Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

REVIEW: Scottish Plant Lore

Posted on by royvickery |

Gregory J. Kenicer, Scottish Plant Lore: An illustrated flora, Edinburgh: Royal Botanic Garden, 2018.

It’s difficult to categorize this attractive book:  is it a coffee-table book, a reference book,  or a gift book?  Perhaps all three, it is certainly one which can be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in plants, botanical illustration, and Scottish traditional culture.

According to the foreword, by the Garden’s Regius Keeper:  ‘In this book, we celebrate the plants that have shaped human lives in the place we now call Scotland … We do this primarily through one of the most engaging and inspiring mediums available to use:  botanical illustrations’.  Thus a major feature of the book is a selection of illustrations prepared by the Edinburgh Society of Botanical Artists.  These illustrations are excellent; less attractive are the illustrations which have not been prepared by the Society.

The well-written text according to the back-cover, draws ‘together traditional knowledge from archives and oral histories’.  In fact it relies mainly on well-known sources, including Mary Beith’s Healing Threads (2004), Sam Bridgewater & William Milliken’s Flora Celtica (also 2004), and a number of older sources such as John Lightfoot’s Flora Scotica (1777).  An additional source which most other writers have failed to use is Robert Sibbald’s Provision for the Poor in Time of Dearth and Scarcity (1699).  A minor mystery is the information said to be taken from Vickery’s Dictionary of Plant-Lore, for example:  ‘A humorous phrase recorded in Roy Vickery’s A Dictionary of Plant Lore (1997) suggests that an untrustworthy character “never lees (lies) but when the holyn’s [holly, Ilex aquifolium] green”.’  In fact this cannot be found in the Dictionary, but when Bridgewater and Milliken were preparing their Flora Celtica, Vickery supplied them with material from his Plant-lore Archive, and it seems that Kenicer used this typescript, rather than the published work.

Entries are arranged according to habitats, such as ‘Woodlands’.  This can be confusing as different people associate different species with different habitats.  Occasionally species, such as docks (Rumex spp.),  are lumped together, possibly giving rise to some confusion; I think, it’s unlikely that most people would think of docks as ‘wetlands’ species.

However, Scottish Plant Lore provides an interesting and enjoyable introduction to its subject, and can be recommended.

Edited 10 March 2024.

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