Garlands, Conkers and Mother-Die: British and Irish Plant-Lore by Roy Vickery

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Garlands, Conkers and Mother-Die: British and Irish Plant-Lore by Roy Vickery

Category: History
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Sharon Hall
Reviewed by Sharon Hall
Summary: An excellent, well researched and interesting look at the wealth of folklore which surrounds plants. The book also provides glimpses into the rich social and domestic history of the British Isles.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 232 Date: September 2010
Publisher: Continuum
ISBN: 978-1441101952

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For many centuries, plants have not only had practical uses as food, remedies, textiles and dyes, but have also symbolic and folkloric meaning in many different cultures. The term plant-lore has been coined to describe the profusion of the customs and beliefs associated with plants, and this book gathers together many of the plant-lore traditions of Britain and Ireland.

With a revival of the back to the land movement and ever increasing interest in self-sufficiency, wild food foraging, and herbal alternatives to pharmaceuticals, there is a ready and willing new audience for some of these practical uses and traditions. Legends and customs involving plants are also popular, be they ancient or more modern, such as in the 1970s when the houseplant Crassula ovata was promoted as a lucky 'money tree' in newspapers and on television.

The book is organised by theme: using plants as indicators for the timing of planting and harvesting of crops and for celebrating and protecting the crop; the use of plants for dyes and other raw materials; medicinal remedies; folk beliefs based on plants; their use in children's games; legends based on plants; divination; and customs and celebrations. Organising it in this way means that information about the same plant may be scattered through the book, but the material is so interesting you won't mind.

In the section on legends, the Holy, or Glastonbury, Thorn is well researched, as are other plants associated with saints and martyrs, as well as plants and trees found growing from graves and ancient battle sites. The folklore surrounding the yew, which is normally associated with churchyards, is found to have been taken up by topping-out ceremonies which celebrate the completion of a building in which a branch of yew is placed on a high point of the building, or swung through the space, to bring good luck and ward off evil spirits. Examples are given of this practice continuing and associated with well known public buildings, such as the London Borough of Barnet's new arts building in 2003 and the National Railway Museum in 1999.

Culinary herbs have a rich folklore of their own. Parsley, in particular, is a tricky one. It should not be given away or transplanted and should only be grown by the head of the household, otherwise doom and gloom (and worse) will follow. It is said to be Devil's plant and the legend that the seeds visit the Devil before they germinate seems to be widespread. In Shropshire they make the trip three times, but nine visits seem to be more usual in Herefordshire.

A survey in the 1980s conducted by the London-based Folklore Society showed that the flowering hawthorn or may was the mostly widely feared plant, followed by lilac. Throughout the British Isles, people banned hawthorn flowers from their home, believing that death or misfortune would follow if they were brought in. Various theories have been put forward to explain this. Some believe Christ's crown of thorns was made from hawthorn and others relate it to pre-Christian May Day celebrations in which a May Queen was crowned with hawthorn blossoms before being sacrificed. Another possible explanation is to do with Catholic faith and the month of May being dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Pre-Reformation, May blossoms were used to decorate the shrines made by persecuted Catholics in their homes, so if anti-Catholic officials saw the may blossom being gathered, they would recognise the household as Catholic and act accordingly. It was also noted in the 19th century that hawthorn smelled very similarly to putrid flesh, which would hardly recommend it for flower arrangements. Some believed that bringing hawthorn blossoms into the house would result in the death of one's mother, and hence the flowers were called mother-die. Other plants have also gone by this name, including yarrow and cow parsley. Many people are also wary of bringing lilac indoors; it appears that flowers of lilac with their strong scent were used to line coffins and mask the odour of the corpse.

There is a wealth of fascinating material in the book and it lends itself well to being read through or dipped into, whether you are interested in plants, folklore or social history. The index is excellent and there is a long list of references for the reader to follow up.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If you are more interested in foraging for plants to eat, than in folklore, have a look at Wild Cooking by Richard Mabey, but remember not to bring any hawthorn blossom back with you, just in case.

Buy Garlands, Conkers and Mother-Die: British and Irish Plant-Lore by Roy Vickery at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Garlands, Conkers and Mother-Die: British and Irish Plant-Lore by Roy Vickery at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Garlands, Conkers and Mother-Die: British and Irish Plant-Lore by Roy Vickery at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Garlands, Conkers and Mother-Die: British and Irish Plant-Lore by Roy Vickery at Amazon.com.


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