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What real people think about plants

Vickery’s Folk Flora: An A-Z of the Folklore and Uses of British and Irish Plants by Roy Vickery, 2019. Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

For the past several weeks I’ve been tackling Rebecca Armstrong’s Vergil’s Green Thoughts. What a contrast it was to now be looking at Vickery’s Folk Flora by Roy Vickery. Its sub-title The A-Z of Folklore and Uses of British and Irish Plants clearly indicates the scope and content of the book, and it is a straightforward plants-and-people tome. However, with alphabetically-listed entries that start at ‘Abortion’ and end with ‘Yucca’; the book clearly has some quirks.

Abortion is not a plant. However, under that entry are listed houseleek, juniper, pennyroyal and tansy – plants which are associated with producing abortion. More information about each of those four plants – and their abortifacient qualities – can be found elsewhere in the book, under their separate listed accounts. Yucca (Yucca gigantea) is not a native British or Irish plant. But, since it is widely grown in that region – and has been for some time – there are folkloric stores about it [an ‘urban legend’, no less…], which justifies its inclusion in Vickery’s Folk Flora.

Similar arguments for their legitimate coverage in the book relate to introduced plants such as African (Tagetes erecta) and French (T. patula) marigolds, flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum), pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana), and nutmeg (Myristica fragrans). Which also makes the important point that wherever they may be, people will be curious about whatever is growing in their neck of the woods, and myths, legends, superstitions, i.e. folklore, will grow up about those botanics, which tales will join those stories that already exist for the native plants.

As tangible ways in which humans respond and relate to plants, Vickery’s Folk Flora is therefore a valuable document of a small portion of humanity’s interaction with plants – even if much of it is rather ‘fanciful’. Included amongst the expected plant entries (which are listed under their main common name* – although scientific names are also included) are other topics, such as acne, blood pressure, clan badges, fairies, funerals, nappy-rash, Robin Hood, ‘unlucky’, Valentine’s Eve, and well-dressing. All of which topics or subjects have plant associations, and those plants will be mentioned elsewhere in the book – a most impressive cross-referencing exercise for which the author is applauded. And, yes, the usual ‘health warning’ about readers needing to undertake their own research before using any of the ‘remedies’ mentioned in the book is duly provided – at the front of the book.

Although Roy Vickery is credited as the author of the book, he acknowledges the debt he owes to the more than 2160 contributors who supplied him with the 7620 plant tales that have been compiled and collated to produce this impressive 735 pages of plant folklore and ‘wisdom’. Despite the ‘crowdsourced’ nature of its contents – which should mean that the net is cast far-and-wide to try and gather as many responses as possible, Vickery recognises that this book is not the last word on the subject and is by no means definitive. Those with a phytofolkloric story to share can still send items to the plant lore web site, and Vickery hopes that other folk floras will emerge in future, adding more to this fascinating topic.**

Indeed, in its turn, Vickery’s Folk Flora expands upon the same author’s mid-1990s’ Oxford Dictionary of Plant-Lore, and adds to Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica from the same period. However, and although similar in subject matter to Vickery’s Folk Flora, Vickery considers that Mabey’s work “tends to emphasise how people as individuals react to plants, rather than how ‘folk’, people as communities, do”.*** For some sort of completeness, Vickery’s Folk Flora is also distinct from Watt’s 21st century Dictionary of Plant-Lore, which doesn’t have the folks’ contributions element. And all of these late 20th and early 21st century tomes add to all of the similar collections that have gone before (some of which are briefly reviewed in Vickery’s book), which attempt to document the manyfold plant traditions and plants-and-people associations that abound globally. ****

Plant entries include a short description of the plant and distribution information, a list of local names, and the folklore information (which section is the most variable in length). The length of each entry varies according to how myth-rich/local name-numerous the plant is. E.g. nettle (Urtica dioica) has approx. 11.5 pages, elder (Sambucus nigra) has over 11 pages, oak (Quercus robur and Q. petraea) has 8 pages, lords-and-ladies/cuckoo-pint (Arum maculatum) 6, and yew (Taxus baccata) 5.5 pages. At the other end of that range we have hairy brome (Bromopsis ramosa, syn. Bromus ramosus) with 7 lines, skullcap (Scutellaria galericulata) with 6 lines, and Peruvian lily (Alstroemeria cvs) with only 2 lines…

Vickery’s Folk Flora is an intriguing and fascinating book that you can browse for hours – or just pick up for short excursions through the myriad weird and wonderful (usually), and wise (occasionally), plant ways of the old and not-so-old inhabitants of Britain and Ireland. It is also a work of great love and considerable scholarship, which will introduce you to all manner of fascinating facts, many of which would make great questions for Dr M’s Botanical University Challenge. For example: why did TV and BBC radio personality Mariella Frostrup receive ‘unwanted enquiries’ ; what is the name of the plant whose leaf tips are used to make tiny boats; the flowers of which plant family’s members are associated with the crucifixion; what is the legume whose “white fluffy skin” from the inside of its pods is used to cure warts; and the flowering of which plant marks the start of the mackerel fishing season?

Could plant folklore help to cure plant blindness?*****

Sharing knowledge of plant folklore may also be a way to reduce ‘plant blindness’ amongst the ‘general public’, as proposed by Vickery (BSBI News No. 143, January 2020, 76-77), and – importantly – can be done using some of the most common and widespread of plants (e.g. common nettle, elder, cow parsley, and groundsel). Given the bizarreness of some of the plant-associated tales this approach might be a more interesting, memorable, engaging and effective approach to increasing botanical literacy amongst the public, rather than merely trying to teach them plant identification – as desirable as that is. If your own interest in plant folklore has now been piqued, and you’re keen to go beyond the information in Vickery’s Folk Flora, you can expand and extend your knowledge with some of Vickery’s more-detailed articles on plant folklore topics, e.g. his exploration of use of the name ‘mother-die’ for cow parsley and other plants (Roy Vickery (2019) Folklore 130(1): 89-96; doi: 10.1080/0015587X.2018.1486569).

Summary

Vickery’s Folk Flora is a treasure-house of the factual and the more fanciful ways in which the peoples of Britain and Ireland have interacted with the flora – both native and introduced. It’s a tremendous resource that will provide much education, amusement and amazement to its readers. Roy Vickery is to be congratulated on such an impressive achievement.

* Many of the less common – or, more accurately, geographically-localised names – are also provided for the plants included in the book, which are always worth a look because they vary from the bizarre, to the amusing, to the down-right pornographic(!)

** Which is as necessary as it is important because Vickery’s tome is limited to the geographical areas that comprise Great Britain, the island of Ireland, the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man, and is restricted to vascular plants – angiosperms and gymnosperms and ferns. There is a wealth of fascinating phytological folk-lore relating to fungi, seaweeds, mosses, lichens, etc. that is therefore excluded from Vickery’s Folk Flora. And the richness of Vickery’s geographically-constrained only serves to underline the necessity to document the ethnobotanical knowledge and folkloric traditions of other parts of the world.

*** For Mabey’s review of Vickery’s Folk Flora, see here.

**** And which ‘old wivestales’ and the like also provide great topics or ideas for student investigations and dissertations – as well as ethnobotanopharmaceutical ideas to be tested…

***** I’ve just been made aware of issues concerning use of this term by Megan Lynch. However, until a more appropriate alternative term is agreed upon [and I understand from the associated Twitter ‘thread’ that this blog’s Chief Editor Dr Anne Osterrieder is looking into that], the currently recognised phrase ‘plant blindness’ is used here for consistency with previous posts that deal with this phenomenon. Discussion and debate about a more inclusive term would make for an interesting blog post in its own right.

Written by Nigel Chaffey

Nigel is a botanist and was a full-time academic at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK) until 31st July, 2019. As News Editor for the Annals of Botany he contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ (until March 2019). He remains a botanist and is now a freelance plant science communicator who continues to share his Cuttingsesque items with a plant-curious audience. In that guise his main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way...) about plants and plant-people interactions.

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