The association of certain plants with the devil forms an extensive and

important division in their folk-lore, and in many respects is closely

connected with their mystic history. It is by no means easy always to

account for some of our most beautiful flowers having Satanic

surroundings, although frequently the explanation must be sought in

their poisonous and deadly qualities. In some cases, too, the student of

comparative mythology may trace their evil reputation to those early

traditions which were the expressions of certain primitive beliefs, the

survivals of which nowadays are found in many an apparently meaningless

superstition. Anyhow, the subject is a very wide one, and is equally

represented in most countries. It should be remembered, moreover, that

rudimentary forms of dualism--the antagonism of a good and evil

deity[1]--have from a remote period occupied men's minds, a system of

belief known even among the lower races of mankind. Hence, just as some

plants would in process of time acquire a sacred character, others would

do the reverse. Amongst the legendary stories and folktales of most

countries we find frequent allusion to the devil as an active agent in

utilising various flowers for his mischievous pursuits; and on the

Continent we are told of a certain evil spirit named Kleure who

transforms himself into a tree to escape notice, a superstition which

under a variety of forms still lingers here and there.[2] It would seem,

too, that in some of our old legends and superstitions the terms Puck

and Devil are synonymous, a circumstance which explains the meaning,

otherwise unintelligible, of many items of plant-lore in our own and

other countries. Thus the word "Puck" has been identified with

_Pogge_--toad, under which form the devil was supposed to be

personified; and hence probably originated such expressions as

toadstools, paddock-stools, &c. The thorns of the eglantine are said to

point downwards, because when the devil was excluded from heaven he

tried to regain his lost position by means of a ladder composed of its

thorns. But when the eglantine was only allowed to grow as a bush, out

of spite he placed its thorns in their present eccentric position. The

seed of the parsley, "is apt to come up only partially, according as the

devil takes his tithe of it."[3] In Germany "devil's oaks" are of

frequent occurrence, and "one of these at Gotha is held in great

regard."[4] and Gerarde, describing the vervain, with its manifold

mystic virtues, says that "the devil did reveal it as a secret and

divine medicine." Belladonna, writes Mr. Conway, is esteemed in Bohemia

a favourite plant of the devil, who watches it, but may be drawn from it

on Walpurgis Night by letting loose a black hen, after which he will

run. Then there is the sow-thistle, which in Russia is said to belong to

the devil; and Loki, the evil spirit in northern mythology, is

occasionally spoken of as sowing weeds among the good seed; from whence,

it has been suggested, originated the popular phrase of "sowing one's

wild oats."[5] The German peasantry have their "rye-wolf," a malignant

spirit infesting the rye-fields; and in some parts of the Continent

orchards are said to be infested by evil demons, who, until driven away

by various incantations, are liable to do much harm to the fruit. The

Italians, again, affirm that in each leaf of the fig-tree an evil spirit

dwells; and throughout the Continent there are various other demons who

are believed to haunt the crops. Evil spirits were once said to lurk in

lettuce-beds, and a certain species was regarded with ill favour by

mothers, a circumstance which, Mr. Folkard rightly suggests,[6] may

account for a Surrey saying, "O'er much lettuce in the garden will stop

a young wife's bearing." Among similar legends of the kind it is said

that, in Swabia, fern-seed brought by the devil between eleven and

twelve o'clock on Christmas night enables the bearer to do as much work

as twenty or thirty ordinary men. According to a popular piece of

superstition current in our southern counties, the devil is generally

supposed to put his cloven foot upon the blackberries on Michaelmas Day,

and hence after this date it is considered unlucky to gather them during

the remainder of the year. An interesting instance of this superstition

is given by Mrs. Latham in her "West Sussex Superstitions," which

happened to a farmer's wife residing in the neighbourhood of Arundel. It

appears that she was in the habit of making a large quantity of

blackberry jam, and finding that less fruit had been brought to her than

she required, she said to the charwoman, "I wish you would send some of

your children to gather me three or four pints more." "Ma'am," exclaimed

the woman in astonishment, "don't you know this is the 11th October?"

"Yes," she replied. "Bless me, ma'am! And you ask me to let my children

go out blackberrying! Why, I thought every one knew that the devil went

round on the 10th October, and spat on all the blackberries, and that if

any person were to eat on the 11th, he or some one belonging to him

would either die or fall into great trouble before the year was out."

In Scotland the devil is said to but throw his cloak over the

blackberries and render them unwholesome, while in Ireland he is said to

stamp on them. Among further stories of this kind may be quoted one

current in Devonshire respecting St. Dunstan, who, it is said, bought up

a quantity of barley for brewing beer. The devil, knowing how anxious

the saint would be to get a good sale for his beer, offered to blight

the apple trees, so that there should be no cider, and hence a greater

demand for beer, on condition that he sold himself to him. St. Dunstan

accepted the offer, and stipulated that the trees should be blighted on

the 17th, 18th, and 19th May. Should the apple-blossom be nipped by cold

winds or frost about this time, many allusions are still made to

St. Dunstan.

Of the plants associated personally with the evil one may be mentioned

the henbane, which is known in Germany as the "devil's eye," a name

applied to the stich-wort in Wales. A species of ground moss is also

styled in Germany the "devil's claws;" one of the orchid tribe is

"Satan's hand;" the lady's fingers is "devil's claws," and the plantain

is "devil's head." Similarly the house-leek has been designated the

"devil's beard," and a Norfolk name for the stinkhorn is "devil's horn."

Of further plants related to his Satanic majesty is the clematis, termed

"devil's thread," the toad-flax is his ribbon, the indigo his dye, while

the scandix forms his darning-needles. The tritoma, with its brilliant

red blossom, is familiar in most localities as the "devil's poker," and

the ground ivy has been nicknamed the "devil's candlestick," the

mandrake supplying his candle. The puff-balls of the lycoperdon form the

devil's snuff-box, and in Ireland the nettle is his apron, and the

convolvulus his garter; while at Iserlohn, in Germany,[7] "the mothers,

to deter their children eating the mulberries, sing to them that the

devil requires them for the purpose of blacking his boots." The _Arum

maculatum_ is "devil's ladies and gentlemen," and the _Ranunculus

arvensis_ is the "devil on both sides." The vegetable kingdom also has

been equally mindful of his majesty's food, the spurge having long been

named "devil's milk" and the briony the "devil's cherry." A species of

fungus, known with us as "witches' butter," is called in Sweden "devil's

butter," while one of the popular names for the mandrake is "devil's

food." The hare-parsley supplies him with oatmeal, and the stichwort is

termed in the West of England "devil's corn." Among further plants

associated with his Satanic majesty may be enumerated the garden fennel,

or love-in-a-mist, to which the name of "devil-in-a-bush" has been

applied, while the fruit of the deadly nightshade is commonly designated

"devil's berries." Then there is the "devil's tree," and the "devil's

dung" is one of the nicknames of the assafoetida. The hawk-weed, like

the scabious, was termed "devil's bit," because the root looks as if it

had been bitten off. According to an old legend, "the root was once

longer, until the devil bit away the rest for spite, for he needed it

not to make him sweat who is always tormented with fear of the day of

judgment." Gerarde further adds that, "The devil did bite it for envy,

because it is an herb that hath so many great virtues, and is so

beneficial to mankind." A species of ranunculus supplies his

coach-wheels, and in some parts of the country ferns are said to supply

his brushes. His majesty's wants, therefore, have been amply provided

for by the vegetable kingdom, for even the wild garlic affords him a

posy[8]. Once more, in Sweden, a rose-coloured flower, known as "Our

Lady's hand," "has two roots like hands, one white, the other black, and

when both are placed in water the black one will sink, this is called

'Satan's hand;' but the white one, called 'Mary's hand,' will float."[9]

Hence this flower is held in deep and superstitious veneration among the

peasantry; and in Crete the basil is considered an emblem of the devil,

and is placed on most window-ledges, no doubt as a charm.

Some plants, again, have been used for exorcism from their reputed

antagonism to all Satanic influence. Thus the avens or herb-bennett,

when kept in a house, was believed to render the devil powerless, and

the Greeks of old were in the habit of placing a laurel bough over their

doorways to keep away evil spirits. The thistle has been long in demand

for counteracting the powers of darkness, and in Esthonia it is placed

on the ripening corn to drive and scare away malignant demons. In

Poland, the disease known among the poorer classes as "elf-lock" is

supposed to be the work of wicked spirits, but tradition says it will

gradually disappear if one buries thistle seed.[10] The aloe, by the

Egyptians, is reputed to resist any baleful influence, and the lunary or

"honesty" is by our own country people said to put every evil influence

to flight. In Germany the juniper disperses evil spirits, and in ancient

times the black hellebore, peony, and mugwort were largely used for this

purpose. According to a Russian belief the elder-tree drives away evil

spirits, and hence this plant is held in high respect. Among further

plants possessing the same quality are the nettle and milfoil, and then

there is the famous St. John's wort, popularly nicknamed "devil's flight."

Closely allied with this part of our subject are those plants connected

with serpents, here forming a very numerous class. Indeed, it was only

natural that our ancestors, from their dread of the serpent on account

of its poisonous sting, as well as from their antipathy to it as the

symbol of evil, should ascertain those plants which seemed either

attractive, or antagonistic, to this much-dreaded reptile. Accordingly

certain plants, from being supposed to be distasteful to serpents, were

much used as amulets to drive them away. Foremost among these may be

mentioned the ash, to escape contact with which a serpent, it has been

said, would even creep into the fire, in allusion to which Cowley

thus writes:

"But that which gave more wonder than the rest,

Within an ash a serpent built her nest

And laid her eggs, when once to come beneath

The very shadow of an ash was death."

Gerarde notices this curious belief, and tells us that, "the leaves of

this tree are so great virtue against serpents that they dare not so

much as touch the morning and evening shadows of the tree, but shun them

afar off."

Hence ash-sap was a German remedy for serpent bites. Lucan, in his

"Pharsalia" (915-921), has enumerated some of the plants burned for the

purpose of expelling serpents:

"Beyond the farthest tents rich fires they build,

That healthy medicinal odours yield,

There foreign galbanum dissolving fries,

And crackling flames from humble wallwort rise.

There tamarisk, which no green leaf adorns,

And there the spicy Syrian costos burns;

There centaury supplies the wholesome flame,

That from Therssalian Chiron takes its name;

The gummy larch tree, and the thapsos there,

Woundwort and maidenweed perfume the air,

There the long branches of the long-lived hart

With southernwood their odours strong impart,

The monsters of the land, the serpents fell,

Fly far away and shun the hostile smell."

The smoke of the juniper was equally repellent to serpents, and the

juice of dittany "drives away venomous beasts, and doth astonish them."

In olden times, for serpent bites, agrimony, chamomile, and the fruit of

the bramble, were held efficacious, and Gerarde recommends the root of

the bugloss, "as it keepeth such from being stung as have drunk it

before; the leaves and seeds do the same." On the other hand, some

plants had the reputation of attracting serpents, one of these being the

moneywort or creeping loosestrife, with which they were said to heal

themselves when wounded. As far back as the time of Pliny serpents were

supposed to be very fond of fennel, restoring to them their youth by

enabling them to cast their old skins. There is a belief in Thuringia

that the possession of fern seed causes the bearer to be pursued by

serpents till thrown away; and, according to a curious Eussian proverb,

"from all old trees proceeds either an owl or a devil," in reference, no

doubt, to their often bare and sterile appearance.


1. See Tylor's "Primitive Culture," ii. 316.

2. Thorpe's "Northern Mythology," iii. 193.

3. "Plant-lore Legends and Lyrics," p. 486.

4. Mr. Conway, _Fraser's Magazine_, 1870, p. 593.

5. Mr. Conway, _Fraser's Magazine_, 1870, p. 107.

6. "Plant-lore Legends and Lyrics," p. 411.

7. Folkard's "Plant-lore Legends and Lyrics," p. 448.

8. See Friend's "Flower-lore," i. 68.

9. Thorpe's "Northern Mythology," ii. 104.

10. "Mystic Trees and Flowers," Fraser's Magazine.

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