Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

REVIEW: Plants in Myth …

Children History forgot 2:Layout 1Stuart Phillips, An Encyclopaedia of Plants in Myth, Legend, Magic and Folklore, Robert Hale Ltd, 2012.
This well written and attractively produced book will provide interesting reading for people with a general interest in the legends and folklore associated with plants. Although many of the plants included are British, plants from other parts of the world are also included. The author makes ‘no apology for this, as there is ever more interest in plants from elsewhere …’ Inevitably this leads to a rather hit-and-miss selection.
The entries are arranged according to the plants’ scientific names, but individual entries take English names as their titles. Some of these English names are strange: lucky hand is given as the name for Dactylorhiza maculata, more usually known as heath spotted-orchid, though perhaps in a folklore context, where people are unlikely to identify individual species of Dactylorhiza, spotted orchid would be a more appropriate name.
Under each entry there is a list of ‘common names’, which could probably better be described as ‘local names’, the plant’s supposed gender, planet, element and any meanings. The author claims to have included all the common names he could find, so it’s surprising that only 10 such names are listed for bird’s-foot trefoil, Lotus corniculatus. In the longer entries these are followed by sections on ‘myth and legend’, ‘magic and lore’ and ‘medicinal’; inevitably there is some difficulty in dividing things into these categories. In ‘myth and legend’ the author draws together material from around the world, but can we be sure that all of these legends actually refer to the same species? Oak is identified as Quercus robur, pedunculate oak; do the legends from Mediterranean countries really refer to this species? In the case of cow parsley, Anthriscus sylvestris, known as Queen Anne’s lace in the British Isles, the legend about Queen Anne undoubtedly refers to wild carrot, Daucus carota, known as Queen Anne’s lace in North America. Most of the legends given under corn, Zea mays, also known as maize or sweetcorn, native to the New World, refer to Old World cereal species.
A minority of the entries are provided with reproductions of water-colour illustrations. These all depict well-known plants such as onion, rose and dandelion; less well-known species, such as dragon plant, high john the conqueror and uva ursa, lack illustrations.
The book concludes with a series of lists of such things as the Language of Flowers, plants in dreams, and plants associated with saints, the last being exceedingly incomplete. In the Language of Flowers section the author admits that he is unable to identify some of the plants listed, and some of the plants have diverse meanings: cranesbill can mean both envy and steadfast piety. Is it really worth devoting 37 pages to such nonsense?
The extensive bibliography suggests that the author’s main sources are semi-popular works on plants; few works on folklore are listed. There is no way in which statements in the text can be related to works in the bibliography. This is particularly unfortunate in that many of these statements, such as ‘Mallow [Malva sp.] was used as a protective plant although it tended to be used only for short term results’, fail to say where or when such use was made, and a serious researcher would like to try and trace them back to their source.
Thus the book is aimed more at the general reader than the serious student of, or writer on, plant-lore, even though its price – £50 – suggests that it is intended as a standard reference work which researchers will want to keep close at hand.

Edited 6 April 2022.

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