Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Robin’s pincushion in folk medicine

2014-08-23 11.11.45Robin’s pincushions, also known as bedeguars, are galls which develop on wild roses (Rosa spp.) in late summer after the gall wasp Diplolepis rosae has laid its eggs in buds during the spring.  Such galls were formerly much used to prevent or cure a wide range of ailments.

In west Sussex in the 1860s, where the galls were known as Robin Redbreast’s cushions, they were hung around a patient’s neck as ‘the finest thing known for whooping cough‘.  In the Isle of Axholme, Lincolnshire, in the 1930s it was believed that a ‘tossel from a wild rose hung up in the house will prevent whooping cough’.

In Shropshire in the 1880s: ‘If you light on a briar-boss accidental w’en yo’ an’ the tuthache [toothache], an’ wear it in your boasom, it’ll cure it.’

In Wiltshire, towards the end of the nineteenth century, the gall was ‘often carried in the pocket as a charm against rheumatism‘.

At about the same time in Wales, a gall placed under a pillow would cure insomnia, ‘but it was necessary to remove it at a given time, or, according to the old story, he would never awake’.

Finally, in Northamptonshire in the mid nineteenth century, boys placed a briar-ball in their coat cuffs ‘as a charm to prevent flogging’.

Adapted from Roy Vickery, A Dictionary of Plant-lore, 1995: 112-3, which see for references.

Addenda: 1) According to Gabrielle Hatfield in Hatfield’s Herbal, 2007: ‘Yorkshire schoolboys carried rose galls as a charm against flogging, thus earning the plant the vivid name “save-whallop”.’

2)  The collection of Dr Mark Taylor made in the 1920s, and now in the Norfolk Record Office, Norwich, contains a record contributed by a Dr Evans, of Brundall, Norfolk: ‘Whooping cough: robin’s pincushion (the hairy parasitic growth on briars) a decoction of two or three is taken daily’.

3) According to C.C.B., writing in Notes & Queries, ser.8,vol.9, 1896:  ‘in this [unstated] neighbourhood rose-galls are known as brere-galls and used as a remedy for diarrhoea‘. (Brere is a North Country form of briar, used for both dog rose and bramble).

Images:  Canvey Island, Essex; August 2014.

Updated 21 February 2022.