Closely allied with plant-worship is the sacred and superstitious

reverence which, from time immemorial, has been paid by various

communities to certain trees and plants.

In many cases this sanctity originated in the olden heathen mythology,

when "every flower was the emblem of a god; every tree the abode of a

nymph." From their association, too, with certain events, plants

frequently acquired a sacred character, and occasionally their specific

virtues enhanced their veneration. In short, the large number of sacred

plants found in different countries must be attributed to a variety of

causes, illustrations of which are given in the present chapter.

Thus going back to mythological times, it may be noticed that trees into

which persons were metamorphosed became sacred. The laurel was sacred to

Apollo in memory of Daphne, into which tree she was changed when

escaping from his advances:--

"Because thou canst not be

My mistress, I espouse thee for my tree;

Be thou the prize of honour and renown,

The deathless poet and the poet's crown;

Thou shalt the Roman festivals adorn,

And, after poets, be by victors won."

But it is unnecessary to give further instances of such familiar

stories, of which early history is full. At the same time it is

noteworthy that many of these plants which acquired a sanctity from

heathen mythology still retain their sacred character--a fact which has

invested them with various superstitions, in addition to having caused

them to be selected for ceremonial usage and homage in modern times.

Thus the pine, with its mythical origin and heathen associations, is an

important tree on the Continent, being surrounded with a host of

legends, most of which, in one shape or another, are relics of early

forms of belief. The sacred character of the oak still survives in

modern folk-lore, and a host of flowers which grace our fields and

hedges have sacred associations from their connection with the heathen

gods of old. Thus the anemone, poppy, and violet were dedicated to

Venus; and to Diana "all flowers growing in untrodden dells and shady

nooks, uncontaminated by the tread of man, more especially belonged."

The narcissus and maidenhair were sacred to Proserpina, and the willow

to Ceres. The pink is Jove's flower, and of the flowers assigned to Juno

may be mentioned the lily, crocus, and asphodel.

Passing on to other countries, we find among the plants most conspicuous

for their sacred character the well-known lotus of the East (_Nelunibium

speciosum_), around which so many traditions and mythological legends

have clustered. According to a Hindu legend, from its blossom Brahma

came forth:--

"A form Cerulean fluttered o'er the deep;

Brightest of beings, greatest of the great,

Who, not as mortals steep

Their eyes in dewy sleep,

But heavenly pensive on the lotus lay,

That blossom'd at his touch, and shed a golden ray.

Hail, primal blossom! hail, empyreal gem,

Kemel, or Pedma, [1] or whate'er high name

Delight thee, say. What four-formed godhead came,

With graceful stole and beamy diadem,

Forth from thy verdant stem." [2]

Buddha, too, whose symbol is the lotus, is said to have first appeared

floating on this mystic flower, and, indeed, it would seem that many of

the Eastern deities were fond of resting on its leaves; while in China,

the god Pazza is generally represented as occupying this position. Hence

the lotus has long been an object of worship, and as a sacred plant

holds a most distinguished place, for it is the flower of the,

"Old Hindu mythologies, wherein

The lotus, attribute of Ganga--embling

The world's great reproductive power--was held

In veneration."

We may mention here that the lotus, known also as the sacred bean of

Egypt, and the rose-lily of the Nile, as far back as four thousand years

ago was held in high sanctity by the Egyptian priests, still retaining

its sacred character in China, Japan, and Asiatic Russia.

Another famous sacred plant is the soma or moon-plant of India, the

_Asclepias acida_, a climbing plant with milky juice, which Windischmann

has identified with the "tree of life which grew in paradise." Its milk

juice was said to confer immortality, the plant itself never decaying;

and in a hymn in the _Rig Veda_ the soma sacrifice is thus described:--

"We've quaffed the soma bright

And are immortal grown,

We've entered into light

And all the gods have known.

What mortal can now harm,

Or foeman vex us more?

Through thee beyond alarm,

Immortal God! we soar."

Then there is the peepul or bo-tree (_Ficus religiosa_), which is held

in high veneration by the followers of Buddha, in the vicinity of whose

temples it is generally planted. One of these trees in Ceylon is said to

be of very great antiquity, and according to Sir J. E. Tennant, "to it

kings have even dedicated their dominions in testimony of their belief

that it is a branch of the identical fig-tree under which Gotama Buddha

reclined when he underwent his apotheosis."

The peepul-tree is highly venerated in Java, and by the Buddhists of

Thibet is known as the bridge of safety, over which mortals pass from

the shores of this world to those of the unseen one beyond. Occasionally

confounded with this peepul is the banyan (_Ficus indica_), which is

another sacred tree of the Indians. Under its shade Vishnu is said to

have been born; and by the Chinese, Buddha is represented as sitting

beneath its leaves to receive the homage of the god Brahma. Another

sacred tree is the deodar (_Cedrus deodara_), a species of cedar, being

the Devadara, or tree-god of the Shastras, which in so many of the

ancient Hindu hymns is depicted as the symbol of power and majesty. [3]

The aroka, or _Saraca indica_, is said to preserve chastity, and is

dedicated to Kama, the Indian god of love, while with the negroes of

Senegambia the baobab-tree is an object of worship. In Borneo the

nipa-palm is held in veneration, and the Mexican Indians have their

moriche-palm (_Mauritia flexuosa_). The _Tamarindus Indica_ is in Ceylon

dedicated to Siva, the god of destruction; and in Thibet, the jambu or

rose-apple is believed to be the representative of the divine

amarita-tree which bears ambrosia.

The pomegranate, with its mystic origin and early sacred associations,

was long reverenced by the Persians and Jews, an old tradition having

identified it as the forbidden fruit given by Eve to Adam. Again, as a

sacred plant the basil has from time immemorial been held in high repute

by the Hindus, having been sacred to Vishnu. Indeed it is worshipped as

a deity itself, and is invoked as the goddess Tulasi for the protection

of the human frame. It is further said that "the heart of Vishnu, the

husband of the Tulasi, is agitated and tormented whenever the least

sprig is broken of a plant of Tulasi, his wife."

Among further flowers holding a sacred character may be mentioned the

henna, the Egyptian privet (_Lawsonia alba_), the flower of paradise,

which was pronounced by Mahomet as "chief of the flowers of this world

and the next," the wormwood having been dedicated to the goddess Iris.

By the aborigines of the Canary Islands, the dragon-tree (_Dracoena

draco_) of Orotava was an object of sacred reverence; [4] and in Burmah

at the present day the eugenia is held sacred. [5]

It has been remarked that the life of Christ may be said to fling its

shadow over the whole vegetable world. [6] "From this time the trees and

the flowers which had been associated with heathen rites and deities,

began to be connected with holier names, and not unfrequently with the

events of the crucifixion itself."

Thus, upon the Virgin Mary a wealth of flowers was lavished, all white

ones, having been "considered typical of her purity and holiness, and

consecrated to her festivals." [7] Indeed, not only, "were the finer

flowers wrested from the classic Juno and Diana, and from the Freyja and

Bertha of northern lands given to her, but lovely buds of every hue were

laid upon her shrines." [8] One species, for instance, of the

maiden-hair fern, known also as "Our Lady's hair," is designated in

Iceland "Freyja's hair," and the rose, often styled "Frau rose," or

"Mother rose," the favourite flower of Hulda, was transferred to the

Virgin. On the other hand, many plants bearing the name of Our Lady,

were, writes Mr. Folkard, in Puritan times, "replaced by the name of

Venus, thus recurring to the ancient nomenclature; 'Our Lady's comb'

becoming 'Venus's comb.'" But the two flowers which were specially

connected with the Virgin were the lily and the rose. Accordingly, in

Italian art, a vase of lilies stands by the Virgin's side, with three

flowers crowning three green stems. The flower is generally the large

white lily of our gardens, "the pure white petals signifying her

spotless body, and the golden anthers within typifying her soul

sparkling with divine light." [9]

The rose, both red and white, appears at an early period as an emblem of

the Virgin, "and was specially so recognised by St. Dominic when he

instituted the devotion of the rosary, with direct reference to

her." [10] Among other flowers connected with the Virgin Mary may be

mentioned the flowering-rod, according to which Joseph was chosen for

her husband, because his rod budded into flower, and a dove settled upon

the top of it. In Tuscany a similar legend is attached to the oleander,

and elsewhere the white campanula has been known as the "little staff of

St. Joseph," while a German name for the white double daffodill is

"Joseph's staff."

Then there is "Our Lady's bed-straw," which filled the manger on which

the infant Jesus was laid; while of the plant said to have formed the

Virgin's bed may be mentioned the thyme, woodroof, and groundsel. The

white-spotted green leaves of "Our Lady's thistle" were caused by some

drops of her milk falling upon them, and in Cheshire we find the same

idea connected with the pulmonaria or "lady's milk sile," the word

"sile" being a provincialism for "soil," or "stain." A German tradition

makes the common fern (_Polypodium vulgare_) to have sprung from the

Virgin's milk.

Numerous flowers have been identified with her dress, such as the

marigold, termed by Shakespeare "Mary-bud," which she wore in her bosom.

The cuckoo-flower of our meadows is "Our Lady's smock," which

Shakespeare refers to in those charming lines in "Love's Labour's

Lost," where:--

"When daisies pied and violets blue,

And lady's smocks all silver white,

And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue

Do paint the meadows with delight,

The cuckoo then on every tree

Mocks married men, for thus sings he,


And one of the finest of our orchids is "Our Lady's slipper." The ribbon

grass is "Our Lady's garters," and the dodder supplies her "laces." In

the same way many flowers have been associated with the Virgin herself.

Thus, there is "Our Lady's tresses," and a popular name for the

maiden-hair fern and quaking-grass is "Virgin's hair." The lilies of the

valley are her tears, and a German nickname for the lungwort is "Our

Lady's milk-wort." The _Anthlyllis vulneraria_ is "Our Lady's fingers,"

and the kidney-wort has been designated "lady's navel." Certain orchids,

from the peculiar form of their hand-shaped roots, have been popularly

termed "Our Lady's hands," a name given in France to the dead-nettle.

Of the many other plants dedicated to the Virgin may be mentioned the

snowdrop, popularly known as the "fair maid of February," opening its

floweret at the time of Candlemas. According to an old monkish tradition

it blooms at this time, in memory of the Virgin having taken the child

Jesus to the temple, and there presented her offering. A further reason

for the snowdrop's association with the Virgin originated in the custom

of removing her image from the altar on the day of the Purification, and

strewing over the vacant place with these emblems of purity. The

bleeding nun (_Cyclamen europoeum_) was consecrated to the Virgin, and

in France the spearmint is termed "Our Lady's mint." In Germany the

costmary (_Costaminta vulgaris_) is "Our Lady's balsam," the

white-flowered wormwood the "smock of our Lady," and in olden days the

iris or fleur-de-lis was held peculiarly sacred.

The little pink is "lady's cushion," and the campanula is her

looking-glass. Then there is "Our Lady's comb," with its long, fragile

seed-vessels resembling the teeth of a comb, while the cowslip is "Our

Lady's bunch of keys." In France, the digitalis supplies her with

gloves, and in days gone by the _Convallaria polygonatum_ was the

"Lady's seal." According to some old writers, the black briony went by

this name, and Hare gives this explanation:--"'Our Lady's seal'

(_Sigillum marioe_) is among the names of the black briony, owing to the

great efficacy of its roots when spread in a plaster and applied as it

were to heal up a scar or bruise." Formerly a species of primula was

known as "lady's candlestick," and a Wiltshire nickname for the common

convolvulus is "lady's nightcap," Canterbury bells in some places

supplying this need. The harebell is "lady's thimble," and the plant

which affords her a mantle is the _Alchemilla vulgaris_, with its

grey-green leaf covered with a soft silky hair. This is the Maria

Stakker of Iceland, which when placed under the pillow produces sleep.

Once more, the strawberry is one of the fruits that has been dedicated

to her; and a species of nut, popularly known as the molluka bean, is in

many parts called the "Virgin Mary's nut." The cherry-tree, too, has

long been consecrated to the Virgin from the following tradition:--

Being desirous one day of refreshing herself with some cherries which

she saw hanging upon a tree, she requested Joseph to gather some for

her. But he hesitated, and mockingly said, "Let the father of thy child

present them to you." But these words had been no sooner uttered than

the branch of the cherry-tree inclined itself of its own accord to the

Virgin's hand. There are many other plants associated in one way or

another with the Virgin, but the instances already given are

representative of this wide subject. In connection, too, with her

various festivals, we find numerous plants; and as the author of

"Flower-lore" remarks, "to the Madonna were assigned the white iris,

blossoming almond-tree, narcissus, and white lily, all appropriate to

the Annunciation." The flowers appropriate to the "Visitation of Our

Lady" were, in addition to the lily, roses red and white, while to the

"Feast of Assumption" is assigned the "Virgin's bower," "worthy to be so

called," writes Gerarde, "by reason of the goodly shadow which the

branches make with their thick bushing and climbing, as also for the

beauty of the flowers, and the pleasant scent and savour of the same."

Many plants have been associated with St. John the Baptist, from his

having been the forerunner of Christ. Thus, the common plant which bears

his name, St. John's wort, is marked with blood-like spots, known as the

"blood of St. John," making their appearance on the day he was beheaded.

The scarlet lychnis, popularly nicknamed the "great candlestick," was

commonly said to be lighted up for his day. The carob tree has been

designated "St. John's bread," from a tradition that it supplied him

with food in the wilderness; and currants, from beginning to ripen at

this time, have been nicknamed "berries of St. John." The artemisia was

in Germany "St. John's girdle," and in Sicily was applied to his beard.

In connection with Christ's birth it may be noted that the early

painters represent the Angel Gabriel with either a sceptre or spray of

the olive tree, while in the later period of Italian art he has in his

hand a branch of white lilies.[11] The star which pointed out the place

of His birth has long been immortalised by the _Ornithogalum

umbellatum_, or Star of Bethlehem, which has been thought to resemble

the pictures descriptive of it; in France there is a pretty legend of

the rose-coloured sainfoin. When the infant Jesus was lying in the

manger the plant was found among the grass and herbs which composed his

bed. But suddenly it opened its pretty blossom, that it might form a

wreath around His head. On this account it has been held in high repute.

Hence the practice in Italy of decking mangers at Christmas time with

moss, sow-thistle, cypress, and holly. [12]

Near the city of On there was shown for many centuries the sacred

fig-tree, under which the Holy Family rested during their "Flight into

Egypt," and a Bavarian tradition makes the tree under which they found

shelter a hazel. A German legend, on the other hand, informs us that as

they took their flight they came into a thickly-wooded forest, when, on

their approach, all the trees, with the exception of the aspen, paid

reverential homage. The disrespectful arrogance of the aspen, however,

did not escape the notice of the Holy Child, who thereupon pronounced a

curse against it, whereupon its leaves began to tremble, and have done

so ever since:--

"Once as our Saviour walked with men below,

His path of mercy through a forest lay;

And mark how all the drooping branches show

What homage best a silent tree may pay.

Only the aspen stood erect and free,

Scorning to join the voiceless worship pure,

But see! He cast one look upon the tree,

Struck to the heart she trembles evermore."

The "rose of Jericho" has long been regarded with special reverence,

having first blossomed at Christ's birth, closed at His crucifixion, and

opened again at the resurrection. At the flight into Egypt it is

reported to have sprung up to mark the footsteps of the sacred family,

and was consequently designated Mary's rose. The pine protected them

from Herod's soldiers, while the juniper opened its branches and offered

a welcome shelter, although it afterwards, says an old legend, furnished

the wood for the cross.

But some trees were not so thoughtful, for "the brooms and the

chick-peas rustled and crackled, and the flax bristled up." According to

another old legend we are informed that by the fountain where the Virgin

Mary washed the swaddling-clothes of her sacred infant, beautiful bushes

sprang up in memory of the event. Among the many further legends

connected with the Virgin may be mentioned the following connected with

her death:--The story runs that she was extremely anxious to see her Son

again, and that whilst weeping, an angel appeared, and said, "Hail, O

Mary! I bring thee here a branch of palm, gathered in paradise; command

that it be carried before thy bier in the day of thy death, for in three

days thy soul shall leave thy body, and thou shalt enter into paradise,

where thy Son awaits thy coming." The angel then departed, but the

palm-branch shed a light from every leaf, and the apostles, although

scattered in different parts of the world, were miraculously caught up

and set down at the Virgin's door. The sacred palm-branch she then

assigned to the care of St. John, who carried it before her bier at the

time of her burial. [13]

The trees and flowers associated with the crucifixion are widely

represented, and have given rise to many a pretty legend. Several plants

are said to owe their dark-stained blossoms to the blood-drops which

trickled from the cross; amongst these being the wood-sorrel, the

spotted persicaria, the arum, the purple orchis, which is known in

Cheshire as "Gethsemane," and the red anemone, which has been termed the

"blood-drops of Christ." A Flemish legend, too, accounts in the same way

for the crimson-spotted leaves of the rood-selken. The plant which has

gained the unenviable notoriety of supplying the crown of thorns has

been variously stated as the boxthorn, the bramble, the buckthorns, [14]

and barberry, while Mr. Conway quotes an old tradition, which tells how

the drops of blood that fell from the crown of thorns, composed of the

rose-briar, fell to the ground and blossomed to roses. [15] Some again

maintain that the wild hyssop was employed, and one plant which was

specially signalled out in olden times is the auberpine or white-thorn.

In Germany holly is Christ-thorn, and according to an Eastern tradition

it was the prickly rush, but as Mr. King [16] remarks, "the belief of the

East has been tolerably constant to what was possibly the real plant

employed, the nabk (_Zizyphus spina-Christi_), a species of buckthorn."

The negroes of the West Indies say that, "a branch of the cashew tree

was used, and that in consequence one of the bright golden petals of the

flower became black and blood-stained."

Then again, according to a Swedish legend, the dwarf birch tree afforded

the rod with which Christ was scourged, which accounts for its stunted

appearance; while another legend tells us it was the willow with its

drooping branches. Rubens, together with the earlier Italian painters,

depict the reed-mace [17] or bulrush (_Typha latifolia_) as the rod given

to Him to carry; a plant still put by Catholics into the hands of

statues of Christ. But in Poland, where the plant is difficult to

procure, "the flower-stalk of the leek is substituted."

The mournful tree which formed the wood of the cross has always been a

disputed question, and given rise to a host of curious legends.

According to Sir John Maundeville, it was composed of cedar, cypress,

palm, and olive, while some have instituted in the place of the two

latter the pine and the box; the notion being that those four woods

represented the four quarters of the globe. Foremost amongst the other

trees to which this distinction has been assigned, are the aspen,

poplar, oak, elder, and mistletoe. Hence is explained the gloomy

shivering of the aspen leaf, the trembling of the poplar, and the

popular antipathy to utilising elder twigs for fagots. But it is

probable that the respect paid to the elder "has its roots in the old

heathenism of the north," and to this day, in Denmark, it is said to be

protected by "a being called the elder-mother," so that it is not safe

to damage it in any way. [18] The mistletoe, which exists now as a mere

parasite, was before the crucifixion a fine forest tree; its present

condition being a lasting monument of the disgrace it incurred through

its ignominious use. [19] A further legend informs us that when the Jews

were in search of wood for the cross, every tree, with the exception of

the oak, split itself to avoid being desecrated. On this account,

Grecian woodcutters avoid the oak, regarding it as an accursed tree.

The bright blue blossoms of the speedwell, which enliven our wayside

hedges in spring-time, are said to display in their markings a

representation of the kerchief of St Veronica, imprinted with the

features of Christ. [20] According to an old tradition, when our Lord was

on His way to Calvary, bearing His Cross, He happened to pass by the

door of Veronica, who, beholding the drops of agony on His brow, wiped

His face with a kerchief or napkin. The sacred features, however,

remained impressed upon the linen, and from the fancied resemblance of

the blossom of the speedwell to this hallowed relic, the plant was

named Veronica.

A plant closely connected by tradition with the crucifixion is the

passion-flower. As soon as the early Spanish settlers in South America

first glanced on it, they fancied they had discovered not only a

marvellous symbol of Christ's passion, but received an assurance of the

ultimate triumph of Christianity. Jacomo Bosio, who obtained his

knowledge of it from certain Mexican Jesuits, speaks of it as "the

flower of the five wounds," and has given a very minute description of

it, showing how exactly every part is a picture of the mysteries of the

Passion. "It would seem," he adds, "as if the Creator of the world had

chosen it to represent the principal emblems of His Son's Passion; so

that in due season it might assist, when its marvels should be explained

to them, in the condition of the heathen people, in whose country it

grew." In Brittany, vervain is popularly termed the "herb of the cross,"

and when gathered with a certain formula is efficacious in curing

wounds. [21]

In legendary lore, much uncertainty exists as to the tree on which Judas

hanged himself. According to Sir John Maundeville, there it stood in the

vicinity of Mount Sion, "the tree of eldre, that Judas henge himself

upon, for despeyr," a legend which has been popularly received.

Shakespeare, in his "Love's Labour's Lost," says "Judas was hanged on an

elder," and the story is further alluded to in Piers Plowman's vision:--

"Judas, he japed

With Jewen silver,

And sithen on an eller,

Hanged himselve."

Gerarde makes it the wild carob, a tree which, as already stated, was

formerly known as "St. John's bread," from a popular belief that the

Baptist fed upon it while in the wilderness. A Sicilian tradition

identifies the tree as a tamarisk, and a Russian proverb, in allusion to

the aspen, tells us "there is an accursed tree which trembles without

even a breath of wind." The fig, also, has been mentioned as the

ill-fated tree, and some traditions have gone so far as to say that it

was the very same one as was cursed by our Lord.

As might be expected, numerous plants have become interwoven with the

lives of the saints, a subject on which many works have been written.

Hence it is unnecessary to do more than briefly note some of the more

important items of sacred lore which have been embodied in many of the

early Christian legends. The yellow rattle has been assigned to St.

Peter, and the _Primula veris_, from its resemblance to a bunch of keys,

is St. Peter's wort. Many flowers, too, from the time of their

blossoming, have been dedicated to certain saints, as the square St.

John's wort (_Hypericum quadrangulare_), which is also known as St.

Peter's wort; while in Germany wall-barley is termed Peter's corn. Of

the many legends connected with the cherry we are reminded that on one

occasion Christ gave one to St. Peter, at the same time reminding him

not to despise little things.

St. James is associated with several plants--the St. James' wort

(_Senecio Jacoboea_), either from its having been much used for the

diseases of horses, of which the saint was the patron, or owing to its

blossoming on his festival. The same name was applied to the shepherd's

purse and the rag-weed. Incidentally, too, in our chapter on the

calendar we have alluded to many flowers associated with the saints, and

spoken of the customs observed in their honour.

Similarly the later saints had particular flowers dedicated to their

memory; and, indeed, a complete catalogue of flowers has been

compiled--one for each day in the year--the flower in many cases having

been selected because it flowered on the festival of that saint. Thus

the common bean was dedicated to St. Ignatius, and the blue hyacinth to

St. Dorothy, while to St. Hilary the barren strawberry has been

assigned. St. Anne is associated with the camomile, and St. Margaret

with the Virginian dragon's head. Then there is St. Anthony's turnips

and St. Barbara's cress--the "Saints' Floral Directory," in "Hone's

Every-Day Book," giving a fuller and more extensive list. But the

illustrations we have already given are sufficient to show how fully the

names of the saints have been perpetuated by so many of our well-known

plants not only being dedicated to, but named after them, a fact which

is perhaps more abundantly the case on the Continent. Then, as it has

been remarked, flowers have virtually become the timepieces of our

religious calendar, reminding us of the various festivals, as in

succession they return, in addition to immortalising the history and

events which such festivals commemorate. In many cases, too, it should

be remembered, the choice of flowers for dedication to certain saints

originated either in their medical virtues or in some old tradition

which was supposed to have specially singled them out for this honour.


1. Sanscrit for lotus.

2. Hindu poem, translated by Sir William Jones.

3. "Flower-lore," p. 118.

4. Folkard's "Plant Legends," p. 245.

5. "Flower-lore," p. 120.

6. _Quarterly Review_, cxiv. 231.

7. "Flower-lore," p. 2.

8. Ibid.

9. _Quarterly Review_, cxiv. 235.

10. Ibid., p. 239.

11. "Flower-lore."

12. Folkard's "Plant Legends," p. 44.

13. Folkard's "Plant Legends," p. 395.

14. "Flower-lore," p. 13.

15. _Fraser's Magazine_, 1870, p. 714.

16. "Flower-lore," p. 14.

17. "Flower-lore," p. 14.

18. _Quarterly Review_, cxiv. 233; "Flower-lore," p. 15.

19. See Baring-Gould's "Myths of the Middle Ages."

20. "Flower-lore," p. 12.

21. See chapter on Folk-Medicine.

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