Archive for Sunday, February 1, 1998


February 1, 1998


Punxsutawney Phil will take center stage Monday, but plants have had the folklore limelight for centuries.

On Monday, as a famous groundhog somewhere in Pennsylvania emerges from its underground home to predict the remaining length of winter, our curiosity will be prodded. Winter-weary gardeners anticipating the beginning of spring eagerly await the outcome of this annual ritual. Will a furry shadow be seen or not? Will we have six more weeks of winter or an early spring? Skeptics, even, are prone to give the result at least a passing notice.

By virtue of this popular folklore, Feb. 2 is likely the only day groundhogs are tolerated anywhere near the garden. Gardeners actively stalk them and the other varmints that invade our lawns and flower beds.

Gardeners of yesteryear placed empty bottles at the entrances of tunnels made by moles to discourage the animals' residence. Occasionally, the bottles were filled with varying amounts of water. The wind, passing across the bottle tops, emitted musical tones. The hope was that the eerie sounds would convince even the most determined mole to vacate its burrow.

Other stories handed down during the years weave an interesting tapestry of garden trivia. Many of these myths, folk tales and legends depict the relationship between people and the horticultural phenomena of the world. The symbolism represented in the stories offers explanations and interpretations to our coexistence with nature. The stories range from the possible, maybe even probable, to pure fiction.

For example, legend tells of the origin of the easily grown bellflower, campanula. The flower is said to have originated after a young shepherd boy found the magical mirror of Venus, the goddess of love. The mirror, which only reflected beauty, was accidentally broken when Cupid was sent to retrieve it from the lad. Everywhere the shattered pieces fell upon the earth, a bellflower sprang forth.

Flowers of love

Another legend has it that the flower Myosotis scorpioides received its name when a gentleman fell into a river while trying to pick the lovely blue flower for the woman walking beside him. As he was swept away in the current, he called for her to ``Forget me not!''

In Victorian times, the pansy meant ``romantic thought,'' from the French word, panse. In fact, the pansy flower was one of the ingredients in the love potion used in ``A Midsummer Night's Dream.'' The pansy juice on the eyes of Titania was thought to make her fall in love with the first creature she saw upon awakening. I'm not sure if the history of pansy power is the reason, but even today some salads have the colorful addition of pansy flowers.

The allure of flowers speaks volumes from the heart. Cupid's Dart, Catanache, derives its name from the Greek word for ``spell'' for the flower is thought to invoke the same spell of passion as do Cupid's arrows. And the gift of roses is well-known for its communication of love and affection. Who can forget the effectiveness of roses on the great romance between Anthony and Cleopatra?

Beware though. Giving a bouquet of columbine was not the way to win a woman's heart. Even though the flower is an old-time favorite -- with its fern like leafy stems and nodding, tall, deeply lobed trumpet shaped flowers -- its shape was thought to resemble a jester's cap and bells. A bouquet of columbine was not a complimentary gesture. Woe be the man who gave a woman this flower.

Luck, sleep and thick hair

Other flowers and their tales demonstrate the perceived and sometimes real power of plants. According to Greek legend, poppies are essential for the growth of corn. The legend tells the long ago story of Ceres, the goddess of agriculture. She had become exhausted in the search for her lost daughter, leaving her unable to tend to her corn crop. Somnus, the god of sleep, created the poppy flower to help Ceres to sleep. Upon resting, she was able to resume growing corn.

During the years, plants have been credited with bringing a multitude of luck, both good and bad. A four-leaf clover worn in a shoe is thought to bring a mate your way. Yarrow has been used to prevent hair loss. Even the tiny succulent echeveria is revered for its power of protection.

Karen Mathes reports in ``Fine Gardening'' (November/December 1996 issue) that the tightly clustered plant, hens 'n' chicks, is regarded as a good luck plant. Frenchmen planted them on their rooftops and around houses to keep away evil spirits. These diminutive plants were also thought to keep away lightning. The plants were considered so powerful that Charlemagne ordered them grown on rooftops throughout his empire more than 1,000 years ago.

Harvesters of the foxglove plant had thought the flower should only be gathered with the left hand. Earlier legends warned against picking the plant at all to avoid offending the fairies who were thought to live within the flowers. To pick the flowers was to bring bad luck, perhaps even death, to the flower-picker and his family. The truth within this legend no doubt stems from the fact that foxglove is poisonous since it contains digitalis, a potent drug used to treat heart disease, and is best left untouched.

The magic of herbs

Fortunately, flowers, especially herbs, are more likely associated with good fortune than bad. Rosemary, for example, was used by people during the plague of 1665. It was placed within the handles of walking sticks and within pouches tied to them. Travelers would protect themselves from harm by sniffing the strongly scented herb when traveling through plague-infected areas.

The herb also was thought to ward off nightmares when placed under a pillow. In addition, it was claimed to have the ability to help children learn and remember their school lessons. Who knows, perhaps their improved scholastic performance was merely a serendipitous bonus of getting a good night's rest without the intrusion of bad dreams. Yet to this day, rosemary is credited with being a memory enhancer.

Rosemary became a symbol of fidelity for lovers and was likely to thrive near the home where a matriarch lived. The plant reportedly would die if she moved away. Another herb, sage, is said to grow strongly only when planted in the garden of a woman who had a firm rule over her household and her husband.

In today's world, perhaps a more politically correct herb to plant is parsley for parsley is said to thrive in the homes of strong women and honest men. In ancient Rome parsley was planted in great quantity and served to the feasting guests at large banquets to prevent them from becoming intoxicated and to prevent odors.

People around the world have tales centering on plants. Gardeners of ancient China held that trees contained souls. If a tree was chopped down, its soul would roam the land without peace as a homeless spirit. Only when a new tree was planted would the displaced soul again find a place to live.

Roman soldiers and Scottish highlanders used thyme in bath water to provide them with vigor. Ancient Egyptians used the plant as a preservative when burying their dead.

The legends and folk tales surrounding garden plants are fascinating. True or not, they help us appreciate the struggles of gardeners who have lived before us. In some universal way these stories connect with us and connect us to nature. Still, the question remains -- will we have six more weeks of winter?

-- Carol Boncella is education coordinator at Lawrence Memorial Hospital. You can send e-mail to her at gardenspot

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