coloquintida (colocynth) for Herb-John."
Those who reap advantage from another man's labour are said to "put
their sickle into another man's corn," and the various surroundings of
royalty, however insignificant they may be, are generally better, says
the proverb, than the best thing of the subjects:—
"The king's chaff is better than other people's corn."
Among the proverbs relating to grass may be mentioned the popular one,
"He does not let the grass grow under his feet;" another old version of
which is, "No grass grows on his heel." Another well-known adage
reminds us that:—
"The higher the hill the lower the grass."
And equally familiar is the following:—
"While the grass groweth the seely horse starveth."
In connection with hops, the proverb runs that "hops make or break;" and
no hop-grower, writes,
Mr. Hazlitt, "will have much difficulty in appreciating this
proverbial dictum. An estate has been lost or won in the course of a
single season; but the hop is an expensive plant to rear, and a bad
year may spoil the entire crop."
Actions which produce different results to what are
expected are thus spoken of:—
"You set saffron and there came up wolfsbane."
In Devonshire it may be noted that this plant is used to denote anything
of value; and it is related of a farmer near Exeter who, when praising a
certain farm, remarked, "'Tis a very pretty little place; he'd let so
dear as saffron."
Many, again, are the proverbial sayings associated with roses—most of
these being employed to indicate what is not only sweet and lovely, but
bright and joyous. Thus, there are the well-known phrases, "A bed of
roses," and "As sweet as a rose," and the oft-quoted popular adage:—
"The rose, called by any other name, would smell as sweet,"
Which, as Mr. Hazlitt remarks, "although not originally proverbial, or
in its nature, or even in the poet's intention so, has acquired that
character by long custom."
An old adage, which is still credited by certain of our country folk,
reminds us that:—
"A parsley field will bring a man to his saddle and a woman to
A warning which is not unlike one current in Surrey and other southern
"Where parsley's grown in the garden, there'll be a death before
the year's out."
In Devonshire it has long been held unlucky to transplant parsley, and a
poor woman in the neighbourhood of Morwenstow attributed a certain
stroke with which one of her children had been afflicted after
whooping-cough to the unfortunate undoing of the parsley bed. In the
"Folk-lore Record," too, an amusing instance is related of a gardener at
Southampton, who, for the same reason, refused to sow some parsley seed.
It may be noted that from a very early period the same antipathy has
existed in regard to this plant, and it is recorded how a few mules
laden with parsley threw into a complete panic a Greek force on its
march against the enemy. But the plant no doubt acquired its ominous
significance from its having been largely used to bestrew the tombs of
the dead; the Greek term "dehisthai selinou"—to be in need of
parsley—was a common phrase employed to denote those on the point of
death. There are various other superstitions attached to this plant, as
in Hampshire, where the peasants dislike giving any away for fear of
some ill-luck befalling them. Similarly, according to another proverb:—
"Sowing fennel is sowing sorrow."
But why this should be so it is difficult to explain, considering that
by the ancients fennel was used for the victor's wreath, and, as one of
the plants dedicated to St. John, it has long been placed over doors on
his vigil. On the other hand, there is a common saying with respect to
rosemary, which was once much cultivated in kitchen gardens:—
"Where rosemary flourishes the lady rules."
Vetches, from being reputed a most hardy grain, have been embodied in
the following adage:—
"A thetch will go through
The bottom of an old shoe,"
Which reminds us of the proverbial saying:—
"Like a camomile bed,
The more it is trodden
The more it will spread."
The common expression:—
"Worth a plum,"
Is generally said of a man who is accredited with large means, and
another adage tells us that,
"The higher the plum-tree, the riper the plum."
To live in luxury and affluence is expressed by the proverbial phrase
"To live in clover," with which may be compared the saying "Do it up in
lavender," applied to anything which is valuable and precious. A further
similar phrase is "Laid up in lavender," in allusion to the
old-fashioned custom of scenting newly-washed linen with this fragrant
plant. Thus Shenstone says:—
"Lavender, whose spikes of azure bloom
Shall be, erewhile, in arid bundles bound,
To lurk amidst the labours of her loom,
And crown her kerchiefs clean with micklc rare perfume."
According to Gerarde, the Spartans were in the habit of eating cress
with their bread, from a popular notion very generally held among the
ancients, that those who ate it became noted for their wit and decision
of character. Hence the old proverb:—
"Eat cress to learn more wit."
Of fruit proverbs we are told that,
"If you would enjoy the fruit, pluck not the flower."
"When all fruit fails, welcome haws."
And "If you would have fruit, you must carry the leaf to the grave;"
which Ray explains, "You must transplant your trees just about the fall
of the leaf," and then there is the much-quoted rhyme:—
"Fruit out of season,
Sorrow out of reason."
Respecting the vine, it is said:—
"Make the vine poor, and it will make you rich,"
That is, prune off its branches; and another adage is to this effect:
"Short boughs, long vintage." The constant blooming of the gorse has
given rise to a popular Northamptonshire proverb:—
"When gorse is out of bloom, kissing is out of season."
The health-giving properties of various plants have long been in the
highest repute, and have given rise to numerous well-known proverbs,
which are still heard in many a home. Thus old Gerarde, describing the
virtues of the mallow, tells us:—
"If that of health you have any special care,
Use French mallows, that to the body wholesome are."
Then there is the time-honoured adage which says that:—
"He that would live for aye
Must eat sage in May."
And Aubrey has bequeathed us the following piece of advice:—
"Eat leeks in Lide, and ramsines in May,
And all the year after physicians may play."
There are many sayings of this kind still current among our
country-folk, some of which no doubt contain good advice; and of the
plaintain, which from time immemorial has been used as a vulnerary,
it is said:—
"Plantain ribbed, that heals the reaper's wounds."
In Herefordshire there is a popular rhyme associated with the aul
"When the bud of the aul is as big as the trout's eye,
Then that fish is in season in the river Wye."
A Yorkshire name for the quaking grass (Briza media) is "trembling
jockies," and according to a local proverb:—
"A trimmling jock i' t' house,
An' you weeant hev a mouse,"
This plant being, it is said, obnoxious to mice. According to a
"Plant your sage and rue together,
The sage will grow in any weather."
This list of plant proverbs might easily be extended, but the
illustrations quoted in the preceding pages are a fair sample of this
portion of our subject. Whereas many are based on truth, others are more
or less meaningless. At any rate, they still thrive to a large extent
among our rural community, by whom they are regarded as so many
1. See Akerman's "Wiltshire Glossary," p. 18.
2. "English Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases," pp. 327-8.
3. "Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases," p. 207.
PLANTS AND THEIR CEREMONIAL USE.
In the earliest period of primitive society flowers seem to have been
largely used for ceremonial purposes. Tracing their history downwards up
to the present day, we find how extensively, throughout the world, they
have entered into sacred and other rites. This is not surprising when we
remember how universal have been the love and admiration for these
choice and lovely productions of nature's handiwork. From being used as
offerings in the old heathen worship they acquired an additional
veneration, and became associated with customs which had important
significance. Hence the great quantity of flowers required, for
ceremonial purposes of various kinds, no doubt promoted and encouraged a
taste for horticulture even among uncultured tribes. Thus the Mexicans
had their famous floating gardens, and in the numerous records handed
down of social life, as it existed in different countries, there is no
lack of references to the habits and peculiarities of the
Again, from all parts of the world, the histories of bygone centuries
have contributed their accounts of the rich assortment of flowers in
demand for the worship of the gods, which are valuable as indicating how
elaborate and extensive was the knowledge of plants in primitive
periods, and how magnificent must have been the display of these
beautiful and brilliant offerings. Amongst some tribes, too, so sacred
were the flowers used in religious rites held, that it was forbidden so
much as to smell them, much less to handle them, except by those whose
privileged duty it was to arrange them for the altar. Coming down to the
historic days of Greece and Rome, we have abundant details of the skill
and care that were displayed in procuring for religious purposes the
finest and choicest varieties of flowers; abundant allusions to which
are found in the old classic writings.
The profuseness with which flowers were used in Rome during triumphal
processions has long ago become proverbial, in allusion to which
"On they ride to the Forum,
While laurel boughs, and flowers,
From house-tops and from windows,
Fell on their crests in showers."
Flowers, in fact, were in demand on every conceivable occasion, a custom
which was frequently productive of costly extravagance. Then there was
their festival of the Floralia, in honour of the reappearance of
spring-time, with its hosts of bright blossoms, a survival of which has
long been kept up in this country on May Day, when garlands and carols
form the chief feature of the rustic merry-making. Another grand
ceremonial occasion, when flowers were specially in request, was the
Fontinalia, an important day in Rome, for the wells and fountains were
crowned with flowers:—
"Fontinalia festus erat dies Romae, quo in fontes
coronas projiciebant, puteosque coronabant, ut a quibus pellucidos
liquores at restinguendam sitim acciperent, iisdem gratiam referre hoc
A pretty survival of this festival has long been observed in the
well-dressing of Tissington on Ascension Day, when the wells are most
beautifully decorated with leaves and flowers, arranged in fanciful
devices, interwoven into certain symbols and texts. This floral rite is
thus described in "The Fleece":—
"With light fantastic toe, the nymphs
Thither assembled, thither every swain;
And o'er the dimpled stream a thousand flowers,
Pale lilies, roses, violets and pinks,
Mix'd with the greens of bouret, mint, and thyme,
And trefoil, sprinkled with their sportive arms,
Such custom holds along th' irriguous vales,
From Wreken's brow to rocky Dolvoryn,
Sabrina's early haunt."
With this usage may be compared one performed by the fishermen of
Weymouth, who on the first of May put out to sea for the purpose of
scattering garlands of flowers on the waves, as a propitiatory offering
to obtain food for the hungry. "This link," according to Miss Lambert,
"is but another link in the chain that connects us with the yet more
primitive practice of the Red Indian, who secures passage across the
Lake Superior, or down the Mississippi, by gifts of precious tobacco,
which he wafts to the great spirit of the Flood on the bosom of its
By the Romans a peculiar reverence seems to have attached to their
festive garlands, which were considered unsuitable for wearing in
public. Hence, any person appearing in one was liable to punishment, a
law which was carried out with much rigour. On one occasion, Lucius
Fulvius, a banker, having been convicted at the time of the second Punic
war, of looking down from the balcony of a house with a chaplet of roses
on his head, was thrown into prison by order of the Senate, and here
kept for sixteen years, until the close of the war. A further case of
extreme severity was that of P. Munatius, who was condemned by the
Triumviri to be put in chains for having crowned himself with flowers
from the statue of Marsyas.
Allusions to such estimation of garlands in olden times are numerous in
the literature of the past, and it may be remembered how Montesquieu
remarked that it was with two or three hundred crowns of oak that Rome
conquered the world.
Guests at feasts wore garlands of flowers tied with the bark of the
linden tree, to prevent intoxication; the wreath having been framed in
accordance with the position of the wearer. A poet, in his paraphrase on
Horace, thus illustrates this custom:—
"Nay, nay, my boy, 'tis not for me
This studious pomp of Eastern luxury;
Give me no various garlands fine
With linden twine;
Nor seek where latest lingering blows
The solitary rose."
Not only were the guests adorned with flowers, but the waiters,
drinking-cups, and room, were all profusely decorated. "In short," as
the author of "Flower-lore" remarks, "it would be difficult to name the
occasions on which flowers were not employed; and, as almost all plants
employed in making garlands had a symbolical meaning, the garland was
composed in accordance with that meaning." Garlands, too, were thrown to
actors on the stage, a custom which has come down to the present day in
an exaggerated form.
Indeed, many of the flowers in request nowadays for ceremonial uses in
our own and other countries may be traced back to this period; the
symbolical meaning attached to certain plants having survived after the
lapse of many centuries. For a careful description of the flowers thus
employed, we would refer the reader to two interesting papers
contributed by Miss Lambert to the Nineteenth Century, in which she
has collected together in a concise form all the principal items of
information on the subject in past years. A casual perusal of these
papers will suffice to show what a wonderful knowledge of botany the
ancients must have possessed; and it may be doubted whether the most
costly array of plants witnessed at any church festival supersedes a
similar display witnessed by worshippers in the early heathen temples.
In the same way, we gain an insight into the profusion of flowers
employed by heathen communities in later centuries, showing how
intimately associated these have been with their various forms of
worship. Thus, the Singhalese seem to have used flowers to an almost
incredible extent, and one of their old chronicles tells us how the
Ruanwellé dagoba—270 feet high—was festooned with garlands from
pedestal to pinnacle, till it had the appearance of one uniform bouquet.
We are further told that in the fifteenth century a certain king offered
no less than 6,480,320 sweet-smelling flowers at the shrine of the
tooth; and, among the regulations of the temple at Dambedenia in the
thirteenth century, one prescribes that "every day an offering of
100,000 blossoms, and each day a different kind of flower," should be
presented. This is a striking instance, but only one of many.
"With regard to Greece, there are few of our trees and flowers," writes
Mr. Moncure Conway, "which were not cultivated in the gorgeous
gardens of Epicurus, Pericles, and Pisistratus." Among the flowers
chiefly used for garlands and chaplets in ceremonial rites we find the
rose, violet, anemone, thyme, melilot, hyacinth, crocus, yellow lily,
and yellow flowers generally. Thucydides relates how, in the ninth year
of the Peloponnesian War, the temple of Juno at Argos was burnt down
owing to the priestess Chrysis having set a lighted torch too near the
garlands and then fallen asleep. The garlands caught fire, and the
damage was irremediable before she was conscious of the mischief. The
gigantic scale on which these floral ceremonies were conducted may be
gathered from the fact that in the procession of Europa at Corinth a
huge crown of myrtle, thirty feet in circumference, was borne. At Athens
the myrtle was regarded as the symbol of authority, a wreath of its
leaves having been worn by magistrates. On certain occasions the mitre
of the Jewish high priest was adorned with a chaplet of the blossoms of
the henbane. Of the further use of garlands, we are told that the
Japanese employ them very freely; both men and women wearing chaplets
of fragrant blossoms. A wreath of a fragrant kind of olive is the reward
of literary merit in China. In Northern India the African marigold is
held as a sacred flower; they adorn the trident emblem of Mahádivá with
garlands of it, and both men and women wear chaplets made of its flowers
on his festivals. Throughout Polynesia garlands have been habitually
worn on seasons of "religious solemnity or social rejoicing," and in
Tonga they were employed as a token of respect. In short, wreaths seem
to have been from a primitive period adopted almost universally in
ceremonial rites, having found equal favour both with civilised as well
as uncivilised communities. It will probably, too, always be so.
Flowers have always held a prominent place in wedding ceremonies, and at
the present day are everywhere extensively used. Indeed, it would be no
easy task to exhaust the list of flowers which have entered into the
marriage customs of different countries, not to mention the many bridal
emblems of which they have been made symbolical. As far back as the time
of Juno, we read, according to Homer's graphic account, how:—
"Glad earth perceives, and from her bosom pours
Unbidden herbs and voluntary flowers:
Thick, new-born violets a soft carpet spread,
And clust'ring lotos swelled the rising bed;
And sudden hyacinths the earth bestrow,
And flamy crocus made the mountain glow."
According to a very early custom the Grecian bride was required to eat a
quince, and the hawthorn was the flower which formed her wreath, which
at the present day is still worn at Greek nuptials, the altar being
decked with its blossoms. Among the Romans the hazel held a significant
position, torches having been burnt on the wedding evening to insure
prosperity to the newly-married couple, and both in Greece and Rome
young married couples were crowned with marjoram. At Roman weddings,
too, oaken boughs were carried during the ceremony as symbols of
fecundity; and the bridal wreath was of verbena, plucked by the bride
herself. Holly wreaths were sent as tokens of congratulation, and
wreaths of parsley and rue were given under a belief that they were
effectual preservatives against evil spirits. In Germany, nowadays, a
wreath of vervain is presented to the newly-married bride; a plant
which, on account of its mystic virtues, was formerly much used for
love-philtres and charms. The bride herself wears a myrtle wreath, as
also does the Jewish maiden, but this wreath was never given either to a
widow or a divorced woman. Occasionally, too, it is customary in Germany
to present the bride and bridegroom with an almond at the wedding
banquet, and in the nuptial ceremonies of the Czechs this plant is
distributed among the guests. In Switzerland so much importance was in
years past attached to flowers and their symbolical significance that,
"a very strict law was in force prohibiting brides from wearing chaplets
or garlands in the church, or at any time during the wedding feast, if
they had previously in any way forfeited their rights to the privileges
of maidenhood." With the Swiss maiden the edelweiss is almost a
sacred flower, being regarded as a proof of the devotion of her lover,
by whom it is often gathered with much risk from growing in inaccessible
spots. In Italy, as in days of old, nuts are scattered at the marriage
festival, and corn is in many cases thrown over the bridal couple, a
survival of the old Roman custom of making offerings of corn to the
bride. A similar usage prevails at an Indian wedding, where, "after the
first night, the mother of the husband, with all the female relatives,
comes to the young bride and places on her head a measure of
corn—emblem of fertility. The husband then comes forward and takes from
his bride's head some handfuls of the grain, which he scatters over
himself." As a further illustration we may quote the old Polish custom,
which consisted of visitors throwing wheat, rye, oats, barley, rice, and
beans at the door of the bride's house, as a symbol that she never would
want any of these grains so long as she did her duty. In the Tyrol is a
fine grove of pine-trees—the result of a long-established custom for
every newly united couple to plant a marriage tree, which is generally
of the pine kind. Garlands of wild asparagus are used by the Boeotians,
while with the Chinese the peach-blossom is the popular emblem of a
In England, flowers have always been largely employed in the wedding
ceremony, although they have varied at different periods, influenced by
the caprice of fashion. Thus, it appears that flowers were once worn by
the betrothed as tokens of their engagement, and Quarles in his
"Sheapheard's Oracles," 1646, tells us how,
Compose rush-rings and myrtle-berry chains,
And stuck with glorious kingcups, and their bonnets
Adorn'd with laurell slips, chaunt their love sonnets."
Spenser, too, in his "Shepherd's Calendar" for April, speaks of
"Coronations and sops in wine worn of paramours"—sops in wine having
been a nickname for pinks (Dianthus plumarius), although Dr. Prior
assigns the name to Dianthus caryophyllus. Similarly willow was worn
by a discarded lover. In the bridal crown, the rosemary often had a
distinguished place, besides figuring at the ceremony itself, when it
was, it would seem, dipped in scented water, an allusion to which we
find in Beaumont and Fletcher's "Scornful Lady," where it is asked,
"Were the rosemary branches dipped?" Another flower which was entwined
in the bridal garland was the lily, to which Ben Jonson refers in
speaking of the marriage of his friend Mr. Weston with the Lady
"See how with roses and with lilies shine,
Lilies and roses (flowers of either sex),
The bright bride's paths."
It was also customary to plant a rose-bush at the head of the grave of a
deceased lover, should either of them die before the wedding. Sprigs of
bay were also introduced into the bridal wreath, besides ears of corn,
emblematical of the plenty which might always crown the bridal couple.
Nowadays the bridal wreath is almost entirely composed of
orange-blossom, on a background of maiden-hair fern, with a sprig of
stephanotis interspersed here and there. Much uncertainty exists as to
why this plant was selected, the popular reason being that it was
adopted as an emblem of fruitfulness. According to a correspondent of
Notes and Queries, the practice may be traced to the Saracens, by whom
the orange-blossom was regarded as a symbol of a prosperous marriage—a
circumstance which is partly to be accounted for by the fact that in the
East the orange-tree bears ripe fruit and blossom at the same time.
Then there is the bridal bouquet, which is a very different thing from
what it was in years gone by. Instead of being composed of the scarcest
and most costly flowers arranged in the most elaborate manner, it was a
homely nosegay of mere country flowers—some of the favourite ones, says
Herrick, being pansy, rose, lady-smock, prick-madam, gentle-heart, and
maiden-blush. A spray of gorse was generally inserted, in allusion, no
doubt, to the time-honoured proverb, "When the furze is out of bloom,
kissing is out of fashion." In spring-time again, violets and primroses
were much in demand, probably from being in abundance at the season;
although they have generally been associated with early death.
Among the many floral customs associated with the wedding ceremony may
be mentioned the bridal-strewings, which were very prevalent in past
years, a survival of which is still kept up at Knutsford, in Cheshire.
On such an occasion, the flowers used were emblematical, and if the
bride happened to be unpopular, she often encountered on her way to the
church flowers of a not very complimentary meaning. The practice was not
confined to this country, and we are told how in Holland the threshold
of the newly-married couple was strewn with flowers, the laurel being as
a rule most conspicuous among the festoons. Lastly, the use of flowers
in paying honours to the dead has been from time immemorial most
widespread. Instances are so numerous that it is impossible to do more
than quote some of the most important, as recorded in our own and other
countries. For detailed accounts of these funereal floral rites it would
be necessary to consult the literature of the past from a very early
period, and the result of such inquiries would form material enough for
a goodly-sized volume. Therespect for the dead among the early Greeks
was very great, and Miss Lambert quotes the complaint of Petala to
Simmalion, in the Epistles of Alciphron, to show how special was the
dedication of flowers to the dead:—"I have a lover who is a mourner,
not a lover; he sends me garlands and roses as if to deck a premature
grave, and he says he weeps through the live-long night."
The chief flowers used by them for strewing over graves were the
polyanthus, myrtle, and amaranth; the rose, it would appear from
Anacreon, having been thought to possess a special virtue for
"When pain afflicts and sickness grieves,
Its juice the drooping heart relieves;
And after death its odours shed
A pleasing fragrance o'er the dead."
And Electra is represented as complaining that the
tomb of her father, Agamemnon, had not been duly
adorned with myrtle—
"With no libations, nor with myrtle boughs,
Were my dear father's manes gratified."
The Greeks also planted asphodel and mallow round their graves, as the
seeds of these plants were supposed to nourish the dead. Mourners, too,
wore flowers at the funeral rites, and Homer relates how the Thessalians
used crowns of amaranth at the burial of Achilles. The Romans were
equally observant, and Ovid, when writing from the land of exile, prayed
his wife—"But do you perform the funeral rites for me when dead, and
offer chaplets wet with your tears. Although the fire shall have changed
my body into ashes, yet the sad dust will be sensible of your pious
affection." Like the Greeks, the Romans set a special value on the rose
as a funeral flower, and actually left directions that their graves
should be planted with this favourite flower, a custom said to have been
introduced by them into this country. Both Camden and Aubrey allude to
it, and at the present day in Wales white roses denote the graves of
young unmarried girls.
Coming down to modern times, we find the periwinkle, nicknamed "death's
flower," scattered over the graves of children in Italy—notably
Tuscany—and in some parts of Germany the pink is in request for this
purpose. In Persia we read of:—
"The basil-tuft that waves
Its fragrant blossoms over graves;"
And among the Chinese, roses, the anemone, and a species of lycoris are
planted over graves. The Malays use a kind of basil, and in Tripoli
tombs are adorned with such sweet and fragrant flowers as the orange,
jessamine, myrtle, and rose. In Mexico the Indian carnation is popularly
known as the "flower of the dead," and the people of Tahiti cover their
dead with choice flowers. In America the Freemasons place twigs of
acacia on the coffins of brethren. The Buddhists use flowers largely for
funeral purposes, and an Indian name for the tamarisk is the "messenger
of Yama," the Indian God of Death. The people of Madagascar have a
species of mimosa, which is frequently found growing on the tombs, and
in Norway the funeral plants are juniper and fir. In France the custom
very largely nourishes, roses and orange-blossoms in the southern
provinces being placed in the coffins of the young. Indeed, so general
is the practice in France that, "sceptics and believers uphold it, and
statesmen, and soldiers, and princes, and scholars equally with children
and maidens are the objects of it."
Again, in Oldenburg, it is said that cornstalks must be scattered about
a house in which death has entered, as a charm against further
misfortune, and in the Tyrol an elder bush is often planted on a
In our own country the practice of crowning the dead and of strewing
their graves with flowers has prevailed from a very early period, a
custom which has been most pathetically and with much grace described by
Shakespeare in "Cymbeline" (Act iv. sc. 2):—
"With fairest flowers,
Whilst summer lasts, and I live here, Fidele,
I'll sweeten thy sad grave: thou shalt not lack
The flower that's like thy face, pale primrose; nor
The azured harebell, like thy veins; no, nor
The leaf of eglantine, whom not to slander,
Out-sweeten'd not thy breath: the ruddock would,
With charitable bill, O bill, sore-shaming
Those rich-left heirs that let their fathers lie
Without a monument! bring thee all this;
Yea, and furr'd moss besides, when flowers are none,
To winter-ground thy corse."
Allusions to the custom are frequently to be met with in our old
writers, many of which have been collected together by Brand. In
former years it was customary to carry sprigs of rosemary at a funeral,
probably because this plant was considered emblematical of
"To show their love, the neighbours far and near,
Follow'd with wistful look the damsel's bier;
Spring'd rosemary the lads and lasses bore,
While dismally the parson walked before."
Gay speaks of the flowers scattered on graves as "rosemary, daisy,
butter'd flower, and endive blue," and Pepys mentions a churchyard near
Southampton where the graves were sown with sage. Another plant which
has from a remote period been associated with death is the cypress,
having been planted by the ancients round their graves. In our own
country it was employed as a funeral flower, and Coles thus refers to
it, together with the rosemary and bay:—
"Cypresse garlands are of great account at funerals amongst the
gentler sort, but rosemary and bayes are used by the
commons both at funerals and weddings. They are
all plants which fade not a good while after they are
gathered, and used (as I conceive) to intimate unto us
that the remembrance of the present solemnity might
not die presently (at once), but be kept in mind for
The yew has from time immemorial been planted in churchyards besides
being used at funerals. Paris, in "Romeo and Juliet", (Act v. sc. 3),
"Under yon yew trees lay thee all along,
Holding thine ear close to the hollow ground;
So shall no foot upon the churchyard tread,
Being loose, unfirm, with digging up of graves,
But thou shall hear it."
Shakespeare also refers to the custom of sticking yew in the shroud in
the following song in "Twelfth Night" (Act ii. sc. 4):—
"My shroud of white, stuck all with yew,
Oh, prepare it;
My part of death, no one so true
Did share it."
Unhappy lovers had garlands of willow, yew, and rosemary laid on their
biers, an allusion to which occurs in the "Maid's Tragedy":—
"Lay a garland on my hearse
Of the dismal yew;
Maidens, willow branches bear—
Say I died true.
My love was false, but I was firm
From my hour of birth;
Upon my buried body lie
Lightly, gentle earth."
Among further funeral customs may be mentioned that of carrying a
garland of flowers and sweet herbs before a maiden's coffin, and
afterwards suspending it in the church. Nichols, in his "History of
Lancashire" (vol. ii. pt. i. 382), speaking of Waltham in Framland
Hundred, says: "In this church under every arch a garland is suspended,
one of which is customarily placed there whenever any young unmarried
woman dies." It is to this custom Gay feelingly alludes:—
"To her sweet mem'ry flowing garlands strung,
On her now empty seat aloft were hung."
Indeed, in all the ceremonial observances of life, from the cradle to
the grave, flowers have formed a prominent feature, the symbolical
meaning long attached to them explaining their selection on different
1. See "Flower-lore," p. 147.
2. "The Ceremonial Use of Flowers."
3. Fraser's Magazine, 1870, p. 711.
4. "Flower-lore," pp. 149-50.
5. Miss Lambert, Nineteenth Century, May 1880, p. 821.
6. Nineteenth Century, September 1878, p. 473.
7. "Popular Antiquities," 1870, ii. 24, &c.
The origin and history of plant names is a subject of some magnitude,
and is one that has long engaged the attention of philologists. Of the
many works published on plant names, that of the "English Dialect
Society" is by far the most complete, and forms a valuable addition
to this class of literature.
Some idea of the wide area covered by the nomenclature of plants, as
seen in the gradual evolution and descent of vernacular names, may be
gathered even from a cursory survey of those most widely known in our
own and other countries. Apart, too, from their etymological
associations, it is interesting to trace the variety of sources from
whence plant names have sprung, a few illustrations of which are given
in the present chapter.
At the outset, it is noteworthy that our English plant names can boast
of a very extensive parentage, being, "derived from many
languages—Latin, Greek, ancient British, Anglo-Saxon, Norman, Low
German, Swedish, Danish, Arabic, Persian." It is not surprising,
therefore, that in many cases much confusion has arisen in unravelling
their meaning, which in the course of years would naturally become more
or less modified by a succession of influences such as the
intercommunication and change of ideas between one country and another.
On the other hand, numerous plant names clearly display their origin,
the lapse of years having left these unaffected, a circumstance which is
especially true in the case of Greek and Latin names. Names of French
origin are frequently equally distinct, a familiar instance being
dandelion, from the French dent-de-lion, "lion's tooth," although the
reason for its being so called is by no means evident. At the same time,
it is noticeable that in nearly every European language the plant bears
a similar name; whereas Professor De Gubernatis connects the name with
the sun (Helios), and adds that a lion was the animal symbol of the sun,
and that all plants named after him are essentially plants of the
sun. One of the popular names of the St. John's wort is tutsan, a
corruption of the French toute saine, so called from its healing
properties, and the mignonette is another familiar instance. The
flower-de-luce, one of the names probably of the iris, is derived from
fleur de Louis, from its having been assumed as his device by Louis
VII. of France. It has undergone various changes, having been in all
probability contracted into fleur-de-luce, and finally into fleur-de-lys
or fleur-de-lis. An immense deal of discussion has been devoted to the
history of this name, and a great many curious theories proposed in
explanation of it, some being of opinion that the lily and not the iris
is referred to. But the weight of evidence seem to favour the iris
theory, this plant having been undoubtedly famous in French history.
Once more, by some, the name fleur-de-lys has been derived from Löys,
in which manner the twelve first Louis signed their names, and which was
easily contracted into Lys. Some consider it means the flower that grows
on the banks of the river Lis, which separated France and Artois from
Flanders. Turning to the literature of the past, Shakespeare has several
allusions to the plant, as in "I Henry VI," where a messenger enters and
"Awake, awake, English nobility!
Let not sloth dim your honours new begot;
Cropp'd are the flower-de-luces in your arms;
Of England's coat one half is cut away."
Spenser mentions the plant, and distinguishes it from the lily:—
"Show mee the grounde with daifadown-dillies,
And cowslips, and kingcups, and loved lillies;
The pretty pawnee,
And the cherisaunce,
Shall march with the fayre flowre delice."
Another instance is the mignonette of our French neighbours, known also
as the "love-flower." One of the names of the deadly nightshade is
belladonna which reminds us of its Italian appellation, and "several of
our commonest plant names are obtained from the Low German or Dutch, as,
for instance, buckwheat (Polygonum fagopyrum), from the Dutch
bockweit." The rowan-tree (Pyrus aucuparia) comes from the Danish
röun, Swedish rünn, which, as Dr. Prior remarks, is traceable to the
"old Norse runa, a charm, from its being supposed to have power to
avert evil." Similarly, the adder's tongue (Ophioglossum vulgatum) is
said to be from the Dutch adder-stong, and the word hawthorn is found
in the various German dialects.
As the authors of "English Plant Names" remark (Intr. xv.), many
north-country names are derived from Swedish and Danish sources, an
interesting example occurring in the word kemps, a name applied to the
black heads of the ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata). The origin
of this name is to be found in the Danish kaempe, a warrior, and the
reason for its being so called is to be found in the game which children
in most parts of the kingdom play with the flower-stalks of the
plantain, by endeavouring to knock off the heads of each other's mimic
weapons. Again, as Mr. Friend points out, the birch would take us back
to the primeval forests of India, and among the multitudinous instances
of names traceable to far-off countries may be mentioned the lilac and
tulip from Persia, the latter being derived from thoulyban, the word
used in Persia for a turban. Lilac is equivalent to lilag, a Persian
word signifying flower, having been introduced into Europe from that
country early in the sixteenth century by Busbeck, a German traveller.
But illustrations of this land are sufficient to show from how many
countries our plant names have been brought, and how by degrees they
have become interwoven into our own language, their pronunciation being
Anglicised by English speakers.
Many plants, again, have been called in memory of leading characters in
days gone by, and after those who discovered their whereabouts and
introduced them into European countries. Thus the fuchsia, a native of
Chili, was named after Leonard Fuchs, a well-known German botanist, and
the magnolia was so called in honour of Pierre Magnol, an eminent writer
on botanical subjects. The stately dahlia after Andrew Dahl, the Swedish
botanist. But, without enumerating further instances, for they are
familiar to most readers, it may be noticed that plants which embody the
names of animals are very numerous indeed. In many cases this has
resulted from some fancied resemblance to some part of the animal named;
thus from their long tongued-like leaves, the hart's-tongue,
lamb's-tongue, and ox-tongue were so called, while some plants have
derived their names from the snouts of certain animals, such as the
swine's-snout (Lentodon taraxacum), and calf's-snout, or, as it is
more commonly termed, snapdragon (Antirrhinum majus). The gaping
corollas of various blossoms have suggested such names as dog's-mouth,
rabbit's-mouth, and lion's-snap, and plants with peculiarly-shaped
leaves have given rise to names like these—mouse-ear (Stachys
Zanaia), cat's-ears, and bear's-ears. Numerous names have been
suggested by their fancied resemblance to the feet, hoofs, and tails of
animals and birds; as, for instance, colt's-foot, crow-foot, bird's-foot
trefoil, horse-shoe vetch, bull-foot, and the vervain, nicknamed
frog's-foot. Then there is the larkspur, also termed lark's-claw, and
lark's-heel, the lamb's-toe being so called from its downy heads of
flowers, and the horse-hoof from the shape of the leaf. Among various
similar names may be noticed the crane's-bill and stork's-bill, from
their long beak-like seed-vessels, and the valerian, popularly
designated capon's-tail, from its spreading flowers.
Many plant names have animal prefixes, these indeed forming a very
extensive list. But in some instances, "the name of an animal prefixed
has a totally different signification, denoting size, coarseness, and
frequently worthlessness or spuriousness." Thus the horse-parsley was so
called from its coarseness as compared with smallage or celery, and the
horse-mushroom from its size in distinction to a species more commonly
eaten. The particular uses to which certain plants have been applied
have originated their names: the horse-bean, from being grown as a food
for horses; and the horse-chestnut, because used in Turkey for horses
that are broken or touched in the wind. Parkinson, too, adds how,
"horse-chestnuts are given in the East, and so through all Turkey, unto
horses to cure them of the cough, shortness of wind, and such other
diseases." The germander is known as horse-chere, from its growing after
horse-droppings; and the horse-bane, because supposed in Sweden to cause
a kind of palsy in horses—an effect which has been ascribed by Linnaeus
not so much to the noxious qualities of the plant itself, as to an
insect (Curculio paraplecticus) that breeds in its stem.
The dog has suggested sundry plant names, this prefix frequently
suggesting the idea of worthlessness, as in the case of the dog-violet,
which lacks the sweet fragrance of the true violet, and the dog-parsley,
which, whilst resembling the true plant of this name, is poisonous and
worthless. In like manner there is the dog-elder, dog's-mercury,
dog's-chamomile, and the dog-rose, each a spurious form of a plant quite
distinct; while on the other hand we have the dog's-tooth grass, from
the sharp-pointed shoots of its underground stem, and the dog-grass
(Triticum caninu), because given to dogs as an aperient.
The cat has come in for its due share of plant names, as for instance
the sun-spurge, which has been nicknamed cat's-milk, from its milky
juice oozing in drops, as milk from the small teats of a cat; and the
blossoms of the talix, designated cats-and-kittens, or kittings,
probably in allusion to their soft, fur-like appearance. Further names
are, cat's-faces (Viola tricolor), cat's-eyes (Veronica chamcaedrys),
cat's-tail, the catkin of the hazel or willow, and cat's-ear
The bear is another common prefix. Thus there is the bear's-foot, from
its digital leaf, the bear-berry, or bear's-bilberry, from its fruit
being a favourite food of bears, and the bear's-garlick. There is the
bear's-breech, from its roughness, a name transferred by some mistake
from the Acanthus to the cow-parsnip, and the bear's-wort, which it has
been suggested "is rather to be derived from its use in uterine
complaints than from the animal."
Among names in which the word cow figures may be mentioned the cow-bane,
water-hemlock, from its supposed baneful effects upon cows, because,
writes Withering, "early in the spring, when it grows in the water, cows
often eat it, and are killed by it." Cockayne would derive cowslip from
cu, cow, and slyppe, lip, and cow-wheat is so nicknamed from its
seed resembling wheat, but being worthless as food for man. The flowers
of the Arum maculatum are "bulls and cows;" and in Yorkshire the fruit
of Crataegus oxyacantha is bull-horns;—an old name for the horse-leek
Many curious names have resulted from the prefix pig, as in Sussex,
where the bird's-foot trefoil is known as pig's-pettitoes; and in
Devonshire the fruit of the dog-rose is pig's-noses. A Northamptonshire
term for goose-grass (Galium aparine) is pig-tail, and the pig-nut
(Brunium flexuosum) derived this name from its tubers being a
favourite food of pigs, and resembling nuts in size and flavour. The
common cyclamen is sow-head, and a popular name for the Sonchus
oleraceus is sow-thistle. Among further names also associated with the
sow may be included the sow-fennel, sow-grass, and sow-foot, while the
sow-bane (Chenopodium rubrum), is so termed from being, as Parkinson
tells us, "found certain to kill swine."
Among further animal prefixes may be noticed the wolfs-bane (Aconitum
napellus), wolf's-claws (Lycopodium clavatum), wolf's-milk
(Euphorbia helioscopia), and wolfs-thistle (Carlina acaulis). The
mouse has given us numerous names, such as mouse-ear (Hieracium
pilosella), mouse-grass (Aira caryophyllea), mouse-ear scorpion-grass
(Myosotis palustris), mouse-tail (Myosurus minimus), and mouse-pea.
The term rat-tail has been applied to several plants having a tail-like
inflorescence, such as the Plantago lanceolata (ribwort plantain).
The term toad as a prefix, like that of dog, frequently means spurious,
as in the toad-flax, a plant which, before it comes into flower, bears a
tolerably close resemblance to a plant of the true flax. The frog,
again, supplies names, such as frog's-lettuce, frog's-foot, frog-grass,
and frog-cheese; while hedgehog gives us such names as hedgehog-parsley
Connected with the dragon we have the name dragon applied to the
snake-weed (Polygonum bistorta), and dragon's-blood is one of the
popular names of the Herb-Robert. The water-dragon is a nickname of the
Caltha palustris, and dragon's-mouth of the Digitalis purpurea.
Once more, there is scorpion-grass and scorpion-wort, both of which
refer to various species of Myosotis; snakes and vipers also adding to
the list. Thus there is viper's-bugloss, and snake-weed. In
Gloucestershire the fruit of the Arum maculatum is snake's-victuals,
and snake's-head is a common name for thefritillary. There is the
snake-skin willow and snake's-girdles;—snake's-tongue being a name
given to the bane-wort (Ranunculus flammula).
Names in which the devil figures have been noticed elsewhere, as also
those in which the words fairy and witch enter. As the authors, too, of
the "Dictionary of Plant Names" have pointed out, a great number of
names may be called dedicatory, and embody the names of many of the
saints, and even of the Deity. The latter, however, are very few in
number, owing perhaps to a sense of reverence, and "God Almighty's bread
and cheese," "God's eye," "God's grace," "God's meat," "Our Lord's, or
Our Saviour's flannel," "Christ's hair," "Christ's herb," "Christ's
ladder," "Christ's thorn," "Holy Ghost," and "Herb-Trinity," make up
almost the whole list. On the other hand, the Virgin Mary has suggested
numerous names, some of which we have noticed in the chapter on sacred
plants. Certain of the saints, again, have perpetuated their names in
our plant nomenclature, instances of which are scattered throughout the
Some plants, such as flea-bane and wolf's-bane, refer to the reputed
property of the plant to keep off or injure the animal named, and
there is a long list of plants which derived their names from their real
or imaginary medicinal virtues, many of which illustrate the old
doctrine of signatures.
Birds, again, like animals, have suggested various names, and among some
of the best-known ones may be mentioned the goose-foot, goose-grass,
goose-tongue. Shakespeare speaks of cuckoo-buds, and there is
cuckoo's-head, cuckoo-flower, and cuckoo-fruit, besides the stork's-bill
and crane's-bill. Bees are not without their contingent of names; a
popular name of the Delphinium grandiflorum being the bee-larkspur,
"from the resemblance of the petals, which are studded with yellow
hairs, to the humble-bee whose head is buried in the recesses of
the flower." There is the bee-flower (Ophrys apifera), because the,
"lip is in form and colour so like a bee, that any one unacquainted
therewith would take it for a living bee sucking of the flower."
In addition to the various classes of names already mentioned, there are
a rich and very varied assortment found in most counties throughout the
country, many of which have originated in the most amusing and eccentric
way. Thus "butter and eggs" and "eggs and bacon" are applied to several
plants, from the two shades of yellow in the flower, and butter-churn to
the Nuphar luteum, from the shape of the fruit. A popular term for
Nepeta glechoma is "hen and chickens," and "cocks and hens" for the
Plantago lanceolata. A Gloucestershire nickname for the Plantago
media is fire-leaves, and the hearts'-ease has been honoured with all
sorts of romantic names, such as "kiss me behind the garden gate;" and
"none so pretty" is one of the popular names of the saxifrage. Among the
names of the Arum may be noticed "parson in the pulpit," "cows and
calves," "lords and ladies," and "wake-robin." The potato has a variety
of names, such as leather-jackets, blue-eyes, and red-eyes.
A pretty name in Devonshire for the Veronica chamcaedrys is
"Around her hat a wreath was twined
Of blossoms, blue as southern skies;
I asked their name, and she replied,
We call them angel's-eyes."
In the northern counties the poplar, on account of its bitter bark, was
termed the bitter-weed.
"Oak, ash, and elm-tree,
The laird can hang for a' the three;
But fir, saugh, and bitter-weed,
The laird may flyte, but make naething be'et."
According to the compilers of "English Plant Names," "this name is
assigned to no particular species of poplar, nor have we met with it
elsewhere." The common Solomon's seal (Polygonatum multiflorum) has
been nicknamed "David's harp," and, "appears to have arisen from the
exact similarity of the outline of the bended stalk, with its pendent
bill-like blossoms, to the drawings of monkish times in which King David
is represented as seated before an instrument shaped like the half of a
pointed arch, from which are suspended metal bells, which he strikes
with two hammers."
In the neighbourhood of Torquay, fir-cones are designated oysters, and
in Sussex the Arabis is called "snow-on-the-mountain," and
"snow-in-summer." A Devonshire name for the sweet scabriosis is the
mournful-widow, and in some places the red valerian (Centranthus
ruber) is known as scarlet-lightning. A common name for Achillaea
ptarmica is sneezewort, and the Petasites vulgaris has been
designated "son before the father." The general name for Drosera
rotundifolia is sun-dew, and in Gloucestershire the Primula auricula
is the tanner's-apron. The Viola tricolor is often known as "three
faces in a hood," and the Aconitum napellus as "Venus's chariot drawn
by two doves." The Stellaria holostea is "lady's white petticoat," and
the Scandix pecten is "old wife's darning-needles." One of the names
of the Campion is plum-pudding, and "spittle of the stars" has been
applied to the Nostoc commune. Without giving further instances of
these odd plant names, we would conclude by quoting the following
extract from the preface of Mr. Earle's charming little volume on
"English Plant Names," a remark which, indeed, most equally applies to
other sections of our subject beyond that of the present chapter:—"The
fascination of plant names has its foundation in two instincts, love of
Nature, and curiosity about Language. Plant names are often of the
highest antiquity, and more or less common to the whole stream of
related nations. Could we penetrate to the original suggestive idea that
called forth the name, it would bring valuable information about the
first openings of the human mind towards Nature; and the merest dream of
such a discovery invests with a strange charm the words that could tell,
if we could understand, so much of the forgotten infancy of the human
1. "Dictionary of English Plant Names," by J. Britten and Robert
2. "English Plant Names," Introduction, p. xiii.
3. See Folkard's "Legends," p. 309; Friend's "Flowers and Flowerlore,"
4. See "Flower-lore," p. 74.
5. Friend's "Flower-lore," ii. 425.
6. Garden, June 29, 1872.
7. Johnston's "Botany of Eastern Borders," 1853, p. 177.
8. Lady Wilkinson's "Weeds and Wild Flowers," p. 269.
Plant language, as expressive of the various traits of human character,
can boast of a world-wide and antique history. It is not surprising that
flowers, the varied and lovely productions of nature's dainty handiwork,
should have been employed as symbolic emblems, and most aptly indicative
oftentimes of what words when even most wisely chosen can ill convey;
for as Tennyson remarks:—
"Any man that walks the mead
In bud, or blade, or bloom, may find
A meaning suited to his mind."
Hence, whether we turn to the pages of the Sacred Volume, or to the
early Greek writings, we find the symbolism of flowers most eloquently
illustrated, while Persian poetry is rich in allusions of the same kind.
Indeed, as Mr. Ingram has remarked in his "Flora Symbolica,"—Every
age and every clime has promulgated its own peculiar system of floral
signs, and it has been said that the language of flowers is as old as
the days of Adam; having, also, thousands of years ago, existed in the
Indian, Egyptian, and Chaldean civilisations which have long since
passed away. He further adds how the Chinese, whose, "chronicles
antedate the historic records of all other nations, seem to have had a
simple but complete mode of communicating ideas by means of florigraphic
signs;" whereas, "the monuments of the old Assyrian and Egyptian races
bear upon their venerable surfaces a code of floral telegraphy whose
hieroglyphical meaning is veiled or but dimly guessed at in our day."
The subject is an extensive one, and also enters largely into the
ceremonial use of flowers, many of which were purposely selected for
certain rites from their long-established symbolical character. At the
same time, it must be remembered that many plants have had a meaning
attached to them by poets and others, who have by a license of their own
made them to represent certain sentiments and ideas for which there is
no authority save their own fancy.
Hence in numerous instances a meaning, wholly misguiding, has been
assigned to various plants, and has given rise to much confusion. This,
too, it may be added, is the case in other countries as well as our own.
Furthermore, as M. de Gubernatis observes, "there exist a great number of
books which pretend to explain the language of flowers, wherein one may
occasionally find a popular or traditional symbol; but, as a rule, these
expressions are generally the wild fancies of the author himself."
Hence, in dealing with plant language, one is confronted with a host of
handbooks, many of which are not only inaccurate, but misleading. But in
enumerating the recognised and well-known plants that have acquired a
figurative meaning, it will be found that in a variety of cases this may
be traced to their connection with some particular event in years past,
and not to some chance or caprice, as some would make us believe. The
amaranth, for instance, which is the emblem of immortality, received its
name, "never-fading," from the Greeks on account of the lasting nature
of its blossoms. Accordingly, Milton crowns with amaranth the angelic
multitude assembled before the Deity:—
"To the ground,
With solemn adoration, down they cast
Their crowns, inwove with amaranth and gold.
Immortal amaranth, a flower which once
In Paradise, fast by the tree of life,
Began to bloom; but soon, for man's offence,
To heaven removed, where first it grew, there grows
And flowers aloft, shading the font of life," &c.
And in some parts of the Continent churches are adorned at
Christmas-tide with the amaranth, as a symbol "of that immortality to
which their faith bids them look."
Grass, from its many beneficial qualities, has been made the emblem of
usefulness; and the ivy, from its persistent habit of clinging to the
heaviest support, has been universally adopted as the symbol of
confiding love and fidelity. Growing rapidly, it iron clasps:—
"The fissured stone with its entwining arms,
And embowers with leaves for ever green,
And berries dark."
According to a Cornish tradition, the beautiful Iseult, unable to endure
the loss of her betrothed—the brave Tristran—died of a broken heart,
and was buried in the same church, but, by order of the king, the two
graves were placed at a distance from each other. Soon, however, there
burst forth from the tomb of Tristran a branch of ivy, and another from
the grave of Iseult; these shoots gradually growing upwards, until at
last the lovers, represented by the clinging ivy, were again united
beneath the vaulted roof of heaven.
Then, again, the cypress, in floral language, denotes mourning; and, as
an emblem of woe, may be traced to the familiar classical myth of
Cyparissus, who, sorrow-stricken at having skin his favourite stag, was
transformed into a cypress tree. Its ominous and sad character is the
subject of constant allusion, Virgil having introduced it into the
funeral rites of his heroes. Shelley speaks of the unwept youth whom no
mourning maidens decked,
"With weeping flowers, or votive cypress wreath,
The love-couch of his everlasting sleep."
And Byron describes the cypress as,
"Dark tree! still sad when other's grief is fled,
The only constant mourner o'er the dead."
The laurel, used for classic wreaths, has long been regarded
emblematical of renown, and Tasso thus addresses a laurel leaf in the
hair of his mistress:—
"O glad triumphant bough,
That now adornest conquering chiefs, and now
Clippest the bows of over-ruling kings
From victory to victory.
Thus climbing on through all the heights of story,
From worth to worth, and glory unto glory,
To finish all, O gentle and royal tree,
Thou reignest now upon that flourishing head,
At whose triumphant eyes love and our souls are led."
Like the rose, the myrtle is the emblem of love, having been dedicated
by the Greeks and Romans to Venus, in the vicinity of whose temples
myrtle-groves were planted; hence, from time immemorial,
"Sacred to Venus is the myrtle shade."
This will explain its frequent use in bridal ceremonies on the
Continent, and its employment for the wedding wreath of the Jewish
damsel. Herrick, mindful of its associations, thus apostrophises Venus:—
"Goddess, I do love a girl,
Ruby lipp'd and toothed like pearl;
If so be I may but prove
Lucky in this maid I love,
I will promise there shall be
Myrtles offered up to thee."
To the same goddess was dedicated the rose, and its world-wide
reputation as "the flower of love," in which character it has been
extolled by poets in ancient and modern times, needs no more than
The olive indicates peace, and as an emblem was given to Judith when she
restored peace to the Israelites by the death of Holofernes.
Shakespeare, in "Twelfth Night" (Act i. sc. 5), makes Viola say:—"I
bring no overture of war, no taxation of homage; I hold the olive in my
hand; my words are as full of peace as of matter." Similarly, the palm,
which, as the symbol of victory, was carried before the conqueror in
triumphal processions, is generally regarded as denoting victory. Thus,
palm-branches were scattered in the path of Christ upon His public entry
into Jerusalem; and, at the present day, a palm-branch is embroidered on
the lappet of the gown of a French professor, to indicate that a
University degree has been attained.
Some flowers have become emblematical from their curious
characteristics. Thus, the balsam is held to be expressive of
impatience, because its seed-pods when ripe curl up at the slightest
touch, and dart forth their seeds, with great violence; hence one of its
popular names, "touch-me-not." The wild anemone has been considered
indicative of brevity, because its fragile blossom is so quickly
scattered to the wind and lost:—
"The winds forbid the flowers to flourish long,
Which owe to winds their name in Grecian song."
The poppy, from its somniferous effects, has been made symbolic of sleep
and oblivion; hence Virgil calls it the Lethean poppy, whilst our old
pastoral poet, William Browne, speaks of it as "sleep-bringing poppy."
The heliotrope denotes devoted attachment, from its having been supposed
to turn continually towards the sun; hence its name, signifying the
sun and to turn. The classic heliotrope must not be confounded with
the well-known Peruvian heliotrope or "cherry-pie," a plant with small
lilac-blue blossoms of a delicious fragrance. It would seem that many of
the flowers which had the reputation of opening and shutting at the
sun's bidding were known as heliotropes, or sunflowers, or turnesol.
Shakespeare alludes to the,
"Marigold, that goes to bed with the sun,
And with him rises weeping."
And Moore, describing its faithful constancy, says:—
"The sunflower turns on her god when he sets
The same look which she did when he rose."
Such a flower, writes Mr. Ellacombe, was to old writers "the emblem of
constancy in affection and sympathy in joy and sorrow," though it was
also the emblem of the fawning courtier, who can only shine when
everything is right. Anyhow, the so-called heliotrope was the subject of
constant symbolic allusion:—
"The flower, enamoured of the sun,
At his departure hangs her head and weeps,
And shrouds her sweetness up, and keeps
Sad vigils, like a cloistered nun,
Till his reviving ray appears,
Waking her beauty as he dries her tears."
The aspen, from its tremulous motion, has been made symbolical of fear.
The restless movement of its leaves is "produced by the peculiar form of
the foot-stalks, and, indeed, in some degree, the whole tribe of poplars
are subject to have their leaves agitated by the slightest breeze."
Another meaning assigned to the aspen in floral language is scandal,
from an old saying which affirmed that its tears were made from women's
tongues—an allusion to which is made in the subjoined rhyme by P.
Hannay in the year 1622:—
"The quaking aspen, light and thin,
To the air quick passage gives;
The trembling ill
Of tongues of womankind,
Which never rest,
But still are prest
To wave with every wind."
The almond, again, is regarded as expressive of haste, in reference to
its hasty growth and early maturity; while the evening primrose, from
the time of its blossoms expanding, indicates silent love—refraining
from unclosing "her cup of paly gold until her lowly sisters are rocked
into a balmy slumber." The bramble, from its manner of growth, has been
chosen as the type of lowliness; and "from the fierceness with which it
grasps the passer-by with its straggling prickly stems, as an emblem
Fennel was in olden times generally considered an inflammatory herb, and
hence to eat "conger and fennel" was to eat two high and hot things
together, which was an act of libertinism. Thus in "2 Henry IV." (Act
ii. sc. 4), Falstaff says of Poins, "He eats conger and fennel."
Rosemary formerly had the reputation of strengthening the memory, and on
this account was regarded as a symbol of remembrance. Thus, according to
an old ballad:—
"Rosemary is for remembrance
Between us day and night,
Wishing that I may always have
You present in my sight."
And in "Hamlet," where Ophelia seems to be addressing
Laertes, she says (Act iv. sc. 5):—
"There's rosemary, that's for remembrance."
Vervain, from time immemorial, has been the floral symbol of
enchantment, owing to its having been in ancient times much in request
for all kinds of divinations and incantations. Virgil, it may be
remembered, alludes to this plant as one of the charms used by an
"Bring running water, bind those altars round
With fillets, with vervain strew the ground."
Parsley, according to floral language, has a double signification,
denoting feasting and death. On festive occasions the Greeks wore
wreaths of parsley, and on many other occasions it was employed, such as
at the Isthmian games. On the other hand, this plant was strewn over the
bodies of the dead, and decked their graves.
"The weeping willow," as Mr. Ingram remarks, "is one of those natural
emblems which bear their florigraphical meaning so palpably impressed
that their signification is clear at first sight." This tree has always
been regarded as the symbol of sorrow, and also of forsaken love. In
China it is employed in several rites, having from a remote period been
regarded as a token of immortality. As a symbol of bitterness the aloe
has long been in repute, and "as bitter as aloes" is a proverbial
expression, doubtless derived from the acid taste of its juice. Eastern
poets frequently speak of this plant as the emblem of bitterness; a
meaning which most fitly coincides with its properties. The lily of the
valley has had several emblems conferred upon it, each of which is
equally apposite. Thus in reference to the bright hopeful season of
spring, in which it blossoms, it has been regarded as symbolical of the
return of happiness, whilst its delicate perfume has long been
indicative of sweetness, a characteristic thus beautifully described
"No flower amid the garden fairer grows
Than the sweet lily of the lowly vale,
The queen of flowers."
Its perfect snow-white flower is the emblem of purity, allusions to
which we find numerously scattered in the literature of the past. One of
the emblems of the white poplar in floral language is time, because its
leaves appear always in motion, and "being of a dead blackish-green
above, and white below," writes Mr. Ingram, "they were deemed by the
ancients to indicate the alternation of night and day." Again, the
plane-tree has been from early times made the symbol of genius and
magnificence; for in olden times philosophers taught beneath its
branches, which acquired for it a reputation as one of the seats of
learning. From its beauty and size it obtained a figurative meaning; and
the arbutus or strawberry-tree (Arbutus unedo) is the symbol of
inseparable love, and the narcissus denotes self-love, from the story of
Narcissus, who, enamoured of his own beauty, became spell-bound to the
spot, where he pined to death. Shelley describes it as one of the
flowers growing with the sensitive plant in that garden where:—
"The pied wind flowers and the tulip tall,
And narcissi, the fairest among them all,
Who gaze on their eyes in the stream's recess,
Till they die at their own dear loveliness."
The sycamore implies curiosity, from Zacchaeus, who climbed up into this
tree to witness the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem; and from
time immemorial the violet has been the emblem of constancy:—
"Violet is for faithfulness,
Which in me shall abide,
Hoping likewise that from your heart
You will not let it hide."
In some cases flowers seem to have derived their symbolism from certain
events associated with them. Thus the periwinkle signifies "early
recollections, or pleasures of memory," in connection with which
Rousseau tells us how, as Madame Warens and himself were proceeding to
Charmattes, she was struck by the appearance of some of these blue
flowers in the hedge, and exclaimed, "Here is the periwinkle still
Thirty years afterwards the sight of the periwinkle in flower carried
his memory back to this occasion, and he inadvertently cried, "Ah, there
is the periwinkle." Incidents of the kind have originated many of the
symbols found in plant language, and at the same time invested them with
a peculiar historic interest.
Once more, plant language, it has been remarked, is one of those binding
links which connects the sentiments and feelings of one country with
another; although it may be, in other respects, these communities have
little in common. Thus, as Mr. Ingram remarks in the introduction to his
"Flora Symbolica" (p. 12), "from the unlettered North American Indian to
the highly polished Parisian; from the days of dawning among the mighty
Asiatic races, whose very names are buried in oblivion, down to the
present times, the symbolism of flowers is everywhere and in all ages
discovered permeating all strata of society. It has been, and still is,
the habit of many peoples to name the different portions of the year
after the most prominent changes of the vegetable kingdom."
In the United States, the language of flowers is said to have more
votaries than in any other part of the world, many works relative to
which have been published in recent years. Indeed, the subject will
always be a popular one; for further details illustrative of which the
reader would do well to consult Mr. H.G. Adams's useful work on the
"Moral Language and Poetry of Flowers," not to mention the constant
allusions scattered throughout the works of our old poets, such as
Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Drayton.
1. Introduction, p. 12.
2. Folkard's "Plant Legends," p. 389.
3. See Judith xv. 13.
4. "Flower-lore," pp. 197-8.
5. "Plant-lore of Shakespeare."
6. "Flower-lore," p. 168.
The curious traditions of imaginary plants found amongst most nations
have partly a purely mythological origin. Frequently, too, they may be
attributed to the exaggerated accounts given by old travellers, who,
"influenced by a desire to make themselves famous, have gone so far as
to pretend that they saw these fancied objects." Anyhow, from whatever
source sprung, these productions of ignorance and superstition have from
a very early period been firmly credited. But, like the accounts given
us of fabulous animals, they have long ago been acknowledged as
survivals of popular errors, which owed their existence to the absence
of botanical knowledge.
We have elsewhere referred to the great world tree, and of the primitive
idea of a human descent from trees. Indeed, according to the early and
uncultured belief of certain communities, there were various kinds of
animal-producing trees, accounts of which are very curious. Among these
may be mentioned the vegetable lamb, concerning which olden writers have
given the most marvellous description. Thus Sir John Maundeville, who in
his "Voyage and Travel" has recorded many marvellous sights which either
came under his notice, or were reported to him during his travels, has
not omitted to speak of this remarkable tree. Thus, to quote his
words:—"There groweth a manner of fruit as though it were gourdes; and
when they be ripe men cut them in two, and men find within a little
beast, in flesh, in bone, and blood—as though it were a little lamb
withouten wolle—and men eat both the fruit and the beast, and that is a
great marvel; of that fruit I have eaten although it were wonderful; but
that I know well that God is marvellous in His works." Various accounts
have been given of this wondrous plant, and in Parkinson's "Paradisus"
it is represented as one of the plants which grew in the Garden of Eden.
Its local name is the Scythian or Tartarian Lamb; and, as it grows, it
might at a short distance be taken for an animal rather than a vegetable
production. It is one of the genus Polypodium; root decumbent, thickly
clothed with a very soft close hoal, of a deep yellow colour. It is also
called by the Tartars "Barometz," and a Chinese nickname is "Rufous
dog." Mr. Bell, in his "Journey to Ispahan," thus describes a specimen
which he saw:—"It seemed to be made by art to imitate a lamb. It is
said to eat up and devour all the grass and weeds within its reach.
Though it may be thought that an opinion so very absurd could never find
credit with people of the meanest understanding, yet I have conversed
with some who were much inclined to believe it; so very prevalent is the
prodigious and absurd with some part of mankind. Among the more sensible
and experienced Tartars, I found they laughed at it as a ridiculous
fable." Blood was said to flow from it when cut or injured, a
superstition which probably originated in the fact that the fresh root
when cut yields a tenacious gum like the blood of animals. Dr. Darwin,
in his "Loves of the Plants," adopts the fable thus:—
"E'en round the pole the flames of love aspire,
And icy bosoms feel the sacred fire,
Cradled in snow, and fanned by arctic air,
Shines, gentle Barometz, the golden hair;
Rested in earth, each cloven hoof descends,
And round and round her flexile neck she bends.
Crops of the grey coral moss, and hoary thyme,
Or laps with rosy tongue the melting rime,
Eyes with mute tenderness her distant dam,
Or seems to bleat a vegetable lamb."
Another curious fiction prevalent in olden times was that of the
barnacle-tree, to which Sir John Maundeville also alludes:—"In our
country were trees that bear a fruit that becomes flying birds; those
that fell in the water lived, and those that fell on the earth died, and
these be right good for man's meat." As early as the twelfth century
this idea was promulgated by Giraldus Cambrensis in his "Topographia
Hiberniae;" and Gerarde in his "Herball, or General History of Plants,"
published in the year 1597, narrates the following:—"There are found
in the north parts of Scotland, and the isles adjacent, called Orcades,
certain trees, whereon do grow small fishes, of a white colour, tending
to russet, wherein are contained little living creatures; which shells,
in time of maturity, do open, and out of them grow those little living
things which, falling into the water, do become fowls, whom we call
barnacles, in the north of England brant-geese, and in Lancashire
tree-geese; but the others that do fall upon the land perish, and do
come to nothing." But, like many other popular fictions, this notion was
founded on truth, and probably originated in mistaking the fleshy
peduncle of the barnacle (Lepas analifera) for the neck of a goose,
the shell for its head, and the tentacula for a tuft of feather. There
were many versions of this eccentric myth, and according to one
modification given by Boëce, the oldest Scottish historian, these
barnacle-geese are first produced in the form of worms in old trees, and
further adds that such a tree was cast on shore in the year 1480, when
there appeared, on its being sawn asunder, a multitude of worms,
"throwing themselves out of sundry holes and pores of the tree; some of
them were nude, as they were new shapen; some had both head, feet, and
wings, but they had no feathers; some of them were perfect shapen fowls.
At last, the people having this tree each day in more admiration,
brought it to the kirk of St. Andrew's, beside the town of Tyre, where
it yet remains to our day."
Du Bartas thus describes the various transformations of this bird:—
"So, slowe Boôtes underneath him sees,
In th' ycie iles, those goslings hatcht of trees;
Whose fruitful leaves, falling into the water,
Are turn'd, they say, to living fowls soon after.
So, rotten sides of broken ships do change
To barnacles; O transformation change,
'Twas first a green tree, then a gallant hull,
Lately a mushroom, now a flying gull."
Meyer wrote a treatise on this strange "bird without father or mother,"
and Sir Robert Murray, in the "Philosophical Transactions," says that,
"these shells are hung at the tree by a neck, longer than the shell, of
a filmy substance, round and hollow and creased, not unlike the windpipe
of a chicken, spreading out broadest where it is fastened to the tree,
from which it seems to draw and convey the matter which serves for the
growth and vegetation of the shell and the little bird within it. In
every shell that I opened," he adds, "I found a perfect sea-fowl; the
little bill like that of a goose, the eyes marked; the head, neck,
breast, wing, tail, and feet formed; the feathers everywhere perfectly
shaped, and the feet like those of other water-fowl." The Chinese have a
tradition of certain trees, the leaves of which were finally changed
With this story may be compared that of the oyster-bearing tree, which
Bishop Fleetwood describes in his "Curiosities of Agriculture and
Gardening," written in the year 1707. The oysters as seen, he says, by
the Dominican Du Tertre, at Guadaloupe, grew on the branches of trees,
and, "are not larger than the little English oysters, that is to say,
about the size of a crown-piece. They stick to the branches that hang in
the water of a tree called Paretuvier. No doubt the seed of the oysters,
which is shed in the tree when they spawn, cleaves to those branches, so
that the oysters form themselves there, and grow bigger in process of
time, and by their weight bend down the branches into the sea, and then
are refreshed twice a day by the flux and reflux of it." Kircher speaks
of a tree in Chili, the leaves of which brought forth a certain kind of
worm, which eventually became changed into serpents; and describes a
plant which grew in the Molucca Islands, nicknamed "catopa," on account
of its leaves when falling off being transformed into butterflies.
Among some of the many other equally wonderful plants may be mentioned
the "stony wood," which is thus described by Gerarde:—"Being at Rugby,
about such time as our fantastic people did with great concourse and
multitudes repair and run headlong unto the sacred wells of Newnam
Regis, in the edge of Warwickshire, as unto the Waters of Life, which
could cure all diseases." He visited these healing-wells, where he,
"found growing over the same a fair ash-tree, whose boughs did hang over
the spring of water, whereof some that were seare and rotten, and some
that of purpose were broken off, fell into the water and were all turned
into stone. Of these, boughs, or parts of the tree, I brought into
London, which, when I had broken into pieces, therein might be seen that
the pith and all the rest was turned into stones, still remaining the
same shape and fashion that they were of before they were in the water."
Similarly, Sir John Maundeville notices the "Dead Sea fruit"—fruit
found on the apple-trees near the Dead Sea. To quote his own words:—
"There be full fair apples, and fair of colour to behold; but whoso
breaketh them or cutteth them in two, he shall find within them coals
and cinders, in token that by the wrath of God, the city and the land
were burnt and sunken into hell." Speaking of the many legendary tales
connected with the apple, may be mentioned the golden apples which Hera
received at her marriage with Zeus, and placed under the guardianship of
the dragon Ladon, in the garden of the Hesperides. The northern Iduna
kept guarded the sacred apples which, by a touch, restored the aged gods
to youth; and according to Sir J. Maundeville, the apples of Pyban fed
the pigmies with their smell only. This reminds us of the singing apple
in the fairy romance, which would persuade by its smell alone, and
enable the possessor to write poetry or prose, and to display the most
accomplished wit; and of the singing tree in the "Arabian Nights," each
leaf of which was musical, all the leaves joining together in a
But peculiarities of this kind are very varied, and form an extensive
section in "Plant-lore;"—very many curious examples being found in old
travels, and related with every semblance of truth. In some instances
trees have obtained a fabulous character from being connected with
certain events. Thus there was the "bleeding tree." It appears that
one of the indictments laid to the charge of the Marquis of Argyll was
this:—"That a tree on which thirty-six of his enemies were hanged was
immediately blasted, and when hewn down, a copious stream of blood ran
from it, saturating the earth, and that blood for several years was
emitted from the roots." Then there is the "poet's tree," which grows
over the tomb of Tan-Sein, a musician at the court of Mohammed Akbar.
Whoever chews a leaf of this tree was long said to be inspired with
sweet melody of voice, an allusion to which is made by Moore, in "Lalla
Kookh:":—"His voice was sweet, as if he had chewed the leaves of that
enchanted tree which grows over the tomb of the musician Tan-Sein."
The rare but occasional occurrence of vegetation in certain trees and
shrubs, happening to take place at the period of Christ's birth, gave
rise to the belief that such trees threw out their leaves with a holy
joy to commemorate that anniversary. An oak of the early budding species
for two centuries enjoyed such a notoriety, having been said to shoot
forth its leaves on old Christmas Day, no leaf being seen either before
or after that day during winter. There was the famous Glastonbury thorn,
and in the same locality a walnut tree was reported never to put forth
its leaves before the feast of St. Barnabas, the 11th June. The monkish
legend runs thus: Joseph of Arimathaea, after landing at no great
distance from Glastonbury, walked to a hill about a mile from the town.
Being weary he sat down here with his companions, the hill henceforth
being nicknamed "Weary-All-Hill," locally abbreviated into "Werral."
Whilst resting Joseph struck his staff into the ground, which took root,
grew, and blossomed every Christmas Day. Previous to the time of Charles
I a branch of this famous tree was carried in procession, with much
ceremony, at Christmas time, but during the Civil War the tree was
Many plants, again, as the "Sesame" of the "Arabian Nights," had the
power of opening doors and procuring an entrance into caverns and
mountain sides—a survival of which we find in the primrose or
key-flower of German legend. Similarly, other plants, such as the
golden-rod, have been renowned for pointing to hidden springs of water,
and revealing treasures of gold and silver. Such fabulous properties
have been also assigned to the hazel-branch, popularly designated the
"Some sorcerers do boast they have a rod,
Gather'd with vows and sacrifice,
And, borne aloft, will strangely nod
The hidden treasure where it lies."
With plants of the kind we may compare the wonder-working moonwort
(Botrychium lunaria), which was said to open locks and to unshoe
horses that trod on it, a notion which Du Bartas thus mentions in his
"Horses that, feeding on the grassy hills,
Tread upon moonwort with their hollow heels,
Though lately shod, at night go barefoot home,
Their maister musing where their shoes become.
O moonwort! tell me where thou bid'st the smith,
Hammer and pinchers, thou unshodd'st them with.
Alas! what lock or iron engine is't,
That can thy subtle secret strength resist,
Still the best farrier cannot set a shoe
So sure, but thou (so shortly) canst undo."
The blasting-root, known in Germany as spring-wurzel, and by us as
spring-wort, possesses similar virtues, for whatever lock is touched by
it must yield. It is no easy matter to find this magic plant, but,
according to a piece of popular folk-lore, it is obtained by means of
the woodpecker. When this bird visits its nest, it must have been
previously plugged up with wood, to remove which it goes in search of
the spring-wort. On holding this before the nest the wood shoots out
from the tree as if driven by the most violent force. Meanwhile, a red
cloth must be placed near the nest, which will so scare the woodpecker
that it will let the fabulous root drop. There are several versions of
this tradition. According to Pliny the bird is the raven; in Swabia it
is the hoopoe, and in Switzerland the swallow. In Russia, there is a
plant growing in marshy land, known as the rasir-trava, which when
applied to locks causes them to open instantly. In Iceland similar
properties are ascribed to the herb-paris, there known as lasa-grass.
According to a piece of Breton lore, the selago, or "cloth of gold,"
cannot be cut with steel without the sky darkening and some disaster
"The herb of gold is cut; a cloud
Across the sky hath spread its shroud
On the other hand, if properly gathered with due ceremony, it conferred
the power of understanding the language of beast or bird. As far back
as the time of Pliny, we have directions for the gathering of this magic
plant. The person plucking it was to go barefoot, with feet washed, clad
in white, after having offered a sacrifice of bread and wine. Another
plant which had to be gathered with special formalities was the magic
mandragora. It was commonly reported to shriek in such a hideous manner
when pulled out of the earth that,
"Living mortals hearing them run mad."
Hence, various precautions were adopted. According to Pliny, "When they
intended to take up the root of this plant, they took the wind thereof,
and with a sword describing three circles about it, they digged it up,
looking towards the west." Another old authority informs us that he "Who
would take it up, in common prudence should tie a dog to it to
accomplish his purpose, as if he did it himself, he would shortly die."
Moore gives this warning:—
"The phantom shapes—oh, touch them not
That appal the maiden's sight,
Look in the fleshy mandrake's stem,
That shrieks when plucked at night."
To quote one or two more illustrations, we may mention the famous lily
at Lauenberg, which is said to have sprung up when a poor and beautiful
girl was spirited away out of the clutches of a dissolute baron. It made
its appearance annually, an event which was awaited with much interest
by the inhabitants of the Hartz, many of whom made a pilgrimage to
behold it. "They returned to their homes," it is said, "overpowered by
its dazzling beauty, and asserting that its splendour was so great that
it shed beams of light on the valley below."
Similarly, we are told how the common break-fern flowers but once a
year, at midnight, on Michaelmas Eve, when it displays a small blue
flower, which vanishes at the approach of dawn. According to a piece of
folk-lore current in Bohemia and the Tyrol, the fern-seed shines like
glittering gold at the season, so that there is no chance of missing its
appearance, especially as it has its sundry mystic properties which are
Professor Mannhardt relates a strange legend current in Mecklenburg to
the effect that in a certain secluded and barren spot, where a murder
had been committed, there grows up every day at noon a peculiarly-shaped
thistle, unlike any other of its kind. On inspection there are to be
seen human arms, hands, and heads, and as soon as twelve heads have
appeared, the weird plant vanishes. It is further added that on one
occasion a shepherd happened to pass the mysterious spot where the
thistle was growing, when instantly his arms were paralysed and his
staff became tinder. Accounts of these fabulous trees and plants have in
years gone been very numerous, and have not yet wholly died out,
surviving in the legendary tales of most countries. In some instances,
too, it would seem that certain trees like animals have gained a
notoriety, purely fabulous, through trickery and credulity. About the
middle of the last century, for instance, there was the groaning-tree at
Badesly, which created considerable sensation. It appears that a
cottager, who lived in the village of Badesly, two miles from Lymington,
frequently heard a strange noise behind his house, like a person in
extreme agony. For about twenty months this tree was an object of
astonishment, and at last the owner of the tree, in order to discover
the cause of its supposed sufferings, bored a hole in the trunk. After
this operation it ceased to groan, it was rooted up, but nothing
appeared to account for its strange peculiarity. Stories of this kind
remind us of similar wonders recorded by Sir John Maundeville, as having
been seen by him in the course of his Eastern travels. Thus he describes
a certain table of ebony or blackwood, "that once used to turn into
flesh on certain occasions, but whence now drops only oil, which, if
kept above a year, becomes good flesh and bone."
1. Laing's "History of Scotland," 1800, ii. p. II.
2. "Flower-lore," p. 46.
DOCTRINE OF SIGNATURES.
The old medical theory, which supposed that plants by their external
character indicated the particular diseases for which Nature had
intended them as remedies, was simply a development of the much older
notion of a real connection between object and image. Thus, on this
principle, it was asserted that the properties of substances were
frequently denoted by their colour; hence, white was regarded as
refrigerant, and red as hot. In the same way, for disorders of the
blood, burnt purple, pomegranate seeds, mulberries, and other red
ingredients were dissolved in the patient's drink; and for liver
complaints yellow substances were recommended. But this fanciful and
erroneous notion "led to serious errors in practice,"  and was
occasionally productive of the most fatal results. Although, indeed,
Pliny spoke of the folly of the magicians in using the catanance
(Greek: katanhankae, compulsion) for love-potions, on account of its
shrinking "in drying into the shape of the claws of a dead kite,"  and
so holding the patient fast; yet this primitive idea, after the lapse of
centuries, was as fully credited as in the early days when it was
originally started. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,
for instance, it is noticed in most medical works, and in many cases
treated with a seriousness characteristic of the backward state of
medical science even at a period so comparatively recent. Crollius wrote
a work on the subject; and Langham, in his "Garden of Health," published
in the year 1578, accepted the doctrine. Coles, in his "Art of Simpling"
(1656), thus describes it:—
"Though sin and Satan have plunged mankind into an ocean of infirmities,
yet the mercy of God, which is over all His workes, maketh grasse to
growe upon the mountains and herbes for the use of men, and hath not
only stamped upon them a distinct forme, but also given them particular
signatures, whereby a man may read even in legible characters the use
John Ray, in his treatise on "The Wisdom of God in Creation," was among
the first to express his disbelief of this idea, and writes:—"As for
the signatures of plants, or the notes impressed upon them as notices of
their virtues, some lay great stress upon them, accounting them strong
arguments to prove that some understanding principle is the highest
original of the work of Nature, as indeed they were could it be
certainly made to appear that there were such marks designedly set upon
them, because all that I find mentioned by authors seem to be rather
fancied by men than designed by Nature to signify, or point out, any
such virtues, or qualities, as they would make us believe." His views,
however, are somewhat contradictory, inasmuch as he goes on to say that,
"the noxious and malignant plants do, many of them, discover something
of their nature by the sad and melancholick visage of their leaves,
flowers, or fruit. And that I may not leave that head wholly untouched,
one observation I shall add relating to the virtues of plants, in which
I think there is something of truth—that is, that there are of the wise
dispensation of Providence such species of plants produced in every
country as are made proper and convenient for the meat and medicine of
the men and animals that are bred and inhabit therein."
Indeed, however much many of the botanists of bygone centuries might try
to discredit this popular delusion, they do not seem to have been wholly
free from its influence themselves. Some estimate, also, of the
prominence which the doctrine of signatures obtained may be gathered
from the frequent allusions to it in the literature of the period. Thus,
to take one illustration, the euphrasia or eye-bright (Euphrasia
officinalis), which was, and is, supposed to be good for the eye, owing
to a black pupil-like spot in its corolla, is noticed by Milton, who, it
may be remembered, represents the archangel as clearing the vision of
our first parents by its means:—
"Then purged with euphrasy and rue
His visual orbs, for he had much to see."
Spenser speaks of it in the same strain:—
"Yet euphrasie may not be left unsung,
That gives dim eyes to wander leagues around."
And Thomson says:—
"If she, whom I implore, Urania, deign
With euphrasy to purge away the mists,
Which, humid, dim the mirror of the mind."
With reference to its use in modern times, Anne Pratt tells us how,
"on going into a small shop in Dover, she saw a quantity of the plant
suspended from the ceiling, and was informed that it was gathered and
dried as being good for weak eyes;" and in many of our rural districts I
learn that the same value is still attached to it by the peasantry.
Again, it is interesting to observe how, under a variety of forms, this
piece of superstition has prevailed in different parts of the world. By
virtue of a similar association of ideas, for instance, the gin-seng 
was said by the Chinese and North American Indians to possess certain
virtues which were deduced from the shape of the root, supposed to
resemble the human body —a plant with which may be compared our
mandrake. The Romans of old had their rock-breaking plant called
"saxifraga" or sassafras;  and we know in later times how the
granulated roots of our white meadow saxifrage (Saxifraga granulata),
resembling small stones, were supposed to indicate its efficacy in the
cure of calculous complaints. Hence one of its names, stonebreak. The
stony seeds of the gromwell were, also, used in cases of stone—a plant
formerly known as lichwale, or, as in a MS. of the fifteenth century,
lythewale, stone-switch. 
In accordance, also, with the same principle it was once generally
believed that the seeds of ferns were of an invisible sort, and hence,
by a transference of properties, it came to be admitted that the
possessor of fern-seed could likewise be invisible—a notion which
obtained an extensive currency on the Continent. As special good-luck
was said to attend the individual who succeeded in obtaining this mystic
seed, it was eagerly sought for—Midsummer Eve being one of the
occasions when it could be most easily procured. Thus Grimm, in his
"Teutonic Mythology,"  relates how a man in Westphalia was looking on
Midsummer night for a foal he had lost, and happened to pass through a
meadow just as the fern-seed was ripening, so that it fell into his
shoes. In the morning he went home, walked into the sitting-room and sat
down, but thought it strange that neither his wife nor any of the family
took the least notice of him. "I have not found the foal," said he.
Thereupon everybody in the room started and looked alarmed, for they
heard his voice but saw him not. His wife then called him, thinking he
must have hid himself, but he only replied, "Why do you call me? Here I
am right before you." At last he became aware that he was invisible,
and, remembering how he had walked in the meadow on the preceding
evening, it struck him that he might possibly have fern-seed in his
shoes. So he took them off, and as he shook them the fern-seed dropped
out, and he was no longer invisible. There are numerous stories of this
kind; and, according to Dr. Kuhn, one method for obtaining the fern-seed
was, at the summer solstice, to shoot at the sun when it had attained
its midday height. If this were done, three drops of blood would fall,
which were to be gathered up and preserved—this being the fern-seed. In
Bohemia,  on old St. John's Night (July 8), one must lay a communion
chalice-cloth under the fern, and collect the seed which will fall
before sunrise. Among some of the scattered allusions to this piece of
folk-lore in the literature of our own country, may be mentioned one by
Shakespeare in "I Henry IV." (ii. 1):—
"Gadshill. We have the receipt of fern-seed, we walk invisible——
"Chamberlain. Nay, by my faith, I think you are more beholding
to the night than to fern-seed for your walking invisible."
In Ben Jonson's "New Inn" (i. 1), it is thus noticed:—
No medicine, sir, to go invisible,
No fern-seed in my pocket."
Brand  was told by an inhabitant of Heston, in Middlesex, that when
he was a young man he was often present at the ceremony of catching the
fern-seed at midnight, on the eve of St. John Baptist. The attempt was
frequently unsuccessful, for the seed was to fall into a plate of its
own accord, and that too without shaking the plate. It is unnecessary to
add further illustrations on this point, as we have had occasion to
speak elsewhere of the sundry other magical properties ascribed to the
fern-seed, whereby it has been prominently classed amongst the mystic
plants. But, apart from the doctrine of signatures, it would seem that
the fern-seed was also supposed to derive its power of making invisible
from the cloud, says Mr. Kelly,  "that contained the heavenly fire
from which the plant is sprung." Whilst speaking, too, of the
fern-seed's property of making people invisible, it is of interest to
note that in the Icelandic and Pomeranian myths the schamir or
"raven-stone" renders its possessor invisible; and according to a North
German tradition the luck-flower is enbued with the same wonderful
qualities. It is essential, however, that the flower be found by
accident, for he who seeks it never finds it. In Sweden hazel-nuts are
reputed to have the power of making invisible, and from their reputed
magical properties have been, from time immemorial, in great demand for
divination. All those plants whose leaves bore a fancied resemblance to
the moon were, in days of old, regarded with superstitious reverence.
The moon-daisy, the type of a class of plants resembling the pictures of
a full moon, were exhibited, says Dr. Prior, "in uterine complaints, and
dedicated in pagan times to the goddess of the moon." The moonwort
(Botrychium lunaria), often confounded with the common "honesty"
(Lunaria biennis) of our gardens, so called from the semi-lunar shape
of the segments of its frond, was credited with the most curious
properties, the old alchemists affirming that it was good among other
things for converting quicksilver into pure silver, and unshoeing such
horses as trod upon it. A similar virtue was ascribed to the horse-shoe
vetch (Hippocrepis comosa), so called from the shape of the legumes,
hence another of its mystic nicknames was "unshoe the horse."
But referring to the doctrine of signatures in folk-medicine, a
favourite garden flower is Solomon's seal (Polygonatum multiflorum).
On cutting the roots transversely, some marks are apparent not unlike
the characters of a seal, which to the old herbalists indicated its use
as a seal for wounds.  Gerarde, describing it, tells us how, "the
root of Solomon's seal stamped, while it is fresh and greene, and
applied, taketh away in one night, or two at the most, any bruise, black
or blue spots, gotten by falls, or women's wilfulness in stumbling upon
their hasty husbands' fists." For the same reason it was called by the
French herbalists "l'herbe de la rupture." The specific name of the
tutsan  (Hypericum androsoemum), derived from the two Greek words
signifying man and blood, in reference to the dark red juice which
exudes from the capsules when bruised, was once applied to external
wounds, and hence it was called "balm of the warrior's wound," or
"all-heal." Gerarde says, "The leaves laid upon broken skins and scabbed
legs heal them, and many other hurts and griefs, whereof it took its
name 'toute-saine' of healing all things." The pretty plant, herb-robert
(Geranium robertianum), was supposed to possess similar virtues, its
power to arrest bleeding being indicated by the beautiful red hue
assumed by the fading leaves, on account of which property it was styled
"a stauncher of blood." The garden Jerusalem cowslip (Pulmonaria
offinalis) owes its English name, lungwort, to the spotting of the
leaves, which were said to indicate that they would be efficacious in
healing diseases of the lungs. Then there is the water-soldier
(Stratiotes aloides), which from its sword-shaped leaves was reckoned
among the appliances for gun-shot wounds. Another familiar plant which
has long had a reputation as a vulnerary is the self-heal, or
carpenter's herb (Prunella vulgaris), on account of its corolla being
shaped like a bill-hook.
Again, presumably on the doctrine of signatures, the connection between
roses and blood is very curious. Thus in France, Germany, and Italy it
is a popular notion that if one is desirous of having ruddy cheeks, he
must bury a drop of his blood under a rose-bush.  As a charm against
haemorrhage of every kind, the rose has long been a favourite remedy in
Germany, and in Westphalia the following formula is employed: "Abek,
Wabek, Fabek; in Christ's garden stand three red roses—one for the good
God, the other for God's blood, the third for the angel Gabriel: blood,
I pray you, cease to flow." Another version of this charm is the
following :—"On the head of our Lord God there bloom three roses:
the first is His virtue, the second is His youth, the third is His will.
Blood, stand thou in the wound still, so that thou neither sore nor
Turning to some of the numerous plants which on the doctrine of
signatures were formerly used as specifics from a fancied resemblance,
in the shape of the root, leaf, or fruit, to any particular part of the
human body, we are confronted with a list adapted for most of the ills
to which the flesh is heir.  Thus, the walnut was regarded as
clearly good for mental cases from its bearing the signature of the
whole head; the outward green cortex answering to the pericranium, the
harder shell within representing the skull, and the kernel in its figure
resembling the cover of the brain. On this account the outside shell was
considered good for wounds of the head, whilst the bark of the tree was
regarded as a sovereign remedy for the ringworm.  Its leaves, too,
when bruised and moistened with vinegar were used for ear-ache. For
scrofulous glands, the knotty tubers attached to the kernel-wort
(Scrophularia nodosa) have been considered efficacious. The pith of
the elder, when pressed with the fingers, "doth pit and receive the
impress of them thereon, as the legs and feet of dropsical persons do,"
Therefore the juice of this tree was reckoned a cure for dropsy. Our
Lady's thistle (Cardmis Marianus), from its numerous prickles, was
recommended for stitches of the side; and nettle-tea is still a common
remedy with many of our peasantry for nettle-rash. The leaves of the
wood-sorrel (Oxalis acetosella) were believed to preserve the heart
from many diseases, from their being "broad at the ends, cut in the
middle, and sharp towards the stalk." Similarly the heart-trefoil, or
clover (Medicago maculata), was so called, because, says Coles in his
"Art of Simpling," "not only is the leaf triangular like the heart of a
man, but also because each leaf contains the perfect image of an heart,
and that in its proper colour—a flesh colour. It defendeth the heart
against the noisome vapour of the spleen." Another plant which, on the
same principle, was reckoned as a curative for heart-disease, is the
heart's-ease, a term meaning a cordial, as in Sir Walter Scott's
"Antiquary" (chap, xi.), "try a dram to be eilding and claise, and a
supper and heart's-ease into the bargain." The knot-grass (Polygonum
aviculare), with its reddish-white flowers and trailing pointed stems,
was probably so called "from some unrecorded character by the doctrine
of signatures," Suggests Mr. Ellacombe,  that it would stop the
growth of children. Thus Shakespeare, in his "Midsummer Night's Dream"
(Act iii. sc. 2), alludes to it as the "hindering knot-grass," and in
Beaumont and Fletcher's "Coxcomb" (Act ii. sc. 2) it is further
"We want a boy extremely for this function,
Kept under for a year with milk and knot-grass."
According to Crollius, the woody scales of which the cones of the
pine-tree are composed "resemble the fore-teeth;" hence pine-leaves
boiled in vinegar were used as a garlic for the relief of toothache.
White-coral, from its resemblance to the teeth, was also in requisition,
because "it keepeth children to heed their teeth, their gums being
rubbed therewith." For improving the complexion, an ointment made of
cowslip-flowers was once recommended, because, as an old writer
observes, it "taketh away the spots and wrinkles of the skin, and adds
beauty exceedingly." Mr. Burgess, in his handy little volume on "English
Wild Flowers" (1868, 47), referring to the cowslip, says, "the village
damsels use it as a cosmetic, and we know it adds to the beauty of the
complexion of the town-immured lassie when she searches for and gathers
it herself in the early spring morning." Some of the old herbalists
speak of moss gathered from a skull as useful for disorders of the head,
and hence it was gathered and preserved.
The rupture-wort (Herniaria glabra) was so called from its fancied
remedial powers, and the scabious in allusion to the scaly pappus of its
seeds, which led to its use in leprous diseases. The well-known fern,
spleen-wort (Asplenium), had this name applied to it from the lobular
form of the leaf, which suggested it as a remedy for diseases of the
spleen. Another of its nicknames is miltwaste, because:—
"The finger-ferne, which being given to swine,
It makes their milt to melt away in fine—"
A superstition which seems to have originated in a curious statement
made by Vitruvius, that in certain localities in the island of Crete the
flocks and herds were found without spleen from their browsing on this
plant, whereas in those districts in which it did not grow the reverse
was the case. 
The yellow bark of the berberry-tree (Berberis vulgaris),  when
taken as a decoction in ale, or white wine, is said to be a purgative,
and to have proved highly efficacious in the case of jaundice, hence in
some parts of the country it is known as the "jaundice-berry." Turmeric,
too, was formerly prescribed—a plant used for making a yellow dye; 
and celandine, with its yellow juice, was once equally in repute.
Similar remedies we find recommended on the Continent, and in Westphalia
an apple mixed with saffron is a popular curative against jaundice. 
Rhubarb, too, we are told, by the doctrine of signatures, was the "life,
soul, heart, and treacle of the liver." Mr. Folkard  mentions a
curious superstition which exists in the neighbourhood of Orleans, where
a seventh son without a daughter intervening is called a Marcon. It is
believed that, "the Marcon's body is marked somewhere with a
Fleur-de-Lis, and that if a patient suffering under king's-evil touch
this Fleur-de-Lis, or if the Marcon breathe upon him, the malady will be
sure to disappear."
As shaking is one of the chief characteristics of that tedious and
obstinate complaint ague, so there was a prevalent notion that the
quaking-grass (Briza media), when dried and kept in the house, acted
as a most powerful deterrent. For the same reason, the aspen, from its
constant trembling, has been held a specific for this disease. The
lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) is known in many country places
as the pilewort, because its peculiar tuberous root was long thought to
be efficacious as a remedial agent. And Coles, in his "Art of Simpling,"
speaks of the purple marsh-wort (Comarum palustre) as "an excellent
remedy against the purples." The common tormentil (Tormentilla
officinalis), from the red colour of its root, was nicknamed the
"blood-root," and was said to be efficacious in dysentery; while the
bullock's-lungwort derives its name from the resemblance of its leaf to
a dewlap, and was on this account held as a remedy for the pneumonia of
bullocks. Such is the curious old folk-lore doctrine of signatures,
which in olden times was regarded with so much favour, and for a very
long time was recognised, without any questioning, as worthy of men's
acceptation. It is one of those popular delusions which scientific
research has scattered to the winds, having in its place discovered the
true medicinal properties of plants, by the aid of chemical analysis.
1. Pettigrew's "Medical Superstitions," 1844, p. 18.
2. Tylor's "Researches into the Early History of Mankind," 1865, p. 123;
Chapiel's "La Doctrine des Signatures," Paris, 1866.
3. "Flowering Plants of Great Britain," iv. 109; see Dr. Prior's
"Popular Names of British Plants," 1870-72.
4. Tylor's "Researches into the Early History of Mankind," p. 123.
5. See Porter Smith's "Chinese Materia Medica," p. 103; Lockhart,
"Medical Missionary in China," 2nd edition, p. 107; "Reports on Trade at
the Treaty Ports of China," 1868, p. 63.
6. Fiske, "Myths and Mythmakers," 1873, p. 43.
7. Dr. Prior's "Popular Names of British Plants," p. 134.
8. See Kelly's "Indo-European Tradition Folk-lore," 1863, pp. 193-198;
Ralston's "Russian Folk-Songs," 1872, p. 98.
9. "Mystic Trees and Flowers," Mr. D. Conway, Frasers Magazine, Nov.
1870, p. 608.
10. The "receipt," so called, was the formula of magic words to be
employed during the process. See Grindon's "Shakspere Flora," 1883,
11. "Popular Antiquities," 1849, i. 315.
12. "Indo-European Tradition and Folk-lore," p. 197.
13. See Dr. Prior's "Popular Names of British Plants," p. 130; Phillips'
"Flora Historica," i. 163.
14. See Sowerby's "English Botany," 1864, i., p. 144.
15. See "Folk-lore of British Plants," Dublin University Magazine,
September 1873, p. 318.
15. See Thorpe's "Northern Mythology," 1852, iii. 168.
17. "Sketches of Imposture, Deception, and Credulity," 1837, p. 300.
18. See Phillips' "Pomarium Britannicum," 1821, p. 351.
19. "Plant-lore of Shakespeare," 1878, p. 101.
20. See Dr. Prior's "Popular Names of British Plants," p. 154.
21. Hogg's "Vegetable Kingdom," p. 34.
22. See Friend's "Flowers and Flower-lore," ii. 355.
23. "Mystic Trees and Flowers," Fraser's Magazine, November 1870, p. 591.
24. "Plant Lore Legends and Lyrics," p. 341.
25. Ibid., pp, 150-160.
PLANTS AND THE CALENDAR.
A goodly array of plants have cast their attractions round the festivals
of the year, giving an outward beauty to the ceremonies and observances
celebrated in their honour. These vary in different countries, although
we frequently find the same flower almost universally adopted to
commemorate a particular festival. Many plants, again, have had a
superstitious connection, having in this respect exercised a powerful
influence among the credulous of all ages, numerous survivals of which
exist at the present day. Thus, in Westphalia, it is said that if the
sun makes its appearance on New Year's Day, the flax will be straight;
and there is a belief current in Hessia, that an apple must not be eaten
on New Year's Day, as it will produce an abscess.
According to an old adage, the laurestinus, dedicated to St. Faine
(January 1), an Irish abbess in the sixth century, may be seen
"Whether the weather be snow or rain,
We are sure to see the flower of St. Faine;
Rain comes but seldom and often snow,
And yet the viburnum is sure to blow."
And James Montgomery notices this cheerful plant, speaking of it as the,
"Fair tree of winter, fresh and flowering,
When all around is dead and dry,
Whose ruby buds, though storms are lowering,
Spread their white blossoms to the sky."
Then there is the dead nettle, which in Italy is assigned to St.
Vincent; and the Christmas rose (Helleboris niger), dedicated to St.
Agnes (21st January), is known in Germany as the flower of St. Agnes,
and yet this flower has generally been regarded a plant of evil omen,
being coupled by Campbell with the hemlock, as growing "by the witches'
tower," where it seems to weave,
"Round its dark vaults a melancholy bower,
For spirits of the dead at night's enchanted hour."
At Candlemas it was customary, writes Herrick, to replace the Christmas
evergreens with sprigs of box, which were kept up till Easter Eve:—
"Down with the rosemary and bays,
Down with the mistletoe,
Instead of holly now upraise
The greener box for show."
The snowdrop has been nicknamed the "Fair Maid of February," from its
blossoming about this period, when it was customary for young women
dressed in white to walk in procession at the Feast of the Purification,
and, according to the old adage:—
"The snowdrop in purest white array,
First rears her head on Candlemas Day."
The dainty crocus is said to blow "before the shrine at vernal dawn of
St. Valentine." And we may note here how county traditions affirm that
in some mysterious way the vegetable world is affected by leap-year
influences. A piece of agricultural folk-lore current throughout the
country tells us how all the peas and beans grow the wrong way in their
pods, the seeds being set in quite the contrary to what they are in
other years. The reason assigned for this strange freak of nature is
that, "it is the ladies' year, and they (the peas and beans) always lay
the wrong way in leap year."
The leek is associated with St. David's Day, the adoption of this plant
as the national device of Wales having been explained in various ways.
According to Shakespeare it dates from the battle of Cressy, while some
have maintained it originated in a victory obtained by Cadwallo over the
Saxons, 640, when the Welsh, to distinguish themselves, wore leeks in
their hats. It has also beeen suggested that Welshmen "beautify their
hats with verdant leek," from the custom of every farmer, in years gone
by, contributing his leek to the common repast when they met at the
Cymortha or Association, and mutually helped one another in ploughing
In Ireland the shamrock is worn on St. Patrick's Day. Old women, with
plenteous supplies of trefoil, may be heard in every direction crying,
"Buy my shamrock, green shamrocks," while little children have
"Patrick's crosses" pinned to their sleeves, a custom which is said to
have originated in the circumstance that when St. Patrick was preaching
the doctrine of the Trinity he made use of the trefoil as a symbol of
the great mystery. Several plants have been identified as the shamrock;
and in "Contributions towards a Cybele Hibernica,"  is the following
extensive note:—"Trifolium repens, Dutch clover, shamrock.—This is
the plant still worn as shamrock on St. Patrick's Day, though Medicago
lupulina is also sold in Dublin as the shamrock. Edward Lhwyd, the
celebrated antiquary, writing in 1699 to Tancred Robinson, says, after a
recent visit to Ireland: 'Their shamrug is our common clover' (Phil.
Trans., No. 335). Threkeld, the earliest writer on the wild plants of
Ireland, gives Seamar-oge (young trefoil) as the Gaelic name for
Trifolium pratense album, and expressly says this is the plant worn by
the people in their hats on St. Patrick's Day." Some, again, have
advocated the claims of the wood-sorrel, and others those of the
speedwell, whereas a correspondent of Notes and Queries (4th Ser. iii.
235) says the Trifolium filiforme is generally worn in Cork, the
Trifolium minus also being in demand. It has been urged that the
watercress was the plant gathered by the saint, but this plant has been
objected to on the ground that its leaf is not trifoliate, and could not
have been used by St. Patrick to illustrate the doctrine of the Trinity.
On the other hand, it has been argued that the story is of modern date,
and not to be found in any of the lives of that saint. St. Patrick's
cabbage also is a name for "London Pride," from its growing in the West
of Ireland, where the Saint lived.
Few flowers have been more popular than the daffodil or lent-lily, or,
as it is sometimes called, the lent-rose. There are various corruptions
of this name to be found in the West of England, such as lentils,
lent-a-lily, lents, and lent-cocks; the last name doubtless referring to
the custom of cock-throwing, which was allowed in Lent, boys, in the
absence of live cocks, having thrown sticks at the flower. According
also to the old rhyme:—
"Then comes the daffodil beside
Our Lady's smock at our Lady's tide."
In Catholic countries Lent cakes were flavoured with the herb-tansy, a
plant dedicated to St. Athanasius.
In Silesia, on Mid-Lent Sunday, pine boughs, bound with variegated paper
and spangles, are carried about by children singing songs, and are hung
over the stable doors to keep the animals from evil influences.
Palm Sunday receives its English and the greater part of its foreign
names from the old practice of bearing palm-branches, in place of which
the early catkins of the willow or yew have been substituted, sprigs of
box being used in Brittany.
Stow, in his "Survey of London," tells us that:—"In the weeke before
Easter had ye great shows made for the fetching in of a twisted tree or
with, as they termed it, out of the wodes into the king's house, and the
like into every man's house of honour of worship." This anniversary has
also been nicknamed "Fig Sunday," from the old custom of eating figs;
while in Wales it is popularly known as "Flowering Sunday," because
persons assemble in the churchyard and spread fresh flowers upon the
graves of their friends and relatives.
In Germany, on Palm Sunday, the palm is credited with mystic virtues;
and if as many twigs, as there are women of a family, be thrown on a
fire—each with a name inscribed on it—the person whose leaf burns
soonest will be the first to die.
On Good Friday, in the North of England, an herb pudding was formerly
eaten, in which the leaves of the passion-dock (Polygonum bistorta)
formed the principal ingredient. In Lancashire fig-sue is made, a
mixture consisting of sliced figs, nutmeg, ale, and bread.
Wreaths of elder are hung up in Germany after sunset on Good Friday, as
charms against lightning; and in Swabia a twig of hazel cut on this day
enables the possessor to strike an absent person. In the Tyrol, too, the
hazel must be cut on Good Friday to be effectual as a divining-rod. A
Bohemian charm against fleas is curious. During Holy Week a leaf of palm
must be placed behind a picture of the Virgin, and on Easter morning
taken down with this formula: "Depart, all animals without bones." If
this rite is observed there will be no more fleas in the house for the
remainder of the year.
Of the flowers associated with Eastertide may be mentioned the garden
daffodil and the purple pasque flower, another name for the anemone
(Anemone pulsatilla), in allusion to the Passover and Paschal
ceremonies. White broom is also in request, and indeed all white flowers
are dedicated to this festival. On Easter Day the Bavarian peasants make
garlands of coltsfoot and throw them into the fire; and in the district
of Lechrain every household brings to the sacred fire which is lighted
at Easter a walnut branch, which, when partially burned, is laid on the
hearth-fire during tempests as a charm against lightning. In Slavonian
regions the palm is supposed to specially protect the locality where it
grows from inclement weather and its hurtful effects; while, in
Pomerania, the apple is eaten against fevers.
In Bareuth young girls go at midnight on Easter Day to a fountain
silently, and taking care to escape notice, throw into the water little
willow rings with their friends' names inscribed thereon, the person
whose ring sinks the quickest being the first to die.
In years past the milkwort (Polygala vulgaris), from being carried in
procession during Rogation Week, was known by such names as the
rogation-flower, gang-flower, procession-flower, and cross-flower, a
custom noticed by Gerarde, who tells us how, "the maidens which use in
the countries to walke the procession do make themselves garlands and
nosegaies of the milkwort."
On Ascension Day the Swiss make wreaths of the edelweisse, hanging them
over their doors and windows; another plant selected for this purpose
being the amaranth, which, like the former, is considered an emblem of
In our own country may be mentioned the well-dressing of Tissington,
near Dovedale, in Derbyshire, the wells in the village having for years
past been most artistically decorated with the choicest flowers. 
Formerly, on St. George's Day (April 23), blue coats were worn by people
of fashion. Hence, the harebell being in bloom, was assigned to
"On St. George's Day, when blue is worn,
The blue harebells the fields adorn."
Flowers have always entered largely into the May Day festival; and many
a graphic account has been bequeathed us of the enthusiasm with which
both old and young went "a-Maying" soon after midnight, breaking down
branches from the trees, which, decorated with nosegays and garlands of
flowers, were brought home soon after sunrise and placed at the doors
and windows. Shakespeare ("Henry VIII.," v. 4), alluding to the
"'Tis as much impossible,
Unless we sweep them from the doors with cannons,
To scatter 'em, as 'tis to make 'em sleep
On May Day morning."
Accordingly, flowers were much in demand, many being named from the
month itself, as the hawthorn, known in many places as May-bloom and
May-tree, whereas the lily of the valley is nicknamed May-lily. Again,
in Cornwall lilac is termed May-flower, and the narrow-leaved elm, which
is worn by the peasant in his hat or button-hole, is called May.
Similarly, in Germany, we find the term May-bloom applied to such plants
as the king-cup and lily of the valley. In North America, says the
author of "Flower-lore," the podophyllum is called "May-apple," and the
fruit of the Passiflora incarnata "May-hops." The chief uses of these
May-flowers were for the garlands, the decoration of the Maypole, and
the adornment of the home:—
"To get sweet setywall (red valerian),
The honeysuckle, the harlock,
The lily, and the lady-smock,
To deck their summer hall."
But one plant was carefully avoided—the cuckoo flower. As in other
floral rites, the selection of plants varies on the Continent, branches
of the elder being carried about in Savoy, and in Austrian Silesia the
Maypole is generally made of fir. According to an Italian proverb, the
universal lover is "one who hangs every door with May."
Various plants are associated with Whitsuntide, and according to
Chaucer, in his "Romaunt of the Rose":—
"Have hatte of floures fresh as May,
Chapelett of roses of Whitsunday,
For sich array be costeth but lite."
In Italy the festival is designated "Pasqua Rosata," from falling at a
time when roses are in bloom, while in Germany the peony is the
Herrick tells us it was formerly the practice to use birch and
spring-flowers for decorative purposes at Whitsuntide:—
"When yew is out then birch comes in,
And May-flowers beside,
Both of a fresh and fragrant kinne,
To honour Whitsontide."
At this season, too, box-boughs were gathered to deck the large open
fire-places then in fashion, and the guelder rose was dedicated to the
festival. Certain flower-sermons have been preached in the city at
Whitsuntide, as, for instance, that at St. James's Church, Mitre Court,
Aldgate, and another at St. Leonard's Church, Shoreditch, known as the
Fairchild Lecture. Turning to the Continent, it is customary in Hanover
on Whit-Monday to gather the lily of the valley, and at the close of the
day there is scarcely a house without a large bouquet, while in Germany
the broom is a favourite plant for decorations. In Russia, at the
completion of Whitsuntide, young girls repair to the banks of the Neva
and cast in wreaths of flowers in token of their absent friends.
Certain flowers, such as the rose, lavender, woodruff, and box were
formerly in request for decking churches on St. Barnabas' Day, the
officiating clergy having worn wreaths of roses. Among the allusions to
the usage may be mentioned the following entries in the churchwarden's
accounts of St. Mary-at-Hill, London, in the reigns of Edward IV. and
Henry VII.:—"For rose garlondis and woodrolf garlondis on St. Barnabe
Daye, xj'd." "Item, for two doss (dozen?) di bocse (box) garlands for
prestes and clerkes on St. Barnabe Day, j's. v'd."
St. Barnabas' thistle (Centaurea solstitialis) derived its name from
flowering at the time of the saint's festival, and we are told how:—
"When St. Barnaby bright smiles night and day,
Poor ragged robin blooms in the hay."
To Trinity Sunday belong the pansy, or herb-trinity and trefoil, hence
the latter has been used for decorations on this anniversary.
In commemoration of the Restoration of Charles II., oak leaves and
gilded oak apples have been worn; oak branches having been in past years
placed over doors and windows.
Stowe, in his "Survey of London," speaks of the old custom of hanging up
St. John's wort over the doors of houses, along with green birch or
pine, white lilies, and other plants. The same practice has existed very
largely on the Continent, St. John's wort being still regarded as an
effective charm against witchcraft. Indeed, few plants have been in
greater request on any anniversary, or been invested with such mystic
virtues. Fennel, another of the many plants dedicated to St. John, was
hung over doors and windows on his night in England, numerous allusions
to which occur in the literature of the past. And in connection with
this saint we are told how:—
"The scarlet lychnis, the garden's pride,
Flames at St. John the Baptist's tyde."
Hemp was also in demand, many forms of divination having been practised
by means of its seed.
According to a belief in Iceland, the trijadent (Spiraea ulmaria)
will, if put under water on this day, reveal a thief; floating if the
thief be a woman, and sinking if a man.
In the Harz, on Midsummer night, branches of the fir-tree are decorated
with flowers and coloured eggs, around which the young people dance,
singing rhymes. The Bolognese, who regard garlic as the symbol of
abundance, buy it at the festival as a charm against poverty during the
coming year. The Bohemian, says Mr. Conway, "thinks he can make himself
shot-proof for twenty-four hours by finding on St. John's Day pine-cones
on the top of a tree, taking them home, and eating a single kernel on
each day that he wishes to be invulnerable." In Sicily it is customary,
on Midsummer Eve, to fell the highest poplar, and with shouts to drag it
through the village, while some beat a drum. Around this poplar, says
Mr. Folkard, "symbolising the greatest solar ascension and the
decline which follows it, the crowd dance, and sing an appropriate
refrain;" and he further mentions that, at the commencement of the
Franco-German War, he saw sprigs of pine stuck on the railway carriages
bearing the German soldiers into France.
In East Prussia, the sap of dog-wood, absorbed in a handkerchief, will
fulfil every wish; and a Brandenburg remedy for fever is to lie naked
under a cherry-tree on St. John's Day, and to shake the dew on one's
back. Elsewhere we have alluded to the flowering of the fern on this
anniversary, and there is the Bohemian idea that its seed shines like
Corpus Christi Day was, in olden times, observed with much ceremony, the
churches being decorated with roses and other choice garlands, while the
streets through which the procession passed were strewn with flowers. In
North Wales, flowers were scattered before the door; and a particular
fern, termed Rhedyn Mair, or Mary's fern—probably the maiden-hair—was
specially used for the purpose.
We may mention here that the daisy (Bellis perennis) was formerly
known as herb-Margaret or Marguerite, and was erroneously supposed to
have been named after the virtuous St. Margaret of Antioch:—
"Maid Margarete, that was so meek and mild;"
Whereas it, in all probability, derives its name from St. Margaret of
Cortona. According to an old legend it is stated:—
"There is a double flouret, white and red,
That our lasses call herb-Margaret,
In honour of Cortona's penitent,
Whose contrite soul with red remorse was rent;
While on her penitence kind heaven did throw
The white of purity, surpassing snow;
So white and red in this fair flower entwine,
Which maids are wont to scatter at her shrine."
Again, of the rainy saint, St. Swithin, we are reminded that:—
"Against St. Swithin's hastie showers,
The lily white reigns queen of the flowers"—
A festival around which so much curious lore has clustered.
In former years St. Margaret's Day (July 20) was celebrated with many
curious ceremonies, and, according to a well-known couplet in allusion
to the emblem of the vanquished dragon, which appears in most pictures
of St. Margaret:—
"Poppies a sanguine mantle spread
For the blood of the dragon that Margaret shed."
Archdeacon Hare says the Sweet-William, designated the "painted lady,"
was dedicated to Saint William (June 25), the term "sweet" being a
substitution for "saint." This seems doubtful, and some would corrupt
the word "sweet" from the French oeillet, corrupted to Willy, and
thence to William. Mr. King, however, considers that the small red pink
(Dianthus prolifer), found wild in the neighbourhood of Rochester, "is
perhaps the original Saint Sweet-William," for, he adds, the word
"saint" has only been dropped since days which saw the demolition of St.
William's shrine in the cathedral. This is but a conjecture, it being
uncertain whether the masses of bright flowers which form one of the
chief attractions of old-fashioned gardens commemorate St. William of
Rochester, St. William of York, or, likeliest perhaps of the three, St.
William of Aquitaine, the half soldier, half monk, whose fame was so
widely spread throughout the south of Europe.
Roses were said to fade on St. Mary Magdalene's Day (July 20), to whom
we find numerous flowers dedicated, such as the maudlin, a nickname of
the costmary, either in allusion to her love of scented ointment, or to
its use in uterine affections, over which she presided as the patroness
of unchaste women, and maudlin-wort, another name for the moon-daisy.
But, as Dr. Prior remarks, it should, "be observed that the monks in the
Middle Ages mixed up with the story of the Magdalene that of another St.
Mary, whose early life was passed in a course of debauchery."
A German piece of folk-lore tells us that it is dangerous to climb a
cherry-tree on St. James's Night, as the chance of breaking one's neck
will be great, this day being held unlucky. On this day is kept St.
Christopher's anniversary, after whom the herb-christopher is named, a
species of aconite, according to Gerarde. But, as Dr. Prior adds, the
name is applied to many plants which have no qualities in common, some
of these being the meadow-sweet, fleabane, osmund-fern, herb-impious,
everlasting-flower, and baneberry.
Throughout August, during the ingathering of the harvest, a host of
customs have been kept up from time immemorial, which have been duly
noticed by Brand, while towards the close of the month we are reminded
of St. Bartholomew's Day by the gaudy sunflower, which has been
nicknamed St. Bartholomew's star, the term "star" having been often used
"as an emblematical representation of brilliant virtues or any sign of
admiration." It is, too, suggested by Archdeacon Hare that the filbert
may owe its name to St. Philbert, whose festival was on the 22nd August.
The passion-flower has been termed Holy Rood flower, and it is the
ecclesiastical emblem of Holy Cross Day, for, according to the
"The passion-flower long has blow'd
To betoken us signs of the Holy Rood."
Then there is the Michaelmas Day, which:—
"Among dead weeds,
Bloom for St. Michael's valorous deeds,"
and the golden star lily, termed St. Jerome's lily. On St. Luke's Day,
certain flowers, as we have already noticed, have been in request for
love divinations; and on the Continent the chestnut is eaten on the
festival of St. Simon, in Piedmont on All Souls' Day, and in France on
St. Martin's, when old women assemble beneath the windows and sing a
long ballad. Hallowe'en has its use among divinations, at which time
various plants are in request, and among the observance of All Souls'
Day was blessing the beans. It would appear, too, that in days gone by,
on the eve of All Saints' Day, heath was specially burnt by way of a
"On All Saints' Day bare is the place where the heath is burnt;
The plough is in the furrow, the ox at work."
From the shape of its flower, the trumpet-flowered wood-sorrel has been
called St. Cecilia's flower, whose festival is kept on November 22. The
Nigella damascena, popularly known as love-in-a-mist, was designated
St. Catherine's flower, "from its persistent styles," writes Dr.
Prior, "resembling the spokes of her wheel." There was also the
Catherine-pear, to which Gay alludes in his "Pastorals," where
Sparabella, on comparing herself with her rival, says:—
"Her wan complexion's like the withered leek,
While Catherine-pears adorn my ruddy cheek."
Herb-Barbara, or St. Barbara's cress (Barbarea vulgaris), was so
called from growing and being eaten about the time of her festival
Coming to Christmas, some of the principal evergreens used in this
country for decorative purposes are the ivy, laurel, bay, arbor vitae,
rosemary, and holly; mistletoe, on account of its connection with
Druidic rites, having been excluded from churches. Speaking of the
holly, Mr. Conway remarks that, "it was to the ancient races of the north
a sign of the life which preserved nature through the desolation of
winter, and was gathered into pagan temples to comfort the sylvan
spirits during the general death." He further adds that "it is a
singular fact that it is used by the wildest Indians of the Pacific
coast in their ceremonies of purification. The ashen-faggot was in
request for the Christmas fire, the ceremonies relating to which are
1. By D. Moore and A.G. Moore, 1866.
2. See "Journal of the Arch. Assoc.," 1832, vii. 206.
3. See "British Popular Customs."
4. "Plant Lore Legends and Lyrics," p. 504.
5. "Popular Names of British Plants," 1879, p. 204.
CHILDREN'S RHYMES AND GAMES.
Children are more or less observers of nature, and frequently far more
so than their elders. This, perhaps, is in a great measure to be
accounted for from the fact that childhood is naturally inquisitive, and
fond of having explained whatever seems in any way mysterious. Such
especially is the case in the works of nature, and in a country ramble
with children their little voices are generally busy inquiring why this
bird does this, or that plant grows in such a way—a variety of
questions, indeed, which unmistakably prove that the young mind
instinctively seeks after knowledge. Hence, we find that the works of
nature enter largely into children's pastimes; a few specimens of their
rhymes and games associated with plants we quote below.
In Lincolnshire, the butter-bur (Petasites vulgaris) is nicknamed
bog-horns, because the children use the hollow stalks as horns or
trumpets, and the young leaves and shoots of the common hawthorn
(Cratoegus oxyacantha), from being commonly eaten by children in
spring, are known as "bread and cheese;" while the ladies-smock
(Cardamine pratensis) is termed "bread and milk," from the custom, it
has been suggested, of country people having bread and milk for
breakfast about the season when the flower first comes in. In the North
of England this plant is known as cuckoo-spit, because almost every
flower stem has deposited upon it a frothy patch not unlike human
saliva, in which is enveloped a pale green insect. Few north-country
children will gather these flowers, believing that it is unlucky to do
so, adding that the cuckoo has spit upon it when flying over. 
The fruits of the mallow are popularly termed by children cheeses, in
allusion to which Clare writes:—
"The sitting down when school was o'er,
Upon the threshold of the door,
Picking from mallows, sport to please,
The crumpled seed we call a cheese."
A Buckinghamshire name with children for the deadly nightshade (Atropa
belladonna) is the naughty-man's cherry, an illustration of which we
may quote from Curtis's "Flora Londinensis":—"On Keep Hill, near High
Wycombe, where we observed it, there chanced to be a little boy. I asked
him if he knew the plant. He answered 'Yes; it was naughty-man's
cherries.'" In the North of England the broad-dock (Rumex
obtusifolius), when in seed, is known by children as curly-cows, who
milk it by drawing the stalks through their fingers. Again, in the same
locality, children speaking of the dead-man's thumb, one of the popular
names of the Orchis mascula, tell one another with mysterious awe that
the root was once the thumb of some unburied murderer. In one of the
"Roxburghe Ballads" the phrase is referred to:—
"Then round the meadows did she walke,
Catching each flower by the stalke,
Suche as within the meadows grew,
As dead-man's thumbs and harebell blue."
It is to this plant that Shakespeare doubtless alludes in "Hamlet" (Act
iv. sc. 7), where:—
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead-men's fingers call them."
In the south of Scotland, the name "doudle," says Jamieson, is applied
to the root of the common reed-grass (Phragmites communis), which is
found, partially decayed, in morasses, and of "which the children in the
south of Scotland make a sort of musical instrument, similar to the
oaten pipes of the ancients." In Yorkshire, the water-scrophularia
(Scrophularia aquatica), is in children's language known as
"fiddle-wood," so called because the stems are by children stripped of
their leaves, and scraped across each other fiddler-fashion, when they
produce a squeaking sound. This juvenile music is the source of infinite
amusement among children, and is carried on by them with much enthusiasm
in their games. Likewise, the spear-thistle (Carduus lanceolatus) is
designated Marian in Scotland, while children blow the pappus from the
"Marian, Marian, what's the time of day,
One o'clock, two o'clock—it's time we were away."
In Cheshire, when children first see the heads of the ribwort plantain
(Plantago lanceolata) in spring, they repeat the following rhyme:—
"Chimney sweeper all in black,
Go to the brook and wash your back,
Wash it clean, or wash it none;
Chimney sweeper, have you done?":—
Being in all probability a mode of divination for insuring good luck.
Another name for the same plant is "cocks," from children fighting the
flower-stems one against another.
The common hazel-nut (Corylus avellana) is frequently nicknamed the
"cob-nut," and was so called from being used in an old game played by
children. An old name for the devil's-bit (Scabiosa succisa), in the
northern counties, and in Scotland, is "curl-doddy," from the
resemblance of the head of flowers to the curly pate of a boy, this
nickname being often used by children who thus address the plant:—
"Curly-doddy, do my biddin',
Soop my house, and shoal my widden'."
In Ireland, children twist the stalk, and as it slowly untwists in the
hand, thus address it:—
"Curl-doddy on the midden,
Turn round an' take my biddin'."
In Cumberland, the Primula farinosa, commonly known as bird's-eye, is
called by children "bird-een."
"The lockety-gowan and bonny bird-een
Are the fairest flowers that ever were seen."
And in many places the Leontodon taraxacum is designated "blow-ball,"
because children blow the ripe fruit from the receptacle to tell the
time of day and for various purposes of divination. Thus in the "Sad
Shepherd," page 8, it is said:—
"Her treading would not bend a blade of grass,
Or shake the downy blow-ball from his stalk."
In Scotland, one of the popular names of the Angelica sylvestris is
"aik-skeiters," or "hear-skeiters," because children shoot oats through
the hollow stems, as peas are shot through a pea-shooter. Then there is
the goose-grass (Galium aparine), variously called goose-bill,
beggar's-lice, scratch-weed, and which has been designated blind-tongue,
because "children with the leaves practise phlebotomy upon the tongue of
those playmates who are simple enough to endure it," a custom once very
general in Scotland. 
The catkins of the willow are in some counties known as "goslings," or
"goslins,"—children, says Halliwell,  sometimes playing with them by
putting them in the fire and singeing them brown, repeating verses at
the same time. One of the names of the heath-pea (Lathyrus
macrorrhizus) is liquory-knots, and school-boys in Berwickshire so
call them, for when dried their taste is not unlike that of the real
liquorice.  Again, a children's name of common henbane (Hyoscyamus
niger) is "loaves of bread," an allusion to which is made by Clare in
his "Shepherd's Calendar":—
"Hunting from the stack-yard sod
The stinking henbane's belted pod,
By youth's warm fancies sweetly led
To christen them his loaves of bread."
A Worcestershire name for a horse-chestnut is the "oblionker tree."
According to a correspondent of Notes and Queries (5th Ser. x. 177),
in the autumn, when the chestnuts are falling from their trunks, boys
thread them on string and play a "cob-nut" game with them. When the
striker is taking aim, and preparing for a shot at his adversary's nut,
My first conker (conquer)."
The word oblionker apparently being a meaningless invention to rhyme
with the word conquer, which has by degrees become applied to the
The wall peniterry (Parietaria officinalis) is known in Ireland as
"peniterry," and is thus described in "Father Connell, by the O'Hara
Family" (chap, xii.):—
"A weed called, locally at least, peniterry, to which the suddenly
terrified [schoolboy] idler might run in his need, grasping it hard and
threateningly, and repeating the following 'words of power':—
'Peniterry, peniterry, that grows by the wall,
Save me from a whipping, or I'll pull you roots and all.'"
Johnston, who has noticed so many odd superstitions, tells us that the
tuberous ground-nut (Bunium flexuosum), which has various nicknames,
such as "lousy," "loozie," or "lucie arnut," is dug up by children who
eat the roots, "but they are hindered from indulging to excess by a
cherished belief that the luxury tends to generate vermin in the
An old rhyme often in years past used by country children when the
daffodils made their annual appearance in early spring, was as
Has now come to town,
In a yellow petticoat
And a green gown."
A name for the shepherd's purse is "mother's-heart," and in the eastern
Border district, says Johnston, children have a sort of game with the
seed-pouch. They hold it out to their companions, inviting them to "take
a haud o' that." It immediately cracks, and then follows a triumphant
shout, "You've broken your mother's heart." In Northamptonshire,
children pick the leaves of the herb called pick-folly, one by one,
repeating each time the words, "Rich man, poor man, beggar-man, thief,"
&c., fancying that the one which comes to be named at the last plucking
will prove the conditions of their future partners. Variations of this
custom exist elsewhere, and a correspondent of "Science Gossip" (1876,
xi. 94). writes:—"I remember when at school at Birmingham that my
playmates manifested a very great repugnance to this plant. Very few of
them would touch it, and it was known to us by the two bad names,
"haughty-man's plaything," and "pick your mother's heart out." In
Hanover, as well as in the Swiss canton of St. Gall, the same plant is
offered to uninitiated persons with a request to pluck one of the pods.
Should he do so the others exclaim, "You have stolen a purse of gold
from your father and mother."" "It is interesting to find," writes Mr.
Britten in the "Folk-lore Record" (i. 159), "that a common tropical
weed, Ageratum conyzoides, is employed by children in Venezuela in a
very similar manner."
The compilers of the "Dictionary of Plant Names" consider that the
double (garden) form of Saxifraga granulata, designated "pretty
maids," may be referred to in the old nursery rhyme:—
"Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
Cockle-shells, and silver bells,
And pretty maids all in a row."
The old-man's-beard (Clematis vitalba) is in many places popularly
known as smoke-wood, because "our village-boys smoke pieces of the wood
as they do of rattan cane; hence, it is sometimes called smoke-wood, and
The children of Galloway play at hide-and-seek with a little
black-topped flower which is known by them as the Davie-drap, meantime
repeating the following rhyme:—
"Within the bounds of this I hap
My black and bonnie Davie-drap:
Wha is he, the cunning ane,
To me my Davie-drap will fin'?"
This plant, it has been suggested,  being the cuckoo grass (Luzula
campestris), which so often figures in children's games and rhymes.
Once more, there are numerous games played by children in which certain
flowers are introduced, as in the following, known as "the three
flowers," played in Scotland, and thus described in Chambers's "Popular
Rhymes," p. 127:—"A group of lads and lasses being assembled round the
fire, two leave the party and consult together as to the names of three
others, young men or girls, whom they designate as the red rose, the
pink, and the gillyflower. The two young men then return, and having
selected a member of the fairer group, they say to her:—
'My mistress sent me unto thine,
Wi' three young flowers baith fair and fine:—
The pink, the rose, and the gillyflower,
And as they here do stand,
Whilk will ye sink, whilk will ye swim,
And whilk bring hame to land?'
The maiden must choose one of the flowers named, on which she passes
some approving epithet, adding, at the same time, a disapproving
rejection of the other two, as in the following terms: 'I will sink the
pink, swim the rose, and bring hame the gillyflower to land.' The young
men then disclose the names of the parties upon whom they had fixed
those appellations respectively, when it may chance she has slighted the
person to whom she is most attached, and contrariwise." Games of this
kind are very varied, and still afford many an evening's amusement among
the young people of our country villages during the winter evenings.
1. Journal of Horticulture, 1876, p. 355.
2. Johnston's "Botany of Eastern Borders."
3. "Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words."
4. Johnston's "Botany of Eastern Borders," p. 57.
5. "Botany of Eastern Borders," p. 85.
6. "English Botany," ed. I, iii. p. 3.
7. "Dictionary of Plant Names" (Britten and Holland), p. 145.
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.
The superstitious notions which, under one form or another, have
clustered round the vegetable kingdom, hold a prominent place in the
field of folk-lore. To give a full and detailed account of these
survivals of bygone beliefs, would occupy a volume of no mean size, so
thickly scattered are they among the traditions and legendary lore of
almost every country. Only too frequently, also, we find the same
superstition assuming a very different appearance as it travels from one
country to another, until at last it is almost completely divested of
its original dress. Repeated changes of this kind, whilst not escaping
the notice of the student of comparative folk-lore, are apt to mislead
the casual observer who, it may be, assigns to them a particular home in
his own country, whereas probably they have travelled, before arriving
at their modern destination, thousands of miles in the course of years.
There is said to be a certain mysterious connection between certain
plants and animals. Thus, swine when affected with the spleen are
supposed to resort to the spleen-wort, and according to Coles, in his
"Art of Simpling," the ass does likewise, for he tells us that, "if the
asse be oppressed with melancholy, he eates of the herbe asplemon or
mill-waste, and eases himself of the swelling of the spleen." One of the
popular names of the common sow-thistle (Sonchus oleraceus) is
hare's-palace, from the shelter it is supposed to afford the hare.
According to the "Grete Herbale," "if the hare come under it, he is sure
that no beast can touch hym." Topsell also, in his "Natural History,"
alludes to this superstition:—"When hares are overcome with heat, they
eat of an herb called Latuca leporina, that is, hare's-lettuce,
hare's-house, hare's-palace; and there is no disease in this beast the
cure whereof she does not seek for in this herb."
The hound's-tongue (cynoglossum) has been reputed to have the magical
property of preventing dogs barking at a person, if laid beneath the
feet; and Gerarde says that wild goats or deer, "when they be wounded
with arrows, do shake them out by eating of this plant, and heal their
wounds." Bacon in his "Natural History" alludes to another curious idea
connected with goats, and says, "There are some tears of trees, which
are combed from the beards of goats; for when the goats bite and crop
them, especially in the morning, the dew being on, the tear cometh
forth, and hangeth upon their beards; of this sort is some kind of
laudanum." The columbine was once known as Herba leonis, from a belief
that it was the lion's favourite plant, and it is said that when bears
were half-starved by hybernating—having remained for days without
food—they were suddenly restored by eating the arum. There is a curious
tradition in Piedmont, that if a hare be sprinkled with the juice of
henbane, all the hares in the neighbourhood will run away as if scared
by some invisible power.
Gerarde also alludes to an old belief that cats, "Are much delighted
with catmint, for the smell of it is so pleasant unto them, that they
rub themselves upon it, and swallow or tumble in it, and also feed on
the branches very greedily." And according to an old proverb they have a
liking for the plant maram:—
"If you set it, the cats will eat it;
If you sow it, the cats won't know it."
Equally fond, too, are cats of valerian, being said to dig up the roots
and gnaw them to pieces, an allusion to which occurs in Topsell's
"Four-footed Beasts" (1658-81):—"The root of the herb valerian
(commonly called Phu) is very like to the eye of a cat, and wheresoever
it groweth, if cats come thereunto they instantly dig it up for the love
thereof, as I myself have seen in mine own garden, for it smelleth
moreover like a cat."
Then there is the moonwort, famous for drawing the nails out of horses'
shoes, and hence known by the rustic name of "unshoe the horse;" while
the mouse-ear was credited with preventing the horses being hurt
We have already alluded to the superstitions relating to birds and
plants, but may mention another relating to the celandine. One of the
well-known names of this plant is swallow-wort, so termed, says Gerarde,
not, "because it first springeth at the coming in of the swallows, or
dieth when they go away, for it may be found all the year, but because
some hold opinion that with this herbe the darns restore eyesight to
their young ones, when their eye be put out." Coles strengthens the
evidence in favour of this odd notion by adding: "It is known to such as
have skill of nature, what wonderful care she hath of the smallest
creatures, giving to them a knowledge of medicine to help themselves, if
haply diseases annoy them. The swallow cureth her dim eyes with
celandine; the wesell knoweth well the virtue of herb-grace; the dove
the verven; the dogge dischargeth his mawe with a kind of grasse," &c.
In Italy cumin is given to pigeons for the purpose of taming them, and a
curious superstition is that of the "divining-rod," with "its versatile
sensibility to water, ore, treasure and thieves," and one whose history
is apparently as remote as it is widespread. Francis Lenormant, in his
"Chaldean Magic," mentions the divining-rods used by the Magi, wherewith
they foretold the future by throwing little sticks of tamarisk-wood, and
adds that divination by wands was known and practised in Babylon, "and
that this was even the most ancient mode of divination used in the time
of the Accadians." Among the Hindus, even in the Vedic period, magic
wands were in use, and the practice still survives in China, where the
peach-tree is in demand. Tracing its antecedent history in this country,
it appears that the Druids were in the habit of cutting their
divining-rods from the apple-tree; and various notices of this once
popular fallacy occur from time to time, in the literature of bygone
The hazel was formerly famous for its powers of discernment, and
it is still held in repute by the Italians. Occasionally, too, as
already noticed, the divining-rod was employed for the purpose of
detecting the locality of water, as is still the case in Wiltshire. An
interesting case was quoted some years ago in the Quarterly Review
(xxii. 273). A certain Lady N——is here stated to have convinced Dr.
Hutton of her possession of this remarkable gift, and by means of it to
have indicated to him the existence of a spring of water in one of his
fields adjoining the Woolwich College, which, in consequence of the
discovery, he was enabled to sell to the college at a higher price. This
power Lady N——repeatedly exhibited before credible witnesses, and the
Quarterly Review of that day considered the fact indisputable. The
divining-rod has long been in repute among Cornish miners, and Pryce, in
his "Mineralogia Cornubiensis," says that many mines have been
discovered by this means; but, after giving a minute account of cutting,
tying, and using it, he rejects it, because, "Cornwall is so plentifully
stored with tin and copper lodes, that some accident every week
discovers to us a fresh vein."
Billingsley, in his "Agricultural Survey of the County of Cornwall,"
published in the year 1797, speaks of the belief of the Mendip miners in
the efficacy of the mystic rod:—"The general method of discovering the
situation and direction of those seams of ore (which lie at various
depths, from five to twenty fathoms, in a chasm between two inches of
solid rock) is by the help of the divining-rod, vulgarly called
josing; and a variety of strong testimonies are adduced in supporting
this doctrine. So confident are the common miners of the efficacy, that
they scarcely ever sink a shaft but by its direction; and those who are
dexterous in the use of it, will mark on the surface the course and
breadth of the vein; and after that, with the assistance of the rod,
will follow the same course twenty times following blindfolded."
Anecdotes of the kind are very numerous, for there are few subjects in
folk-lore concerning which more has been written than on the
divining-rod, one of the most exhaustive being that of Mr. Baring-Gould
in his "Curious Myths of the Middle Ages." The literature, too, of the
past is rich in allusions to this piece of superstition, and Swift in
his "Virtues of Sid Hamet the Magician's Rod" (1710) thus refers to
"They tell us something strange and odd
About a certain magic rod
That, bending down its top, divines
Whene'er the soil has golden mines;
Where there are none, it stands erect,
Scorning to show the least respect.
As ready was the wand of Sid
To bend where golden mines were hid.
In Scottish hills found precious ore,
Where none e'er looked for it before;
And by a gentle bow divined,
How well a Cully's purse was lined;
To a forlorn and broken rake,
Stood without motion like a stake."
De Quincey has several amusing allusions to this fallacy, affirming that
he had actually seen on more than one occasion the process applied with
success, and declared that, in spite of all science or scepticism might
say, most of the tea-kettles in the Vale of Wrington, North
Somersetshire, are filled by rhabdomancy. But it must be admitted that
the phenomena of the divining-rod and table-turning are of precisely the
same character, both being referable to an involuntary muscular action
resulting from a fixedness of idea. Moreover, it should be remembered
that experiments with the divining-rod are generally made in a district
known to be metalliferous, and therefore the chances are greatly in
favour of its bending over or near a mineral lode. On the other hand, it
is surprising how many people of culture have, at different times, in
this and other countries, displayed a lamentable weakness in partially
accepting this piece of superstition. Of the many anecdotes related
respecting it, we may quote an amusing one in connection with the
celebrated botanist, Linnaeus:—"When he was on one of his voyages,
hearing his secretary highly extol the virtues of his divining-wand, he
was willing to convince him of its insufficiency, and for that purpose
concealed a purse of one hundred ducats under a ranunculus, which grew
up by itself in a meadow, and bid the secretary find it if he could. The
wand discovered nothing, and Linnaeus' mark was soon trampled down by
the company who were present, so that when he went to finish the
experiment by fetching the gold himself, he was utterly at a loss where
to find it. The man with the wand assisted him, and informed him that it
could not lie in the way they were going, but quite the contrary, so
pursued the direction of the wand, and actually dug out the gold.
Linnaeus thereupon added that such another experiment would be
sufficient to make a proselyte of him." 
In 1659, the Jesuit, Gaspard Schott, tells us that this magic rod was at
this period used in every town in Germany, and that he had frequently
had opportunities of seeing it used in the discovery of hidden treasure.
He further adds:—"I searched with the greatest care into the question
whether the hazel rod had any sympathy with gold and silver, and whether
any natural property set it in motion. In like manner, I tried whether a
ring of metal, held suspended by a thread in the midst of a tumbler, and
which strikes the hours, is moved by any similar force." But many of the
mysterious effects of these so-called divining-rods were no doubt due to
clever imposture. In the year 1790, Plunet, a native of Dauphiné,
claimed a power over the divining-rod which attracted considerable
attention in Italy. But when carefully tested by scientific men in
Padua, his attempts to discover buried metals completely failed; and at
Florence he was detected trying to find out by night what he had
secreted to test his powers on the morrow. The astrologer Lilly made
sundry experiments with the divining-rod, but was not always successful;
and the Jesuit, Kircher, tried the powers of certain rods which were
said to have sympathetic influences for particular metals, but they
never turned on the approach of these. Once more, in the "Shepherd's
Calendar," we find a receipt to make the "Mosaic wand to find hidden
treasure" without the intervention of a human operator:—"Cut a hazel
wand forked at the upper end like a Y. Peel off the rind, and dry it in
a moderate heat, then steep it in the juice of wake-robin or nightshade,
and cut the single lower end sharp; and where you suppose any rich mine
or hidden treasure is near, place a piece of the same metal you conceive
is hid, or in the earth, to the top of one of the forks by a hair, and
do the like to the other end; pitch the sharp single end lightly to the
ground at the going down of the sun, the moon being in the increase, and
in the morning at sunrise, by a natural sympathy, you will find the
metal inclining, as it were pointing, to the places where the other is
According to a Tuscany belief, the almond will discover treasures; and
the golden rod has long had the reputation in England of pointing to
hidden springs of water, as well as to treasures of gold and silver.
Similarly, the spring-wort and primrose—the key-flower—revealed the
hidden recesses in mountains where treasures were concealed, and the
mystic fern-seed, termed "wish-seed," was supposed in the Tyrol to make
known hidden gold; and, according to a Lithuanian form of this
superstition, one who secures treasures by this means will be pursued by
adders, the guardians of the gold. Plants of this kind remind us of the
magic "sesame" which, at the command of Ali Baba, in the story of the
"Forty Thieves," gave him immediate admission to the secret
treasure-cave. Once more, among further plants possessing the same
mystic property may be mentioned the sow-thistle, which, when invoked,
discloses hidden treasures. In Sicily a branch of the pomegranate tree
is considered to be a most effectual means of ascertaining the
whereabouts of concealed wealth. Hence it has been invested with an
almost reverential awe, and has been generally employed when search has
been made for some valuable lost property. In Silesia, Thuringia, and
Bohemia the mandrake is, in addition to its many mystic properties,
connected with the idea of hidden treasures.
Numerous plants are said to be either lucky or the reverse, and hence
have given rise to all kinds of odd beliefs, some of which still survive
in our midst, having come down from a remote period.
There is in many places a curious antipathy to uprooting the house-leek,
some persons even disliking to let it blossom, and a similar prejudice
seems to have existed against the cuckoo-flower, for, if found
accidentally inverted in a May garland, it was at once destroyed. In
Prussia it is regarded as ominous for a bride to plant myrtle, although
in this country it has the reputation of being a lucky plant. According
to a Somersetshire saying, "The flowering myrtle is the luckiest plant
to have in your window, water it every morning, and be proud of it." We
may note here that there are many odd beliefs connected with the myrtle.
"Speaking to a lady," says a correspondent of the Athenaeum (Feb. 5,
1848), "of the difficulty which I had always found in getting a slip of
myrtle to grow, she directly accounted for my failure by observing that
perhaps I had not spread the tail or skirt of my dress, and looked proud
during the time I was planting it. It is a popular belief in
Somersetshire that unless a slip of myrtle is so planted, it will never
take root." The deadly nightshade is a plant of ill omen, and Gerarde
describing it says, "if you will follow my counsel, deal not with the
same in any case, and banish it from your gardens, and the use of it
also, being a plant so furious and deadly; for it bringeth such as have
eaten thereof into a dead sleep, wherein many have died." There is a
strong prejudice to sowing parsley, and equally a great dislike to
transplanting it, the latter notion being found in South America.
Likewise, according to a Devonshire belief, it is highly unlucky to
plant a bed of lilies of the valley, as the person doing so will
probably die in the course of the next twelve months.
The withering of plants has long been regarded ominous, and, according
to a Welsh superstition, if there are faded leaves in a room where a
baby is christened it will soon die. Of the many omens afforded by the
oak, we are told that the change of its leaves from their usual colour
gave more than once "fatal premonition" of coming misfortunes during the
great civil wars; and Bacon mentions a tradition that "if the oak-apple,
broken, be full of worms, it is a sign of a pestilent year." In olden
times the decay of the bay-tree was considered an omen of disaster, and
it is stated that, previous to the death of Nero, though the winter was
very mild, all these trees withered to the roots, and that a great
pestilence in Padua was preceded by the same phenomenon.  Shakespeare
speaks of this superstition:—
"'Tis thought the king is dead; we will not stay,
The bay-trees in our county are all withered."
Lupton, in his "Notable Things," tells us that,
"If a fir-tree be touched, withered, or burned with lightning, it
signifies that the master or mistress thereof shall shortly die."
It is difficult, as we have already noted in a previous chapter, to
discover why some of our sweetest and fairest spring-flowers should be
associated with ill-luck. In the western counties, for instance, one
should never take less than a handful of primroses or violets into a
farmer's house, as neglect of this rule is said to affect the success of
the ducklings and chickens. A correspondent of Notes and Queries (I.
Ser. vii. 201) writes:—"My gravity was sorely tried by being called on
to settle a quarrel between two old women, arising from one of them
having given one primrose to her neighbour's child, for the purpose of
making her hens hatch but one egg out of each set of eggs, and it was
seriously maintained that the charm had been successful." In the same
way it is held unlucky to introduce the first snowdrop of the year into
a house, for, as a Sussex woman once remarked, "It looks for all the
world like a corpse in its shroud." We may repeat, too, again the
"If you sweep the house with blossomed broom in May,
You are sure to sweep the head of the house away."
And there is the common superstition that where roses and violets bloom
in autumn, it is indicative of some epidemic in the following year;
whereas, if a white rose put forth unexpectedly, it is believed in
Germany to be a sign of death in the nearest house; and in some parts of
Essex there is a current belief that sickness or death will inevitably
ensue if blossoms of the whitethorn be brought into a house; the idea in
Norfolk being that no one will be married from the house during the
year. Another ominous sign is that of plants shedding their leaves, or
of their blossoms falling to pieces. Thus the peasantry in some places
affirm that the dropping of the leaves of a peach-tree betokens a
murrain; and in Italy it is held unlucky for a rose to do so. A
well-known illustration of this superstition occurred many years ago in
the case of the unfortunate Miss Bay, who was murdered at the piazza
entrance of Covent Garden by Hackman (April 1779), the following account
of which we quote from the "Life and Correspondence of M. G. Lewis":—
"When the carriage was announced, and she was adjusting her dress, Mr.
Lewis happened to make some remark on a beautiful rose which Miss Kay
wore in her bosom. Just as the words were uttered the flower fell to the
ground. She immediately stooped to regain it, but as she picked it up,
the red leaves scattered themselves on the carpet, and the stalk alone
remained in her hand. The poor girl, who had been depressed in spirits
before, was evidently affected by this incident, and said, in a slightly
faltering voice, 'I trust I am not to consider this as an evil omen!'
But soon rallying, she expressed to Mr. Lewis, in a cheerful tone, her
hope that they would meet again after the theatre—a hope, alas! which
it was decreed should not be realised." According to a German belief,
one who throws a rose into a grave will waste away.
There is a notion prevalent in Dorsetshire that a house wherein the
plant "bergamot" is kept will never be free from sickness; and in
Norfolk it is said to be unlucky to take into a house a bunch of the
grass called "maiden-hair," or, as it is also termed, "dudder-grass."
Among further plants of ill omen may be mentioned the bluebell
(Campanula rotundifolia), which in certain parts of Scotland was
called "The aul' man's bell," and was regarded with a sort of dread, and
commonly left unpulled. In Cumberland, about Cockermouth, the red
campion (Lychnis diurna) is called "mother-die," and young people
believe that if plucked some misfortune will happen to their parents. A
similar belief attaches to the herb-robert (Geranium robertianum) in
West Cumberland, where it is nicknamed "Death come quickly;" and in
certain parts of Yorkshire there is a notion that if a child gather the
germander speedwell (Veronica chamoedrys), its mother will die during
the year. Herrick has a pretty allusion to the daffodil:—
"When a daffodil I see
Hanging down her head t'wards me,
Guess I may what I must be:
First, I shall decline my head;
Secondly, I shall be dead;
Lastly, safely buried."
In Germany, the marigold is with the greatest care excluded from the
flowers with which young women test their love-affairs; and in Austria
it is held unlucky to pluck the crocus, as it draws away the strength.
An ash leaf is still frequently employed for invoking good luck, and in
Cornwall we find the old popular formula still in use:—
"Even ash, I do thee pluck,
Hoping thus to meet good luck;
If no good luck I get from thee,
I shall wish thee on the tree."
And there is the following well-known couplet:—
"With a four-leaved clover, a double-leaved ash, and a green-topped
You may go before the queen's daughter without asking leave."
But, on the other hand, the finder of the five-leaved clover, it is
said, will have bad luck.
In Scotland  it was formerly customary to carry on the person a piece
of torch-fir for good luck—a superstition which, Mr. Conway remarks, is
found in the gold-mines of California, where the men tip a cone with the
first gold they discover, and keep it as a charm to ensure good luck
Nuts, again, have generally been credited with propitious qualities, and
have accordingly been extensively used for divination. In some
mysterious way, too, they are supposed to influence the population, for
when plentiful, there is said to be a corresponding increase of babies.
In Russia the peasantry frequently carry a nut in their purses, from a
belief that it will act as a charm in their efforts to make money.
Sternberg, in his "Northamptonshire Glossary" (163), says that the
discovery of a double nut, "presages well for the finder, and unless he
mars his good fortune by swallowing both kernels, is considered an
infallible sign of approaching 'luck.' The orthodox way in such cases
consists in eating one, and throwing the other over the shoulder."
The Icelanders have a curious idea respecting the mountain-ash,
affirming that it is an enemy of the juniper, and that if one is
planted on one side of a tree, and the other on the other, they will
split it. It is also asserted that if both are kept in the same house it
will be burnt down; but, on the other hand, there is a belief among some
sailors that if rowan-tree be used in a ship, it will sink the vessel
unless juniper be found on board. In the Tyrol, the Osmunda regalis,
called "the blooming fern," is placed over the door for good teeth; and
Mr. Conway, too, in his valuable papers, to which we have been often
indebted in the previous chapters, says that there are circumstances
under which all flowers are injurious. "They must not be laid on the bed
of a sick person, according to a Silesian superstition; and in
Westphalia and Thuringia, no child under a year old must be permitted to
wreathe itself with flowers, or it will soon die. Flowers, says a common
German saying, must in no case be laid on the mouth of a corpse, since
the dead man may chew them, which would make him a 'Nachzehrer,' or one
who draws his relatives to the grave after him."
In Hungary, the burnet saxifrage (Pimpinella saxifraga) is a mystic
plant, where it is popularly nicknamed Chaba's salve, there being an old
tradition that it was discovered by King Chaba, who cured the wounds of
fifteen thousand of his men after a bloody battle fought against his
brother. In Hesse, it is said that with knots tied in willow one may
slay a distant enemy; and the Bohemians have a belief that
seven-year-old children will become beautiful by dancing in the flax.
But many superstitions have clustered round the latter plant, it having
in years gone by been a popular notion that it will only flower at the
time of day on which it was originally sown. To spin on Saturday is said
in Germany to bring ill fortune, and as a warning the following legend
is among the household tales of the peasantry:—"Two old women, good
friends, were the most industrious spinners in their village, Saturday
finding them as engrossed in their work as on the other days of the
week. At length one of them died, but on the Saturday evening following
she appeared to the other, who, as usual, was busy at her wheel, and
showing her burning hand, said:—
'See what I in hell have won,
Because on Saturday eve I spun.'"
Flax, nevertheless, is a lucky plant, for in Thuringia, when a young
woman gets married, she places flax in her shoes as a charm against
poverty. It is supposed, also, to have health-giving virtues; for in
Germany, when an infant seems weakly and thrives slowly, it is placed
naked upon the turf on Midsummer day, and flax-seed is sprinkled over
it; the idea being that as the flax-seed grows so the infant will
gradually grow stronger. Of the many beliefs attached to the ash-tree,
we are told in the North of England that if the first parings of a
child's nails be buried beneath its roots, it will eventually turn out,
to use the local phrase, a "top-singer," and there is a popular
superstition that wherever the purple honesty (Lunaria biennis)
flourishes, the cultivators of the garden are noted for their honesty.
The snapdragon, which in years gone by was much cultivated for its showy
blossoms, was said to have a supernatural influence, and amongst other
qualities to possess the power of destroying charms. Many further
illustrations of this class of superstition might easily be added, so
thickly interwoven are they with the history of most of our familiar
wild-flowers. One further superstition may be noticed, an allusion to
which occurs in "Henry V." (Act i. sc. i):—
"The strawberry grows underneath the nettle,
And wholesome berries thrive and ripen best
Neighbour'd by fruit of baser quality;"
It having been the common notion that plants were affected by the
neighbourhood of other plants to such an extent that they imbibed each
other's virtues and faults. Accordingly sweet flowers were planted near
fruit-trees, with the idea of improving the flavour of the fruit; and,
on the other hand, evil-smelling trees, like the elder, were carefully
cleaned away from fruit-trees, lest they should become tainted. 
Further superstitions have been incidentally alluded to throughout the
present volume, necessarily associated as they are with most sections of
plant folk-lore. It should also be noticed that in the various
folk-tales which have been collected together in recent years, many
curious plant superstitions are introduced, although, to suit the
surroundings of the story, they have only too frequently been modified,
or the reverse. At the same time, embellishments of the kind are
interesting, as showing how familiar these traditionary beliefs were in
olden times to the story-teller, and how ready he was to avail
himself of them.
1. See Baring-Gerald's "Curious Myths of the Middle Ages."
2. Ingram's "Florica Symbolica," p. 326.
3. Stewart's "Popular Superstitions of the Highlanders."
4. See Ellacombe's "Plant-lore of Shakespeare," p. 319.
PLANTS IN FOLK-MEDICINE.
From the earliest times plants have been most extensively used in the
cure of disease, although in days of old it was not so much their
inherent medicinal properties which brought them into repute as their
supposed magical virtues. Oftentimes, in truth, the only merit of a
plant lay in the charm formula attached to it, the due utterance of
which ensured relief to the patient. Originally there can be no doubt
that such verbal forms were prayers, "since dwindled into mystic
sentences."  Again, before a plant could work its healing powers, due
regard had to be paid to the planet under whose influence it was
supposed to be;  for Aubrey mentions an old belief that if a plant "be
not gathered according to the rules of astrology, it hath little or no
virtue in it." Hence, in accordance with this notion, we find numerous
directions for the cutting and preparing of certain plants for medicinal
purposes, a curious list of which occurs in Culpepper's "British Herbal
and Family Physician." This old herbalist, who was a strong believer in
astrology, tells us that such as are of this way of thinking, and none
else, are fit to be physicians. But he was not the only one who had
strict views on this matter, as the literature of his day
proves—astrology, too, having held a prominent place in most of the
gardening books of the same period. Michael Drayton, who has chronicled
so many of the credulities of his time, referring to the longevity of
antediluvian men, writes:—
"Besides, in medicine, simples had the power
That none need then the planetary hour
To help their workinge, they so juiceful were."
The adder's-tongue, if plucked during the wane of the moon, was a cure
for tumours, and there is a Swabian belief that one, "who on Friday of
the full moon pulls up the amaranth by the root, and folding it in a
white cloth, wears it against his naked breast, will be made
bullet-proof."  Consumptive patients, in olden times, were three times
passed, "Through a circular wreath of woodbine, cut during the increase
of the March moon, and let down over the body from head to foot."  In
France, too, at the present day, the vervain is gathered under the
different changes of the moon, with secret incantations, after which it
is said to possess remarkable curative properties.
In Cornwall, the club-moss, if properly gathered, is considered "good
against all diseases of the eye." The mode of procedure is this:—"On
the third day of the moon, when the thin crescent is seen for the first
time, show it the knife with which the moss is to be cut, and repeat
'As Christ healed the issue of blood,
Do thou cut what thou cuttest for good.'
At sundown, the operator, after carefully washing his hands, is to cut
the club-moss kneeling. It is then to be wrapped in a white cloth, and
subsequently boiled in water taken from the spring nearest to its place
of growth. This may be used as a fomentation, or the club-moss may be
made into an ointment with the butter from the milk of a new cow." 
Some plants have, from time immemorial, been much in request from the
season or period of their blooming, beyond which fact it is difficult to
account for the virtues ascribed to them. Thus, among the Romans, the
first anemone of the year, when gathered with this form of incantation,
"I gather thee for a remedy against disease," was regarded as a
preservative from fever; a survival of which belief still prevails in
our own country:—
"The first spring-blown anemone she in his doublet wove,
To keep him safe from pestilence wherever he should rove."
On the other hand, in some countries there is a very strong prejudice
against the wild anemone, the air being said "to be so tainted by them,
that they who inhale it often incur severe sickness."  Similarly we
may compare the notion that flowers blooming out of season have a fatal
significance, as we have noted elsewhere.
The sacred associations attached to many plants have invested them, at
all times, with a scientific repute in the healing art, instances of
which may be traced up to a very early period. Thus, the peony, which,
from its mythical divine origin, was an important flower in the
primitive pharmacopoeia, has even in modern times retained its
reputation; and to this day Sussex mothers put necklaces of beads turned
from the peony root around their children's necks, to prevent
convulsions and to assist them in their teething. When worn on the
person, it was long considered, too, a most effectual remedy for
insanity, and Culpepper speaks of its virtues in the cure of the falling
sickness.  The thistle, sacred to Thor, is another plant of this kind,
and indeed instances are very numerous. On the other hand, some plants,
from their great virtues as "all-heals," it would seem, had such names
as "Angelica" and "Archangel" bestowed on them. 
In later times many plants became connected with the name of Christ, and
with the events of the crucifixion itself—facts which occasionally
explain their mysterious virtues. Thus the vervain, known as the "holy
herb," and which was one of the sacred plants of the Druids, has long
been held in repute, the subjoined rhyme assigning as the reason:—
"All hail, thou holy herb, vervin,
Growing on the ground;
On the Mount of Calvary
There wast thou found;
Thou helpest many a grief,
And staunchest many a wound.
In the name of sweet Jesu,
I lift thee from the ground."
To quote one or two further instances, a popular recipe for preventing
the prick of a thorn from festering is to repeat this formula:—
"Christ was of a virgin born,
And he was pricked with a thorn,
And it did neither bell nor swell,
And I trust in Jesus this never will."
In Cornwall, some years ago, the following charm was much used, forms of
which may occasionally be heard at the present day:—
"Happy man that Christ was born,
He was crowned with a thorn;
He was pierced through the skin,
For to let the poison in.
But His five wounds, so they say,
Closed before He passed away.
In with healing, out with thorn,
Happy man that Christ was born."
Another version used in the North of England is this:—
"Unto the Virgin Mary our Saviour was horn,
And on his head he wore a crown of thorn;
If you believe this true, and mind it well,
This hurt will never fester nor swell."
The Angelica sylvestris was popularly known as "Holy Ghost," from the
angel-like properties therein having been considered good "against
poisons, pestilent agues, or the pestilence."
Cockayne, in his "Saxon Leechdoms," mentions an old poem descriptive of
the virtues of the mugwort:—
"Thou hast might for three,
And against thirty,
For venom availest
For plying vile things."
So, too, certain plants of the saints acquired a notoriety for specific
virtues; and hence St. John's wort, with its leaves marked with
blood-like spots, which appear, according to tradition, on the
anniversary of his decollation, is still "the wonderful herb" that cures
all sorts of wounds. Herb-bennet, popularly designated "Star of the
earth," a name applied to the avens, hemlock, and valerian, should
properly be, says Dr. Prior, "St. Benedict's herb, a name assigned to
such plants as were supposed to be antidotes, in allusion to a legend of
this saint, which represents that upon his blessing a cup of poisoned
wine which a monk had given to destroy him, the glass was shivered to
pieces." In the same way, herb-gerard was called from St. Gerard, who was
formerly invoked against gout, a complaint for which this plant was once
in high repute. St. James's wort was so called from its being used for
the diseases of horses, of which this great pilgrim-saint was the
patron. It is curious in how many unexpected ways these odd items of
folk-lore in their association with the saints meet us, showing that in
numerous instances it is entirely their association with certain saints
that has made them of medical repute.
Some trees and plants have gained a medical notoriety from the fact of
their having a mystical history, and from the supernatural qualities
ascribed to them. But, as Bulwer-Lytton has suggested in his "Strange
Story," the wood of certain trees to which magical properties are
ascribed may in truth possess virtues little understood, and deserving
of careful investigation. Thus, among these, the rowan would take its
place, as would the common hazel, from which the miner's divining-rod is
always cut.  An old-fashioned charm to cure the bite of an adder was
to lay a cross formed of two pieces of hazel-wood on the ground,
repeating three times this formula :—
"Underneath this hazelin mote,
There's a braggotty worm with a speckled throat,
Nine double is he;
Now from nine double to eight double
And from eight double to seven double-ell."
The mystical history of the apple accounts for its popularity as a
medical agent, although, of course, we must not attribute all the
lingering rustic cures to this source. Thus, according to an old
"Eat an apple going to bed,
Make the doctor beg his bread."
Its juice has long been deemed potent against warts, and a Lincolnshire
cure for eyes affected by rheumatism or weakness is a poultice made of
The oak, long famous for its supernatural strength and power, has been
much employed in folk-medicine. A German cure for ague is to walk round
an oak and say:—
"Good evening, thou good one old;
I bring thee the warm and the cold."
Similarly, in our own country, oak-trees planted at the junction of
cross-roads were much resorted to by persons suffering from ague, for
the purpose of transferring to them their complaint,  and elsewhere
allusion has already been made to the practice of curing sickly children
by passing through a split piece of oak. A German remedy for gout is to
take hold of an oak, or of a young shoot already felled, and to repeat
"Oak-shoot, I to thee complain,
All the torturing gout plagues me;
I cannot go for it,
Thou canst stand it.
The first bird that flies above thee,
To him give it in his flight,
Let him take it with him in the air."
Another plant, which from its mystic character has been used for various
complaints, is the elder. In Bohemia, three spoonsful of the water which
has been used to bathe an invalid are poured under an elder-tree; and a
Danish cure for toothache consists in placing an elder-twig in the
mouth, and then sticking it in a wall, saying, "Depart, thou evil
spirit." The mysterious origin and surroundings of the mistletoe have
invested it with a widespread importance in old folk-lore remedies, many
of which are, even now-a-days, firmly credited; a reputation, too,
bestowed upon it by the Druids, who styled it "all-heal," as being an
antidote for all diseases. Culpepper speaks of it as "good for the grief
of the sinew, itch, sores, and toothache, the biting of mad dogs and
venomous beasts;" while Sir Thomas Browne alludes to its virtues in
cases of epilepsy. In France, amulets formed of mistletoe were much
worn; and in Sweden, a finger-ring made of its wood is an antidote
against sickness. The mandrake, as a mystic plant, was extensively sold
for medicinal purposes, and in Kent may be occasionally found kept to
cure barrenness;  and it may be remembered that La Fontaine's fable,
La Mandragore, turns upon its supposed power of producing children.
How potent its effects were formerly held may be gathered from the very
many allusions to its mystic properties in the literature of bygone
years. Columella, in his well-known lines, says:—
"Whose roots show half a man, whose juice
With madness strikes."
Shakespeare speaks of it as an opiate, and on the Continent it was much
used for amulets.
Again, certain plants seem to have been specially in high repute in
olden times from the marvellous influence they were credited with
exercising over the human frame; consequently they were much valued by
both old and young; for who would not retain the vigour of his youth,
and what woman would not desire to preserve the freshness of her beauty?
One of the special virtues of rosemary, for instance, was its ability to
make old folks young again. A story is told of a gouty and crooked old
queen, who sighed with longing regret to think that her young
dancing-days were gone, so:—
"Of rosmaryn she took six pownde,
And grounde it well in a stownde,"
And then mixed it with water, in which she bathed three times a day,
taking care to anoint her head with "gode balm" afterwards. In a very
short time her old flesh fell away, and she became so young, tender, and
fresh, that she began to look out for a husband. 
The common fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) was supposed to give strength
to the constitution, and was regarded as highly restorative. Longfellow,
in his "Goblet of Life," apparently alludes to our fennel:—
"Above the lowly plant it towers,
The fennel, with its yellow flowers;
And in an earlier age than ours
Was gifted with the wondrous powers
Lost vision to restore.
It gave new strength and fearless mood,
And gladiators, fierce and rude,
Mingled it in their daily food,
And he who battled and subdued,
The wreath of fennel wore."
The lady's-mantle, too (Alchemilla vulgaris), was once in great
request, for, according to Hoffman, it had the power of "restoring
feminine beauty, however faded, to its early freshness;" and the wild
tansy (Tanacetum vulgare), laid to soak in buttermilk for nine days,
had the reputation of "making the complexion very fair."  Similarly,
also, the great burnet saxifrage was said to remove freckles; and
according to the old herbalists, an infusion of the common centaury
(Erythroea centaurium) possessed the same property.  The hawthorn,
too, was in repute among the fair sex, for, according to an old piece of
"The fair maid who, the first of May,
Goes to the fields at break of day,
And washes in dew from the hawthorn tree,
Will ever after handsome be;"
And the common fumitory, "was used when gathered in wedding hours, and
boiled in water, milk, and whey, as a wash for the complexion of rustic
maids."  In some parts of France the water-hemlock (nanthe
crocata), known with us as the "dead-tongue," from its paralysing
effects on the organs of voice, was used to destroy moles; and the
yellow toad-flax (Linaria vulgaris) is described as "cleansing the
skin wonderfully of all sorts of deformity." Another plant of popular
renown was the knotted figwort (Scrophularia nodosa), for Gerarde
censures "divers who doe rashly teach that if it be hanged about the
necke, or else carried about one, it keepeth a man in health." Coles,
speaking of the mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), says that, "if a footman
take mugwort and put it in his shoes in the morning, he may go forty
miles before noon and not be weary;" but as far back as the time of
Pliny its remarkable properties were known, for he says, "The wayfaring
man that hath the herb tied about him feeleth no weariness at all, and
he can never be hurt by any poisonous medicine, by any wild beast,
neither yet by the sun itself." The far-famed betony was long credited
with marvellous medicinal properties, and hence the old saying which
recommends a person when ill "to sell his coat and buy betony." A
species of thistle was once believed to have the curious virtue of
driving away melancholy, and was hence termed the "melancholy thistle."
According to Dioscorides, "the root borne about one doth expel
melancholy and remove all diseases connected therewith," but it was to
be taken in wine.
On the other hand, certain plants have been credited at most periods
with hurtful and injurious properties. Thus, there is a popular idea
that during the flowering of the bean more cases of lunacy occur than at
any other season.  It is curious to find the apple—such a widespread
curative—regarded as a bane, an illustration of which is given by Mr.
Conway.  In Swabia it is said that an apple plucked from a graft on
the whitethorn will, if eaten by a pregnant woman, increase her pains.
On the Continent, the elder, when used as a birch, is said to check
boys' growth, a property ascribed to the knot-grass, as in Beaumont and
Fletcher's "Coxcomb" (Act ii. sc. 2):—
"We want a boy extremely for this function,
Kept under for a year with milk and knot-grass."
The cat-mint, when chewed, created quarrelsomeness, a property said by
the Italians to belong to the rampion.
Occasionally much attention in folk-medicine has been paid to lucky
numbers; a remedy, in order to prove efficacious, having to be performed
in accordance with certain numerical rules. In Devonshire, poultices
must be made of seven different kinds of herbs, and a cure for thrush is
this:—"Three rushes are taken from any running stream, passed
separately through the mouth of the infant, and then thrown back into
the water. As the current bears them away, so, it is believed, will the
thrush leave the child."
Similarly, in Brandenburg, if a person is afflicted with dizziness, he
is recommended to run after sunset, naked, three times through a field
of flax; after doing so, the flax will at once "take the dizziness to
itself." A Sussex cure for ague is to eat sage leaves, fasting, nine
mornings in succession; while Flemish folk-lore enjoins any one who has
the ague to go early in the morning to an old willow, make three knots
in one of its branches, and say "Good morrow, old one; I give thee the
cold; good morrow, old one." A very common cure for warts is to tie as
many knots on a hair as there are warts, and to throw the hair away;
while an Irish charm is to give the patient nine leaves of dandelion,
three leaves being eaten on three successive mornings. Indeed, the
efficacy of numbers is not confined to any one locality; and Mr. Folkard
 mentions an instance in Cuba where, "thirteen cloves of garlic at
the end of a cord, worn round the neck for thirteen days, are considered
a safeguard against jaundice." It is necessary, however, that the
wearer, in the middle of the night of the thirteenth day, should proceed
to the corner of two streets, take off his garlic necklet, and, flinging
it behind him, run home without turning round to see what has become of
it. Similarly, six knots of elderwood are employed "in a Yorkshire
incantation to ascertain if beasts are dying from witchcraft."  In
Thuringia, on the extraction of a tooth, the person must eat three
daisies to be henceforth free from toothache. In Cornwall  bramble
leaves are made use of in cases of scalds and inflammatory diseases.
Nine leaves are moistened with spring-water, and "these are applied to
the burned or diseased parts." While this is being done, for every
bramble leaf the following charm is repeated three times:—
"There came three angels out of the east,
One brought fire and two brought frost;
Out fire and in frost,
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost."
Of the thousand and one plants used in popular folk-medicine we can but
give a few illustrations, so numerous are these old cures for the ills
to which flesh is heir. Thus, for deafness, the juice of onion has been
long recommended, and for chilblains, a Derbyshire cure is to thrash
them with holly, while in some places the juice of the leek mixed with
cream is held in repute. To exterminate warts a host of plants have been
recommended; the juice of the dandelion being in favour in the Midland
counties, whereas in the North, one has but to hang a snail on a thorn,
and as the poor creature wastes away the warts will disappear. In
Leicestershire the ash is employed, and in many places the elder is
considered efficacious. Another old remedy is to prick the wart with a
gooseberry thorn passed through a wedding-ring; and according to a
Cornish belief, the first blackberry seen will banish warts. Watercress
laid against warts was formerly said to drive them away. A rustic
specific for whooping-cough in Hampshire is to drink new milk out of a
cup made of the variegated holly; while in Sussex the excrescence found
on the briar, and popularly known as "robin red-breast's cushion," is in
demand. In consumption and diseases of the lungs, St. Fabian's nettle,
the crocus, the betony, and horehound, have long been in request, and
sea-southern-wood or mugwort, occasionally corrupted into "muggons," was
once a favourite prescription in Scotland. A charming girl, whom
consumption had brought to the brink of the grave, was lamented by her
lover, whereupon a good-natured mermaid sang to him:—
"Wad ye let the bonnie May die in your hand,
And the mugwort flowering i' the land?"
Thereupon, tradition says, he administered the juice of this life-giving
plant to his fair lady-love, who "arose and blessed the bestower for the
return of health." Water in which peas have been boiled is given for
measles, and a Lincolnshire recipe for cramp is cork worn on the person.
A popular cure for ringworm in Scotland is a decoction of sun-spurge
(Euphorbia helioscopia), or, as it is locally termed, "mare's milk."
In the West of England to bite the first fern seen in spring is an
antidote for toothache, and in certain parts of Scotland the root of the
yellow iris chopped up and chewed is said to afford relief. Some, again,
recommend a double hazel-nut to be carried in the pocket,  and the
elder, as a Danish cure, has already been noticed.
Various plants were, in days gone by, used for the bites of mad dogs and
to cure hydrophobia. Angelica, madworts, and several forms of lichens
were favourite remedies. The root of balaustrium, with storax,
cypress-nuts, soot, olive-oil, and wine was the receipt, according to
Bonaventura, of Cardinal Richelieu. Among other popular remedies were
beetroot, box leaves, cabbage, cucumbers, black currants, digitalis, and
euphorbia.  A Russian remedy was Genista sentoria, and in Greece
rose-leaves were used internally and externally as a poultice.
Horse-radish, crane's-bill, strawberry, and herb-gerard are old remedies
for gout, and in Westphalia apple-juice mixed with saffron is
administered for jaundice; while an old remedy for boils is dock-tea.
For ague, cinquefoil and yarrow were recommended, and tansy leaves are
worn in the shoe by the Sussex peasantry; and in some places common
groundsel has been much used as a charm. Angelica was in olden times
used as an antidote for poisons. The juice of the arum was considered
good for the plague, and Gerarde tells us that Henry VIII. was, "wont to
drink the distilled water of broom-flowers against surfeits and diseases
thereof arising." An Irish recipe for sore-throat is a cabbage leaf tied
round the throat, and the juice of cabbage taken with honey was formerly
given as a cure for hoarseness or loss of voice.  Agrimony, too, was
once in repute for sore throats, cancers, and ulcers; and as far back as
the time of Pliny the almond was given as a remedy for inebriety. For
rheumatism the burdock was in request, and many of our peasantry keep a
potato in their pocket as charms, some, again, carrying a chestnut,
either begged or stolen. As an antidote for fevers the carnation was
prescribed, and the cowslip, and the hop, have the reputation of
inducing sleep. The dittany and plantain, like the golden-rod, nicknamed
"wound-weed," have been used for the healing of wounds, and the
application of a dock-leaf for the sting of a nettle is a well-known
cure among our peasantry, having been embodied in the old familiar
"Nettle out, dock in—
Dock remove the nettle-sting,"
Of which there are several versions; as in Wiltshire, where the child
uses this formula:—
Dock shall ha'a a new smock,
The young tops of the common nettle are still made by the peasantry into
nettle-broth, and, amongst other directions enjoined in an old Scotch
rhyme, it is to be cut in the month of June, "ere it's in the blume":—
"Cou' it by the auld wa's,
Cou' it where the sun ne'er fa'
Stoo it when the day daws,
Cou' the nettle early."
The juice of fumitory is said to clear the sight, and the kennel-wort
was once a popular specific for the king's-evil. As disinfectants,
wormwood and rue were much in demand; and hence Tusser says:—
"What savour is better, if physicke be true,
For places infected, than wormwood and rue?"
For depression, thyme was recommended, and a Manx preservative against
all kinds of infectious diseases is ragwort. The illustrations we have
given above show in how many ways plants have been in demand as popular
curatives. And although an immense amount of superstition has been
interwoven with folk-medicine, there is a certain amount of truth in the
many remedies which for centuries have been, with more or less success,
employed by the peasantry, both at home and abroad.
1. See Tylor's "Primitive Culture," ii.
2. See Folkard's "Plant-lore Legends and Lyrics," p. 164.
3. "Mystic Trees and Shrubs," p. 717.
4. Folkard's "Plant-lore," p. 379.
5. Hunt's "Popular Romances of the West of England," 1871, p. 415
6. Folkard's "Plant-lore Legends and Lyrics," p. 216.
7. See Black's "Folk-medicine," 1883, p.195.
8. Quarterly Review, cxiv. 245.
9. "Sacred Trees and Flowers," Quarterly Review, cxiv. 244.
10. Folkard's "Plant Legends," 364.
11. Fraser's Magazine, 1870, p. 591.
12. "Mystic Trees and Plants;" Fraser's Magazine, 1870, p. 708.
13. "Reliquiae Antiquse," Wright and Halliwell, i. 195; Quarterly Review,
1863, cxiv. 241.
14. Coles, "The Art of Simpling," 1656.
15. Anne Pratt's "Flowering Plants of Great Britain," iv. 9.
16. Black's "Folk-medicine," p. 201.
17. Folkard's "Plant-Lore Legends and Lyrics," p. 248.
18. Fraser's Magazine, 1870, p. 591.
19. "Plant-Lore Legends and Lyrics," p. 349.
20. Black's "Folk-medicine," p. 185.
21. See Hunt's "Popular Romances of the West of England."
22. Black's "Folk-medicine," p. 193.
23. "Rabies or Hydrophobia," T. M. Dolan, 1879, p. 238.
24. Black's "Folk-medicine," p. 193.
PLANTS AND THEIR LEGENDARY HISTORY.
Many of the legends of the plant-world have been incidentally alluded to
in the preceding pages. Whether we review their mythological history as
embodied in the traditionary stories of primitive times, or turn to the
existing legends of our own and other countries in modern times, it is
clear that the imagination has at all times bestowed some of its richest
and most beautiful fancies on trees and flowers. Even, too, the rude and
ignorant savage has clothed with graceful conceptions many of the plants
which, either for their grandeur or utility, have attracted his notice.
The old idea, again, of metamorphosis, by which persons under certain
peculiar cases were changed into plants, finds a place in many of the
modern plant-legends. Thus there is the well-known story of the wayside
plantain, commonly termed "way-bread," which, on account of its so
persistently haunting the track of man, has given rise to the German
story that it was formerly a maiden who, whilst watching by the wayside
for her lover, was transformed into this plant. But once in seven years
it becomes a bird, either the cuckoo, or the cuckoo's servant, the
"dinnick," as it is popularly called in Devonshire, the German
"wiedhopf" which is said to follow its master everywhere.
This story of the plantain is almost identical with one told in Germany
of the endive or succory. A patient girl, after waiting day by day for
her betrothed for many a month, at last, worn out with watching, sank
exhausted by the wayside and expired. But before many days had passed, a
little flower with star-like blossoms sprang up on the spot where the
broken-hearted maiden had breathed her final sigh, which was henceforth
known as the "Wegewarte," the watcher of the road. Mr. Folkard quotes an
ancient ballad of Austrian Silesia which recounts how a young girl
mourned for seven years the loss of her lover, who had fallen in war.
But when her friends tried to console her, and to procure for her
another lover, she replied, "I shall cease to weep only when I become a
wild-flower by the wayside." By the North American Indians, the plantain
or "way-bread" is "the white man's foot," to which Longfellow, in
speaking of the English settlers, alludes in his "Hiawatha":—
"Wheresoe'er they move, before them
Swarms the stinging fly, the Ahmo,
Swarms the bee, the honey-maker;
Wheresoe'er they tread, beneath them
Springs a flower unknown among us,
Springs the white man's foot in blossom."
Between certain birds and plants there exists many curious traditions,
as in the case of the nightingale and the rose. According to a piece of
Persian folklore, whenever the rose is plucked, the nightingale utters a
plaintive cry, because it cannot endure to see the object of its love
injured. In a legend told by the Persian poet Attar, we are told how all
the birds appeared before Solomon, and complained that they were unable
to sleep from the nightly wailings of the nightingale. The bird, when
questioned as to the truth of this statement, replied that his love for
the rose was the cause of his grief. Hence this supposed love of the
nightingale for the rose has been frequently the subject of poetical
allusion. Lord Byron speaks of it in the "Giaour":—
"The rose o'er crag or vale,
Sultana of the nightingale,
The maid for whom his melody,
His thousand songs are heard on high,
Blooms blushing to her lover's tale,
His queen, the garden queen, his rose,
Unbent by winds, unchilled by snows."
Thackeray, too, has given a pleasing rendering of this favourite
"Under the boughs I sat and listened still,
I could not have my fill.
'How comes,' I said, 'such music to his bill?
Tell me for whom he sings so beautiful a trill.'
'Once I was dumb,' then did the bird disclose,
'But looked upon the rose,
And in the garden where the loved one grows,
I straightway did begin sweet music to compose.'"
Mrs. Browning, in her "Lay of the Early Rose," alludes to this legend,
and Moore in his "Lalla Rookh" asks:—
"Though rich the spot
With every flower this earth has got,
What is it to the nightingale,
If there his darling rose is not?"
But the rose is not the only plant for which the nightingale is said to
have a predilection, there being an old notion that its song is never
heard except where cowslips are to be found in profusion. Experience,
however, only too often proves the inaccuracy of this assertion. We may
also quote the following note from Yarrell's "British Birds" (4th ed.,
i. 316):—"Walcott, in his 'Synopsis of British Birds' (vol. ii. 228),
says that the nightingale has been observed to be met with only where
the cowslip grows kindly, and the assertion receives a partial
approval from Montagu; but whether the statement be true or false, its
converse certainly cannot be maintained, for Mr. Watson gives the
cowslip (Primula veris) as found in all the 'provinces' into which he
divides Great Britain, as far north as Caithness and Shetland, where we
know that the nightingale does not occur." A correspondent of Notes and
Queries (5th Ser. ix. 492) says that in East Sussex, on the borders of
Kent, "the cowslip is quite unknown, but nightingales are as common as
A similar idea exists in connection with hops; and, according to a
tradition current in Yorkshire, the nightingale made its first
appearance in the neighbourhood of Doncaster when hops were planted. But
this, of course, is purely imaginary, and in Hargrove's "History of
Knaresborough" (1832) we read: "In the opposite wood, called Birkans
Wood (opposite to the Abbey House), during the summer evenings, the
'Sings darkling, and, in shadiest covert hid,
Tunes her nocturnal lay.'"
Of the numerous stories connected with the origin of the mistletoe, one
is noticed by Lord Bacon, to the effect that a certain bird, known as
the "missel-bird," fed upon a particular kind of seed, which, through
its incapacity to digest, it evacuated whole, whereupon the seed,
falling on the boughs of trees, vegetated and produced the mistletoe.
The magic springwort, which reveals hidden treasures, has a mysterious
connection with the woodpecker, to which we have already referred. Among
further birds which are in some way or other connected with plants is
the eagle, which plucks the wild lettuce, with the juice of which it
smears its eyes to improve its vision; while the hawk was supposed, for
the same purpose, to pluck the hawk-bit.
Similarly, writes Mr. Folkard,  pigeons and doves made use of
vervain, which was termed "pigeon's-grass." Once more, the cuckoo,
according to an old proverbial rhyme, must eat three meals of cherries
before it ceases its song; and it was formerly said that orchids sprang
from the seed of the thrush and the blackbird. Further illustrations
might be added, whereas some of the many plants named after well-known
birds are noticed elsewhere.
An old Alsatian belief tells us that bats possessed the power of
rendering the eggs of storks unfruitful. Accordingly, when once a
stork's egg was touched by a bat it became sterile; and in order to
preserve it from the injurious influence, the stork placed in its nest
some branches of the maple, which frightened away every intruding
bat.  There is an amusing legend of the origin of the bramble:—The
cormorant was once a wool merchant. He entered into partnership with the
bramble and the bat, and they freighted a large ship with wool. She was
wrecked, and the firm became bankrupt. Since that disaster the bat
skulks about till midnight to avoid his creditors, the cormorant is for
ever diving into the deep to discover its foundered vessel, while the
bramble seizes hold of every passing sheep to make up his loss by
stealing the wool.
Returning to the rose, we may quote one or two legendary stories
relating to its origin. Thus Sir John Mandeville tells us how when a
holy maiden of Bethlehem, "blamed with wrong and slandered," was doomed
to death by fire, "she made her prayers to our Lord that He would help
her, as she was not guilty of that sin;" whereupon the fire was suddenly
quenched, and the burning brands became red "roseres," and the brands
that were not kindled became white "roseres" full of roses. "And these
were the first roseres and roses, both white and red, that ever any man
soughte." Henceforth, says Mr. King, the rose became the flower of
martyrs. "It was a basket full of roses that the martyr Saint Dorothea
sent to the notary of Theophilus from the garden of Paradise; and roses,
says the romance, sprang up all over the field of Ronce-vaux, where
Roland and the douze pairs had stained the soil with their blood."
The colour of the rose has been explained by various legends, the Turks
attributing its red colour to the blood of Mohammed. Herrick, referring
to one of the old classic stories of its divine origin, writes:—
"Tis said, as Cupid danced among the gods, he down the
Which, on the white rose being shed, made it for ever after red."
A pretty origin has been assigned to the moss-rose (Rosa muscosa):—
"The angel who takes care of flowers, and sprinkles upon them the dew in
the still night, slumbered on a spring day in the shade of a rosebush,
and when she awoke she said, 'Most beautiful of my children, I thank
thee for thy refreshing odour and cooling shade; could you now ask any
favour, how willingly would I grant it!' 'Adorn me then with a new
charm,' said the spirit of the rose-bush; and the angel adorned the
loveliest of flowers with the simple moss."
A further Roumanian legend gives another poetic account of the rose's
origin. "It is early morning, and a young princess comes down into her
garden to bathe in the silver waves of the sea. The transparent
whiteness of her complexion is seen through the slight veil which covers
it, and shines through the blue waves like the morning star in the azure
sky. She springs into the sea, and mingles with the silvery rays of the
sun, which sparkle on the dimples of the laughing waves. The sun stands
still to gaze upon her; he covers her with kisses, and forgets his duty.
Once, twice, thrice has the night advanced to take her sceptre and reign
over the world; twice had she found the sun upon her way. Since that day
the lord of the universe has changed the princess into a rose; and this
is why the rose always hangs her head and blushes when the sun gazes on
her." There are a variety of rose-legends of this kind in different
countries, the universal popularity of this favourite blossom having
from the earliest times made it justly in repute; and according to the
Hindoo mythologists, Pagoda Sin, one of the wives of Vishnu, was
discovered in a rose—a not inappropriate locality.
Like the rose, many plants have been extensively associated with sacred
legendary lore, a circumstance which frequently explains their origin. A
pretty legend, for instance, tells us how an angel was sent to console
Eve when mourning over the barren earth. Now, no flower grew in Eden,
and the driving snow kept falling to form a pall for earth's untimely
funeral after the fall of man. But as the angel spoke, he caught a flake
of falling snow, breathed on it, and bade it take a form, and bud and
blow. Ere it reached the ground it had turned into a beautiful flower,
which Eve prized more than all the other fair plants in Paradise; for
the angel said to her:—
"This is an earnest, Eve, to thee,
That sun and summer soon shall be."
The angel's mission ended, he departed, but where he had stood a ring of
snowdrops formed a lovely posy.
This legend reminds us of one told by the poet Shiraz, respecting the
origin of the forget-me-not:—"It was in the golden morning of the early
world, when an angel sat weeping outside the closed gates of Eden. He
had fallen from his high estate through loving a daughter of earth, nor
was he permitted to enter again until she whom he loved had planted the
flowers of the forget-me-not in every corner of the world. He returned
to earth and assisted her, and they went hand in hand over the world
planting the forget-me-not. When their task was ended, they entered
Paradise together; for the fair woman, without tasting the bitterness of
death, became immortal like the angel, whose love her beauty had won,
when she sat by the river twining the forget-me-not in her hair." This
is a more poetic legend than the familiar one given in Mill's "History
of Chivalry," which tells how the lover, when trying to pick some
blossoms of the myosotis for his lady-love, was drowned, his last words
as he threw the flowers on the bank being "Forget me not." Another
legend, already noticed, would associate it with the magic spring-wort,
which revealed treasure-caves hidden in the mountains. The traveller
enters such an opening, but after filling his pockets with gold, pays no
heed to the fairy's voice, "Forget not the best," i.e., the spring-wort,
and is severed in twain by the mountain clashing together.
In speaking of the various beliefs relative to plant life in a previous
chapter, we have enumerated some of the legends which would trace the
origin of many plants to the shedding of human blood, a belief which is
a distinct survival of a very primitive form of belief, and enters very
largely into the stories told in classical mythology. The dwarf elder is
said to grow where blood has been shed, and it is nicknamed in Wales
"Plant of the blood of man," with which may be compared its English name
of "death-wort." It is much associated in this country with the Danes,
and tradition says that wherever their blood was shed in battle, this
plant afterwards sprang up; hence its names of Dane-wort, Dane-weed, or
Dane's-blood. One of the bell-flower tribe, the clustered bell-flower,
has a similar legend attached to it; and according to Miss Pratt, "in
the village of Bartlow there are four remarkable hills, supposed to have
been thrown up by the Danes as monumental memorials of the battle fought
in 1006 between Canute and Edmund Ironside. Some years ago the clustered
bell-flower was largely scattered about these mounds, the presence of
which the cottagers attributed to its having sprung from the Dane's
blood," under which name the flower was known in the neighbourhood.
The rose-coloured lotus or melilot is, from the legend, said to have
been sprung from the blood of a lion slain by the Emperor Adrian; and,
in short, folk-lore is rich in stories of this kind. Some legends are of
a more romantic kind, as that which explains the origin of the
wallflower, known in Palestine as the "blood-drops of Christ." In bygone
days a castle stood near the river Tweed, in which a fair maiden was
kept prisoner, having plighted her troth and given her affection to a
young heir of a hostile clan. But blood having been shed between the
chiefs on either side, the deadly hatred thus engendered forbade all
thoughts of a union. The lover tried various stratagems to obtain his
fair one, and at last succeeded in gaining admission attired as a
wandering troubadour, and eventually arranged that she should effect her
escape, while he awaited her arrival with an armed force. But this plan,
as told by Herrick, was unsuccessful:—
"Up she got upon a wall,
Attempted down to slide withal;
But the silken twist untied,
She fell, and, bruised, she died.
Love, in pity to the deed,
And her loving luckless speed,
Twined her to this plant we call
Now the 'flower of the wall.'"
The tea-tree in China, from its marked effect on the human constitution,
has long been an agent of superstition, and been associated with the
following legend, quoted by Schleiden. It seems that a devout and pious
hermit having, much against his will, been overtaken by sleep in the
course of his watchings and prayers, so that his eyelids had closed,
tore them from his eyes and threw them on the ground in holy wrath. But
his act did not escape the notice of a certain god, who caused a
tea-shrub to spring out from them, the leaves of which exhibit, "the
form of an eyelid bordered with lashes, and possess the gift of
hindering sleep." Sir George Temple, in his "Excursions in the
Mediterranean," mentions a legend relative to the origin of the
geranium. It is said that the prophet Mohammed having one day washed his
shirt, threw it upon a mallow plant to dry; but when it was afterwards
taken away, its sacred contact with the mallow was found to have changed
the plant into a fine geranium, which now for the first time came into
1. "Plant-Lore Legends and Lyrics."
2. Folkard's "Plant Lore Legends and Lyrics," p. 430.
3. "Sacred Trees and Flowers," Quarterly Review, cxiv. 239.
The mystic character and history of certain plants meet us in every age
and country. The gradual evolution of these curious plants of belief
must, no doubt, partly be ascribed to their mythical origin, and in many
cases to their sacred associations; while, in some instances, it is not
surprising that, "any plant which produced a marked effect upon the
human constitution should become an object of superstition."  A
further reason why sundry plants acquired a mystic notoriety was their
peculiar manner of growth, which, through not being understood by early
botanists, caused them to be invested with mystery. Hence a variety of
combinations have produced those mystic properties of trees and flowers
which have inspired them with such superstitious veneration in our own
and other countries. According to Mr. Conway, the apple, of all fruits,
seems to have had the widest and most mystical history. Thus, "Aphrodite
bears it in her hand as well as Eve; the serpent guards it, the dragon
watches it. It is the healing fruit of the Arabian tribes. Azrael, the
Angel of Death, accomplishes his mission by holding it to the nostrils,
and in the prose Edda it is written, 'Iduna keeps in a box apples which
the gods, when they feel old age approaching, have only to taste to
become young again.'" Indeed, the legendary mythical lore connected with
the apple is most extensive, a circumstance which fully explains its
mystic character. Further, as Mr. Folkard points out, in the popular
tales of all countries the apple is represented as the principal magical
fruit, in support of which he gives several interesting illustrations.
Thus, "In the German folk-tale of 'The Man of Iron,' a princess throws a
golden apple as a prize, which the hero catches three times, and carries
off and wins." And in a French tale, "A singing apple is one of the
marvels which Princess Belle-Etoile and her brothers and her cousin
bring from the end of the world." The apple figures in many an Italian
tale, and holds a prominent place in the Hungarian story of the Iron
Ladislas. But many of these so-called mystic trees and plants have
been mentioned in the preceding pages in their association with
lightning, witchcraft, demonology, and other branches of folk-lore,
although numerous other curious instances are worthy of notice, some of
which are collected together in the present chapter. Thus the nettle and
milfoil, when carried about the person, were believed to drive away
fear, and were, on this account, frequently worn in time of danger. The
laurel preserved from misfortune, and in olden times we are told how the
superstitious man, to be free from every chance of ill-luck, was wont to
carry a bay leaf in his mouth from morning till night.
One of the remarkable virtues of the fruit of the balm was its
prolonging the lives of those who partook of it to four or five hundred
years, and Albertus Magnus, summing up the mystic qualities of the
heliotrope, gives this piece of advice:—"Gather it in August, wrap it
in a bay leaf with a wolf's tooth, and it will, if placed under the
pillow, show a man who has been robbed where are his goods, and who has
taken them. Also, if placed in a church, it will keep fixed in their
places all the women present who have broken their marriage vow." It was
formerly supposed that the cucumber had the power of killing by its
great coldness, and the larch was considered impenetrable by fire;
Evelyn describing it as "a goodly tree, which is of so strange a
composition that 'twill hardly burn."
In addition to guarding the homestead from ill, the hellebore was
regarded as a wonderful antidote against madness, and as such is spoken
of by Burton, who introduces it among the emblems of his frontispiece,
in his "Anatomie of Melancholy:"—
"Borage and hellebore fill two scenes,
Sovereign plants to purge the veins
Of melancholy, and cheer the heart
Of those black fumes which make it smart;
To clear the brain of misty fogs,
Which dull our senses and Soul clogs;
The best medicine that e'er God made
For this malady, if well assay'd."
But, as it has been observed, our forefathers, in strewing their floors
with this plant, were introducing a real evil into their houses, instead
of an imaginary one, the perfume having been considered highly
pernicious to health.
In the many curious tales related of the mystic henbane may be quoted
one noticed by Gerarde, who says: "The root boiled with vinegar, and the
same holden hot in the mouth, easeth the pain of the teeth. The seed is
used by mountebank tooth-drawers, which run about the country, to cause
worms to come forth of the teeth, by burning it in a chafing-dish of
coles, the party holding his mouth over the fume thereof; but some
crafty companions, to gain money, convey small lute-strings into the
water, persuading the patient that those small creepers came out of his
mouth or other parts which he intended to cure." Shakespeare, it may be
remembered, alludes to this superstition in "Much Ado About Nothing"
(Act iii. sc. 2), where Leonato reproaches Don Pedro for sighing for the
toothache, which he adds "is but a tumour or a worm." The notion is
still current in Germany, where the following incantation is employed:—
"Pear tree, I complain to thee
Three worms sting me."
The henbane, too, according to a German belief, is said to attract rain,
and in olden times was thought to produce sterility. Some critics have
suggested that it is the plant referred to in "Macbeth" by Banquo (Act
i. sc. 3):—
"Have we eaten of the insane root
That takes the reason prisoner?"
Although others think it is the hemlock. Anyhow, the henbane has long
been in repute as a plant possessed of mysterious attributes, and Douce
quotes the subjoined passage:—"Henbane, called insana, mad, for the use
thereof is perillous, for if it be eate or dronke, it breedeth madness,
or slowe lykeness of sleepe." In days gone by, when the mandrake was an
object of superstitious veneration by reason of its supernatural
character, the Germans made little idols of its root, which were
consulted as oracles. Indeed, so much credence was attached to these
images, that they were manufactured in very large quantities for
exportation to various other countries, and realised good prices.
Oftentimes substituted for the mandrake was the briony, which designing
people sold at a good profit. Gerarde informs us, "How the idle drones,
that have little or nothing to do but eat and drink, have bestowed some
of their time in carving the roots of briony, forming them to the shape
of men and women, which falsifying practice hath confirmed the error
amongst the simple and unlearned people, who have taken them upon their
report to be the true mandrakes." Oftentimes, too, the root of the
briony was trained to grow into certain eccentric shapes, which were
used as charms. Speaking of the mandrake, we may note that in France it
was regarded as a species of elf, and nicknamed main de gloire; in
connection with which Saint-Palaye describes a curious superstition:—
"When I asked a peasant one day why he was gathering mistletoe, he told
me that at the foot of the oaks on which the mistletoe grew he had a
mandrake; that this mandrake had lived in the earth from whence the
mistletoe sprang; that he was a kind of mole; that he who found him was
obliged to give him food—bread, meat, and some other nourishment; and
that he who had once given him food was obliged to give it every day,
and in the same quantity, without which the mandrake would assuredly
cause the forgetful one to die. Two of his countrymen, whom he named to
me, had, he said, lost their lives; but, as a recompense, this main de
gloire returned on the morrow double what he had received the previous
day. If one paid cash for the main de gloire's food one day, he would
find double the amount the following, and so with anything else. A
certain countryman, whom he mentioned as still living, and who had
become very rich, was believed to have owed his wealth to the fact that
he had found one of these mains de gloire." Many other equally curious
stories are told of the mandrake, a plant which, for its mystic
qualities, has perhaps been unsurpassed; and it is no wonder that it was
a dread object of superstitious fear, for Moore, speaking of its
"Such rank and deadly lustre dwells,
As in those hellish fires that light
The mandrake's charnel leaves at night."
But these mandrake fables are mostly of foreign extraction and of very
ancient date. Dr. Daubeny, in his "Roman Husbandry," has given a curious
drawing from the Vienna MS. of Dioscorides in the fifth century,
representing the Goddess of Discovery presenting to Dioscorides the root
of the mandrake (of thoroughly human shape), which she has just pulled
up, while the unfortunate dog which had been employed for that purpose
is depicted in the agonies of death.
Basil, writes Lord Bacon in his "Natural History," if exposed too much
to the sun, changes into wild thyme; and a Bavarian piece of folk-lore
tells us that the person who, during an eclipse of the sun, throws an
offering of palm with crumbs on the fire, will never be harmed by the
sun. In Hesse, it is affirmed that with knots tied in willow one may
slay a distant enemy; and according to a belief current in Iceland, the
Caltha palustris, if taken with certain ceremonies and carried about,
will prevent the bearer from having an angry word spoken to him. The
virtues of the dittany were famous as far back as Plutarch's time, and
Gerarde speaks of its marvellous efficacy in drawing forth splinters of
wood, &c., and in the healing of wounds, especially those "made with
envenomed weapons, arrows shot out of guns, and such like."
Then there is the old tradition to the effect that if boughs of oak be
put into the earth, they will bring forth wild vines; and among the
supernatural qualities of the holly recorded by Pliny, we are told that
its flowers cause water to freeze, that it repels lightning, and that if
a staff of its wood be thrown at any animal, even if it fall short of
touching it, the animal will be so subdued by its influence as to return
and lie down by it. Speaking, too, of the virtues of the peony, he thus
writes:—"It hath been long received, and confirmed by divers trials,
that the root of the male peony dried, tied to the necke, doth helpe the
falling sickness, and likewise the incubus, which we call the mare. The
cause of both these diseases, and especially of the epilepsie from the
stomach, is the grossness of the vapours, which rise and enter into the
cells of the brain, and therefore the working is by extreme and subtle
alternation which that simple hath." Worn as an amulet, the peony was a
popular preservative against enchantment.
1. Fraser's Magazine 1870, p. 709.
2. "Plant Lore Legends and Lyrics," p. 224.
3. See Miss Busk's "Folk-lore of Rome."