An A-Z of the Folklore and Uses of British and Irish Plants, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £30
Until quite recently, the duckweed-carpeted canals and flooded pits of Lancashire were said to be inhabited by a bogey called Jinny Greenteeth, whose “long green hair and long green fingers” would drag hapless children down into their depths. It was an untypically practical superstition, a device to discourage youngsters from venturing onto what can look like seductively smooth patches of grass. You have to search hard for such sensible explanations across the bulk of Britain’s plant folklore, a florid almanac of calendar customs, arcane domestic rituals, artful games and outlandish remedies that suggest 21st century Britain has an ethnobotany more complex than Amazonia. Plants’ local names alone reflect the entire range of human response to the vegetable world. But it’s hard to imagine what torrid night-time encounter led to the Dorset tag of ‘welcome-home-husband-though-never-so-drunk’ for stonecrop, grown on roofs as a magical defence against lightning.
Roy Vickery’s richly detailed new compendium, his ‘Folk Flora’, doesn’t pretend to be comprehensive – no single volume ever could be. But it adds information he has gathered from over 2000 contributors during the past forty years to the immeasurable legacy of the past four hundred. He doesn’t attempt to define what qualifies as ‘folklore’ either, though he’s interested in how “the ‘folk’, people as communities” react to plants, rather than people as individuals. Also, thankfully, he doesn’t regard folklore as something mired in the past, but as a living process. In the 1990s, across the Midlands, Allah’s name began to be glimpsed in the seed pattern inside aubergines. Thousands of pilgrims queued outside the privileged kitchens. In 2011, Mariella Frostrup received “unwanted enquiries” after she placed two pampas grass plants on the balcony of her London flat. She was informed that pampas grass – erect, plumy, a touch exotic – is “a secret code for swingers”. Glimpse the common element in these two stories and you may begin to understand one of the roots of plant lore.
Only a small number of customs and beliefs are common across Britain. Country children still de-petal ox-eye daisies for divination (“he loves me, he loves me not…”), blow dandelion clocks for the time, hold buttercups under their chins for the reflection, and know they’re just playing games with their own logic. Many adults share a more serious belief that taking white flowers inside the house will bring bad luck. But the list is so disparate – rowan and may (smelling of decaying flesh), cow parsley (suspect, as one of the often poisonous Umbelliferae?), lilies (associated with funerals), the seemingly unimpeachable white lilac – that a structuralist looking for some order would despair.
Overwhelmingly plant beliefs and customs are intensely local and very precise. In the Hebrides St John’s-wort was used as a charm to ensure good luck and fertility. But it had to be worn secretly, under the left armpit. In Fenland, a method of determining the sex of an unborn baby was for a couple to sleep with a piece of horseradish under each of their pillows. If the husband’s horseradish turned black before the wife’s the child would he a boy, and vice versa. In Llanellen, (Mon) the back of a violet leaf is used for drawing out thorns, the front for healing the wound.
Why this, just so, just here? Vickery may be right that creation and acceptance within a community is what defines genuine folklore, but these beliefs didn’t arise by spontaneous generation. Somebody – local storyteller, wise woman, village prankster – invented them, and they became lore if they were generally accepted. The process of diffusion from a first source is fascinatingly demonstrated by the game of conkers. Horse chestnut was first grown in Britain in the early 17th century, but the nut-smashing game was not recorded until 1848, in the Isle of Wight. Thereafter it spread across the country, keeping a central core of rules and lingo (“Obli obli o/ My first go”) but being ornamented in every new location. I’ve heard of smart metropolitan kids using balsamic vinegar to harden the nuts. Children are one of the great engines of plant lore. The botanical savvy that made them choose particular grasses (timothy, meadow foxtail) for Chinese haircuts survives today. It was late 20th century Welsh schoolchildren who gave Japanese knotweed the names German sausage (from its mottled stems) and Sally rhubarb, and began chewing its lemony shoots.
Vickery is more archivist than anthropologist and the book doesn’t aim for analysis and explanation. But in its protean log of medicinal uses you can begin to glimpse one major underlying principle of plant lore. There are practical, trial-by-error remedies of course, (mint for indigestion, willow for headaches), But much more there is a dowsing for symbolism. The knobbly roots of celandine are used for piles. Groundsel leaves picked upwards are an emetic, downwards a purgative. Manx fishermen use the milky (and highly irritant) latex of sun-spurge as an aphrodisiac salve (it’s known locally as Lus y Bwoid Mooar, the plant of the big knobs). A kind of sympathetic magic runs deep through much folklore, a instinctive belief that there is symmetry in the world, that a shape or pattern or process in nature will encourage similarly featured responses elsewhere. So, dense white blackthorn blossom in April predicts a frosty spell.
Much of this is, of course, scientific nonsense. And our new understanding of the real lives of plants reveals them to be more extraordinary than the most magical of folkloric images. They use more than 20 different senses, and, as one scientist put it, “eat light. Isn’t that enough?” But we are a symbol-using, meaning-hungry species, and plantlore will survive because it provides a meeting place for our restless human imaginations and the astonishing life-ways of the Earth’s green infrastructure..
First published in the Sunday Telegraph 2019.