Why do we touch wood for luck, throw salt over the shoulder, or avoid walking under a ladder? These and hundreds of other tales have been handed down by word of mouth for generations and are found all over the world, in all languages. They share a remarkable similarity though some variations are also found. Whether or not they are true, old wives’ tales are of value in themselves as they represent a slice of social history about a way of life that is almost forgotten.
Some of the oldest beliefs concerning plants and flowers are bound up with moon magic. Plants and seeds should not be put into the ground when the moon is waxing; as the moon grows, so do the seeds. On the other hand, trees can be felled and plants picked more easily if done when the moon is on the wane.
There is another old saying that when planting peas and beans, the rows should always run north and south. This makes sense since the sun moves from east to west and gives the plants maximum sunshine.
African marigolds have a pungent smell and if planted at the ends of broad bean rows, they will ward off black fly. If bedded among cabbages and other brassica, white fly will move to another garden!
Before planting peas, line the trench with holly leaves to prevent field mice.
Another way of getting rid of rodents and deer damaging or destroying bulbs and plants is to soak the bulbs in Alum water before planting. This is very effective.
Plant some Fritillaria imperialis bulbs in the same area as the plants you want to protect. These bulbs have a peculiar smell which helps repel squirrels, gophers, moles, and deer. Cayenne pepper in the garden to gives the offending deer a surprise.
To ward of pigeons, paint a few bottles red and upend them on sticks near the plants.
Residents in the Darling River region of New South Wales, claimed the Darling pea had magical powers. Anyone who picked the beautiful flower, would not leave the region for seven years. The same belief applied to the Darling lily in some areas. Bushmen claimed that horses eating the Darling pea became mad.
Parsley should never be transplanted, but grown from seed. It takes seven weeks to germinate and one belief is that it grows down to the devil and then up again. When the parsley does grow, it should be picked, not cut; and never give it away as misfortune is sure to follow. Parsley is not only a sure sign of a strong woman, but it will only grow outside the home of an honest man.
Species of flowers considered unlucky vary in many parts of the world, particularly when brought into the house. A year of illness was the outcome if Hawthorn was brought into the house.
Honeysuckle, if brought into the house brought bad luck in Wales but foretold a wedding in Somerset.
The wild foxglove is a fairy plant in folk-tradition, and has several other names such as Fairy Weed, Dead Men’s Bellows, Bloody Man’s Fingers, and Witches’ Thimble. The Irish believe that foxgloves in the house are unlucky. It should never be taken aboard a ship. To pick the Foxglove is to offend the fairies that live within the flowers and will bring bad luck, even death, to the picker and his family. Foxgloves are very poisonous.
In the west of England, if snowdrops are brought into the house before the first chickens are hatched, all the eggs will be addled.
Wattle the national flower of Australia, should not be brought into the house or worn as a sprig.
In Surrey, to take the first primrose into the house meant sickness and sorrow.
Basil stands for “animosity,” and the planting method shows why. A gardener should curse with great gusto while planting basil seeds, otherwise they won’t grow!
In Norfolk, lilac was considered unlucky.
In the last century in England, a bunch of violets worn around the neck or in the lapel protected against drunkenness.
In Somerset, a county well known for its cider, there is a method of predicting the apple harvest: apple blossom in April signifies a good crop but if the trees don’t bloom till May the yield will be poor. At harvest time when cider was taken into the fields for the harvesters the first drop must be poured into the ground for good luck.
Sage thrives in the garden of a woman who rules her household, and her husband firmly.
Hazel was a holy tree in the days of Celtic paganism, associated with poetry and knowledge, fire and fertility. Its nuts are still connected in country belief with love and child-birth, and are used in divination on Halloween night.
Rods made from its wood were formerly employed to detect hidden veins of metal in the earth, and water-diviners today often use forked hazel twigs for their work.
Red and white flowers in the same vase were unlucky, and even today some nurses will not have these flowers in together in their wards.
Blue and orange flowers were welcome in homes and hospitals as these colours calm the nerves.
Cures and Remedies
There is a cure for everything if you know where to look and our ancestors looked everywhere, experimented and passed on their discoveries with conviction.
Coltsfoot leaves boiled in water sweetened with honey and drunk three times a day was a well tried remedy for the common cold.
Inhaling the steam from a jug of boiling water containing rosemary leaves was another remedy for the common cold. Strong-scented “rosemary” was placed under pillows to keep the sleeper from having nightmares. It was also recommended that studious youngsters sniff rosemary so they could better remember their lessons. Rosemary grows best beside a home where a matriarch lives. The connection is so strong that if the woman should leave the home, the rosemary bush would die.
A tablespoon of ground ginger mixed with honey taken three times a day does wonders for a chronic cough.
Australians suffering from aches and pains, were advised to boil finely cut-up gum leaves in fat or water for a few minutes then pour it into a clean handkerchief or woolen sock; put this into the place where the pain is and in a minute or two it will give relief.
A gargle could be made from an infusion of hot water and hawthorn flowers or berries but a more popular version was red peppers soaked in cider.
Australians believe boiled onions cures worms in children; onions boiled or roasted cures a cold; raw onions purify the blood; onion poultice applied to the throat and chest and to the soles of the feet, will cure croup; onions cooked or raw should be eaten by persons suffering from rheumatism.
Cowslip flower tea, drunk at bedtime and hop pillows are still recommended to cure insomnia.
The juice of boiled nettles is excellent for blood and the soft nettle pulp made an effective poultice for sciatica.
Black Elderberry is used in dropsy. Blossoms beaten up with lard make good ointment in burns and scalds.
Blossoms together with peppermint leaves, sweetened with honey excellent tea for colds. The berries yield delicious wine and jam. The bark and roots produce a black dye, the leaves a green dye and the berries a purple coloring. Elderflower water was used to clear freckles.
Plantain seed, washed, crushed and bandaged over an open wound for 24 hours produced a miraculous cure.
A tea brewed from the dried flowering plant Centaury, serves as an appetite stimulant, aids digestion, eases heartburn and relieves gas pains. Very bitter, used as an ingredient of vermouth.
In the west of England farmers claim that spring has not truly ‘sprung’ unless they can step on 12 daisies with one foot.
Clover was one of the anti-witch plants which protected human beings and animals from the spell of magicians and the wiles of fairies, and brought good luck to those who kept it in the house. It could be used in love-divinations; and to dream of it was very fortunate indeed, since such a dream foretold a happy and prosperous marriage. Wearing a four leaf clover in your shoe will bring you a mate. Four-leaved clovers are well known for their luck and magical charm but according to old wives’ tale they are not found; they make themselves known to lucky people.
Ivy is a lucky plant. If it grows on a house, it protects those within from witchcraft and evil. In Christmas decorations it is lucky to the women , as holly is to the men, and therefore should never be omitted if all the family are to share alike in the blessings of the season. The wood of the plant was supposed to have the power of separating water from wine when these were mixed together. Its leaves and berries averted the effects of too heavy drinking. The leaves, roots and wood of ivy were used in a number of folk-remedies, some practical and some mainly magical.
A cure for corn is to soak the leaves in vinegar and bind them on the corn. Water in which such leaves had been steeped for a night and a day served as a lotion for sore eyes. Juice of the leaves snuffed up the nostril, stopped a bad cold.
Lettuces, both wild and cultivated, were believed to have magical and healing properties, including the power of arousing love and counteracting the effects of wine. The Romans ate them at their banquets for the latter reason, and in medieval times they were often included in love-potions and charms. They were also said to promote child-bearing if eaten in salads by young women, or taken in the form of decoctions made from the juice or seeds.
Chicory was believed to have the power of making its possessor invisible. It could also open doors or boxes if it was held against the locks. These charms, however, would only work if the plant was gathered at noon or at midnight on St James’s Day (July 25th). It had to be cut with gold and in silence; if the gatherer spoke during the operation, he would die, either at once or shortly afterwards.
Chicory perhaps owes its magical reputation to the lovely blue of its flower, which may have caused it to be identified or confused with the Luck-Flower of German folklore.This also was blue and whoever carried it could make rocks open before him, and so gain entry into the subterranean regions beyond.
Garlic is among the most ancient of cultivated plants and has long been used as a food flavoring, as a medicine, and as a germicide, since its juice contains the antibiotic oil allicin. Garlic lowers blood-cholesterol levels – reduces hypertension – stimulates the digestive system. Garlic enhances the body’s immune defenses
Eucalyptus is famous for its aroma and the antiseptic, germ-killing properties of the aromatic oil of its leaves and resin. Steam inhalations are a popular treatment for respiratory ailments – bronchitis – asthma.
The Red Poppy is a sedative. It contains a non-poisonous sedative alkaloid called rhoeadine. But, unlike the ‘Opium Poppy’, it contains no narcotics. The blossoms and seeds are also added to cough syrups. The flowers are used as a dye in teas, wine and ink.
Dandelion clocks are usually blown to tell the time but in some places blown to make a wish come true. A tea from the leaves is used as a tonic to purify blood and to promote bowel regularity. A brew from the roots is a strong diuretic. The blossoms are made into wine and the roots can be ground, roasted and brewed into a coffee-like beverage. The flowers boiled to make a yellow dye, the roots a magenta one.
Kiss and tell is another name for mistletoe which was supposed to be a lucky plant, provided it was not brought in doors before Christmas Day. Every berry denoted a kiss and one had to be picked after each kiss to bring good fortune to the young lovers. Kissing under the mistletoe seems to be a purely English custom of which no trace has been found in other countries. If a girl stands under a mistletoe, she cannot refuse to be kissed by anyone who claims the privilege.
It was the plant of peace in ancient Scandinavia. A bunch outside a house ensured a safe welcome and if enemies happened to meet under a tree that bore it, they had to lay down their arms and fight no more that day
Being a thunder-plant, it’s presence in the house protected it from thunder and lightning, cured many diseases, was an antidote to poison and brought good luck and fertility.
Mistletoe is also effective with cattle. If you give a bough of mistletoe to the cow that calved first in the New Year, you prevent bad luck from attacking your entire herd.
Yarrow was once used as everything from a hair loss preventive and toothache reliever to a cold medicine and snakebite cure.