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Wildflowers in British Folklore

Ever smiled at seeing snowdrops because they were a sign that spring was on the way? Or have you ever tried telling the time with a dandelion clock?

Little things like these are among the simplest forms of folklore: passing down tales and traditions through the generations with widespread word-of-mouth. Flowers can often be found in the forefront of folklore, and for good reason: tales such as these are a good way to remember the helpful and harmful properties flowers- either that, or they just look cool!

Perhaps the prime example of both is the humble bluebell: named after their shape, it’s easy to imagine why these were thought to be used by fairies to call a gathering. However, many tales of the bluebell are surprisingly macabre- any human hearing a bluebell ‘ring’ would soon die, and children who picked bluebells in the woods would disappear.

Is there any truth to these spooky stories? Well, yes and no- bluebells are ordinary flowers for the most part, but their bulbs are quite poisonous; perhaps a story meant to ward careless children away from poisonous plants blended with their name and appearance to create stories of a more magical threat.

In a similar vein, medicinal flowers have a history with being labelled ‘holy’ or ‘magical’. St. John’s-wort is probably the most famous example: named after John the Apostle, its earliest uses are dated as far back as the 6th century, and it’s still seeing widespread use today as a mild anti-depressant. Other examples include birds-eye speedwell which is good for coughs, and herb Robert, which boosts the immune system.

Lady’s bedstraw is another plant with biblical ties- not for healing properties, but for a much more mundane utility. As its name suggests, this fluffy-looking flower was once used as mattress stuffing to provide a pleasant scent. It’s even been suggested that this plant was what lined the manger in a certain stable in Bethlehem!

Meanwhile, some myths are more about where certain flowers came from and why they are the way they are. For example, the devil’s-bit scabious is named for its surprisingly short roots, which stop abruptly as if cut; supposedly the devil was jealous of the flower’s beauty and bit its roots short in rage.

What a haul of historical and mythological insight from just a few flowers! And that’s far from everything: research will show there’s a fable for almost every flower you could want, including enough fairy folklore to keep the critters a common topic of fiction for decades. I’d encourage anyone interested to look up the folklore behind the flowers in your own garden; even skeptics should find some fascinating stories- and as it’s been shown, not necessarily all of it’s fiction…