Between March 1982 and October 1984 members of the London-based Folklore Society conducted a survey of plants which were believed to produce misfortune if picked or taken indoors. 30 years later it is planned to repeat this survey to find out what knowledge continues to exist and if and how beliefs have changed. The 1982-4 survey collected 524 items of information from all parts of the British Isles, and covering some 90 species of plants. One copy of all the information received is in the Folklore Society’s archive and another formed the basis from which Plant-lore Archive evolved. A summary of the results are given in R. Vickery, Unlucky Plants – A Folklore Survey, published by the Society in 1985.
Do you know of any plants which are, or were, believed to cause misfortune? If you do, please send it in to the Archive. All information will be gratefully received; your memories are unique and will help us understand the geographical distribution and history of such beliefs.
ALTAR LILY, also known as ARUM LILY (Zantedeschia aethiopica)
1. Dr Maria Mitter (1976), as she gathered long-stemmed white arum lilies growing wild over a little creek at the base of the hill of the Ootacamund Club (the British club), Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu, India (very near the church), ‘People say that these are unlucky, and should not be brought into the house’ [because they invite, or are associated with, death?], ‘but I love them, and I do.’ I do not know whether these flowers were used in church decoration or on the gravestones, but it is quite likely given their location that they were originally a British memsahib import, and the superstition might also have been of foreign origin [Canberra, Australia, November 2012].
APIACEAE, Carrot Family, formerly Umbelliferae
1. [Marton Moss, outskirts of Blackpool, c.1955] A flower that my mother always told me not to bring into the house I think was called something ‘carrot’. It was a bit like fennel flower. It grew around weeds and had a cat like smell about it. Its nickname was mother-die, so whatever happened you should never bring it in the house [Marton, Blackpool, Lancashire, September 2012].
BLACKBERRY (Rubus fruticosus)
Selected from a total of two responses.
1. Don’t pick blackberries after the end of September as it is considered that the Devil has peed on them by October! [Tregaer, Monmouthshire, October 2013].
BLACKTHORN (Prunus spinosa)
1. In the late 60s my mother (in her 40s) used to refuse to allow blackthorn into the house as it was a bad omen, usually indicating that a death would happen. I think either me or my dad bringing some into the house once before we knew this and she reacted very forcefully and got it out as soon as possible. I suspect she got this from her mother who was very superstitious about all sorts of things. I always consider and observe these superstitions to this day, but do find myself questioning them. My mother died at 45 in 1970, but this was some months after the blackthorn incident as far as I remember, so don’t think it was linked! We lived in Rosside which is a small hamlet about a mile or so outside Ulverston in the South Lakes area. It was situated in North Lancashire the time before the changes in local government in 1974 put our part of Furness in Cumbria. I think it was probably 1969 when I learnt of the superstition [Wadsworth, West Yorkshire, January 2013].
BLOSSOM Selected from a total of three responses.
1. I was born and brought up in Rugby, Warwickshire. As a child I was not allowed to bring blossom [of fruit trees] into the house. May [hawthorn, Crataegus] blossom was particularly banned as ‘bad luck’ [Glenrothes, Fife, September 2012].
2. My mother was brought up in Dalton-in-Furness, [she]would be over 100 years old now. She used to tell me it was unlucky to bring any type of blossom into the house [Patton, Cumbria, January 2013].
BLUEBELL (Hyacinthoides nonscripta)
Selected from a total of three responses.
1. I was brought up in south Gloucestershire and my parents had also been brought up there. We were never allowed to bring lilac or bluebells into the house as my mother said they would bring bad luck with them[e-mail, January 2013].
2. My friend used to say you shouldn’t bring bluebells into the house; don’t know why as they are a lovely flower [Wigan, Lancashire, November 2013].
CLOVER (Trifolium spp.)
1. When I was young I lived in a country area [near Tamworth, Staffordshire] … Clovers – for some reason I was never allowed to pick them and take them in the house [anon., July 2012].
COLT’S FOOT (Tussilago farfara)
1. I was born and brought up in Rugby, Warwickshire … colt’s foot was banned from picking, if you did you would wet the bed!! [Glenrothes, Fife, September 2012].
COW PARSLEY, also known as QUEEN ANNE’S LACE (Anthriscus sylvestris)
Selected from a total of six responses.
1. I am going back around 70 years when I taught at an infant school in Darfield, Yorkshire. Walking round the school field with a class of 5-year-olds I went to pick some cow parsley which grew profusely in the hedgerow. There was a grasp of horror from the children: ‘You musn’t pick that Miss or your mother ‘ul die.’ Of course she did, about 30 years later [Folkestone, Kent, February 2013].
2. Queen Anne’s lace – not to bring into the house – bad luck! [Hilltop Garden Club, Eastcombe, Gloucestershire, November 2013].
3. Mum would never let us have hawthorn blossom or cow parsley (we called stepmother blessing) in the house [Bradford, November 2013].
4. My mother called cow parsley break-your-mother’s heart and wouldn’t let me bring it in the house. She was born in north London and lived there all her life [West Dulwich, London, September 2014].
DANDELION (Taraxacum officinale)
1. Dandelions couldn’t be taken indoors or we would wet the bed! [Biddulph, Staffordshire, February 2013].
ELDER, also known as bore tree (Sambucus nigra)
1. Recorded in Poyntzpass, a village on the border of Counties Armagh and Down, c. 1976: ‘It was unlucky to use a bore tree for anything … to … drive an animal or hit an animal with the bore tree’ [Linda M. Ballard, Curator of Folk Life, National Museums of Northern Ireland, Cultra, Co. Down, June 2013].
1. Never burn evergreen – it was unlucky [Tregaer, Monmouthshire, October 2013].
HAWTHORN, also known as MAY BLOSSOM (Crataegus)
Selected from a total of 24 responses.
1. Mid 1950s, Shrewsbury in Shropshire, elderly farm workers told me hawthorn/may blossom was unlucky to be brought into the house [Chelsea Physic Garden, London, June 2012].
2. I think I grew up with the myth that may blossom was unlucky with my mother’s milk so to speak. Interestingly there was confirmation of it when my son and I were staying with my cousin in a Berkshire village and she brought some into her house, whereupon he had a most uncomfortable few days of asthma [Brixton, London, July 2012].
3. As a child during the early war years, when we were living on the Hants/Sussex border, not far from Petersfield … We were never allowed to bring flowering may into either the house or the church [Wookey, Somerset, September 2012].
4. Last night I was doing a talk in Belfast and two ladies, both elderly, independently mentioned that when they were children they were in trouble with their grandmothers for bringing hawthorn into the house, as it was unlucky. Although she now denies it, my mother told me off for exactly this when I was a child. We had a magnificent hawthorn hedge in part of the garden in east Belfast, which I greatly admired and I well remember being thoroughly scolded for bringing a small bunch of the flowers into the house as this would bring bad luck. There was an eventual compromise that just for once it could sit on the kitchen windowsill, but I think it remained there for only a few hours [Linda M. Ballard, Curator of Folk Life, National Museums Northern Ireland, Cultra, Co. Down, October 2012].
5. The only example of unlucky plants I’ve ever come across is that it is unlucky to bring branches of flowering hawthorn indoors. This was traditional in Portrush when I was young, but no-one seemed to know why. It was many years later that I was told that this was because the flowering hawthorn was sacred to the pagan White Goddess and therefore ant-Christian [Portrush, Co. Antrim, October 2012].
6. My parents belonged to Aberdeen and Deeside and as children we were told that it was unlucky to bring hawthorn blossom (may-flower) into the house. I certainly knew this before I was seven years old (pre 1952) [Elgin, Morayshire, June 2013].
HOLLY (Ilex aquifolium)
1. [Halifax area, 1930s] Putting holly over mirrors when decorating for Christmas was said to be unlucky [Redcar, North Yorkshire, January 2014].
HONEYSUCKLE (Lonicera periclymenum)
1. In the early 1960s I was on holiday with my family on the Isle of Arran. I used to pick wild flowers and bring them into the hotel room where they were put in water. On one occasion, the honeysuckle was removed by the maids, and one explained to my mother that the owner (if not from Arran itself, she came from somewhere not far away) would not allow honeysuckle in the house, because on two previous occasions when that flower had been brought inside, somebody had died. [St Andrews, Fife, January 2013].
IVY (Hedera helix)
1. Unlucky to bring indoors: ivy, may blossom [Stoke Mandeville, Buckinghamshire, September 2012].
2. Every December I would go out and collect holly and ivy to decorate our new home. In the mid sixties my aunt came to stay and told us that ivy indoors meant an imminent death in the family and that she could only stay as a guest if it was all removed immediately. My wife has never allowed ivy indoors since [Ware, Hertfordshire, November 2013].
3. Child in Devon in the early 1940s: unlucky to bring ivy in at Christmas (from my mum) [West Dulwich, London, September 2014].
LILAC (Syringa vulgaris)
Selected from a total of 15 responses.
1. Lilac – bad luck to bring into the house. May [hawthorn] likewise [Peckham, London, July 2012].
2. I was not allowed to bring lilac flowers indoors as I was told it was unlucky to do this, not sure why [Old Basing, Hampshire, September 2012].
3. Going through some archival material here this afternoon I found the following, which is included in a letter dated 5/6/1965 from Mrs Susan Hay of Drumgart, Ballycarry, Co. Antrim: ‘I happened to have a yarn with our milkman who hails from Islandmagee. I thought I’d pass it on to you …. I had a bunch of lilac in the pantry and he said it was not lucky, first time I had heard it, but very strange to say I was told it in a village shop, same day.’ Alas, no reason or explanation for the ill luck is given [Linda M. Ballard, Curator of Folk Life, National Museums Northern Ireland, Cultra, Co. Down, October 2012].
4. May blossom – this was never brought into the house as it was a sign of bad luck. The same goes for white lilac, but funnily enough not for mauve or other coloured lilac [Bristol, January 2013].
5. Think this was back in the mid or late 1950s. Went to get on a bus from Colchester to come home. Had visited friends and had an armful of light mauve lilac. The driver didn’t want to let me on – said the lilac was unlucky (nothing to do with the quite strong perfume), fortunately I was able to persuade him – think it was the last bus home! [Clacton-on-Sea, Essex, January 2013].
MEADOWSWEET (Filipendula ulmaria)
1. In west of Ireland it is deemed unlucky to bring meadowsweet into the house. My aunt was very strict about this [Camberwell, London, May 2014].
MISTLETOE (Viscum album)
1. It was unlucky to bring mistletoe into the house before Christmas Eve. All decorations, holly and mistletoe had to be taken down before Old Christmas Day (or Twelfth Night) … ‘It must come down before Old Christmas Day, or the Devil will dance on every spray’ [Tregaer, Monmouthshire, October 2013].
RED AND WHITE FLOWERS
Selected from a total of 11 responses.
1. Red and white flowers were said to be associated with bandages and blood and apparently barbers have the red and white pole outside their shops for the same reason – doesn’t say much about their skill, I think! They were, of course, the early surgeons, being the ones who owned the sharpest knives. That is what the flower arranger at Westminster Abbey relayed to me anyway. I just knew that my cousin never felt free to put them in her church [Brixton, London, July 2012].
2. My friend in Wales tells me she was not allowed to bring red and white flowers together into the house as they foretold illness and death [Glenrothes, Fife, September 2012].
3. I was a nurse in the 60s and was told never on pain of being dismissed, never put white and red flowers together as it signified death with the blood and bandages. I was amazed that such a superstition was upheld in a hospital, but I obeyed the rules. Still do! [e-mail, January 2013].
4. Never mix red and white flowers together, especially roses in a bouquet or bunch, as it is considered unlucky [Cheslyn Hay, Staffordshire, October 2014].
SNOWDROP (Galanthus nivalis)
Selected from a total of three responses.
1. By the late 1940s my mother was a widow in Edinburgh and we had a Scots family, some of whom lived in Glasgow in a tenement flat. We, in our poverty, would struggle to find something to take (on the bus) to the ‘Glasgow Aunts’, maybe something from the garden such as green beans in season, since we were proud of our garden and they had no garden. One cold early spring day we scoured the garden for the first snowdrops and gathered a sacrificial bunch of the best we could find. We arrived triumphantly at the flat, only to have a severe reaction from my excitable aunt. ‘OOOOOH!! Angel’s tears!! Don’t bring those in here! I think we left them on the doorstep and took them home again when we left. Once again, this is the only reference to this I have ever heard, but it is indelibly etched in my childhood memory [Helsington, Cumbria, January 2013].
2. Do not take snowdrops into the house – unlucky – so when as a child [1940s] I picked them for my mother to sell in the market I sat outside and bunched them with ivy leaves surrounding them and tied each bunch with bits of wool. I usually got 6d a bunch for them [Tregaer, Monmouthshire, October 2013].
1. I was always told it was unlucky to bring white flowers into the house as it foretold death. This applies particularly to May blossom. I probably first heard this in the late 1960s in Chessington, Surrey (though it came from my mother who was brought up in the Vale of Evesham) [Guildford, Surrey, November 2012].
WILLOW (Salix sp.)
1. Never use a willow stick to drive animals; if you hit an animal with a willow it would bring bad luck [Tregaer, Monmouthshire, October 2013].
YARROW (Achillea millefolium)
1. I have a memory of being about six years old (1953), picking a pretty flower for my Nana only to be told ‘Don’t bring that plant in here!’ I was shocked. No more was said, she never explained what her reaction was about, but I sensed that this was something dark and magical. Over the years whenever I saw the plant I remembered her words and had the same feeling of the power, the sense of ‘better not pick it’ … I looked it up; it is, of course, yarrow [Abergavenny, Monmouthshire, October 2013].
YEW (Taxus baccata)
1. Yew … 1) tree associated with evil, death – do not touch!; 2) if you harm a yew tree you will bring bad luck on your household [University of Otago, New Zealand, October 2013].
Image: hawthorn, Crataegus monogyna, widely considered to cause misfortune when taken indoors; planted, Gants Hill, London Borough of Redbridge, April 2014.
Updated 2 January 2015.