Flowers, folklore and folk-medicine

Our Fathers of Old

Excellent herbs had our fathers of old –
Excellent herbs to ease their pain –
Alexanders and Marigold,
Eyebright, Orris and Elecampane –
Basil, Rocket, Valerian, Rue
(Almost singing themselves they run)
Vervain, Dittany, Call-me-to-you –
Cowslip, Melilot, Rose of the Sun.
Anything green that grew out of the mould
Was an excellent herb to our fathers of old.

Wonderful tales had our fathers of old,
Wonderful tales of the herbs and the stars –
The Sun was Lord of the Marigold,
Basil and Rocket belonged to Mars.
Pat as a sum in a division it goes –
(Every herb had a planet bespoke) –
Who but Venus should govern the Rose?
Who but Jupiter own the Oak?
Simply and gravely the facts are told
In the wonderful books of our fathers of old.

Wonderful little, when all is said,
Wonderful little our fathers knew.
Half their remedies cured you dead –
Most of their teaching was quite untrue –
“Look at the stars when a patient is ill.
(Dirt has nothing to do with disease),
Bleed and blister as much as you will,
Blister and bleed him as oft as you please.”
Whence enormous and manifold
Errors were made by our fathers of old.

Yet when the sickness was sore in the land,
And neither planets nor herbs assuaged,
They took their lives in their lancet-hand
And, oh, what a wonderful war they waged!
Yes, when the crosses were chalked on the door –
(Yes, when the terrible dead-cart rolled!)
Excellent courage our fathers bore –
None too learned, but nobly bold
Into the fight went our fathers of old.

If it be certain, as Galen says –
And sage Hippocrates holds as much –
“That those afflicted by doubts and dismays
Are mightily helped by a dead man’s touch,”
Then, be good to us, stars above!
Then, be good to us, herbs below!
We are afflicted by what we can prove,
We are distracted by what we know
So-ah, so!
Down from your heaven or up from your mould
Send us the hearts of our Fathers of old!

Rudyard Kipling

Yes, there were some dreadful examples of medicine in days long ago, yet there were also many examples of folk-medicine that did work and that we use today.

For example research in biomedical Egyptology shows that many were effective and that some 67% of the cures recorded in various papyri complied with the 1973 Edition of the British Pharmaceutical Codex. They used honey, a natural antibiotic, to dress wounds and treat throat irritations, for instance, and aloe vera was used to treat blisters, burns, ulcers and skin diseases. They also used mouldy bread to treat infections; one of the moulds that grows on bread is penicillin!

There are many more examples of cures that worked and the active ingredients are used in modern medicine. Indeed, there is a branch of science called ethnobotany or ethnopharmacology that studies folk-medicines with the hope of finding new and active ingredients to treat the plethora of diseases still suffered by humanity.

Regardless of whether they worked or not, reading and researching about the uses of plants and other materials in folk medicine as well as the theories our fathers of old had about illness is something that I find fascinating, when I have the time to dig and delve into it. I find lots of interesting tales about where the names of plants come from, so I learn more about etymology, history, folklore, legend and myth. I get to look at photographs and illustrations of the plants used, so widening my knowledge and experience of art and so inspiring me to create my own. One day, the tales may even help to inspire me to do my own creative writing, maybe poetry, about all the wonderful lore that surrounds our most familiar plants, crystals, rocks, horseshoes, and so on.


It’s started to rain steadily and quite heavily here. It’s also feeling rather chilly for an August day. The rain prompted me to look at folklore and superstitions mentioning rain. As I was sat at the ‘puter it was easier to go and do a Google than to go looking for my books on such topics.

There’s a good list of weather-lore at Down Gardening Services, and a lot more on the world weird web.

I like ‘The daisy shuts its eye before rain’ simply because I like daisies! I always think they look bright stars set in a green firmament. They always cheer one up!

The name daisy comes from the Old English ‘dæges eage‘ which means ‘day’s eye’ because the petals open at dawn and close at dusk (unless it’s about to rain!).   In Welsh they are called ‘Llygad y Dydd‘, which also means ‘eye of the day’.  It’s scientific name is Bellis perennis.

According to Roman mythology, Vertumnus, the guardian deity of orchards, pursued a young tree nymph named Belides after he saw her dancing with the other nymphs at the edge of the orchard.  Belides did not want his attention and so she asked the gods for help to escape Vertumnus.  As the powerful King of Argos was grandfather to Belides, the gods agreed to help.  They transformed her into a tiny flower called Bellis, and so she escaped a terrible fate.

The Celts had a legend that daisies were the spirits of babies who had died during birth. The daisies grew to help relieve their parents’ grief with their simple beauty and innocence.

Making daisy chains was a childhood activity enjoyed by many of us. I wonder how many of us knew at those tender ages that parents used to put daisy chains around children’s necks to prevent them being stolen by fairies. Apparently, daisy chains should always have their ends joined so that they form a circle that represents the Sun, the Earth and the cycle of life.

Plucking the petals from a daisy, one by one, and reciting ‘s/he loves me, s/he loves me not’ is a common divinatory superstition. Placing the root of a daisy under one’s pillow is said to produce a dream or a vision of one’s future love/partner.

The symbolic and legendary meanings of flowers dates back to Elizabethan times, however it was the Victorians who assigned simple messages to flowers. It was a period in time when social etiquette meant that men and ladies could not express their feelings openly and so the use of the colour and type of flower to express what they could not say or show became popular. The daisy was associated with simplicity and modesty. The message of the daisies in the language of flowers is that of gentleness, innocence and purity in both the giver and receiver.