The Folklore of Plants: 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 in bloom:–

“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 their land.

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,” [1] 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 immortality.

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. [2]

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 the saint:–

“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 custom, says:–

“‘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.[3] 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 Pentecost rose.

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,[4] “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 glittering gold.

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 familiar couplet:–

“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 bonfire:–

“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,[5] “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 (December 4).

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 well known.”

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.

The Folklore of Plants: Mystic Plants


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.” [1] 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,[2] 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.[3] 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 appearance, says:–

“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.”

The Folklore of Plants: 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 legend:–

“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 blackberries there.”

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 nightingale:–

‘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, [1] 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. [2] 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,[3] 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 nectar flung,
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 existence.



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 Folklore of Plants: 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.” [1] 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; [2] 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.” [3] 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.” [4] 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 this formula:–

‘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.” [5]

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.” [6] 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. [7] 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. [8]

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. [9] 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 [10]:–

“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 Devonshire rhyme,

“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 rotten apples.


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, [11] 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 these words:–

“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; [12] 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. [13] 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.” [14] 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. [15] The hawthorn, too, was in repute among the fair sex, for, according to an old piece of proverbial lore:–

“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.” [16] In some parts of France the water-hemlock (_Œnanthe 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. [17] It is curious to find the apple–such a widespread curative–regarded as a bane, an illustration of which is given by Mr. Conway. [18] 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 [19] 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.” [20] In Thuringia, on the extraction of a tooth, the person must eat three daisies to be henceforth free from toothache. In Cornwall [21] 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, [22] 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. [23] 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. [24] 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 adage:–

“Nettle out, dock in–
Dock remove the nettle-sting,”


Of which there are several versions; as in Wiltshire, where the child uses this formula:–

“Out ‘ettle
In dock.
Dock shall ha’a a new smock,
‘Ettle zbant
Ha’ nanun.”


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.