PLANT SUPERSTITIONS.





The superstitious notions which, under one form or another, have

clustered round the vegetable kingdom, hold a prominent place in the

field of folk-lore. To give a full and detailed account of these

survivals of bygone beliefs, would occupy a volume of no mean size, so

thickly scattered are they among the traditions and legendary lore of

almost every country. Only too frequently, also, we find the same

superstition assuming a very different appearance as it travels from one

country to another, until at last it is almost completely divested of

its original dress. Repeated changes of this kind, whilst not escaping

the notice of the student of comparative folk-lore, are apt to mislead

the casual observer who, it may be, assigns to them a particular home in

his own country, whereas probably they have travelled, before arriving

at their modern destination, thousands of miles in the course of years.



There is said to be a certain mysterious connection between certain

plants and animals. Thus, swine when affected with the spleen are

supposed to resort to the spleen-wort, and according to Coles, in his

"Art of Simpling," the ass does likewise, for he tells us that, "if the

asse be oppressed with melancholy, he eates of the herbe asplemon or

mill-waste, and eases himself of the swelling of the spleen." One of the

popular names of the common sow-thistle (_Sonchus oleraceus_) is

hare's-palace, from the shelter it is supposed to afford the hare.

According to the "Grete Herbale," "if the hare come under it, he is sure

that no beast can touch hym." Topsell also, in his "Natural History,"

alludes to this superstition:--"When hares are overcome with heat, they

eat of an herb called _Latuca leporina_, that is, hare's-lettuce,

hare's-house, hare's-palace; and there is no disease in this beast the

cure whereof she does not seek for in this herb."



The hound's-tongue (_cynoglossum_) has been reputed to have the magical

property of preventing dogs barking at a person, if laid beneath the

feet; and Gerarde says that wild goats or deer, "when they be wounded

with arrows, do shake them out by eating of this plant, and heal their

wounds." Bacon in his "Natural History" alludes to another curious idea

connected with goats, and says, "There are some tears of trees, which

are combed from the beards of goats; for when the goats bite and crop

them, especially in the morning, the dew being on, the tear cometh

forth, and hangeth upon their beards; of this sort is some kind of

laudanum." The columbine was once known as _Herba leonis_, from a belief

that it was the lion's favourite plant, and it is said that when bears

were half-starved by hybernating--having remained for days without

food--they were suddenly restored by eating the arum. There is a curious

tradition in Piedmont, that if a hare be sprinkled with the juice of

henbane, all the hares in the neighbourhood will run away as if scared

by some invisible power.



Gerarde also alludes to an old belief that cats, "Are much delighted

with catmint, for the smell of it is so pleasant unto them, that they

rub themselves upon it, and swallow or tumble in it, and also feed on

the branches very greedily." And according to an old proverb they have a

liking for the plant maram:--



"If you set it, the cats will eat it;

If you sow it, the cats won't know it."



Equally fond, too, are cats of valerian, being said to dig up the roots

and gnaw them to pieces, an allusion to which occurs in Topsell's

"Four-footed Beasts" (1658-81):--"The root of the herb valerian

(commonly called Phu) is very like to the eye of a cat, and wheresoever

it groweth, if cats come thereunto they instantly dig it up for the love

thereof, as I myself have seen in mine own garden, for it smelleth

moreover like a cat."



Then there is the moonwort, famous for drawing the nails out of horses'

shoes, and hence known by the rustic name of "unshoe the horse;" while

the mouse-ear was credited with preventing the horses being hurt

when shod.



We have already alluded to the superstitions relating to birds and

plants, but may mention another relating to the celandine. One of the

well-known names of this plant is swallow-wort, so termed, says Gerarde,

not, "because it first springeth at the coming in of the swallows, or

dieth when they go away, for it may be found all the year, but because

some hold opinion that with this herbe the darns restore eyesight to

their young ones, when their eye be put out." Coles strengthens the

evidence in favour of this odd notion by adding: "It is known to such as

have skill of nature, what wonderful care she hath of the smallest

creatures, giving to them a knowledge of medicine to help themselves, if

haply diseases annoy them. The swallow cureth her dim eyes with

celandine; the wesell knoweth well the virtue of herb-grace; the dove

the verven; the dogge dischargeth his mawe with a kind of grasse," &c.



In Italy cumin is given to pigeons for the purpose of taming them, and a

curious superstition is that of the "divining-rod," with "its versatile

sensibility to water, ore, treasure and thieves," and one whose history

is apparently as remote as it is widespread. Francis Lenormant, in his

"Chaldean Magic," mentions the divining-rods used by the Magi, wherewith

they foretold the future by throwing little sticks of tamarisk-wood, and

adds that divination by wands was known and practised in Babylon, "and

that this was even the most ancient mode of divination used in the time

of the Accadians." Among the Hindus, even in the Vedic period, magic

wands were in use, and the practice still survives in China, where the

peach-tree is in demand. Tracing its antecedent history in this country,

it appears that the Druids were in the habit of cutting their

divining-rods from the apple-tree; and various notices of this once

popular fallacy occur from time to time, in the literature of bygone

years.



The hazel was formerly famous for its powers of discernment, and

it is still held in repute by the Italians. Occasionally, too, as

already noticed, the divining-rod was employed for the purpose of

detecting the locality of water, as is still the case in Wiltshire. An

interesting case was quoted some years ago in the _Quarterly Review_

(xxii. 273). A certain Lady N----is here stated to have convinced Dr.

Hutton of her possession of this remarkable gift, and by means of it to

have indicated to him the existence of a spring of water in one of his

fields adjoining the Woolwich College, which, in consequence of the

discovery, he was enabled to sell to the college at a higher price. This

power Lady N----repeatedly exhibited before credible witnesses, and the

_Quarterly Review_ of that day considered the fact indisputable. The

divining-rod has long been in repute among Cornish miners, and Pryce, in

his "Mineralogia Cornubiensis," says that many mines have been

discovered by this means; but, after giving a minute account of cutting,

tying, and using it, he rejects it, because, "Cornwall is so plentifully

stored with tin and copper lodes, that some accident every week

discovers to us a fresh vein."



Billingsley, in his "Agricultural Survey of the County of Cornwall,"

published in the year 1797, speaks of the belief of the Mendip miners in

the efficacy of the mystic rod:--"The general method of discovering the

situation and direction of those seams of ore (which lie at various

depths, from five to twenty fathoms, in a chasm between two inches of

solid rock) is by the help of the divining-rod, vulgarly called

_josing_; and a variety of strong testimonies are adduced in supporting

this doctrine. So confident are the common miners of the efficacy, that

they scarcely ever sink a shaft but by its direction; and those who are

dexterous in the use of it, will mark on the surface the course and

breadth of the vein; and after that, with the assistance of the rod,

will follow the same course twenty times following blindfolded."

Anecdotes of the kind are very numerous, for there are few subjects in

folk-lore concerning which more has been written than on the

divining-rod, one of the most exhaustive being that of Mr. Baring-Gould

in his "Curious Myths of the Middle Ages." The literature, too, of the

past is rich in allusions to this piece of superstition, and Swift in

his "Virtues of Sid Hamet the Magician's Rod" (1710) thus refers to

it:--



"They tell us something strange and odd

About a certain magic rod

That, bending down its top, divines

Whene'er the soil has golden mines;

Where there are none, it stands erect,

Scorning to show the least respect.

As ready was the wand of Sid

To bend where golden mines were hid.

In Scottish hills found precious ore,

Where none e'er looked for it before;

And by a gentle bow divined,

How well a Cully's purse was lined;

To a forlorn and broken rake,

Stood without motion like a stake."



De Quincey has several amusing allusions to this fallacy, affirming that

he had actually seen on more than one occasion the process applied with

success, and declared that, in spite of all science or scepticism might

say, most of the tea-kettles in the Vale of Wrington, North

Somersetshire, are filled by rhabdomancy. But it must be admitted that

the phenomena of the divining-rod and table-turning are of precisely the

same character, both being referable to an involuntary muscular action

resulting from a fixedness of idea. Moreover, it should be remembered

that experiments with the divining-rod are generally made in a district

known to be metalliferous, and therefore the chances are greatly in

favour of its bending over or near a mineral lode. On the other hand, it

is surprising how many people of culture have, at different times, in

this and other countries, displayed a lamentable weakness in partially

accepting this piece of superstition. Of the many anecdotes related

respecting it, we may quote an amusing one in connection with the

celebrated botanist, Linnaeus:--"When he was on one of his voyages,

hearing his secretary highly extol the virtues of his divining-wand, he

was willing to convince him of its insufficiency, and for that purpose

concealed a purse of one hundred ducats under a ranunculus, which grew

up by itself in a meadow, and bid the secretary find it if he could. The

wand discovered nothing, and Linnaeus' mark was soon trampled down by

the company who were present, so that when he went to finish the

experiment by fetching the gold himself, he was utterly at a loss where

to find it. The man with the wand assisted him, and informed him that it

could not lie in the way they were going, but quite the contrary, so

pursued the direction of the wand, and actually dug out the gold.

Linnaeus thereupon added that such another experiment would be

sufficient to make a proselyte of him." [1]



In 1659, the Jesuit, Gaspard Schott, tells us that this magic rod was at

this period used in every town in Germany, and that he had frequently

had opportunities of seeing it used in the discovery of hidden treasure.

He further adds:--"I searched with the greatest care into the question

whether the hazel rod had any sympathy with gold and silver, and whether

any natural property set it in motion. In like manner, I tried whether a

ring of metal, held suspended by a thread in the midst of a tumbler, and

which strikes the hours, is moved by any similar force." But many of the

mysterious effects of these so-called divining-rods were no doubt due to

clever imposture. In the year 1790, Plunet, a native of Dauphine,

claimed a power over the divining-rod which attracted considerable

attention in Italy. But when carefully tested by scientific men in

Padua, his attempts to discover buried metals completely failed; and at

Florence he was detected trying to find out by night what he had

secreted to test his powers on the morrow. The astrologer Lilly made

sundry experiments with the divining-rod, but was not always successful;

and the Jesuit, Kircher, tried the powers of certain rods which were

said to have sympathetic influences for particular metals, but they

never turned on the approach of these. Once more, in the "Shepherd's

Calendar," we find a receipt to make the "Mosaic wand to find hidden

treasure" without the intervention of a human operator:--"Cut a hazel

wand forked at the upper end like a Y. Peel off the rind, and dry it in

a moderate heat, then steep it in the juice of wake-robin or nightshade,

and cut the single lower end sharp; and where you suppose any rich mine

or hidden treasure is near, place a piece of the same metal you conceive

is hid, or in the earth, to the top of one of the forks by a hair, and

do the like to the other end; pitch the sharp single end lightly to the

ground at the going down of the sun, the moon being in the increase, and

in the morning at sunrise, by a natural sympathy, you will find the

metal inclining, as it were pointing, to the places where the other is

hid."



According to a Tuscany belief, the almond will discover treasures; and

the golden rod has long had the reputation in England of pointing to

hidden springs of water, as well as to treasures of gold and silver.

Similarly, the spring-wort and primrose--the key-flower--revealed the

hidden recesses in mountains where treasures were concealed, and the

mystic fern-seed, termed "wish-seed," was supposed in the Tyrol to make

known hidden gold; and, according to a Lithuanian form of this

superstition, one who secures treasures by this means will be pursued by

adders, the guardians of the gold. Plants of this kind remind us of the

magic "sesame" which, at the command of Ali Baba, in the story of the

"Forty Thieves," gave him immediate admission to the secret

treasure-cave. Once more, among further plants possessing the same

mystic property may be mentioned the sow-thistle, which, when invoked,

discloses hidden treasures. In Sicily a branch of the pomegranate tree

is considered to be a most effectual means of ascertaining the

whereabouts of concealed wealth. Hence it has been invested with an

almost reverential awe, and has been generally employed when search has

been made for some valuable lost property. In Silesia, Thuringia, and

Bohemia the mandrake is, in addition to its many mystic properties,

connected with the idea of hidden treasures.



Numerous plants are said to be either lucky or the reverse, and hence

have given rise to all kinds of odd beliefs, some of which still survive

in our midst, having come down from a remote period.



There is in many places a curious antipathy to uprooting the house-leek,

some persons even disliking to let it blossom, and a similar prejudice

seems to have existed against the cuckoo-flower, for, if found

accidentally inverted in a May garland, it was at once destroyed. In

Prussia it is regarded as ominous for a bride to plant myrtle, although

in this country it has the reputation of being a lucky plant. According

to a Somersetshire saying, "The flowering myrtle is the luckiest plant

to have in your window, water it every morning, and be proud of it." We

may note here that there are many odd beliefs connected with the myrtle.

"Speaking to a lady," says a correspondent of the _Athenaeum_ (Feb. 5,

1848), "of the difficulty which I had always found in getting a slip of

myrtle to grow, she directly accounted for my failure by observing that

perhaps I had not spread the tail or skirt of my dress, and looked proud

during the time I was planting it. It is a popular belief in

Somersetshire that unless a slip of myrtle is so planted, it will never

take root." The deadly nightshade is a plant of ill omen, and Gerarde

describing it says, "if you will follow my counsel, deal not with the

same in any case, and banish it from your gardens, and the use of it

also, being a plant so furious and deadly; for it bringeth such as have

eaten thereof into a dead sleep, wherein many have died." There is a

strong prejudice to sowing parsley, and equally a great dislike to

transplanting it, the latter notion being found in South America.

Likewise, according to a Devonshire belief, it is highly unlucky to

plant a bed of lilies of the valley, as the person doing so will

probably die in the course of the next twelve months.



The withering of plants has long been regarded ominous, and, according

to a Welsh superstition, if there are faded leaves in a room where a

baby is christened it will soon die. Of the many omens afforded by the

oak, we are told that the change of its leaves from their usual colour

gave more than once "fatal premonition" of coming misfortunes during the

great civil wars; and Bacon mentions a tradition that "if the oak-apple,

broken, be full of worms, it is a sign of a pestilent year." In olden

times the decay of the bay-tree was considered an omen of disaster, and

it is stated that, previous to the death of Nero, though the winter was

very mild, all these trees withered to the roots, and that a great

pestilence in Padua was preceded by the same phenomenon. [2] Shakespeare

speaks of this superstition:--



"'Tis thought the king is dead; we will not stay,

The bay-trees in our county are all withered."



Lupton, in his "Notable Things," tells us that,



"If a fir-tree be touched, withered, or burned with lightning, it

signifies that the master or mistress thereof shall shortly die."



It is difficult, as we have already noted in a previous chapter, to

discover why some of our sweetest and fairest spring-flowers should be

associated with ill-luck. In the western counties, for instance, one

should never take less than a handful of primroses or violets into a

farmer's house, as neglect of this rule is said to affect the success of

the ducklings and chickens. A correspondent of _Notes and Queries_ (I.

Ser. vii. 201) writes:--"My gravity was sorely tried by being called on

to settle a quarrel between two old women, arising from one of them

having given one primrose to her neighbour's child, for the purpose of

making her hens hatch but one egg out of each set of eggs, and it was

seriously maintained that the charm had been successful." In the same

way it is held unlucky to introduce the first snowdrop of the year into

a house, for, as a Sussex woman once remarked, "It looks for all the

world like a corpse in its shroud." We may repeat, too, again the

familiar adage:--



"If you sweep the house with blossomed broom in May,

You are sure to sweep the head of the house away."



And there is the common superstition that where roses and violets bloom

in autumn, it is indicative of some epidemic in the following year;

whereas, if a white rose put forth unexpectedly, it is believed in

Germany to be a sign of death in the nearest house; and in some parts of

Essex there is a current belief that sickness or death will inevitably

ensue if blossoms of the whitethorn be brought into a house; the idea in

Norfolk being that no one will be married from the house during the

year. Another ominous sign is that of plants shedding their leaves, or

of their blossoms falling to pieces. Thus the peasantry in some places

affirm that the dropping of the leaves of a peach-tree betokens a

murrain; and in Italy it is held unlucky for a rose to do so. A

well-known illustration of this superstition occurred many years ago in

the case of the unfortunate Miss Bay, who was murdered at the piazza

entrance of Covent Garden by Hackman (April 1779), the following account

of which we quote from the "Life and Correspondence of M. G. Lewis":--

"When the carriage was announced, and she was adjusting her dress, Mr.

Lewis happened to make some remark on a beautiful rose which Miss Kay

wore in her bosom. Just as the words were uttered the flower fell to the

ground. She immediately stooped to regain it, but as she picked it up,

the red leaves scattered themselves on the carpet, and the stalk alone

remained in her hand. The poor girl, who had been depressed in spirits

before, was evidently affected by this incident, and said, in a slightly

faltering voice, 'I trust I am not to consider this as an evil omen!'

But soon rallying, she expressed to Mr. Lewis, in a cheerful tone, her

hope that they would meet again after the theatre--a hope, alas! which

it was decreed should not be realised." According to a German belief,

one who throws a rose into a grave will waste away.



There is a notion prevalent in Dorsetshire that a house wherein the

plant "bergamot" is kept will never be free from sickness; and in

Norfolk it is said to be unlucky to take into a house a bunch of the

grass called "maiden-hair," or, as it is also termed, "dudder-grass."

Among further plants of ill omen may be mentioned the bluebell

(_Campanula rotundifolia_), which in certain parts of Scotland was

called "The aul' man's bell," and was regarded with a sort of dread, and

commonly left unpulled. In Cumberland, about Cockermouth, the red

campion (_Lychnis diurna_) is called "mother-die," and young people

believe that if plucked some misfortune will happen to their parents. A

similar belief attaches to the herb-robert (_Geranium robertianum_) in

West Cumberland, where it is nicknamed "Death come quickly;" and in

certain parts of Yorkshire there is a notion that if a child gather the

germander speedwell (_Veronica chamoedrys_), its mother will die during

the year. Herrick has a pretty allusion to the daffodil:--



"When a daffodil I see

Hanging down her head t'wards me,

Guess I may what I must be:

First, I shall decline my head;

Secondly, I shall be dead;

Lastly, safely buried."



In Germany, the marigold is with the greatest care excluded from the

flowers with which young women test their love-affairs; and in Austria

it is held unlucky to pluck the crocus, as it draws away the strength.



An ash leaf is still frequently employed for invoking good luck, and in

Cornwall we find the old popular formula still in use:--



"Even ash, I do thee pluck,

Hoping thus to meet good luck;

If no good luck I get from thee,

I shall wish thee on the tree."



And there is the following well-known couplet:--



"With a four-leaved clover, a double-leaved ash, and a green-topped

leave,

You may go before the queen's daughter without asking leave."



But, on the other hand, the finder of the five-leaved clover, it is

said, will have bad luck.



In Scotland [3] it was formerly customary to carry on the person a piece

of torch-fir for good luck--a superstition which, Mr. Conway remarks, is

found in the gold-mines of California, where the men tip a cone with the

first gold they discover, and keep it as a charm to ensure good luck

in future.



Nuts, again, have generally been credited with propitious qualities, and

have accordingly been extensively used for divination. In some

mysterious way, too, they are supposed to influence the population, for

when plentiful, there is said to be a corresponding increase of babies.

In Russia the peasantry frequently carry a nut in their purses, from a

belief that it will act as a charm in their efforts to make money.

Sternberg, in his "Northamptonshire Glossary" (163), says that the

discovery of a double nut, "presages well for the finder, and unless he

mars his good fortune by swallowing both kernels, is considered an

infallible sign of approaching 'luck.' The orthodox way in such cases

consists in eating one, and throwing the other over the shoulder."



The Icelanders have a curious idea respecting the mountain-ash,

affirming that it is an enemy of the juniper, and that if one is

planted on one side of a tree, and the other on the other, they will

split it. It is also asserted that if both are kept in the same house it

will be burnt down; but, on the other hand, there is a belief among some

sailors that if rowan-tree be used in a ship, it will sink the vessel

unless juniper be found on board. In the Tyrol, the _Osmunda regalis_,

called "the blooming fern," is placed over the door for good teeth; and

Mr. Conway, too, in his valuable papers, to which we have been often

indebted in the previous chapters, says that there are circumstances

under which all flowers are injurious. "They must not be laid on the bed

of a sick person, according to a Silesian superstition; and in

Westphalia and Thuringia, no child under a year old must be permitted to

wreathe itself with flowers, or it will soon die. Flowers, says a common

German saying, must in no case be laid on the mouth of a corpse, since

the dead man may chew them, which would make him a 'Nachzehrer,' or one

who draws his relatives to the grave after him."



In Hungary, the burnet saxifrage (_Pimpinella saxifraga_) is a mystic

plant, where it is popularly nicknamed Chaba's salve, there being an old

tradition that it was discovered by King Chaba, who cured the wounds of

fifteen thousand of his men after a bloody battle fought against his

brother. In Hesse, it is said that with knots tied in willow one may

slay a distant enemy; and the Bohemians have a belief that

seven-year-old children will become beautiful by dancing in the flax.

But many superstitions have clustered round the latter plant, it having

in years gone by been a popular notion that it will only flower at the

time of day on which it was originally sown. To spin on Saturday is said

in Germany to bring ill fortune, and as a warning the following legend

is among the household tales of the peasantry:--"Two old women, good

friends, were the most industrious spinners in their village, Saturday

finding them as engrossed in their work as on the other days of the

week. At length one of them died, but on the Saturday evening following

she appeared to the other, who, as usual, was busy at her wheel, and

showing her burning hand, said:--



'See what I in hell have won,

Because on Saturday eve I spun.'"



Flax, nevertheless, is a lucky plant, for in Thuringia, when a young

woman gets married, she places flax in her shoes as a charm against

poverty. It is supposed, also, to have health-giving virtues; for in

Germany, when an infant seems weakly and thrives slowly, it is placed

naked upon the turf on Midsummer day, and flax-seed is sprinkled over

it; the idea being that as the flax-seed grows so the infant will

gradually grow stronger. Of the many beliefs attached to the ash-tree,

we are told in the North of England that if the first parings of a

child's nails be buried beneath its roots, it will eventually turn out,

to use the local phrase, a "top-singer," and there is a popular

superstition that wherever the purple honesty (_Lunaria biennis_)

flourishes, the cultivators of the garden are noted for their honesty.

The snapdragon, which in years gone by was much cultivated for its showy

blossoms, was said to have a supernatural influence, and amongst other

qualities to possess the power of destroying charms. Many further

illustrations of this class of superstition might easily be added, so

thickly interwoven are they with the history of most of our familiar

wild-flowers. One further superstition may be noticed, an allusion to

which occurs in "Henry V." (Act i. sc. i):--



"The strawberry grows underneath the nettle,

And wholesome berries thrive and ripen best

Neighbour'd by fruit of baser quality;"



It having been the common notion that plants were affected by the

neighbourhood of other plants to such an extent that they imbibed each

other's virtues and faults. Accordingly sweet flowers were planted near

fruit-trees, with the idea of improving the flavour of the fruit; and,

on the other hand, evil-smelling trees, like the elder, were carefully

cleaned away from fruit-trees, lest they should become tainted. [4]

Further superstitions have been incidentally alluded to throughout the

present volume, necessarily associated as they are with most sections of

plant folk-lore. It should also be noticed that in the various

folk-tales which have been collected together in recent years, many

curious plant superstitions are introduced, although, to suit the

surroundings of the story, they have only too frequently been modified,

or the reverse. At the same time, embellishments of the kind are

interesting, as showing how familiar these traditionary beliefs were in

olden times to the story-teller, and how ready he was to avail

himself of them.





Footnotes:



1. See Baring-Gerald's "Curious Myths of the Middle Ages."



2. Ingram's "Florica Symbolica," p. 326.



3. Stewart's "Popular Superstitions of the Highlanders."



4. See Ellacombe's "Plant-lore of Shakespeare," p. 319.





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