Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

REVIEW: Floral Folklore

Alison Davies, Floral Folklore, Leaping Hare Press, 2024.

Subtitled ‘The forgotten tales behind nature’s most enchanted plants’ this attractive and well-produced book will catch the eye of many potential buyers who will be tempted by its bold and beautiful illustrations by Sarah Wildling.

After a brief introduction the author proceeds to provide accounts of 43 plants arranged according to season. Each account consists of the plant’s English and scientific names, a brief description of the plant, ‘flower meaning’, ‘folklore origin’, a narrative about the plant, and a ‘ritual to …’  which uses it.  Although the author is based in Nottingham, the artist in North Yorkshire, and the publisher in London, it is obvious that they have their eyes firmly on the North American market, thus we get ‘color’ instead of ‘colour’, ‘fall’ instead of ‘autumn’, and ‘yard’ instead of garden.

As stated earlier, the illustrations are attractive and usually convey a good impression of each plant, however some are inaccurate: buttercup (Ranunculus repens) does not have white bulbs, the flowers of parsley  (Petroselinum crispum) are greenish-yellow as stated in the text, not white as shown in the illustration.  It is unfortunate that illustration for the first plant account, that of anemone (Anemone coronaria) is not of that species, but wood anemone (A. nemorosa).

The brief descriptions of the plants can be helpful, can be inaccurate (irises, Iris spp. do not all have ‘thick underground stems’, some have bulbs), and sometimes clumsy, thus geranium (Pelargonium):                                                  ‘Geraniums are a perennial shrub that is woody and herbaceous, with thick roundly-lobed leaves.  Their flowers come in a range of hues, and can be double, ragged or frilled.’

The ‘flower meaning’ section provides a short list of emotions, etc., with which the plant is associated, thus, for foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) these are ‘intuition, women’s magic, and creativity’.

‘Folklore origin’ provides the country or region from which the narrative originated.

The narratives, ‘based upon myths and legends associated with each bloom from around the world’, are probably the most worthwhile part of the book, and are probably best read out loud to a group.  In the case of geranium (Pelargonium) the ‘folklore origin’ is said to be Scandinavia, and the narrative is entitled ‘Odin’s grace’.  Since Pelargonium spp. are not native to northern Europe, most species being native to southern Africa, it’s unlikely that they featured in a legend associated with the Norse god, Odin.  Furthermore, as the result of the ‘god’s joyful stare’ the plant’s petals ‘began to change color, turning the most vivid sky blue, to reflect Odin’s gaze’.  Although Pelargonium flowers come in ‘a variety of hues’, this variety does not extend to include sky blue, and it is probable that the species originally featured in the legend was meadow cranesbill (Geranium pratense), which is native to northern Europe and has attractive blue flowers.

The rituals can apparently  in the case of rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus) ‘bring clarity and vision’, in the case of phlox (Phlox) ‘help you grow and flourish’, in the case of  valerian (Valeriana officinalis) ‘harvest and nurture new growth and connect with nature’, and so on.  Here North American readers might have difficulty with some of the suggested rituals, for example that which uses bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta)  advises ‘find a patch of woodland and go on a bluebell hunt’.  As bluebells are native to Europe such a hunt is unlikely to be succeed elsewhere.  Occasionally it’s accepted that it might be difficult to have material of the living plant, so in the case of protea (Protea cynaroides) an image of the plant in full bloom will suffice. Or, in the case of the snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) ritual ‘to cleanse the mind and inspire hope’,  a large white scarf or piece of material is adequate:                                    ‘Wrap the scarf around your shoulders and close your eyes.  Take a deep breath in and imagine you’re drawing in the pure white energy of the Snowdrop.  Feel it permeate your being.’

The pansy (Viola tricolor var. hortensis, more usually known as V. x wittrockiana) ritual ‘to promote kindness and friendship’ advises the user to get ‘some Pansy shrubs’ and plant your ‘saplings’ in a pot containing rose quartz.  As pansies are herbaceous the use of the words shrub and saplings seems inappropriate.

To sum up:  the illustrations and narratives are enjoyable, and the rituals might appeal to some people, possibly more as group, rather than individual, activities, but people with any knowledge of gardening or botany will occasionally scratch their heads and wonder what’s going on here.

Images:  main, front cover; inset, foxglove.

May 2024