Collecting the folklore and uses of plants


1.  As a child growing up in Hampshire in the 1960s and 1970s my mother would slice up an onion and make alternate layers of onion and brown sugar, leave to soak overnight in a bowl, then use over the next few days to treat coughs and colds [Autumn Festival of the Great North Wood, Beaulieu Heights, London, October 2022].

2. Heat a whole onion. When warm, but not hot, place in an old pair of tights and hold it to the ear as relief from ear-ache. My mum did this for my sister in the 1970s [Liss, Hampshire, June 2013].

3. Cut an onion in half and leave in a room that is being decorated in order to absorb the smell of the paint. Essex [Natural History Museum, London, June 2013].

4. My grandmother, from Derbyshire, used to cut a small onion in half and pour sugar on the halves. Then she would toast it until the sugar caramelised on the onion. This was given as a hot dish to family members with heavy colds. It seemed to work [Childwall, Liverpool, August 2011].

5. My mother showed us how to write on paper with an onion and then hold it in front of the fire, when the writing would show up [Redhill. Surrey, December 2009].

6. A boiled onion was often mashed and inserted into a sock and tied around a sore throat as a cure until about the mid 1950s [Holbeach, Lincolnshire, January 2004].

7. I’ve been told that during the First World War nasty people used to rub their bullets on onions. This meant that any wounds caused by them became infected with germs [West Wimbledon, London, November 2003].

8. My grandmother used to make her own cough medicine by placing a Spanish onion with the root end cut off on two tablespoons of demerara sugar in a saucer. She then left it in her larder for a week and collected the resulting syrup which was administered to anyone with a cough up to four times a day [West Wickham, Kent, April 2003].

9. My mother-in-law made cough mixture from onion and brown sugar, to give to her grandchildren. Cut up the onion and add the sugar, then use the juice [South London Botanical Institute, London, March 1997].

10. When I was living in Orkney in the early 1950s, I had no refrigerator or anything like that, just cold marble in the pantry. I used to put half an onion in the pantry to keep away the germs. I used to have to tell the children not to use it as it ‘collected all the bugs’ [Canterbury, Kent, November 1993].

11. My mother was a country person and believed in living off the land. She was 94 when she died in 1987 …
A half of onion was hung in the house every winter; a cut onion was supposed to take the germs [Hill, Worcestershire, October 1991].

12. Half a strong onion eaten raw twice a week – a preventative remedy for germs.
Wasp sting – rub with a slice of raw onion.
Severe bruising – rub gently at regular intervals with a slice of raw onion [Stockport, Cheshire, April 1991].

13. From my own childhood at East Cowes during the late [19]20s and 30s … Onions – chopped and stewed in milk – to cure colds and coughs. In the days before the NHS (1948?) home cures were essential [Ryde, Isle of Wight, November 1988].

14. My informant is Elsie Rebecca Smith, nee Lees, born in Lancashire, 1897, and lived most of her life in Liverpool … A cut piece of onion should never be kept as it will attract all the bad from the air into it [St Andrews, Fife, September 1988].

15. Onion seed must always be sown on 10th March [Reading, Berkshire, February 1987].

Image: Balham market, London Borough of Wandsworth; April 2016.