Plant-Lore

Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

QUERY: Betony

017From John Smith:
A verse from a Middle English poem dated about 1400:
Who so will don (do) a serpent tene (harm),
Take a garland of betonye grene
And make a cerkle hym rownd abowte,
And he shall never on lywe (alive) gon owte,
But with his tayle he schall him schende (harm)
Or with his mowth hym-self to-rende (tear to pieces).’
According to Pliny, not only the ash [Fraxinus excelsior], but also betony [Betonica officinalis, syn. Stachys officinalis]¬†was harmful to snakes. No doubt the poem is echoing Pliny. I’m not aware of similar references. On the other hand, Pliny’s reference to the ash is frequently echoed in West Country lore. I wonder why his reference to betony, a few pages on, is not.
Indeed, there seems to be very little folklore associated with betony. Has anyone any more recent records of it being harmful to snakes?
Responses
I confirm that there is very little folklore associated with betony. No betony folklore has been received as a result of the Plant-lore Archive project, and when I was compiling my Dictionary of Plant-lore, 1995, the only information I could find was in T.W. Thompson’s ‘English gypsy folk-medicine’, Journal of the Gypsy-lore Society, ser. 3,4: 160 (1925), where he states that Derbyshire gypsies use an infusion of betony leaves as a remedy for stomach troubles and an ointment made from the juice of its fresh leaves and unsalted lard to remove poison from stings and bites.
However, David Allen & Gabrielle Hatfield, Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition, 2004, provide further information on betony’s medicinal uses: to treat wounds in Sussex and Wiltshire, heal burns in Sussex, purify blood in Cumbria, and cure indigestion in Somerset [RV, 23 September 2012].
2. Stefan Buczacki in his Fauna Britannica, 2002: 196, gives quite a lot about adders [Vipera berus] dreading and avoiding ‘ash trees but sometimes hazel [Corylus avellana] as well … This belief led to the rather dangerous notion that, of you walk through a snake-infested area carrying an ash branch, you are protected’ [Josie Brown, 26 September 2012].

Updated 11 July 2018.

Image: Baslow, Derbyshire, July 2015.

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