CHAPTER 22 – 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,  pigeons and doves made use of vervain, which was termed “pigeon’s-grass.” Once more, the cuckoo, according to an old proverbial rhyme, must eat three meals of cherries before it ceases its song; and it was formerly said that orchids sprang from the seed of the thrush and the blackbird. Further illustrations might be added, whereas some of the many plants named after well-known birds are noticed elsewhere.
An old Alsatian belief tells us that bats possessed the power of rendering the eggs of storks unfruitful. Accordingly, when once a stork’s egg was touched by a bat it became sterile; and in order to preserve it from the injurious influence, the stork placed in its nest some branches of the maple, which frightened away every intruding bat.  There is an amusing legend of the origin of the bramble:–The cormorant was once a wool merchant. He entered into partnership with the bramble and the bat, and they freighted a large ship with wool. She was wrecked, and the firm became bankrupt. Since that disaster the bat skulks about till midnight to avoid his creditors, the cormorant is for ever diving into the deep to discover its foundered vessel, while the bramble seizes hold of every passing sheep to make up his loss by stealing the wool.
Returning to the rose, we may quote one or two legendary stories relating to its origin. Thus Sir John Mandeville tells us how when a holy maiden of Bethlehem, “blamed with wrong and slandered,” was doomed to death by fire, “she made her prayers to our Lord that He would help her, as she was not guilty of that sin;” whereupon the fire was suddenly quenched, and the burning brands became red “roseres,” and the brands that were not kindled became white “roseres” full of roses. “And these were the first roseres and roses, both white and red, that ever any man soughte.” Henceforth, says Mr. King, the rose became the flower of martyrs. “It was a basket full of roses that the martyr Saint Dorothea sent to the notary of Theophilus from the garden of Paradise; and roses, says the romance, sprang up all over the field of Ronce-vaux, where Roland and the douze pairs had stained the soil with their blood.”
The colour of the rose has been explained by various legends, the Turks attributing its red colour to the blood of Mohammed. Herrick, referring to one of the old classic stories of its divine origin, writes:–
“Tis said, as Cupid danced among the gods, he down the 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.
- The Folklore of Plants – Index
- Continue to Chapter 23, Mystic Plants
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.