Britain’s hedgerows are an important part of our countryside not only for the wildlife but also for the diversity of flora that can be found in these micro environments but the folklore which is part of our heritage is in danger of being lost as well. These oral traditions have been passed down through the generations and usually safeguarded by the housewife who would have turned to the hedgerow for food and for medicine. The more everyday ailments could be treated by a quick visit to the hedgerow. Having just rudimentary medical knowledge this herbal lore was indispensable for the families well being and would have been used in many different ways, both herbal and culinary, with a wealth of folklore for each plant.
The superstitions and charms surrounding the plants were also an important part of their lives and governed many of their everyday actions. The seasons of the year were celebrated using these plants and in some cases performing a central role in the celebrations.
May Day which harks back to pagan festivals was celebrated as the beginning of summer and on May Day Eve communities would go out and bring in the ‘May.’ Spending the night outdoors they would greet the first light with drums and blasts on cow horns to welcome in the summer and then return home laden with branches of May blossom (Hawthorn) to decorate their homes.
And we were up as soon as any day O
And to fetch the summer home,
The summer and the May O
For the summer is a come O
And the winter is a go O
We all know the tradition of the Maypole which once upon a time would have been
practised in every community but in pagan times it would have been a living tree that our ancestors would have danced around, clapping their hands on the bark to wake the spirit within.
Overseeing the celebrations would be the May Queen, decked in hedgerow flowers, and keeping her company would be the King (the Green Man) also decked in Oak and Hawthorn leaves. Children would fashion wild flowers and blossom into garlands and carry them around the village calling at every house, receiving a May Day cake from the householder as a reward.
‘Good Morning, missus and master
I wish you a happy day
Please to smell my garland
Because it’s the first of May’
It was believed that on May Eve witches were at their most powerful and that the month would be ‘witch ridden’ so crosses were fashioned from Hazel and Rowan to hang over doorways and fireplace to prevent witches from entering. Even flowers from the children’s posies were a witch deterrent such as the Primrose, bunches were hung over doorways to the house and cowshed as it was considered to be very magical. Striking a rock with Primroses will open the way to faerieland but on a more practical note the leaves were used as a remedy for arthritis, rheumatism, gout, paralysis and a salve could be made for soothing wounds, burns.
The Bluebell had its uses; the bulb although poisonous, contains a sticky juice and was used as a sort of ‘superglue’ for bookbinding, (the toxicity of the juice also deters bookworms) and it was very effective for setting feathers upon arrows.
Another spring flower the Cowslip is known as the ‘little keys to heaven’ in some areas due to a tale that one day the angels noticed a small group of people trying to climb into heaven by the back door instead of the pearly gates. St Peter was so shocked at this lack of reverence that he dropped the keys to heaven; these fell to earth and took root growing into a Cowslip plant. It also has practical uses, the root has similar properties to aspirin and the flowers can be made into a calming tea, and is also beneficial for arthritis, insomnia, constipation and nervous tension.
The Foxglove with its impressive spike of pink flowers is extremely poisonous but even this plant was used medicinally. Digitalin can be extracted from the leaves and the juice from the plant was used for treating sprains and bruises. The folklore surrounding the Foxglove is as colourful as the plant. The fox’s bushy tail was considered to be a charm against the devil and in response to a plea from the beleaguered fox God created the foxglove. This would ring its little bell shaped flowers when the huntsmen were approaching so giving the fox time to get away. It is also believed that the white markings inside the blooms are faerie fingerprints, again to aid the fox; the faeries would place the flowers over the fox’s feet so that they could sneak into the hen houses.
During the celebrations of the summer solstice handfuls of the plant St John’s Wort were thrown on to the bonfires. The plant blooms at this time and is believed to be at its most powerful on 24th June St John’s Day. It is very powerful against faerie spells and will protect against demons, witches and evil spirits. It is widely used medicinally for a variety of problems from depression to arthritis.
‘St John’s Wort doth charm all the witches away
If gathered at midnight on the Saints Holy day
And devils and witches have no power to harm
Those that do gather the plant for a charm’
With the warmer weather the housewife would have utilised more plants from the hedgerow. A simple cough could be treated with Colt’s Foot, for wounds the antiseptic leaves of Hedge Woundwort would be applied, Chamomile for indigestion and insomnia and the Lesser Celandine for haemorrhoids. The Common Speedwell was an all round cure, treating bronchitis, whooping cough, indigestion, gout, bladder stones, rheumatism and liver complaints. There was also remedies for female related problems; a distilled concoction of Lady’s Mantle to encourage conception or regulating menstruation by using a decotation of Groundsel. Morning sickness could be controlled using Chamomile and Meadowsweet and during the birth of a child Lady’s Bedstraw would be stuffed into the mattress to ease the pain. The plant Shepherd’s Purse was used to stop excessive haemorrhage and Yarrow tea would reduce the womb back to its original size.
For household matters the plants of the hedgerow were invaluable as well. Soap could be made from the Soapwort plant, various coloured dyes could be made from Hedge Bedstraw, Lesser Knapweed, Weld and Woad. Woodruff which has a scent of fresh mown hay was used to scent linen and to flavour summer drinks.
Wormwood although unremarkable to look at is extremely aromatic and was invaluable in the home; mixed with Fleabane was strewn on the floor to discourage the ever present fleas, also used to stimulate digestion and rid the gut of parasites.
Superstition and folklore played its part in the routine of the home, especially in the dairy where all the wooden pails and utensils were of Hazel or Ash to prevent witches curdling the milk. Hedgerow plants were used extensively in the dairy, leaves of the Butterbur were used for wrapping the pats of butter, Yellow Lady Bedstraw for curdling the milk, colouring the cheeses and making junkets while Nettle tops were used to scrub down the dairy to encourage cheese mold.
When making preserves the housewife would use a spoon of Rowan or Hazel to prevent the faeries from stealing it. Even the choice of wood for burning on the hearth was carefully considered; Elder, although its fruit was prized for making wine and cordial, was avoided as it was believed it would raise the devil. If accidentally put on the fire Herb Bennett or Marsh Marigold would be hung by the front door to prevent evil from entering. If an Elder had to be cut down the Elder Mother, the guardian of the tree had to be asked first.
‘Ourd gal, give me some of thy wood
An oi will give some of mine
When oi grows inter a tree’
With the onset of autumn there were many opportunities for gathering fruit and nuts from the hedgerows. Nutting Day would be celebrated when the Hazel nuts were ripe and the young girls dressed in their special nutting day gowns would collect the nuts, but not on the Sabbath as the devil would appear to help. The Hazel has always been considered to be a magical tree and to the Celts it was known as the Sacred Tree of Knowledge. They would use the wood for wands to be used in magical ceremonies and for divination; even now the best dowsing rods are still made from Hazel wood. This belief in the power of the tree is widespread and in some areas it is still the custom for new brides to be presented with bags of hazelnuts to encourage fertility in the marriage.
Blackberries were also prized not only for the fruit which could be preserved for the winter but also the leaves, taken as a tea, were a useful cure for colds, mouth ulcers, gum disease and diarrhoea. Chewing the leaves will help a headache while crushed leaves can be applied to small wounds.
Crawling under the arch of a bramble bush which has formed a second root was believed to cure rheumatism and children suffering from whooping cough were passed through a bramble arch while their parents would chant:
‘In bramble, out cough
Here I leave the whooping cough’
To the Celts the Blackberry represented the three aspects of the goddess: maiden, mother and crone. As the berries changed from white to red then black this signified birth, life and death while the seeds of the fruit were the promise of spring and rebirth. Wreaths made of bramble, Rowan and Ivy were hung over doorways to keep out evil spirits. This belief in the protective qualities of the bramble led to it being planted around fresh graves to protect loved ones against evil, although in some areas it was used to stop the dead from rising and returning as ghosts.
Holly and Ivy have always played an important part in the Christmas festivities. Ivy brings good luck, fun and happiness. It is also the symbol for fidelity and it was customary to hand a wreath of Ivy to newlyweds. Holly is also lucky and symbolised life and immortality and the custom of gathering it for Christmas symbolises that life and growth will return. Faeries and elves come in with the greenery for shelter during the cold winter months and in return they were supposed to behave themselves and cause no mischief. It is always important to remove the greenery from the house by 31st January, Imbolc Eve, as the more mischievous type of faeries would stay.
‘Down with the Rosemary and so
Down with the Baies and the Mistletoe
Down with the Holly, Ivie and all
Wherewith ye drest the Christmas hall
That so the superstitious find
Not one least branch there left behind
For look how many leaves there be
Neglected, there, maids trust to me
So many goblins you shall see!
Mistletoe is always included in the Christmas decorations which hark back to druid traditions as they considered it to be one of the most magical plants, believing it bestowed life and fertility as the white berries contained the sperms of the gods. The ‘kissing under the mistletoe’ has its origins in the Greek festival Saturnalia, a berry is removed with each kiss until the branch is bare, no girl could refuse to be kissed as it would mean she would not be married in the following year. In some areas it was customary to burn the Mistletoe on the twelfth night otherwise all the young people who had kissed beneath it would never marry.
Even the weather was forecast using the trees from the hedgerow, in the south west it was ‘when the Blackthorn comes out we do never look for any nice weather’ while the rest of the country used the old favourite:
‘If the Oak before the Ash
Then we’ll only get a splash
If the Ash before the Oak
Then we’re sure to get a soak’
It was during WWII that many of our traditional festivals and practices were put aside and never resumed once peace was declared, since then over fifty per cent of the hedgerows have gone. The loss of habitat for our native flora and fauna should give us cause for concern but also the loss of our folklore and traditions which is an important part of our heritage.
All these plants have much to offer but the remedies must be treated with caution as they can be extremely potent and may interact poorly with medication so it is important to consult a doctor or qualified medical herbalist if in doubt.
It is not usually an offence to pick fruit, foliage, fungi or flowers if the plant is growing wild and it is for your own use. However be careful which plants you pick as dozens of plants are protected. If you are in any doubt consult the Code of Conduct-Botanical Society of the British Isles: www.bsbi.org.uk