Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Midsummer men

Orpine, currently known as Hylotelephium telephium but formerly known as Sedum telephium, is a fleshy perennial plant which is widespread in hedgerows, woods and rocky places throughout the British Isles.  It is is also widely grown in gardens.

Formerly orpine was used at Midsummer by girls who wanted to find out who, or when, they would marry. The earliest known record of this practice comes from John Aubrey (1626-97), who wrote:

‘The mayds (especially the Cooke mayds and Dayry-mayds) would stick-up in some chinkes and joists, etc., Midsommer-men, which are slips of Orpins.  Thet placed them by Paires, sc: one for such a man, the other for such a mayd his sweet-heart, and according as the Orpin did incline to, or recline from ye other, that there would be love or aversion; if either did wither, death.’

The 1853 edition of John Brand’s Popular Antiquities records:

‘Among the practices of poor Sally Evans … we learn that “she would never go to bed on Midsummer Eve without sticking up in her room the well-known plant called Midsummer Men, as the bending of the leaves to the right, or to the left, would never fail to tell her whether her lover was true or false …’

Francis Kilvert, in his diary for 11 June 1873 noted that he had seen midsummer men plants earlier the the day and recorded that ‘Mother remembers the servant maids and cottage girls sticking them up in their houses and bedrooms on Midsummer Eve, for the purpose of divining about their sweethearts’.

It appears that such practices continued in Sussex until the 1920s, for Jacqueline Simpson, in her Folklore of Sussex (1973), noted that the Sussex writer Lillian Candlin recalled:

‘When we were children, we made Midsummer Men.  These were two pieces of orpine, known to us as “Live-long-love-long’.  These we pushed through two empty cotton reels and took to bed with us.  One reel was given the name of one particular boy friend and the other was ourself.  If the plants had fallen towards towards each other, all was well.  If they had fallen one in one direction and the other in the opposite, then our love would not be true.’

However, although Simpson considered Candlin to be a valuable informant when she was writing her Sussex book, about 40 years later she considered Candlin’s memories to be unreliable.

Adapted from Vickery’s Folk Flora (2019).

Image, Potters Crouch, Hertfordshire, August 2019.