CHAPTER 17 – 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,”  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. 
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. 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, “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, “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.”
- The Folklore of Plants – Index
- Continue to Chapter 17, Plants and the Calendar
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.