CHAPTER 20 – PLANT SUPERSTITIONS.
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 rootsand 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 when shod.
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 years.
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 it:–
“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 hid.”
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 familiar adage:–
“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 leave,
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 in future.
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 areinteresting, 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.
- The Folklore of Plants – Index
- Continue to Chapter 21, Plants in Folk Medicine
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.