Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

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REMINDER: Wildlife Fun Day

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Worcestershire Wildlife Trust’s Wildlife Fun Day, Saturday 15 June, at Lower Smite Farm, Lower Smite Farm, Smite Hill, Hindlip, 10 a.m. – 3 p.m., including Wonderful Weeds walks, led by Roy Vickery, starting at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.  All ages welcome




Very clearly rosemary?

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The chapel of Haddon Hall, Derbyshire, completed in 1427, contains some well-preserved 15th-century wall paintings, including three skeletons, known as the trois morts.  Each of these has what could be a long sprig of plant material held in its mouth.  According to a display board in the chapel:  ‘the mouths … are filled with what is very clearly rosemary [Rosmarinus officinalis].  This flowering herb, native to the Mediterranean, was introduced to England by Philippa of Hainault, Edward III’s queen, in the fourteenth century.  It was always associated with death, funerals, and memorials, partly because its fresh strong scent would have been useful for disguising any smell of decay and also because its hardiness made it a good symbol for longevity.’

While this explanation may be correct, it is doubtful if the rather crudely depicted sprigs can be  very clearly identified as rosemary.  They could perhaps be fish bones?

Photographs taken May 2019.

REMINDER: Wonderful Weeds

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Wonderful Weeds – an amble led by Roy Vickery, looking at plants on the Roupell Park Estate, Brixton, south London (nearest tube station Brixton, then numerous buses, including the 133 and 333), starting at 7.00 p.m.  For further details see the Events page on this website.

Report:  After heavy rain in the afternoon the weather improved by 7 o’clock, but only two people ventured out to join this event.  We started by examining pine-apple weed, Matricaria discoidea, first recorded in the wild in Great Britain in 1871, but now widespread, and used to produce a yellow-orange dye in Shetland.  We then explored the area and discussed common mallow, Malva sylvestris; both greater and ribwort plantains, Plantago major and P. lanceolata, and a wide range of other ‘weeds’.  £7.50 was contributed to  South London Botanical Institute funds.  Thank you.

Image:  common mallow.

Folk Flora reviewed – 3

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Constance Craig Smith, in the Irish Daily Mail, 31 May 2019:

‘Vickery’s Folk Flora makes you think differently about British plants …

In Oxfordshire in the Twenties it was said that there was ‘no lustier scent than a bean [Vicia faba] field in bloom.’  In Suffolk, it was believed that ‘beans inflame lust … best of all traditional aphrodisiacs was the scent of the bean flower, for this not only stimulates passion in the man, but extreme willingness in the girl.’

Phew!  This is one of the many weird and wonderful nuggets that emerge from Roy Vickery’s doorstopper of a book …’

Awarded four stars out of five.

Plant-lore Archive: May 2019

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41 items of information were received from 41 contributors during the month, bringing the total holdings to 7976 items of information from 2421 contributors.  Thank you everyone.

12,357 searches were made of the website, the most for any month so far this year, but down on May 2018.

A visit was made to the Lewes Garland Day, and various talks and walks were well attended.

We are sorry to record the death of Irene Palmer, a former president of the South London Botanical Institute and an authority on Charles Darwin’s activities around his home at Down House, and the pollination of British orchids.  Irene was always keen to pass on any plant-lore which she came across, and most of the material from ‘Orpington, Kent’, on this  website was contributed by her.

One minor publication was produced:

Cemetery Plants: Nettle (Urtica dioica), Part 2: Fibre and dyes, Friends of Brompton Cemetery Magazine 64: 15.

Vickery’s Folk Flora is now available in most larger bookshops and is believed to be selling well.

Oldest tree in trouble

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According to the Metro of 29 May, the Fortingall (Perthshire) Yew (Taxus baccatacould be dead within 50 years because tourists … rip off parts of branches as souvenirs’.  The tree ‘under which Pontius Pilate is rumoured to have been born, is thought to be between 3,000 and 5,000 years old’.

(The suggestion that Pontius Pilate was born, or suckled, under the Yew, while his father was a legionary on an early Roman expedition, is, to say the least, improbable.  Pilate served as Roman governor of Judaea from AD 26 to 36, approximately 35 years before the Roman army ventured into Scotland).

REMINDER: Herbal Heritage

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On Monday 3 June Roy Vickery will be leading a walk entitled Herbal Heritage: Medicinal Uses of Wild Plants, on Tooting Common (nearest stations Balham, and on 315 bus route).  Meet at the café, off Bedford Hill, at 7 p.m.  Organised by the Friends of Tooting Common; all welcome.

Report:  About 12 people turned up and enjoyed an hour slowly wandering around the area discussing how wild plants were formerly used in medicine.  The leader stressed that the ‘folk’ did not seek out rarities, but tended to use the most common plants.  These included  such plants as nettle (Urtica dioica), elder (Sambucus nigra), and both ribwort (Plantago lanecolata) and greater (P. major) plantains.

Holy Thorn update, 6

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On 24 May 2019 it was reported on the British Ancient and Sacred Trees Facebook site that was reported that the Holy Thorn which formerly grew on Wearyall Hill, just outside Glastonbury, Somerset, was ‘finally cut down yesterday by unknown vandals’.

The tree, which had been severely damaged in 2010, appeared to be surviving at first, but eventually died, so the ‘tree’ which was cut down was a dead stump.  A young tree planted nearby in 2011 also failed to survive, and seems to have been deliberately killed.

According to SomersetLive on 28 May, Glastonbury Town Council issued a statement:  ‘It has been brought to the attention of the Town Council that the Holy Thorn on Wearyall Hill was removed by the landowner and a Conservation Society member as it was considered by them to be dangerous.’  The report continues that the removal took place ‘just a few days after Glastonbury Town Council refused to support plans to build new homes on Wearyall Hill’.

Updated 30 May 2019.

REMINDER: Herbal Heritage

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Roy Vickery will be leading a Herbal Heritage walk around St Nicholas’s churchyard, Tooting, on Wednesday 29 May, starting at 6.30 p.m.  For full details see the Events page of this website.

Report: About eight people turned up on a cool, damp evening to spend an hour wandering around churchyard and discussing the plants found there.  72 species were recorded, the most interesting probably being field madder, Sherardia arvensis, which is said to be rare in the London area.  It was also interesting to see white bryony, Bryonia dioica, which prefers alkaline soils, growing a few feet away from sheep’s sorrel, Rumex acetosella, which is characteristic of acidic sandy soils.  £25.30 was contributed to the South London Botanical Institute.  Thank you!

Images: upper, general view of site; lower, field madder.

Elderflower cordial

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Sainsbury’s Magazine of May 2019 contains an interview with Peverel Manners, managing director of Belvoir (Leicestershire) Fruit Farms, best known for their production of elderflower (Sambucus nigra) cordial.  Apparently production started in 1984 when his mother asked his father to help making her home-made cordial.  He was curious about why she was making so much: ‘Well, so-and-so wants a bottle, and so-and-so wants three bottles  … Everyone loves it.’  They made 1,000 bottles, all of which were sold by Christmas.  Today more than two million bottles are sold each year.

About 80 acres of elder trees are cultivated, but local collectors also supply flowers:  ‘As soon as they appear, we put out an alert for local people to bring us elderflowers; we set up vans at four places, with a flag and a cash tin, and reimburse them for whatever they bring.  We have a lot of people who pick flowers every year for us; they love it.’

Elders are difficult to cultivate: they don’t like growing near other trees of the same species, and are woodland or hedgerow plants which are unhappy when planted in fields.

Images: upper, elder blossom,  Bakewell, Derbyshire, May 2019; bottle label, 1997.

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