The Bluebell Path

Bluebells 1

In this final post for Wildflower Week, I'm following Tilly on a bluebell path...which in folklore (as we discussed earlier) is a dangerous thing to do. The bluepath path is the way into Faerie, and doesn't always lead home again.

Like most of the season's wildflowers, bluebells are an ephemeral pleasure, here today and gone tomorrow. If I want to enjoy them fully then I must take the time to be outdoors right now, not wait until the day's chores are finished and studio goals are met. As a working artist tied to schedules and deadlines, my mind often dwelling in the past or the future, the brevity of the bluebell season pulls me back into the immediate present: to this fragrant blue-tinted hillside experienced with all of my senses.

Bluebells 2

Like every writer, I'm often asked where I find inspiration for my work. There's no single answer to the question, of course, for all kinds of things go into each author's creative mix: our personal histories, experiences, interests, and obsessions, along with the influence of other artists and other works of art. But for me, most of all, inspiration comes from the land: from the folklore-steeped Devon countryside, from the myth-haunted deserts of the American south-west, from the paths I've walked over and over again, creating relationships with the local flora and fauna, and learning their traditional stories.

Bluebells 3

Ursula K. Le Guin has this to say on the subject of inspiration:

"It's a big question -- where do writers get their ideas, where do artists get their visions, where do musicians get their music? It's bound to have a big answer. Or a whole lot of them. One of my favorite answers is this: Somebody asked Willie Nelson how he thought up his tunes, and he said, 'The air is full of tunes, I just reach up and pick one.'

"For a fiction writer -- a storyteller -- the world is full of stories, and when story is there, it's there; you just reach up and pick it.

"Then you have to be able to tell it to yourself.

Bluebells 4

"First you have to be able to wait. To wait in silence. Listen for the tune, the vision, the story. Not grabbing, not pushing, just waiting, listening, being ready for it when it comes. This is an act of trust. Trust in yourself, trust in the world. The artist says, 'The world will give me what I need and I will be able to use it rightly.'

"Readiness -- not grabbiness, not greed -- readiness: willingness to hear, to listen carefully, to see clearly and accurately -- to let the words be right. Not almost right. Right. To know how to make something out of the vision; that's what practice is for. Because being ready doesn't mean just sitting around, even if it looks like that's what most writers do; artists practice their art continually, and writing happens to involve a lot of sitting. Scales and finger exercises, pencil sketches, endless unfinished and rejected stories. The artist who practices knows the difference between practice and performance, and the essential connection between them. The gift of those seemingly wasted hours and years is patience andf readiness; a good ear, a keen eye, a skilled hand, a rich vocabulary and grammar. The gift of practice to the artist is mastery, or a word I like better, 'craft.'

"With those tools, those instruments, with that hard-earned mastery, that craftiness, you do your best to let the 'idea' -- the tune, the vision, the story -- come through clear and undistorted. Clear of ineptitude, awkwardness, amateurishness; undistorted by convention, fashion, opinion.

Bluebells 5

"This is a very radical job, dealing with the ideas you get if you are an artist and take your job seriously, this shaping a vision into the medium of words. It's what I like to do best in the world, and what I like to talk about when I talk about writing. I could happily go on and on about it. But I'm trying to talk about where the vision, the stuff you work on, the 'idea,' comes from, so:

"The air is full of tunes. A piece of rock is full of statues. The earth is full of visions. The world is full of stories.

"As an artist, you trust that."

Bluebells 6

The world is, indeed, full of stories upon stories...but sometimes I find that the quiet tales of the land, and my owner inner voice, are drowned out by the roar of the stories pressing in from the world outside: the urgent stories of politics, pandemics, economics, ecological crisis, all of them important, all of them overwhelming. On those days when "the world is too much with us," I lace on my boots, head for the hills, and let the roar diminish behind me. We need the quieter stories too...or, at least, I know that I need them. So I follow my dog on the bluebell path, and a different world is restored to me. Call it nature, call it Faerie, call it the place where poems and tales pluck at my sleeve saying: Tell me next. Tilly and I vanish into the blue....

And somehow we always find our way home.

Bluebells 7

Bluebells 8

Words: The passage above is from "Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?" by Ursula K. Le Guin, a talk for the Portland Arts & Lectures series, October, 2000, published in The World Spit Open (Tin House Books, 2014).  Pictures: Walking the bluebell path.


Seasons, cycles, and Arum maculatum

Lords & Ladies

Beltane has passed, and now the Great Wheel brings us to an enchanting and enchanted time of year, the turning of one season to the next: the liminal space between the quickening spring and the fecundity of summer. In folklore, the days of the In-Between have a particular magical potency. Certain herbs are gathered, following the cycles of the moon. Certain stories are told at this time of the year and no other. Certain flowers and leaves are brought into the house (conferring love, or health, or protection from fairy mischief), while others are best left to the wild, or avoided altogether.

Bank Vole by Emma MitchellArum maculatum is a woodland plant in the later category. Emerging each year just before Beltane, it brings a fresh green cheer to the woods -- and yet it must be treated with care, for touching this plant can cause allergic reactions ranging from mild to severe, and its orange-red berries, beloved by rodents, are poisonous to everyone else.

I'm terribly fond of them nonetheless, and wait for them eagerly every year, noting their slow emergence as the wild daffodils start to fade. Then, when the weather begins to warm, these lusty plants leap up bold as you please, unfurling their spear-shaped leaves to reveal a fleshy spadix in a pale green hood. Here in Devon, they're known by a number of names: cuckoo-pint, soldiers diddies, priest's pintle, wake robin, willy-lily, stallions-and-mares, and lords-and-ladies, all of them with rude connotations. In America, you probably know them best as Jack-in-the-pulpits.

The folklore attached to Arum maculatum has an equally zesty nature. The plant was associated with Britain's old May Day traditions, which included sexual congress in the fields to ensure the land's fertility. As such, it was deemed a "merry little plant" until Victorian times, and then denounced as devilish, lewd, and symbolic of unbridled sin. (Young girls were warned they must never touch it, because it could make them pregnant.) Herbalists from ancient Greece to medieval Britain extolled the arum's starchy roots for the making of aphrodisiacs, fertility aids, and other medicines focused on the reproductive system, while juice squeezed from the leaves was used for various skin complaints. Due to the arum's toxins, however, great skill was needed to render it safe. In the herb-lore of Wales and the West Country, the secret knowledge of how to to work with the plant came, it was said, from the local fairies -- handed down through mortal families entrusted to use it wisely. 

Lords & Ladies

Woodland triptych

As the days roll on towards Midsummer, the small patch of Armum maculatum in our woods will fade and disappear, leaving only their witchy stumps of toxic berries behind. And then the berries will vanish too, and full summer will be upon us. The brevity of their appearance is one of the things that endears these plants to me. I wait for them, enjoy their company, and then, a heartbeat later, they are gone. The movement of the woodland through its seasons reminds me there is vitality and a wondrous mystery to be found in nature's cycles and circles....

Drawing by Helen StrattonAnd as someone who works in the narrative arts, I find that I often need that reminder.

Narrative, in its most standard form, tends to run in linear fashion from beginning to middle to end. A story opens "Once upon a time," then moves -- prompted by a crisis or plot twist -- into the narrative journey: questing, testing, trials and tribulations -- and then onward to climax and resolution, ending "happily ever after" (or not, if the tale is a sad or ambiguous one). In the West, our concepts of "time" and "progress" are largely linear too. We circle through days by the hours of the clock, years by the months of the calendar, yet our lives are pushed on a linear track: infant to child to adult to elder, with death as the final chapter. Progress is measured by linear steps, education by grades that ascend year by year, careers by narratives that run along the same railway line: beginning, middle, and end.

But in fact, narratives are cyclical too if we stand back and look through a broader lens. Clever Hans will marry his princess and they will produce three dark sons or three pale daughters or no child at all until a fairy intervenes, and then those children will have their own stories: marrying frogs and turning into swans and climbing glass hills in iron shoes. No ending is truly an ending, merely a pause before the tale goes on.

Bluebells in a Devon wood

Lords & Ladies

As a folklorist and a student of nature, I know the importance of cycles, seasons, and circular motion -- but I've grown up in a culture that loves straight lines, beginnings and ends, befores and afters, and I keep expecting life to act accordingly, even though it so rarely does. Take health, for example. We envision the healing process as a linear one, steadily building from illness to strength and full function; yet for those of us managing Drawing by Helen Strattonlong-term conditions, our various trials don't often lead to the linear "ending-as-resolution" but to the cyclical "ending-as-pause": a time to catch one's breath before the next crisis or plot twist sets the tale back in motion.

Relationships, too, are cyclical. Spousal relationships, family relationships, friendships, work partnerships: they aren't tales of linear progression, they are tales full of cycles, circles, and seasons. The path isn't straight, it loops and bends; the narrative side-tracks and sometimes dead ends. We don't progress in relationships so much as learn, change, and adapt with each season, each twist of the road.

As a writer and a reader, I'm partial to stories with clear beginnings, middles, and ends (not necessarily in that order in the case of fractured narratives) -- but when I'm away from the desk or the printed page (or the cinema or the television screen), I am trying to let go of the habit of measuring my life in a strictly linear way. Healing, learning, and art-making don't follow straight roads but queer twisty paths on which half the time I feel utterly lost...until, like magic, I've arrived somewhere new, some place I could never have imagined.

Hound in a Devon woodland

Under the Dock Leaves by Richard Doyle

Lords and Ladies

I want especially to be rid of the tyranny of Before and After. "After such-and-such is accomplished," we say, "then the choirs will sing and life will be good." When my novel is published. When I get that job. When I find that partner. When I lose ten pounds. No, no, no, no. Because even if we reach our goal, the heavenly choirs don't sing -- or if they do sing, you quickly discover it's all that they do. They don't do your laundry, they don't solve all your problems. You are still you, and life is still life: a complex mixture of the bad and the good. And now, of course, the goal posts have moved. The Land of After is no longer a published book, it's five books, a best-seller, a major motion picture. You don't ever get to the Land of After; it's always changing, always shimmering on the far horizon.

I don't want to live after, I want to live now. Moving with, not against, life's cycles and seasons, the twists and the turns, the ups and the downs, appreciating it all.

Woodland creature

Lords & Ladies among the Bluebells

Today, I walked among the season's wildflowers, chose a few to bring back to the studio -- where they sit on the bookshelves in a pickle jar, glowing as bright as the sun and the moon. At my desk, I work in a linear artform, writing words in a line across a ruled page -- and the flowers remind me that cycles and seasons should be part of the narrative too. Circular patterns. Loops and digressions. Tales that turn and meander down paths that, surprise!, are the paths that were meant all along. Stories that reach resolutions and endings, but ends that turn into another beginning. Again. Again. Tell it again.

Once upon a time...

Woodland wanderer

Writing in the woods

The Willd Swans by Helen Stratton

Wildflowers in the woods

Words: The poem in the picture captions is from Jay Griffith's unusual and brilliant book on her journey with bipolar disorder, Tristimania (Penguin, 2016). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The painting above is "Under the Dock Leaves" by Victorian fairy painter Richard Doyle ((1824-1883).  The fairy tale drawings are by Helen Stratton, a British illustrator born in India (1867-1961). The charming little mouse is from Emma Mitchell's book Wild Remedy, which I recommend. The photographs of Arum maculatum and bluebells were taken in the woods behind my studio.


The folklore of foxgloves

Devon foxgloves

In the edge of the fields and along woodland trails, I see the green leaves of foxgloves begin to unfurl, but it will be some weeks yet before they grow tall and grace the hills with their spires of blooms.

Foxgloves on the path

Folklorists are divided on where the common name for Digitalis purpurea comes from. In some areas of the British Isles it's believed be a corruption of "folksglove," associating the flowers with the fairy folk, while in others the plant is also known as "fox fingers," its blossoms used as gloves by the foxes to keep dew off their paws. Another theory suggests that the name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word foxes-gleow, a "gleow" being a ring of bells. This is connected to Norse legends in which foxes wear the bell-shaped foxglove blossoms around their necks; the ringing of bells was a spell of protection against hunters and hounds.

Foxglove spires

The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady by Edith Holden

Foxgloves give us digitalin, a glysoside used to treat heart disease, and this powerful plant has been used for heart tonics since Celtic and Roman times. Botanist Bobby J. Ward gives us this account of early foxglove use in his excellent book A Contemplation Upon Flowers:

"An old Welsh legend claims to be the first to proscribe it, because the knowledge of its properties came to the meddygon, the Welsh physicians, in a magical way. The legend is loosely based on the early 13th century historical figure Rhiwallon, the physician to Foxglove Fairy by Cicely Mary BarkerPrince Rhys the Hoarse, of South Wales. Young Rhiwallon was walking beside a lake one evening when from the mist rose a golden boat. A beautiful maiden was rowing the boat with golden oars. She glided softly away in the mist before he could speak to her. Rhiwallon returned every evening looking for the maiden; when he did not find her, he asked advice from a wise man. He told Rhiwallon to offer her cheese. Rhiwallon did as he was told, the maiden appeared and took his offering. She came ashore, became his wife, and bore him three sons.

"After the sons grew and the youngest became a man, Rhiwallon's wife rowed into the lake one day and returned with a magic box hinged with jewels. She told Rhiwallon he must strike her three times so that she could return to the mist forever. He refused to hit her, but the next morning as he finished breakfast and prepared to go to work, Rhiwallon tapped his wife affectionately on the shoulder three times. Instantly a cloud of mist enveloped her and she disappeared. Left behind was the bejeweled magic box. When the three sons opened it, they found a list of all the medicinal herbs, including foxglove, with full directions for their use and healing properties. With this knowledge the sons became the most famous of physicians."

Foxgloves in summer

Foxglove by Christie Newman

Foxgloves

Foxglove is a plant beloved by the fairies, and its appearance in the wild indicates their presence. Likewise, fairies can be attracted to a dometic garden by planting foxgloves. Dew collected from the blossoms is used in spells for communicating with fairies, though gloves must be worn when handling the plant as digitalis can be toxic.

FoxgloveIn the Scottish borders, foxgloves leaves were strewn about babies' cradles for protection from bewitchement, while in Shropshire they were put in children's shoes for the same reason (and also as a cure for Scarlet Fever). Picking foxglove flowers is said to be unlucky. Here in Devon and Cornwall, this is because it robs the fairies, elves, and piskies of a plant they particularly delight in; in the north of England, foxglove flowers in the house are said to allow the Devil entrance.

In Roman times, foxglove was a flower sacred to the goddess Flora, who touched Hera on her breasts and belly with foxglove in order to impregnate her with the god Mars. The plant has been associated with midwifery and women's magic ever since -- as well as with "white witches" (practitioners of benign and healing magic) who live in the wild with vixen familiars, the latter marked by bells made of foxglove blossoms tied around their necks.  In medieval gardens, the plant was believed to be sacred to the Virgin Mary. In the earliest recordings of the Language of Flowers, foxgloves symbolized riddles, conundrums, and secrets, but by the Victorian era they had devolved into the more negative symbol of insincerity.

A lovely old legend told here in the West Country explains why foxgloves bob and sway even when there is no wind: this is the plant bowing to the fairy folk as they pass by. Wherever foxgloves grow in abundance you can be sure it's a place where the fey are present, for these flowers thrive in a loam of old stories, riddles, secrets, and Otherworldly enchantment.

Devon foxgloves

Foxgloves by Kelly Louise Judd

Rosie the Fox by Richard Bowler

The foxes themselves pad through folklore and myth as mischievous Tricksters in various forms: both clever and foolish, creative and destructive, perfectly civilized and utterly wild.  Fox Tricksters appear in the popular tales of many cultures around the world, including Aesop's Fables from ancient Greece, the "Reynard" stories of medieval Europe,  the "Giovannuzza" tales of Italy, the "Brer Fox" lore of the American South, and the diverse indigenous stories of North and South America. At the darker end of the fox-lore spectrum, however, we find creatures of a distinctly more dangerous cast: Reynardine, Mr. Fox, kitsune (the Japanese fox wife), kumiho (the Korean nine-tailed fox), and other treacherous shape-shifters.

Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit by AB FrostFox women appear in many story traditions but they're particularly prevalent across the Far East. Fox wives, writes folklorist Heinz Insu Fenkle (in a good article on the subject) are seductive creatures who "entice unwary scholars and travelers with the lure of their sexuality and the illusion of their beauty and riches. They drain the men of their yang -- their masculine force -- and leave them dissipated or dead (much in the same way La Belle Dame Sans Merci in Keats's poem leaves her parade of hapless male victims). 

"Korean fox lore, which comes from China (from sources probably originating in India and overlapping with Sumerian lamia lore) is actually quite simple compared to the complex body of fox culture that evolved in Japan. The Japanese fox, or kitsune, probably due to its resonance with the indigenous Shinto religion, is remarkably sophisticated.  Whereas the arcane aspects of fox lore are only known to specialists in other East Asian countries, the Japanese kitsune lore is more commonly accessible. Tabloid media in Tokyo recently identified the negative influence of kitsune possession among members of the Aum Shinregyo (the cult responsible for the sarin attacks in the Tokyo subway). Popular media often report stories of young women possessed by demonic kitsune, and once in a while, in the more rural areas, one will run across positive reports of the kitsune associated with the rice god, Inari."

Fox Maiden by Susan Seddon Boulet

Fox Nest by Flora McLachlan

The "nine-tailed fox" of China and Japan is often (but not always) a demonic spirit, malevolent in intent. It takes possession of human bodies, both male and female, moving for one victim to another over thousands of years, seducing other men and women in order to dine on their hearts and livers. Human organs are also a delicacy for the nine-tailed fox, or kumiho, of Korean lore -- although the earliest texts don't present the kumiho as evil so much as amoral and unpredictable...occasionally even benevolent...much like the faeries of English folklore.

The Princess and the Fox by H.J. FordThere are fox lovers and wives in the Western tradition, but their tales are less well known; and they tend, by and large, to be better disposed to the men that they take to their beds. Marriage to a fox is challenging at best, for they are not mortal, they are creatures of the wild: mysterious, independent, and not to be tamed nor taken for granted. (My favourite fox woman story of this sort is retold by Dartmoor mythographer Martin Shaw in his brilliant book Scatterlings. )

In the West, it's the fox men we need to be wary of -- such as Reynardine (in the old folk ballad of that name), a glib and handsome were-fox who lures young maidens to a bloody death. The title character of the fairy tale Mr. Fox, is cousin to the kumiho and Reynardine, with a bit of Bluebeard mixed in for good measure: he promises marriage to a gentlewoman while his lair is littered with her predecessors' bones. Neil Gaiman draws inspiration from the tale in his wry, wicked poem "The White Road" -- while Jeannine Hall Gailey, by contast, takes a more sympathetic view of shape-shifting foxes in "The Fox-Wife's Invitation," written from a kitsune's point of view.

Fox art by Jessica Roux, Gina Litherland, and David Hollington

Photograph by David Bowler

Illustration by Julianna Swaney

There are a number of good novels that draw upon fox legends -- foremost among them, Kij Johnson's exquisite The Fox Woman, which no mythic fiction reader should miss. I also recommend Neil Gaiman's The Dream Hunters (with the Japanese artist Yoshitaka Amano);  Larissa Lai's When Fox Is a Thousand; and Ellen Steiber's gorgeous A Rumor of Gems (as well as her heart-breaking novella "The Fox Wife," published in Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears). Alice Hoffman's disquieting Here on Earth is a contemporary take on the Reynardine/Mr. Fox theme, as is Helen Oyeyemi's Mr. Fox, a complex work full of stories within stories within stories. For younger readers, try the "Legend of Little Fur" series by Isobelle Carmody. And for mythic poetry, I especially recommend She Returns to the Floating World by Jeannine Hall Gailey and Sister Fox’s Field Guide to the Writing Life by Jane Yolen. (More fox tales are listed here.)

For the fox in myth, legend, and lore, try: Fox by Martin Wallen; Reynard the Fox, edited by Kenneth Varty; Kitsune: Japan's Fox of Mystery, Romance, and Humour by Kiyoshi Nozaki; Alien Kind: Foxes and Late Imperial Chinese Narrative by Raina Huntington; The Discourse on Foxes and Ghosts: Ji Yun and Eighteenth-Century Literati Storytelling by Leo Tak-hung Chan; The Fox and the Jewel: Shared and Private Meanings in Contemporary Japanese Inari Worship, by Karen Smythers; and an interesting post on the fox in folklore, literature and art by artist David Hollington.

Fox stories

Little Evie in the Wildwood by Catherine Hyde

Although chancy to encounter in myth, and too wild to domesticate easily (in stories and in life), some of us long for foxes nonetheless: for their musky scent, their hot breath, their sharp-toothed magic.  "I needed fox," wrote Adrienne Rich:

Badly I needed
a vixen for the long time none had come near me
I needed recognition from a
triangulated face burnt-yellow eyes
fronting the long body the fierce and sacrificial tail
I needed history of fox  briars of legend it was said she had run through
I was in want of fox

And the truth of briars she had to have run through
I craved to feel on her pelt if my hands could even slide
past or her body slide between them sharp truth distressing surfaces of fur
lacerated skin calling legend to account
a vixen's courage in vixen terms

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Tilly and the foxgloves

Now go softly. Go gently. Go warily. Soon the tall spires of foxgloves will bloom, and then you will know that the Good Folk are near. Look for their gloves discarded on the path. Listen for the sound of foxglove bells. Breathe in the sharp scent of the wild...and go home, changed.

You will dream of foxes.

Rosie by Richard Bowler

Art: Pages from The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady by Edith Holden (1871-1920), "Foxglove Fairy" by Cicely Mary Barker (1875-1973),  "Foxglove" by botanical artist Christie Newman,  a page from Flora Londinensis by English apothecary & botanist William Curtis (1746-1799), "Foxgloves" by Kelly Louise Judd,  "Fox Woman" by Susan Seddon Boulet (1941-1997), "Fox Nest" by Flora McLachlan,  "The Princess and the Fox" by H.J. Ford (1860-1941), "The Fox and Ivy" by Jessica Roux, "Crossing an Iced-Over Stream" by Gina Litherland, "The Winter Guest" by David Hollington, a small illustration by Julianna Swaney, "Little Evie in the Wild Wood" by Catherine Hyde, The beautiful fox photographs are by by wildlife photographer Richard Bowler. All rights reserved by the artists. 

Words: The Bobby J. Ward passage quotes above is from A Contemplation on Flowers: Garden Plants in Myth & Literature (Timber Press, 2009). All rights reserved by the author.


The folklore of nettles

Nettletops

Nettle gathering

In the fairy tale of "The Wild Swans" by Hans Christian Andersen, the heroine's brothers have been turned into swans by their evil stepmother. A kindly fairy instructs her to gather nettles in a ''The Wild Swans: Picking Nettles by Moonlight'' by Nadezhda Illarionovagraveyard by night, spin their fibers into a prickly green yarn, and then knit the yarn into a coat for each swan brother in order to break the spell -- all of which she must do without speaking a word or her brothers will die. The nettles sting and blister her hands, but she plucks and cards, spins and knits, until the nettle coats are almost done -- running out of time before she can finish the sleeve on the very last coat. She flings the coats onto her swan-brothers and they transform back into young men -- except for the youngest, with the incomplete coat, who is left with a wing in the place of one arm. (And there begins a whole other tale.)

This was one of my favorite stories as a child, for I too had brothers in harm's way, and I too was a silent sister who worked as best I could to keep them safe, and sometimes succeded, and sometimes failed, as the plot of our lives unfolded. The story confirmed that courage can be as painful as knitting coats from nettles, but that goodness can still win out in the end. Spells can broken, and gentle, loving persistence can be the strongest magic of them all.

Wild Swans by Susan Jeffers

The Wild Swans

I grew up with the story, but not with Urtica dioica: "common nettles" or "stinging nettles." I imagined them as dark, thorny, and witchy-looking -- and although they're actually green and ordinary, growing thickly in fields and hedges here in Devon, nettles emerge nonetheless from the loam of old stories and glow with a fairy glamour. It is a plant that heralds the return of spring, a tonic of vitamins and minerals; and also a plant redolent of swans and spells, of love and loss and loyalty, of ancient powers skillfully knotted into the most traditional of women's arts: carding, spinning, knitting, and sewing.

Nettles

Nettle Coat by Alice Maher

According to the Anglo-Saxon "Nine Herbs Charm," recorded in the 10th century, stiðe (nettles) were used as a protection against "elf-shot" (mysterious pains in humans or livestock caused by the arrows of the elvin folk) and"flying venom" (believed at the time to be one of the four primary causes of illness). In Norse myth, nettles are associated with Thor, the god of Thunder; and with Loki, the trickster god, whose magical fishing net is made from them. In Celtic lore, thick stands of nettles indicate that there are fairy dwellings close by, and the sting of the nettle protects against fairy mischief, black magic, and other forms of sorcery.

A basket of nettles

''The Wild Swans'' by Susan Jeffers and Yvonne Gilbert

Midsummer nettles

Nettles once rivalled flax and hemp (and later, cotton) as a staple fiber for thread and yarn, used to make everything from heavy sailcloth to fine table linen up to the 17th/18th centuries. Other fibers proved more economical as the making of cloth became more mechanized, but in some areas (such as the highlands of Scotland) nettle cloth is still made to this day. "In Scotland, I have eaten nettles," said the 18th century poet Thomas Campbell, "I have slept in nettle sheets, and I have dined off a nettle tablecloth. The young and tender nettle is an excellent potherb. The stalks of the old nettle are as good as flax for making cloth. I have heard my mother say that she thought nettle cloth more durable than any other linen."

Nettle hunter at work

"Nettles have numerous virtues," writes Margaret Baker in Discovering the Folklore of Plants. "Nettle oil preceded paraffin; the juice curdled milk and helped to make Cheshire cheese; nettle juice seals leaky barrels; nettles drive frogs from beehives and flies from larders; nettle compost encourages ailing plants; and fruits packed in nettle leaves retain their bloom and freshness.

Nettle hound

Foraging basket

"Mixing medicine and magic, a healer could cure fever by pulling up a nettle by its roots while speaking the patient's name and those of his parents. Roman soldiers in damp Britain found that rheumatic joints responded to a beating with nettles. Tyroleans threw nettles on the fire to avert thunderstorms, and gathered nettle before sunrise to protect their cattle from evil spirits."

Fresh nettle tips

The medicinal value of nettles is confirmed by Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal in their useful book Hedgerow Medicine:

Wild Swans by Helen Stratton"Nettle was the Anglo-Saxon sacred herb wergula, and in medieval times nettle beer was drunk for rheumatism. Nettle's high vitamin C content made it a valuable spring tonic for our ancestors after a winter of living on grain and salted meat, with hardly any green vegetables. Nettle soup and porridge were popular spring tonic purifiers, but a pasta or pesto from the leaves is a worthily nutritious modern alternative. Nettle soup is described by one modern writer as 'Springtime herbalism at one of its finest moments.' This soup is the Scottish kail. Tibetans believe that their sage and poet Milarepa (AD 1052-1135) lived solely on nettle soup for many years until he himself turned green: a literal green man.

"Nettles enhance natural immunity, helping protect us from infections. Nettle tea drunk often at the start of a feverish illness is beneficial. Nettles have long been considered a blood tonic and are a wonderful treatment for anaemia, as they are high in both iron and chlorophyll. The iron in nettles is very easily absorbed and assimilated. What cooks will tell you is that two minutes of boiling nettle leaves will neutralize both the silica 'syringes' of the stinging cells and the histamine or formic acid-like solution that is so painful."

Pancake making

At our house, spring is the time for making making nettle pancakes, soups, and breads, rich in the nutrients needed after a long, wet Dartmoor winter. Here's our family recipe for Bumblehill Nettle Soup, which is easy to make and delicious:

First, pick your nettles by pinching off the fresh leaves at the tip of the plant, leaving the plant itself intact. It's best to do this in Stinging nettlesthe spring when the plants are young and the vitamin content at its highest, before the flowers appear. Rinse your nettle tips in cold water, and cut off any woody bits or thick stems. You need to wear gloves while you handle them, but once the nettles are cooked you can safely eat them without any stinging.

Melt some butter in the bottom of the soup pot, add a chopped onion or two, and cook slowly until softened.

Add a litre or so of vegetable or chicken stock, with salt, pepper, and any herbs you fancy.

Add 2 large potatoes (chopped), a large carrot (chopped), and simmer until almost soft. If you like your soup thick, use more potatoes.

Throw in several large handfuls of fresh nettle leaves, and simmer gently for another 10 minutes.

Preparing nettle soup.

Add some cream (to taste), and a pinch of nutmeg. Purée with a blender, and serve. (If you happen to have some truffle oil in your pantry, a light sprinkling on the soup tastes terrific.) Use the left-over nettles for tea, sweetened with honey.

Nettle soup and tea

You can also throw young nettle leaves into pancake, crepe, scone, biscuit, and bread recipes -- just rinse them, chop them, and blanch them in boiling water (to get the sting out) first.  Below, for example: savoury squares of nettle-and-herb flatbread with sea salt, and sweet nettle pancakes. (Savoury nettle pancakes, topped with stir-fried mushrooms, onions, and swiss chard, with crumbled feta cheese, is awfully good too.)

Nettle-and-herb flatbread

Nettles, herb Robert  and piskie flowers

Nettle pakecakes on the breakfast table

Nettles, folk tales around the world agree, have long been associated with women's domestic magic: with inner strength and fortitude, with healing and also self-healing, with protection and also self-protection, with the ability to "enrich the soil" wherever we have been planted. Nettle magic is steeped in dualities: both fierce and soft, painful and restorative, common as weeds and priceless as jewels. Potent. Tenacious. Humble and often overlooked. Resilient.

And pretty tasty too.

Fresh nettles

''The Wild Swans The Princess and her Swan Brothers'' by Donn P Crane

Pictures: The illustrations for "The Wild Swans" fairy tale are by Nadezhda Illarionova, Susan Jeffers, Mercer Mayer, Eleanor V. Abbott, Yvonne Gilbert, Helen Stratton, and Donn P. Crane. The Nettle Coat is by Alice Maher. Words: The quoted passages are from Discovering the Folklore of Plants by Margaret Baker (Shire Classics, 2008) and Hedgerow Medicine by Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal (Merlin Unwin Books, 2008).  All rights reserved by the artists and authors.

Related posts: The folklore of food, and, for more on the Wild Swan fairy tale, Swan's wing. I've written about my personal connection to the fairy tale in "Transformations," but I must give you fair warning that this essay is a dark one.


More folklore of the wild flowers

Wildflower path

As the pandemic lockdown rolls on, I want to share our blossoming countryside with all of you confined to urban or less wild spaces, along with a little more of the wildflower lore that's rooted in the land below our feet. I love knowing and passing on such things. "Re-storying" the land is, I believe, an important part of re-wilding the land, re-wilding our culture, and re-wilding ourselves.

In the springtime, writes herbalist Judith Berger,

"the earth herself seems overtaken with desire to create for the sake of beauty and joy, unveiling at an astounding rate those creations which were conceived and protected in winter's ground-dark womb. Young, delectable leaves shoot up out of the soil, becoming clorophyll-rich as they soak up the food of the sun's fire. Food and medicine plants carpet the ground abundantly, delighting the eyes and tastebuds with a palette of green hues and an array of distinctive earthy flavors. Daily, as light seeps into the unfurling leaves, the plants grow greener and greener with the blood of the sun. As we ingest these plants, we increase our inner fires and pulse with the blood of life, thus inspired to move through our days with the same abandon as the maiden goddess of spring."

Stichwort, buttercups, hound, and sun.

Stitchwort (below), appears in Devon in two distinctive colors: white and pink. Greater stitchwort, with its white star-like blooms, also goes by the name star flower, thunder flower (because picking it will cause a storm), Mother Shimbles, snick needles, and snapjacks (due to the popping sound made by its seed pods as they ripen). Lesser stitchwort, with its small pink flowers, is known as piskie, or piskie flower, here in Devon -- though in fact both kinds of stitchwort are under the special protection of the piskies (our local faery folk). They zealously guard the flowers against hedgewitches, who use them for making medicines and charms of protection against piskie mischief -- including a salve that heals the "side stitches" caused when mortals are hit by elf-shot.

White stitchwort

Pink stitchwort, nettles, ivy, and ferns.

Stitchwort often grows among stands of nettles -- which is certainly one way to protect it from being picked. Nettles themselves are a wonderful plant (despite their sting), prized by witches, cunning men, herbalists, and wild food foragers. In Celtic lore, thick stands of nettles indicate that there are faery dwellings close by, and the sting of the nettle protects against faery enchantment, black magic, and other forms of sorcery. Historically, nettles have had a wide variety of uses, from making medicines to making cloth. "Nettle oil preceded paraffin," notes folklorist Margaret Baker; "the juice curdled milk and helped to make Cheshire cheese; nettle juice seals leaky barrels; nettles drive frogs from beehives and flies from larders; nettle compost encourages ailing plants; and fruits packed in nettle leaves retain their bloom and freshness." Today, many of us still harvest the tender top leaves of nettles in the spring. Rich in iron and vitamins, they are an excellent tonic for the immune system when cooked in soups and stews, or brewed for tea.

(We'll take a closer look at the folklore of nettles in tomorrow's post.)

Following her nose

Speedwell

Germander speedwell ( above), also known as birds-eye or angels-eye, is a flower associated with vision, with magical oinments allowing mortals to see faeries, and with healing afflictions of the eyes -- whether medical or caused by witchcraft. Although largely unmentioned by modern herbalists, it was once considered a valuable plant in hedge-lore here in the West Country. A tea made from its leaves and flower petals is said to be good for coughs (when brewed at strength), or settling the nerves (when brewed more delicately),  while also fostering clarity of vision, focus, and purpose.

Wildflower path

Welsh poppies

According to Welsh folklore, wild Welsh poppies (above) don't flourish outside Wales itself -- but in fact they are ubiquitous here in the West Country, and in other parts of the British Isles too. Perhaps they are bigger and brighter in Wales...?

Although the Welsh poppy (Meconopsis cambrica) is somewhat different than the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), it too is associated with sleep, dreams, the spirit world, and various forms of divination. Yellow poppies must never be brought into the house -- they will cause headaches, storms, or lightning strikes -- but wild poppy seeds placed under a pillow will show a young man or maid their future lover's face, or give the dreamer the answer to any question posed while falling asleep. The seeds can also be carried in one's pocket, or strewn in a circle around one's home, to provide protection from faery enchantments, especially those that cause confusion or memory loss.

Through the meadow gate.

Cuckoo flowers and buttercups

The cuckoo flower (above) is said to herald the first cuckoo of spring. It grows in damp, grassy meadows and bogs, its petals tinted pink or lavendar, and is also known by the names lady's-smock, milkmaid, May flower, and fairy flower. Associated with the revels of May, hedgewitches used various parts of the plant for love potions and fertility spells -- as well as for the opposite: charms intended to keep love and fertility at bay. Cuckoo flower teas and tonics restored appetites diminished by poor health, while also aiding digestion, treating survy, and easing bowel complaints. The leaves, when young, are edible, tasting peppery, like cress.

Buttercups

In the folk tradition of the West Country, buttercups (above) are a benificent plant -- associated with the sun, yellow butter and the dairy, and ease in domestic labor. On May Day, farmers rubbed the udders of their cows with buttercup flowers to increase the yield and richness of their milk; this also protected them from theft by faeries -- who were always eager to improve their herds of fairy cattle by interbreeding with cows from mortal fields. Buttercups are toxic to ingest so medicinal use of the plant is limited, although some old herbals suggest that a poulstice made of the crushed flowers and leaves is helpful in relieving colds, coughs, and bronchial complaints. "Buttercup water," made by infusing the flower petals in water heated by the sun, was used to bathe sore eyes, and "sweeten" the complexion. Buttercups are part of Rananculus family, related to spearwort, crowfoot and lesser celandine. It was once believed that swallows fed their young on a diet of these flowers, giving them prophetic abilities and clear sight.

White stitchwort and hound on Nattadon Hill

Red campion in the bracken and briars.

Red campion (above and below) -- also known as ragged-robin or robin flower -- is associated with Robin Goodfellow (or Puck), a faery Trickster who is charming, sly, amoral, and rather dangerous to encounter. In some parts of country, the picking of campion is discouraged, for this invites the faeries' attention -- but here in the West Country, it's a lucky flower. Campion in the house represents the faeries' blessing, provided it's been picked with care and respect. Red campion is not edible, and its herbal use is limited -- but the roots have been used to make a soap substitute, and the flowers for charms and spells to ward against loneliness. 

Hedgerow flowers

In Norse myth, wild columbine (below) is the flower of Freya, goddess of love, sensuality, and women's independence; in Celtic lore, too, it's a flower associated with women and their Mysteries. Columbine's primary use in hedgerow medicine was as an abortificant: its seeds were ground and mixed wine and other herbs to produce this effect; and then used with wine and a different set of herbs to restore the woman's strength. Also known as Granny's bonnet, lady's shoes, sow wort, and lion's herb, the flower is linked with both the dove and the eagle, with peace and war, and the balancing of opposites: strength in fragility and fragility in strength. Columbine was used for spells invoking courage, wisdom, and clarity in making choices. 

Wild columbine

Herb Robert (below) is a modest little flower, but it's become one of my favorite sights in the hedgerows...and in our garden too, where it kept appearing in spaces that I'd intended for other things. At first, I confess, I pulled it out as a troublesome weed, until its gentle persistence caused me to look a little closer at this tiny wildflower. I learned that the plant was once much prized by herbalists (and magicians!) in medieval times; and that herbalist today hail its ability to boost the immune system (precisely the thing I most needed). In folklore, according to Margaret Barker, herb Robert is known as "the plant of equality, all its parts being equal and harmonious." It's also another faery plant: its appearance in the garden betokes the blessing of the particular spirits who "quicken" all green living things. The great mystic and herbalist Hildegard of Bingen extolled the virtues of this humble flower, recommending its use (in a powdered form, eaten on bread) to strengthen the blood, balance the mind, and ease all heartbreak.

Herb Robert

Valerian (below) is another that has moved itself from the hillside to our garden, rooting firmly in a sunny front slope. "Valerian's botanical name (Valerianna officinalis) comes from the Latin word valere, 'to be strong,' " writes Margaret Baker. "It is said to be a witch-deterrent, to provoke love, and to be a telling aphrodisiac. In the West of England a girl who wore a sprig would never lack lovers." Well. You can't beat that.

Pink valerian

In her lovely book Herbal Rituals, Judith Berger envisions the springtime as the Goddess in her maiden aspect:

"In Hebrew the word for life, chai, is also the root of the word meaning wild she-animal, (chaiya), and this is how I see the spring: as a wild, untamed maiden bounding over the dark earth, her footfall touching all life with more life. Hair flying behind her, she leaves in her wake a trail of color, scent, and nourishment, her mood of wicked delight spreading across the ground like green fire. Roused by her passion, the green nations leap toward the sun, brimming with sheer joy, until everywhere we turn our heads we find life unfolding, changing shape, and blossoming, each form in nature dripping with beauty and transformed by the nurture of sun, rain, earth, and air."

Welsh poppies

Above, the Lady of Bumblehill (a statue made by my friend Wendy Froud) stands in our back courtyard with flowers at her feet. The flowers change a little every year, as Welsh poppies, foxgloves, columbine and other plants self-seed and move about the land.  I love these untameable flowers...and so does Tilly. Here she is at just ten weeks old, mesmorized by a hawkweed's bloom. Entranced by its colour. Scenting its magic. And listening closely to its stories.

Tilly and her flower

The passages quoted above are from Herbals Rituals by Judith Berger (St. Martin's Press, 1998) and Discovering the Folklore of Plants by Margaret Baker (Shire Classics, 2008).  All rights reserved by the authors.