Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Danes’ blood

Dwarf elder (Sambucus ebulus) is a coarse herb which occurs in hedgerow and on roadsides and waste ground in scattered locations throughout the British Isles.  It is believed to be an archaeophyte, i.e. introduced to the British Isles by man before 1500.

Alternative names for the plant include danewort or Dane’s blood; it is said to grow where Danes have been slaughtered.  Thus in the seventeenth century John Aubrey wrote:

‘Danes-blood (ebulus) about Slaughtonford [Wiltshire] in plenty.  There was heretofore a great fight with the Danes, which made the inhabitants give it that name'[1].

Similarly, in southeast Sweden in May 1741, Linnaeus examined a plant known as Mannablod (man’s blood):

‘This mannablod or manna-wort [man’s herb] is a plant which is much talked about in Sweden … for it was said that it grows in no other place in the world but here at Kalmar Castle, where it once grew up from the blood of Swedes and Danes, killed in warfare on this field.  We were much taken aback when we realised that the plant was nothing but the common Ebulus or Sambucus herbacea … which grows in the greater part of Germany, around Vaxjo and in gardens’ [2].

However, an alternative explanation of the name Danewort is given by John Parkinson in his Theatrum Botanicum [1640: 210]:

‘It is supposed it took the name Danewort from the strong purging quality it hath, many times bringing them that use it into a fluxe, which then we say they are troubled with the Danes.’

ROTHE 026Another plant which is said to have grown on the sites of battles, usually against Danes, is the pasque flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris), a species restricted to chalk grasslands in central and eastern England.  According to Wendy Boase in her Folklore of Hampshire [1976: 115]:

‘The pasque flower  … traditionally associated with the Danes.  It is supposed to grow only where their blood has been shed and is known as Danes’ blood.  One of the few places where [it] … can be seen is on the Downs dividing Hampshire from Berkshire – curiously enough, the site of King Alfred’s battlefield.’

Two further plants are mentioned in James Britten and Robert Holland’s Dictionary of English Plant-names [1885: 142-3].  In Cambridgeshire clustered bellflower (Campanula glomerata) was known as Dane’s blood, and in Northamptonshire field eryngo (Eryngium campestre) was known as Dane-weed or Dane’s weed: ‘they fancy it sprung from the blood of Danes slain in battle; and that if upon a certain day of the year you cut it, it bleeds’.

Westwood and Simpson add fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris) to the list of plants which supposedly sprung up from Danes’ blood [3], but without working through the extensive list of references which they supply it’s impossible to know where and when this was believed.

1.  Aubrey, J. 1847.  The Natural History of Wiltshire:  50.                                         2.  Asberg, M. & Stearn, W.T. 1973. Linnaeus’s Öland and Gotland journey 1741Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 5: 40].                                                   3.  Westwood, J. & Simpson, J., 2005.  The Lore of the Land:  531.

Addendum:  According to an article ‘Botany of Hampshire’, in The Naturalist’s Note Book, 1868, the berries of tutsan (Hypericum androsaemum) ‘are believed throughout the [New] Forest to be stained by the blood of the Danes’.

Images: main, dwarf elder,  cultivated, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London Borough of Richmond upon Thames, May 2015;  upper inset, dwarf elder, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London Borough of Newham, August 2018; middle inset, pasque flower, Church Hill, Therfield Heath Nature Reserve, Hertfordshire, May 2016; lower inset, tutsan, cultivated, Worcester, September 2023.

Updated 26 September 2023.