Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

St Newlina’s fig tree

A fig (Ficus carica) tree which grows from the south wall of St Newlyn East church, in Cornwall, is reputed to have grown from a staff carried by St Newlina, and obscure virgin martyr.  According to a tradition recorded, or possibly invented, by the village’s vicar in the 1930s, Newlina, a Christian princess, sailed from Ireland, landed at Holywell, and walked to where St Newlyn East now stands.  On arriving at the site of the present church she thrust her staff into the ground and said, ‘Let a church be built’.  The staff took root and grew into a fig tree.

It is locally believed that the tree still enjoys Newlina’s protection.  A postcard on sale in the late 1970s depicts the tree, and gives the verse:

In ancient days Newlina came,                                                                                  The saint who gave this place its name.                                                                     Her staff she planted and she prayed,                                                                       ‘Let here a church to God be made.’                                                                    This fig tree is her staff folks say;                                                                    Destroy it not in anyway,                                                                                             Upon it lies a dreadful curse,                                                                                     Who plucks a leaf will need a hearse.

According to the Sunday Express of 1 June 1958:

‘Four Cornishmen have defied a ‘curse of death’ and lived.  Warning of the ‘curse’ is printed beside a fig tree which grows out of the wall of the ancient parish church of St Newlyn East, near Newquay.  It says that death will follow within a year if any man so much as plucks a leaf from the tree.                                                               Twelve months ago four men of the village pruned the tree.  One of them … said yesterday: ‘When I was asked if I would prune the tree I said “Certainly. I’m not superstitious.”  But soon afterwards, when I went to fell some trees one fell on me putting me off work for three months.’                                               Does he believe in the ‘curse’ now?  ‘Not a bit.  I think it was invented to make a good yarn.’

However, in 1978 the vicar of the parish recorded that ‘from time to time the tree has to be pruned, but, by a remarkable number of coincidences, some of those who have done so have met with misfortune and death’.

In his British and Foreign Trees and Shrubs in Cornwall (1930) Edgar Thurston provides a photograph of the tree, but does not mention the legend.  As Thurston had an interest in folklore which led to the inclusion of material irrelevant to trees in his work, this omission is perhaps significant: was he unaware of it, or was it collected (or invented) a few years later?

Also in Cornwall, a fig tree grows from the wall of Manaccan parish church, but this tree has no legend associated with it.  In 1998 a former vicar of the parish noted:  ‘I have personally cut large chunks from it and no harm has come to me …  It has been suggested that both trees were planted by the Cornish historian Richard Polwhele, who was vicar of Manaccan from 1794 to 1821 and of St Newlyn East from 1821 to 1838.

Comment gratefully received from Rupert  White, February 2022: ‘There is a large and very old fig tree at Polwhele House, which is the Polwhele family home; perhaps it provided the saplings that Richard Polwhele planted out in Manaccan and Newlyn East?’

Images:  main, notelet from a series ‘Cornish Saints’, c.1998; upper inset, postcard received 1978; middle inset, 1887 engraving of Manaccan church, showing ‘the celebrated Fig Tree which grows out of the South Wall’; lower inset, unused and undated postcard of Manaccan church.

Updated 12 November 2022.