Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Lent lilies

In England eleven ‘Lent’ names have been recorded for daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus).  Most of these seem to simply relate to the plant flowering during the Lenten period, the 40 days before Easter, the most widespread of such names being Lent lilies.  According to Gabrielle Hatfield, in her Hatfield’s Flora (2007), this name was used in Elizabethan times (1558-1603) by Cheapside (London) market women who would carry baskets of daffodils on their heads offering them for sale.  Similar names include Lenten lilies on the Isle of Wight, Lenticups and Lentils in Devon, Lents in  Devon, Cornwall and Lancashire, Lenty cups in Somerset, Lenty lily in Cornwall, Lent rosen in Devon and Somerset, and Lent rose in Devon.  The last of these names is shared with primrose (Primula vulgaris) in Devon, and listed without any locality being recorded as being given to primrose-peerless (Narcissus medioluteus).

Another name given by James Britten and Robert Holland in their Dictionary of English Plant-names (1886), is Lent-cocks, recorded from Devon. This they explain by referring to the Gardeners’ Chronicle of 22 March 1879:  ‘In allusion, it seems, to the barbarous custom of cock-throwing, which was prescribed by our forefathers for Lent, or rather for Shrove Tuesday.  The boys, in the absence of  live cocks to throw sticks at, practised the art of decapitation on the flower’.  Ronald Hutton, in his Stations of the Sun (1996), traces the custom ‘whereby people  competed to kill a cock with missiles or blows’, also known as ‘cock-threshing’, back to the first decade of the fifteenth century, and records that the ‘ritual mistreatment of poultry continued at full pace into the eighteenth century’.

If the assumption made in the Gardeners’ Chronicle is correct, another name for daffodil which presumably refers to the Shrove Tuesday practice was Lent-pitcher, recorded from Devon and Somerset.

Image:  Lesney Abbey Woods, London Borough of Bexley, March 2018.