Have you ever wondered how plants get their common name? Have you ever been curious as to why some old-time gardeners do the things they do? Oral traditions and folk lore are a big part of gardening culture. Many plants get their common name from an old wives' tale or a story that has been passed down. Old-time gardeners follow the rules of local stories and lyrics about planting more than the back of the package. How many stories do you have growing in your garden?
If you look through the ages, you will find much folklore about plants and their uses. Stories and legends about plant characteristics abound. What I find the most interesting is that many of the legends and lore have a moral, or a reason for being. Oral traditions serve the purpose of teaching future generations about the plants and the environment around them. Scary stories have been made up to frighten children to stay away from poisonous plants. Some stories are made up to tell what a plant does and how to use it. Before science, all people had was the knowledge acquired through their own experience and the experience of those before them. Oral tradition and lore was a sure way to pass their knowledge down to the next generation.
Learning these stories is beneficial to us because it will give us a greater understanding of the respect and knowledge our ancestors had of the world around them. They knew things we don't because they experienced the plants and used them in every day life. They knew what was edible and what was deadly. They taught their children these things, something our generation lacks.
Fairies, elves and other little folk
Fairies, elves and other little creatures are all associated with plants and nature in one way or another. Northern European lore is saturated with stories about fairies and elves. Each flower has a fairy that watches over it and lives in it. It is said that the fairy has the personality of the plant. The poisonous plants have mischievous fairies; Healing plants have compassionate fairies and so on. There are many stories that have been spun to protect certain plants or trees. To hurt the plant is to hurt the fairy and you will have bad luck. Asian cultures also have stories of fairies and elves and various other creatures that inhabit the plant life. Native American cultures have stories that tell of the plants' spirits. All across the globe there are oral traditions that personify plants.
According to legend, the fairy ring is a ring of mushrooms causes by fairies dancing in a circle on a moonlit night. If you ever see a fairy ring, don't tread upon it for it will bring you bad luck, or worse, you may get pulled in to the fairy realm and they will force you to dance until you are mad or dead.
Different variations of this legend are told, depending on the local traditions. The stories of fairy rings are mostly warnings of the bad things that will befall you should you tread on them. Since many mushrooms are poisonous, these stories may have saved inquisitive children from touching them and eating them.
Scientifically, fairy rings are caused by 50 or 60 different types of fungi. The most common fairy ring fungi is Marsmius oneades. A necrotic zone, or a ring of dead or dark grass, is a fairy ring caused by a mycelium type of fungus.
Foxglove, or digitalis, is a major player in fairy lore. It is said that the fairies wear the flowers as hats and gloves. If a foxglove is bending, it is said that the flower is bending to recieve the fairy. The name foxglove came from a story that says fairies give the flowers of the foxglove to foxes to wear on their feet so they can sneak into the chicken coops undetected. Other foxglove stories involve bad luck for destroying or touching the plant. The children were warned not to touch the plant or they would wake the fairies and make them angry. Yet another story to keep the children from touching the poison. A child can get very sick from putting their fingers into the flowers, which they have a tendency to do as the flowers fit perfectly over a finger. Foxglove are also called witches' thimbles.
Fairy butter or witches' butter is a yellow gelatinous fungus that grows on rotting wood. They say the fairies were there and scattered it the night before. There are different types of fungi that cause the fairy butter; a common one is a type of tremella. Fungi are a great source of folklore; just look at the common names of them. They form overnight under the right conditions and have so many different shapes and colors. I'm sure the folks of old had many stories to explain them.
We all know about the four leaf clover and how it brings good luck to those who find it, but there are other stories as well. It is told that they only appear where where elves frolic. Besides bringing good luck, a four leaf clover will guarantee that a girl who finds one will see her true love before the day is out.
The elderberry is a bush with many stories. This plant has had numerous uses throughout the ages.
Children made flutes out of the branches by pushing out the pith. Wine is made from the berries; all parts of the plant have been used in some kind of medicinal way. The elderberry is a healing plant. Many times the plants power to heal will generate stories to explain the plants powers. Everything but the berry is toxic to some degree.
Many cultures are highly superstitious about the elderberry. One superstition is that if you put a baby in a cradle that is made of elder, the fairies will pinch him black and blue. One theme that stays throughout the lore of the elder is, the admonition to not cut it down or use it for fire wood, or bad luck will befall you. Some warn to not make furniture out of elder; the spirit that lives in the bush will go with the wood and haunt you.
In northern Europe people are still superstitious about elder; many garden workers will not cut it down or burn it. In England, people planted them around their cottages because it is said that it would protect them from witches and other evils (this may be because the scent of the leaves and flowers repels certain bugs and rodents.)
If you fall asleep under an elder tree you will see fairies. The reason for that story is the fragrance of the flowers, which contains a mild sedative and can cause you to have vivid dreams. I have an elder and I'm very happy with it.; love the flowers and the birds love the berries. I've never fallen asleep under it, but I'm tempted to try.
Southern gardeners may know of the red spider lily, although this plant originated in Asia. When it was bought over to America it left behind its lore. In Asia the Lycoris radiata is naturalized around cemeteries, giving them an air of sorrow. This also gave rise to the story that the flowers guided the dead to their next life.
One legend is of two elves: Manju, who guarded the flower and Sake, who guarded the leaves. One day they decided to leave their post and meet. They fell in love at first sight. Because of their disobedience, they were cursed; so was the flower. The curse was that the leaves of Sake may never meet the flowers of Manju again.
Here in America they are called hurricane lilies because they bloom during the height of hurricane season.
Each year, many Americans bring a fir tree indoors to decorate for Christmas. Most people do not know of all the myths and legends that surround the fir trees. Some of these legends are at the root of why the Christmas tree is decorated in moden times. For thousands of years, fir trees,and other evergreen trees were deemed as magical; they were alive when all else was dead. Fir trees were a symbol of life and a promise that spring would return.
During the first and second century Christians were desperately trying to figure out when Jesus was born so that they could celebrate. The common consensus was that Jesus was born sometime in the spring. Some say the early church picked December 25 to coincide with the pagan festival of the winter solstice; many of its members were adopting the traditions and they didn't want to lose members. Some say that day was picked because they wanted to convert the pagans and feared they wouldn't give up their festival. Yet, others say that Constantine allowed it to be on December 25 because it coincided with the festival. Pagans did not bring the trees inside, but they are credited with bringing in twigs of evergreens and decorating the trees in the forest. Somewhere along the line, as the two converged on each other, the traditions became intermingled. They were then brought to this country by northern European settlers.
There is a story in Germany of an old women who tried to uproot a fir tree stump. As she worked she injured an elf that lived in the tree. As soon as she injured the elf she too, fell ill. She hobbled home and said,'' If the elf gets well I'll get well. If the elf dies I'll die.'' The lady died that night. To this day, some people still cut the fir trees off above the root for fear of harming an elf that lives there.
Many plants have a story; a plant may have many stories. When you walk through your garden you can think of how the plants were feared or cherished by a culture because of its properties - some of which we no longer use. Some of the stories can teach us about properties of the plant that we never knew because our culture has forgotten to live off the land. The stories may sound silly as if the ancestors just didn't know science, but if you listen carefully to the stories, you will see that they did know the plants very well.
Thumbnail courtesy of Darrel Hensley
Fairy ring photos courtesy of Wikipedia and is in public domain
Foxglove photo courtesy of kennedyh
Fairy butter photo courtesy of Todd_Boland
Four-leaf clover courtesy of zest
Elder courtesy of GardenGuyKin
Red spider lily courtesy of plantladylin
Fir trees courtesy of Kelli
About Dana Garmon
For me gardening is an art form, stress reliever and a source of joy. I'm a wife and a mother to three boys. We have two dogs, a cat and 5 fish so it's a full house. I'm pretty eclectic. I like to collect plants (among other things). My main goal with my garden is to make my house into the secret garden. Something to look at , and color everywhere