I love the spring months here in Devon, when wildflowers turn the woods and fields and hedgerows into Faerieland, scenting the air with their perfume and the echo of ancient stories. The stress of lockdown and the unfolding pandemic becomes a little easier to bear when the land around us is washed with colour and the hills are breathing magic.
Bluebells are especially loved by faeries, and as such they are dangerous. A child alone in a bluebell wood might be whisked Under the Hill and never seen again, while adults can find themselves lost for days, or years, until the faery spell is broken. Other names the plant is known by: Faery Thimbles, Wood Hyacinths, Harebells (in Scotland, for they grow in fields frequented by hares), and Dead Man's Bells (because the faeries are not kind to those who trample willfully upon them).
Bluebells in the house can be lucky or unlucky, depending on where in British Isles you live. Here in Devon, it's the former: a bouquet of bluebells, picked with gratitude and tended with care, confers the faeries' blessings on the household and "sweetens" spirits sagging after a long winter. Love potions are made of bluebell blossoms, and a bluebell wreath compels the wearer to tell the truth about his or her affections. Despite this association with love, bluebells in Romantic poetry are symbols of loneliness and regret; while in the Victorian's Language of Flowers they represent kindness, humility, and a sense of wonder.
In Some Kind of Fairy Tale, Graham Joyce captured the uncanny magic of a bluebell wood:
"The bluebells made such a pool that the earth had become like water, and all the trees and the bushes seem to have grown out of the water. And the sky above seemed to have fallen down to the earth floor; and I didn't know if the sky was the earth or the earth was water. I had been turned upside down. I had to hold the rock with my fingernails to stop me falling into the sky of the earth or the water of the sky."
Graham's faery novel for adult readers is both magical and sinister, and highly recommended; as is The Limits of Enchantment, a fine novel rich in the folklore of plants and hares.
Wild violets are often associated with the Greek myth of Persephone, for she was out in the fields gathering the flowers when Hades abducted her into the Underworld; they are flowers of change, transition, transformation, and the cycle of death-and-rebirth. In the Middle Ages, the violet represented love that was new, uncertain, changeable or transitory; yet by Victorian times, in the Language of Flowers the violet was a symbol of constancy.
Here in Devon, old country folk are wary of bringing violets (and snowdrops) into the house, for this will curse the farmwife's hens and make them unable to lay. Dreaming of violets is lucky, however, as is wearing the flowers pinned to your clothes...but only if the violets are worn outdoors. Take them off at your doorstep and leave them for the faeries, alongside a bowl of fresh milk.
Primroses guard against dark witchcraft if you gather their blossoms properly: always thirteen or more in a bunch, and never a single flower. On May Day, small primrose bouquets were hung over farmhouse windows and doors to keep black magic and misfortune out, while allowing white magic to enter freely. Primroses were braided into horses' manes and plaited into balls hung from the necks of cows and sheep as protection from piskie mischief on May Day and Beltane.
Hedgewitches made primrose oinment and infusions for "women's troubles" (menstrual cramps) and "melancholy" (depression), while oil of primrose, rubbed on the eyelids, strengthened the ability to see faeries. Primrose wine was a courting gift, proclaiming the giver's constancy -- though by Victorian times, in the Language of Flowers, primroses symbolized the opposite, so a gift of them demonstrated how little you trusted a fickle lover's fine words.
Blue sicklewort (also known as bugle, bugleweed, middle comfrey, and horse & hound) is related to the mint family, and has longed been used as a medicinal herb. The foliage contains a digitalis-like substance, which causes a mild narcotic effect when ingested. In folklore, too, it's a medicine plant, associated with the healing of the body and of hearts broken by sorrow. Once, during a time of great sadness, I felt myself compelled to keep visiting this patch of blue sicklewort in the woods behind my studio. I'd sit on the ground with my coffee thermos and notebooks, finding a strange kind of comfort there. It was only later that I discovered the plant's traditional use as a healer of heartbreak.
The wild orchid is another flower associated with faeries, particularly those who delight in seducing mortals in the woods. It is a plant associated with faery revels, amours, and sensuality. The dried root was a faery aphrodisiac.
The old folk of Devon still know pink stitchwort as "piskie" or "the piskie flower." Anyone who dares to pick them (as I do) is in danger of being piskie-led.
Foxglove, with its long pink and white spires, has long been associated with the faeries. Some scholars believe that ''fox'' is a corruption of ''folk,'' and that the name thus means ''the gloves of the Good Folk'' (the faeries). Foxglove used to be known as goblin's gloves in the mountains of Wales, where the flowers were worn by hobgoblins. In Scandinavian lore, foxglove is associated with both foxes and faeries, for the faeries taught foxes to ring the bell-like flowers in warning when hunters approached.
(We'll look more closely at the folklore of foxgloves later this week.)
In her lovely book Botanical Folk Tales of Britain and Ireland, my friend Lisa Schneidau writes:
"I was lucky. I was a little girl growing up in 1970s Buckinghamshire with a mother and grandmother who loved wild plants, and six fields of ridge-and-furrow, green-winged orchid meadow behind our house. I remember when the moon daisies were nearly as tall as me, when we picked field mushrooms from the fairy rings and fried them for breakfast, when I could run through the middle of ancient hawthorne hedgerows and travel by secret ways down to the magic old willow tree over the pond. I remember the carpets of cowslips, the endless butterflies, the quivering quaking grass, and the blackberries in autumn....I inherited an insatiable curiosity for plants of all kinds and, with a vivid imagination as always, I wanted to know the stories: why? what? how does it feel to be a green living plant, a meadowsweet compared to a bee orchid?"
"Flowers lure us into the present moment by the miracle of their beauty," writes another friend, Judith Berger (in Herbal Rituals, a beautiful book about medicine plants through the four seasons). "Watching and waiting for a particular plant to bloom gives birth to patience within us. We slow our rhythm down in order to fully experience the process of flowering; expectancy and excitement deepen hand in hand with our patience. As we observe, we come to see that the full unfolding of the flower petals is the culmination of an unhurried dance in which the flower senses and responds, moment by moment, to the environmental conditions which surround and penetrate it. These conditions include termperature, moisture, light, and shadow, as well as the more subtle influences of sound vibrations, heartful care, and respect.
"In Buddhist poetry, there is a verse which reads: 'I entrust myself to the earth, the earth entrusts herself to me.' To entrust is to place something in another's hands with the confidence that what has been given will be cared for."
And so in the changeable days following winter -- now warm, now cold, now wet, now dry -- I entrust myself to the flowers of our hill: bluebell, primrose, blue sicklewort, white and pink stitchwort, red campion. They all emerge whatever the weather, bursts of color and joy in the rain-soaked hills. They do not wait for a "perfect" day to bloom...and neither must I await the "perfect" time to write, or paint, or to pick up the reins of daily life again after illness and grief knocked me flat earlier this year. Recovering one's health is not like stepping through a gateway into bright sun; there is no clear line between "sick" and "well," only the deep, invisible processes of healing, slowly unfolding day by day. To wait for strength, ease and "perfect" pain-free hours is to wait for life to begin instead of living.
This is life. This is spring. Bright and beautiful yesterday. Cold, wet, and grey now. Tomorrow, something else again. But full of wildflowers.
Words: The passages quoted above are from Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce (Doubleday, 2012), Botanical Folktales of Britain & Ireland by Lisa Scheidau (The History Press, 2018), and Herbals Rituals by Judith Berger (St. Martin's Press, 1998). The quotes in the picture captions are from a variety of sources, including Discovering the Folklore of Plants by Margaret Baker (Shire Classics, 2008), A Contemplation on Flowers: Garden Plants in Myth & Literature by Bobby J. Ward (Timber Press, 2009) and Hedgerow Medicine by Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal (Merlin Unwin Books, 2008). All rights reserved by the authors.
Pictures: The paintings, by Brian Froud, are from Faeries by Brian Froud & Alan Lee (Abrams, 1978). All rights reserved by the artist.