Myths & Magic
Wildflowers come to life in spring in deciduous woodlands, hedgerows and meadow. Each has hidden mysteries and powers.
The fragrant bells of blue, English bluebells Hyacinthoides non-scripta, or wild hyacinths, en masse have the spirit lifting ‘wow factor’ that can banish your blues. Distinctive from rivals, its blue drops hang to one side, petals are rolled back, and cream-coloured anthers stretch out. ‘Non-scripta’ means ‘unlettered’ and distinguishes the species from the hyacinth.
In Greek mythology, the hyacinth sprang from the blood of young Hyacinthus who died when struck by a disc. Apollo’s (god of Sun) throw was returned by Zephyrus (god of the West Wind) in a jealous moment. In his grief at this great tragedy, Apollo is said to have written on the petals of the hyacinth ‘ai ai’ (alas).
Folk myth has it that bluebells ring to call fairies to meetings. Bluebell woods were thought to be enchanted: if your walked through one you would be spirited away never to be seen again. Pick the flowers and bad luck was to follow.
Bluebells interspersed with the greater stitchwort stellairia holostea, present a wonderful, natural colour combination. Brightening the scene, the greater stitchwort is one of the most atmospheric of spring flowers.
Folk names of Dead Man’s Bone and Old Nick’s Ribs were given to these delicate flowers on slender stalks, referring to the brittle nature of the stem, which leans for support against other plants. Named Soldiers’ Buttons by some, the clashing white flowers were reminiscent of the buttons on solders’ tunics in times gone by.
Regarded by the superstitious as a “thunder” plant, picking stitchwort was thought to induce thunder. Other omens included adder bites and the risk of being led astray by elves or fairies.
The term ‘wort’ implies that the plant has a folk-medicine use. Sixteenth century herbalist John Gerard – apothecary to James I – spoke of its medicinal use: "[folk] are wont to drink it in wine with the pouder of Acornes, against the paine in the side, stitches and such like".
Nearby in deep shade the cuckoo-pint, arum maculatum can be found. It is a curious and distinctive plant with a cowl-like green sheath (spathe) surrounding a brown-purple stem (spadix). At the base are massed male and female flowers. Few British wild plants have a greater folklore.
Thought to be symbolic of copulation because if its likeness to male and female genitalia, it has attracted almost more names than any other plant: Lords and Ladies, Adam and Eve, Angels and Devils, Knights and Ladies, and the lewd Kitty-come-down-the-lane-jump-up-and-kiss-me. Geoffrey Grigson’s Englishman’s Flora, tells us the mediaeval Agnus Castus: A Middle English Herbal refers to the arum maculatum as ‘cokkowly pyntyl’, which he points out ‘at first sight looks like cuckold’s pintle’. He notes the ‘folketymological confusion between cuckoo, cuckold and cuculle-hood, cowl’ and informs us the ‘Latin cucullus, is the name cuckoo-pint’.
In Ted Walkers’ poem Cuckoo-Pint, these “hooded, cool, and sinister” flowers grow into “bright hedgerow tarts … flagrant in [their] big red beads”. Bright red berries appear inside the sheath in July and August. These handsome fruits, though tempting, are poisonous, hence their country name: Adder’s Meat.
In contrast, cuckoo-pint roots were safe to use. The elaborate ruffs of the Elizabethan Age were stiffened by white laundry starch made from them. Baked, they were used as a substitute for arrowroot to thicken sauces, soups and stews.
Fast disappearing from our countryside is the well-loved foxglove digitalis purpurea, despite each plant producing a staggering one to two million seeds. This conspicuous and stately plant - with its lofty spires of bell-shaped purple flowers and its reputation as highly poisonous – is rather magical. The glove-shaped corollas dabbed with dark purple markings are ‘Bee Catchers’. The marks show up vividly in ultra violet: bees only see in this light.
In folklore, these same markings are evidence of where elves and fairies have placed their fingers. Hence the names Fairy Gloves, Fairy Bells, Finger Flowers. As well as associations with fairies, foxgloves are also steeped in the folklore of witches. Doom-laden names include Witches’ Gloves and Dead Men’s Fingers. The name foxglove possibly comes from the Anglo-Saxon 'foxes--glien', a musical instrument, which was composed of bells hung from a support. Or ‘fox’ may be a corruption of the word ‘folks’ as in folks’ glove or ‘glove of good folk’ i.e. the fairies. Its official name digitalis is derived from digitabulum meaning ‘thimble’ (a reflection of the flower’s shape). German herbalist Leonard Fuchs (who the fuchsia is named after) named it in the 1950s.
Albeit a hazardous one as all parts are toxic, the plant was an ancient herbal remedy. In Shropshire, foxglove leaves were placed in children’s shoes to prevent scarlet fever; foxglove tea was used for dropsy. Nicholas Culpepper, in the mid-17th century, recommended it as a remedy for ‘scabby head’. Today digitalin, a heart stimulant, is extracted from the plant and prescribed in minute quantities by the medical profession. Take care: touching the plant can cause rashes, headaches and nausea in some people.
The conspicuous ox-eye daisy leucanthemum vulgare, usually solitary, sits gracefully at the top of its slender stalk. This ancient meadow flower in a great crowd is the snow of June.
The word ‘daisy’ comes from two Anglo-Saxon words ‘daeyes’ and ‘eayes’, which mean day’s eye. Unlike the common daisy, the ox-eyed daisy does not close up at night. “At dusk it shines … like a fallen moon”, naturalist Marcus Woodward wrote. In ancient times the plant was sacred to Artemis the moon goddess (twin of Apollo). Moon Daisy is another of its names. Connected also with the Thunder God, it is sometimes known as Dun Daisy. Ancient Celtic legend has it these daisies were the spirit of children who died at birth. Following the establishment of Christianity, the daisy was associated with Mary Magdalene and known as the Maudelyn/Maudlin Daisy.
Folk medicine has used the leaves and outer layer of the stem of the ox-eyed daisy as a sedative, an astringent and balm. 'An ointment made thereof doth wonderfully help all wounds that have inflammations about them …’, wrote Culpeper.
In Wales, during the Middle Ages, the plant was used to treat madness, smallpox, tumours and jaundice. While Maud Grieve’s 1939s A Modern Herbal tells us it was good for “women’s problems”. Having built-in protection from herbivorous insects, it is alleged to deter flies if planted around the outside of the house.
Next time you see a wild flower remember it has its own intriguing history.