Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Mother-die – 1

Mother-die is first mentioned, as mother-dee, by Britten and Holland (1878-86) as a name for red campion (Silene dioica) in Cumberland, germander speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys) in Yorkshire and upright hedge parsley (Torilis japonica) in Cheshire. Of the first they report: ‘There is a superstition among Cumberland children that if they pluck the flower some misfortune will happen to their parents’ [1].
During the twentieth century this belief seems to have become more widespread and applied to a wider range of plants. At the same time the misfortune, usually death, which followed the picking of their flowers was believed to afflict mothers, rather than ‘parents’.
The name mother-die was most commonly (in, for example, Cheshire, Lancashire, Northamptonshire and Yorkshire) applied to cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris), and it is possible that Britten and Holland’s reference to Torilis was incorrect and the plant intended was cow parsley. Cow parsley has attractive white flowers which tempt flower-arrangers, but its major disadvantage is that it sheds messy small petals, so it is understandable that house-proud women might not welcome it in their homes. It also looks rather like hemlock (Conium maculatum), a well known poisonous plant. Thus its is easy to imagine why children might be discouraged from gathering it.
Cow parsley and hemlock are white-flowered members of the Apiaceae (formerly Umbelliferae, Carrot Family), and sometimes, as in Cheshire, ‘any white-flowered umbellifer is called mother-die and is dreaded’ [2]. Elsewhere, in Cheshire, Flint and Humberside, the name was applied to yarrow (Achillea millefolium), the inforescences of of which resemble those of Apiaceae [3]. Alexanders (Smymium olustatrum), a yellow-flowered umbellifer, was known as mother-die in southeast Norfolk [4].
Blossoming hawthorn (Crataegus), whch is widely considered to be ‘unlucky’ was known a mother-die in northern England [5], and as mother-will-die in Hampshire [6]. Other plants which have been known as mother-die include white campion (Silene latifolia) in Cumberland [7], rosebay willowherb (Chamerion angustifolium) [8] and plantain (Plantago sp.) [9].
Stepmother’s blessing, a name recorded for cow parsley in northern England [10], implies that if its flowers are brought indoors the gatherer’s mother will die, allowing a stepmother literally step in.
The only recent record of a plant being associated with the death of its gatherer’s father is from Lamplugh, Cumbria, in July 1997, where red campion was known as mother-and-father-die.

1. J. Britten & R. Holland, A Dictionary of English Plant-names, London, 1878-86: 342, 555.
2. Bromborough, Merseyside, April 1995.
3. Plant Matters 1, 1996; Driffield, Humberside, March 1985.
4. Flora, Facts & Fables 1: 1, 1996.
5. e.g. Chiswick, London, July 1983, referring to Flixton, near Manchester, in c.1958.
6. Paddington, London, December1982.
7. G. Grigson, An Englishman’s Flora, London, 1955: 84; it is possible that this record is derived from a misreading by Grigson of Britten and Holland’s reference to red campion.
8. Stockport, Greater Manchester, October 1984, referring to a ‘fairly isolated Shropshire village’.
9. Stockport, Greater Manchester, March 1994.
10. Ashley, Shropshire, March 1983, referring to Yorkshire; Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, July 2003, referring to Manchester.

Note received from Vicki Rodger, September 2022:  ‘After reminiscing about my mother’s many, varied and regularly pretty grim, superstitions, I recalled her calling a small white plant with heart-shaped pockets, mother-die.  I tried to find it on-line, but realise now that it’s actually called shepherd’s purse [Capsella bursa-pastoris].’

Image: Veronica chamaedrys, germander speedwell, known as mother-dee in nineteenth-century Yorkshire; Arundel Castle grounds, West Sussex, June 2017.

Updated 2 September 2022.