The Culture of PlantsBy Sharon Brown (Sharran)
December 29, 2009
I learned from some young friends recently that "golden" is a term applied to that which is valuable, important, or possibly precious. Historically there are some golden plants. I am not speaking of those that grow to bloom a golden color, nor do they bear golden fruit, and most never attain golden leaves. They are simply golden in the role they played in history.
I was not a history buff, the result--I think--of the paragon of muscle I had as a history teacher. At a time when I should have been learning how the world worked in the past, I sat in class along with 30 other teenagers, while our teacher read about body building one day and hot rod cars another day. He had a lot of magazines. I am a teacher, so I can safely say things like that; besides, all my classmates know it to be true. I kept that history book closed for a long time, but found myself eventually wanting to know the why of things, how we became who we are, and where we are going. I thought a better knowledge of history might answer some of my questions. And so it did. One of the most interesting turns I took along that road, was to study the cultural history of plants.
When I was little I thought plants that remained green throughout the winter months did so just for holidays. Mistletoe was green for Christmas. Lilies bloomed for Easter. Shamrocks grew for St. Patricks Day. And trees turned red and gold for Thanksgiving. Little did I know that the roles were reversed. The plants were there long before the holidays were attached to them.
The early Christian missionaries were a tough lot. They ran into roadblocks with their teachings, so in order to cause the least disruption in the lives of those they were teaching, they chose to adopt some pagan rituals and incorporate them into the new Christianity. That made the transition much easier for the new believers to adapt to the new regime, and much easier for the early Christian teachers to lead the followers into new beliefs and ways of worship.
Let's think of the rose for a minute. It is one of the most popular plants in any culture. From the very earliest cultures we find that the rose was associated with divinity. The Greeks had associated it with Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Before the Greeks, the Egyptians had offered the rose to the souls of their dead pharaohs. Rather than ban this lovely flower, the church fathers reconsecrated it to the Virgin Mary. As the Christian missionaries spread across Europe, they converted flowers as well as people.
It is in our nature to resist new things, but this seems to be how it happened in reference to plants. Think about mistletoe. A strange little parasite, it has habits that elicited the druids' worship. It defied nature by living its entire life in the branches of trees, never touching earth. How could that be, since the earth is a plant's natural habitat? Because of this phenomenon the druids declared mistletoe sacred. For centuries it was used medicinally and it also was hung in homes as insurance against all sorts of ills: witchcraft, disease, bad luck and fire, and other natural disasters. The early Christians had little to do with its association with Christmas, but its use at Christmastime is obvious since that's when it is visible in bare branches. On the other hand, its sacred meaning transferred itself anyway. Today it hangs as a holiday decoration where it effects another kind of magic: holiday kisses.
Digging a little deeper, I found more plants with interesting religion related roots. Vervain, a plant that I knew in my mountains as a child, played a part in the religious rites of early Germans and Celts. The missionaries came along and rechristened it "herb of the cross" claiming it stanched Christ's wounds. The holly underwent a similar transformation. The druids thought it provided winter refuge for the wood spirits who protected against bad fortune, and the Celts decorated their huts with its branches to ward off evil. Under the Christian influence, holly became a symbol of Christ's sacrifice, the spiny leaves represented the crown of thorns, and the red berries, the blood. It was left in the homes to continue to ward off demons with its Christian association.
Christian priests effectively used plants and flowers as teaching tools, because most of the time their audiences were illiterate farmers. Teaching with writings would have been impossible. As farmers, they were very familiar with weeds and wildflowers. The priests grabbed the opportunity and found many lessons that could be taught. An example is the shamrock, a single stem bearing three leaves. Three leaves on one stalk represented the Trinity. Another, and one I had to go back to Botany 101 before I understood the connection, is Alchemilla. Its flowers set seed without fertilization, and the early Christians saw that as a miraculous virgin birth. Renaming the plant Lady's Mantle, they created a reminder of the Virgin Mary's purity.
The missionaries also associated certain plants, according to their period of bloom, with the holy feasts. Monks called the shamrock, alleluia. They did so because it flowered between Easter and Whitsunside, a season when the Psalms read in their services all ended with that exclamation. Similarly, Michaelmas daisies flower around the feast of St. Michael, September 29, so they were called Michael's Mass. By watching for these specific blossoms, the faithful could punctually observe the holidays, even if they could not read a calendar.
The Christian role of St. John's wort was also connected to pagan origins. Actually it was a plant of golden hue, and its habit of being in bloom at the time of the summer solstice had made the herb a totem of sun worshipers throughout the ancient world. The Romans had burned it in bonfires that were a part of the celebrations on Midsummer Day. With the coming of Christianity, since the plant's association with the summer solstice linked it to the day celebrated as the birth of John the Baptist, June 24, Christian priests rededicated the plant to that martyr. After its conversion, St. John's wort continued to be hung in doorways to repel evil demons and witches, a custom rooted in pagan beliefs. The Christian priests simply collected the holy herb to use in casting out demons, and so the conversion went very smoothly.
I am glad that I learned something from that muscle bound history teacher of mine all those years ago. I learned that if I wanted to know something, I needed to start digging for myself. And so I did. I found all kinds of golden botanical treasures: legend, lore, superstition, myths, all the qualities that enhance our relationship with our own plants; all the qualities that enrich our own lives.
So, what kinds of legends do you have growing in your garden? Quite recently, I'll bet you were surrounded by mistletoe and holly.
Photos are from Plant Files. Thanks to these photographers: Evert, Stevenova, MotherNature4, Gabrielle, and Poppysue. Special appreciation to Trois who left for us many photo treasures. The thumbnail is from Wikipedia's Public Domain. Thanks to my friend, Melody.
"Plant lore, legends and lyrics" by Richard Folkard, printed in London, 1884 (www.books.google.com)
The New York Times, March 19, 1989, Collecting the Religious Legends of Plants, by Carolyn Battista
"The Folklore of Plants: by T.F.Thiselton-Dyer, D. Appleton and Company, New York 1989