I picked up a copy of a little Shire Classics book called ‘Discovering the folklore of plants’ when I was caught out with nothing to read a few weeks ago. The historical beliefs associated with our native flora and their uses can be fascinating, as can a good guide to botanical epiphets which explains the latin parts of species names to somebody like me who didn’t have the benefit/torture of latin lessons at school. This additional context can add to the understanding of a plant, its habits, uses and historical connections which often have a bearing on the patterns still present in the landscape today. I suddenly saw significance, after reading this book, in the grouping of mature holly, bay and elder outside the doorstep of our rented cottage.
As I read through the book, I began to make a note of the superstitions and supernatural beliefs which frequently seem to result in an ecological or environmental benefit. In the same way that religion historically safeguarded moral behaviour by providing an all-seeing deity to watch over our deeds, the belief in the spirits within plants often seemed to ensure good environmental practise.
Many of these beliefs seem to have been prevalent up until the earlier parts of the 20th century. It was in 1917 that the five photographs of faeries in Cottingley were published to mixed public reaction, however many people believed them to be genuine, including none other than Arthur Conan Doyle.
Incidentally, I am aware that this is rather like a topic which an under-occupied vicar may have written a pamphlet on in the 19th centurary to be read by only 3 other people. Fortunately, blogging opens up such exercises in futility to the busier masses!
Leave some fruit for the birds
Many conservation charities and wildlife organisations advise gardeners to leave some of their windfall fruits, such as apples and pears, to provide a food source for garden birds. Many bird species, particularly the blackbirds including the native blackbird and song thrush as well as the migratory redwing and field fare, rely upon fruits and berries especially when the weather turns colder and their preferred food of invertebrates is in short supply.
Before social media and gardening magazines promoted the message on behalf of the birds, appeasement of the faeries performed a similar role:
“Stray fruits were left at the end of picking for the faeries, in a custom variously called ‘pixy-hoarding’, ‘cull-pixying’ or ‘griggling’”
Blackberries are stripped from the brambles today, as can be seen from their absence below 2m along most public footpaths. However, an old superstition drew a line under the feasting which would ensure provision of fruit for birds and mammals as the weather turned wintery:
‘In many English counties, blackberries are never picked after Michaelmas Day (29th September) when the devil curses them.’
A presumption against tree-felling
Woodland once covered the vast majority of Britain but now represents only 12% of land cover. Unsurprisingly, considering that they evolved within this vast woodland habitat, the majority of our native fauna also relies upon trees for food or shelter, from tiny invertebrates up to birds and mammals as well as fungi, lichens and mosses. It follows that every tree is sacred in terms of ecological benefit.
It was historically considered unlucky to fell a number of tree species, including ash, hawthorn, holly and elder.
Elder was one of the most unlucky species to fell of all, as the elder mother dwelt within and guarded the tree. Her permission must be sought before the tree could be cut.
We also have these beliefs to thank for some of the standard trees present in hedgerows even to this day.
‘The ban on cutting holly means that the handsome, dark green trees stand high above farm hedges, giving visual emphasis to the landscape’
Hawthorn stands out in particular in the folklore as a faery tree which could bring some serious ill luck upon those who cut it.
‘In Ireland, a ‘sentry thorn’ or ‘lone bush’ was a faery trysting place demanding the greatest respect and especially dangerous at May Day, midsummer of Halloween when faery power was at its strongest. Farmers laboriously cultivated round these thorns in fields. Felling must be carried out for ritualistic or healing purposes only, never just to tidy the farm.’
In the modern world, trees and shrubs stand little chance of holding up a housing development or major infrastructure project unless they are home to a protected species rather more real than the faeries, such as bats or breeding birds. But even into the 1900’s, hawthorns could hold sway over the designs of developers.
‘When one thorn lay in the path of a railway, the track was elaborately carried over it to avoid felling. To fell a hawthorn in preparing a house site means misfortune or even death for those who will live in the house.’
Garden for wildlife
Our gardens are one of the most ubiquitous areas of potential habitat within the landscape. If only properly planted and managed, they would create green corridors which would snake through our towns and cities and turn a village into an oasis of trees and shrubs within an arable landscape. This importance to make each garden count is recognised by many wildlife charities; the RSPB, the Butterfly Conservation Trust, the Bat Conservation Trust and Buglife will all advise on species to include within the planting. The Nottingham Wildlife Trust has an ongoing campaign to create mini meadows within gardens, providing free species-rich seed mixes to help establish these little patches of biodiversity across the county.
Yet the draw of the nice, neat paving or that lovely sheet of tarmac is too much for many. Almost 1/3 of the 20 million homes with front gardens have turned them into hardstanding for cars, a 2012 report showed, whilst lazy insurance assessors require the removal of larger trees growing close to houses – often without justification – and discourage their inclusion in new developments.
Trees were traditionally viewed as protective entities and were specifically planted at the doorstep to houses in order to ward off harm.
‘Aspen would keep thieves away;
Bay with its pungent smelling leaves would keep the plague away;
Elder, with the protective elder mother dwelling within, would keep away witchcraft, lightening and evil;
Holly would also protect against lightening, as well as fire and the evil eye’
‘Rowan; the cardinal keeper of the northern cottage door keeps witches away’
Similarly, the greening of inert brick walls would help to protect the house.
‘Honeysuckle is a mighty barrier to the witch and, growing over the door, keeps out fever and the ill intentioned’.
‘Ivy if it grew vigorously on a house its occupants would be safe from witchcraft and the evil eye.’
Both of these species are fantastic nectar sources for insects during their respective flowering periods, the late flowering of ivy making it particularly important in the cycle of nectar sources for our pollinators.
Don’t pick wild flowers
As everybody knows now, the mantra of the countryside is ‘take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints’, a message which encourages visitors to enjoy nature without taking it home. Whilst many of the remedies and uses of plants within the book talk of their picking for decoration, for cures, for rituals, there are some which are protected by the faeries.
‘Anyone picking stitchwort is likely to be pixy-led’
‘Anyone who stepped on St John’s Wort would be carried off by a faery horse which rose from beneath him and took him for a wild ride, then in the morning dropped him off at the wayside miles from home’
‘Willowherb and cow parsley would bring death the mother of any child who picks it’
Let nature take its course
Weeds are often defined as any plant in the wrong place. Personally, I love seeing any vegetation greening up an otherwise inert area of concrete or pavement; I am not a fan of the Best Kept Village competition which seems to see such natural opportunism as the antithesis of a suitable village. So although this aversion to weeding doesn’t seem to be supported by the folklore in general, the note below caught my eye:
‘A self-set elder is lucky and should be given space to grow’