If there’s one certainty to everything in life it’s that time keeps ticking on. Amid the mad rush (or quiet stillness) of the everyday, the sun rises and sets with remarkable regularity, keeping an even keel to the choppy waters of everything that happens in between. The weeks pass, the seasons change. Sunrise by sunrise, the wheel of the year keeps on turning.
Not very long ago at all, the woods were still in their winter slumber and the verges were almost bare, with only the evergreens hanging on to their greenery. On walks, we’d scan the path edges for new growth, so ready for that first glimpse of new life. Maybe it’s an ancestral memory passed down – green shoots heralding the end of winter and bringing the relief of the incoming spring.
Snowdrops and hairy bittercress are some of the first plants to flower. While snowdrops are easily recognised, hairy bittercress is so common, and the little white flowers are so tiny, that it’s easy to overlook. However, they’re both pioneers of the new season. Soon to follow are the well-known harbingers of spring: primroses and violets, along with the bees’ favourite, dandelion.
The pretty purple violet is also known as blue jackets, gypsy violet, and hump-backs in Somerset, while in Dorset, they’re called modest maidens. It has long-standing associations with love and is considered to be the flower of St. Valentine. Legend has it that, during St. Valentine’s imprisonment, he plucked violets from outside of his cell and crushed the petals to make ink. He used this to write letters to a judge’s daughter signed “from your Valentine” which inspired the messages still written in Valentine’s cards today.
There are some interesting mentions of violets being used in folk medicine, and it has been used for pain relief due to the presence of salicylic acid which is the main ingredient of aspirin. Sweet violets are also recorded as being used to treat cancers in southern England and Wales. It is mentioned in 1931 by the herb grower and author, Maud Grieve, and there is a similar record from 1944 of a gypsy remedy referring to a poultice of violet leaves which had been steeped in boiling water, being good for cancerous growths. The same record indicates an infusion of the leaves being taken for internal cancers. “And,” says the record, “I have been told, will even cure them.”
A similar record, passed down through one family for many years, gives instructions to take a handful of the fresh leaves and pour a pint of boiling water over them. Cover, and let them steep for about 12 hours, until the water is green, then strain the liquid. Reheat a sufficient quantity of the liquid with a piece of lint dipped into it, and place the hot, wet lint onto wherever the cancer is. Cover the lint with an “oil-skin or thin mackintosh” and change the lint when dry or cold. A new infusion should be made every other day. I must admit, this isn’t something I would expect of the quiet little violet!
Even today, violets are considered to be flowers of luck and love. They can be used in love spells, or if carried, they are said to increase luck in love. They are given as a good luck gift, and to dream of them is said to predict a change in luck for the better.
Yellow primroses are a common sight on the woodland floor and along the lanes. One of the primrose’s strongest associations is also with love, especially first love which may be because it’s one of the earliest spring blooms. Accordingly, it’s considered to be a sacred flower of Freya, the Norse Goddess of love.
The Latin which gives us its common name is “prima rosa”, meaning “first rose”. Older names include goslings in Co. Tipperary “as they were in flower when the goslings hatched”, pimmirose (Shropshire), butter-rose (Devon), and butter-and-eggs (Somerset). The Shetland name of May-flooer continues right down through Britain, changing to May-flower as it does so.
On May Eve (also known in the Pagan calendar as Beltane Eve) in Ireland, the flowers were gathered by children before dusk so they could be used to protect against Faeries and evil influences. In Co. Meath, the flowers were scattered outside the front door, and in Co. Donegal, a primrose flower was placed at the byre door so the Faeries couldn’t take the milk from the cows for the next year. Posies were hung in the house and over the door, or laid on doorsteps and windowsills. In a similar echo from the Isle of Man, primroses were (and possibly still are?) placed in jars of water on windowsills and shop counters on May Day.
Primroses also have a very interesting association with poultry-keeping – from Devon and right across to East Anglia, it was well-known that if primrose flowers were to be brought into the house, it must be more than thirteen. Any less than that and one’s poultry flock would only hatch that number of eggs in the season. It seems to have been a seriously held belief, and underhand tricks such as giving a neighbour’s child just one primrose flower to take home (in order to make the neighbour’s hens hatch just one egg) could cause many quarrels!
Lesser celandine is another yellow flower which braves the early months of the year, this time, a strong and sunny yellow – so much so, that even the Celtic name reflected this: Grian, meaning sun. This plant is so attuned to the sun that it opens its flowers to greet it, and closes them again at the end of the day. On dull and cloudy days, it (sensibly I think) chooses not to open its flowers at all! The Welsh name is lygad ebrill, or April’s eye. Other names such as gilty cup (gilt meaning gold, from Dorset and Somerset), gilcup (Wiltshire) and golden guineas (Northamptonshire) are all linked to its glorious colour.
The most common and widespread medicinal use for celandine seems to be for piles, and the shape of the roots was said to resemble them. It has also been known as pilewort and figwort (fig being an old reference to piles, but not to be confused with another plant called common figwort). Fox-wort (Somerset) and fog-wort (Dorset) are probably variations of this.
Along more magickal lines, in the Scottish Highlands, celandine (similarly to primrose, above) was believed to have the ability to protect the milk of cows by placing it over the door of the byre.
The beautiful white wood anemone, romantically known as evening-twilight, and the Faeries’ windflower (Dorset), is another early bloomer. Granny-thread-the-needle (Somerset), moonflower (Worcestershire), and lady’s nightcap (Gloucester and Herefordshire) are among its sweeter names.
On a darker note for such a pretty flower, it contains toxins which if taken internally, are said to depress the nervous system and slow or stop the heart. Many of its folk names also remind us of the taboo surrounding picking the flowers: thunder-flower and thunderbolt warn of the thunderstorms and bad luck that can follow if the warning isn’t heeded. Faeries are said to take shelter within the flowers when they close each night – perhaps that’s why they’re better left untouched and simply admired from a respectful distance.
The cowslip, with its little nodding yellow heads, is closely related to the primrose and they were often mentioned interchangeably in old herbals. There are many tales of the flowers being picked and made into “tissty-tossties”, rolled flower balls, for simple love divination.
Various localised rhymes were chanted in playground fashion, such as: “Tissty-tossty tell me true, Who am I going to be married to?” (Herefordshire) Then the names of possible lovers were chanted until the ball fell to the ground, indicating the name of the lucky person Fate would bring. A similar rhyme was spoken in Gloucestershire to divine the nearby town one would later live.
Like the primrose and celandine, the cowslip was used to protect cows on May Day – this time in Ireland, by rubbing the flowers on their udders. The name of St. Peter’s keys comes from a story about a cowslip blooming where the saint accidentally dropped his keys. Interestingly, this seems to be a Christianisation of an earlier piece of Norse mythology which tells that the flowers were dedicated to Freya, a goddess who was known as the “Key Virgin”. Both stories are probably based on the fact that the shape of the growing groups of flowers look similar to a bunch of keys.
Bluebells are a slightly later, much-anticipated addition. The delicate purple flowers of the native English bluebell is a sight to behold and they carpet the woodland floor as far as the eye can see. It won’t be surprising to learn that the beautiful bluebell has strong connections with the Faery realm.
Blue bonnets (Somerset) and crow-bells (Hampshire and Wiltshire) are local names, along with crow-foot (Cumberland and Lincolnshire) and cross-flower (Devon).
There are surprisingly few mentions of bluebells in folklore, although a few folk warnings not to bring the flowers indoors persist.
One of the darker snippets which does remain is the warning that any person who hears a bluebell ring, will soon meet their end. This may possibly be to discourage children from playing amongst bluebells as the bulbs are poisonous, although it’s equally possible that it’s due to the bells ringing being said to announce a gathering of the Faery folk. The Faeries are said to be fiercely protective of the plant – adults collecting it would become hopelessly lost (known as being Faery-led, or Pixie-led) and any child plucking the flowers would disappear forevermore.
It is said that a person wearing a necklace made of bluebells can only speak the truth and never a lie. They are also considered to be a protection against nightmares when placed beneath the pillow. I must admit though, I’d be worried about which would be worse – putting up with the nightmares, or risking angering the Fae by collecting the flowers!
The main use seems to have been the utilising the sap to make a strong and effective glue, probably used since prehistory and still occasionally into modern times. The bulbs were ground to a pulp and then heated to remove excess water. The glue was then used to attach fletchings (feathers) to arrow shafts.
The incredibly pretty cow parsley really fills out the spring verges and currently, in mid-May, it’s in full force. Cow parsley’s fresh green leaves and dainty white sprays of flowers dance gently in the breeze. Lower down to the ground, the small creamy white pignut flowers and filigree leaves nestle underneath, amongst the bluebells. A little later in the season, just as the bluebell flowers are fading, common hogweed will begin to emerge and it’s currently waiting in the wings for its own moment to take centre stage.
Common hogweed and pignuts, unsurprisingly, were both gathered for feeding to pigs. The pignut itself is a small tuber, about the size of a small hazelnut, which forms on the thin and delicate roots of the plant. To collect them, the root must be carefully followed, very gently digging it from the earth without breaking so it can be traced along and the coveted “nut” found.
Hog-nut (Devon and Somerset) and fare-nut or fern-nut (Cornwall - fare is from “fearh” meaning a young pig in Old English) are all along similar lines. In Ireland, where it was known as “Fairy potatoes”, it was regarded as a plant of the Fae folk, particularly associated with the leprechaun, the Faery shoemaker.
Cow parsley has many old names which, as we’ve discussed before, refer to the close resemblance it has with the deadly poisonous hemlock. It was a plant best avoided in case of confusion between the species, and this resemblance probably also explains the lack of folktales and lore as there seems to be very little passed down about it.
Lastly, we turn our attention to speedwell, forming pretty little clumps and clusters of blue to white flowers. It has long associations with travellers which gives it its name from “God’s speed” or “speed you well”. In Ireland, it was once sewn into the clothes of travellers as a protection against accidents. There, it was also boiled together with yarrow and other herbs, and the water was given to cows who were with calf as a protection against Faeries.
The plant has strong associations with sight, and an English folk name for germander speedwell was “bird’s eye”, probably due to its reputation for aiding vision, though children would also tell each other that birds would peck their mother’s eyes out if they picked it.
It was used to treat jaundice, coughs and asthma, and it also had a reputation for healing afflictions of the eyes, in both the physical and magickal realms – from eye ailments, and being used in lotions (sometimes with eyebright) for tired, strained eyes, through to being an ingredient in ointments allowing humans to see the Faery realms.
In Germany, speedwell was known as “männertreu” which means “men’s faithfulness” as the flower wilts particularly quickly after picking!
It doesn’t seem very long ago that the lanes were bare, the verges empty and low. Already, just a short time later, there are so, so many shades of green, and too many plants to talk about in one post! The names are all so evocative though and they invite us to discover their meanings and stories – stitchwort, mouse-ear, bugle, red campion and the incredibly pretty milkwort. We’ll look at some of these in a future post.
Before long, the wheel will turn once more and bring us a whole new range of plants to look at and discover.
If these plants grow where you live, do you know any other names or folklore connected to them? If you’re from outside the UK, do you have local meanings and stories connected to your plants, giving hints of their stories and uses?
We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.