Last week, we looked at the folklore of flowers, focusing on Angel’s Trumpet, Foxgloves, and Deadly Nightshade. They are by no means the only poisonous flowers in existence. This week, I thought we’d bring it a little closer to home and look at three really common garden flowers – that are all toxic! You can find these in any garden in the UK, while daffodils and bluebells are a regular sight in British woodland.
But what should you watch out for?
Probably one of the most common garden flowers, daffodils always look so cheerful! But according to Margaret Baker, daffodils were originally white, and a favoured flower of Persephone. When Pluto caught her, his touch turned the blooms yellow. Since graves fall under his domain, daffodils often appear planted on them (2011, 48).
Interestingly, the Egyptians also included daffodils in funeral wreaths.
Pliny and Theosophilus claim daffodils grew on the banks of the Acheron in the Underworld, delighting the dead. Elsewhere in mythology, they’re also associated with Narcissus. After he ignored the love of Echo, who wasted away as she pined for him, Nemesis (goddess of retribution) led him to a lake. He fell in love with his reflection, and wasted away himself.
The gods turned him into a scented flower. Lo, the daffodil was born!
They often symbolise unrequited love or even vanity. They’re also linked with bad luck. If the first daffodils of the year hung toward you, then you were in for a rough time. It supposedly flowers on 1 March, St David’s Day.
It’s especially unlucky to bring them indoors before any eggs have hatched. Because their colour matches the down of newborn chicks, you must leave them outside, or the eggs won’t hatch.
If you do want to bring them indoors, bring a bunch – just one brings bad luck.
However, if you avoid trampling on them, then they will bring you good luck instead!
The whole plant is poisonous, but particularly the bulbs. According to legend, Roman soldiers carried them in case they were mortally wounded.
Bluebells are one of my favourite wildflowers, and they’re another one of the most common garden flowers in the UK. According to Wildlife.bcn.org, 25-49% of the world’s population are found in Britain.
They’re known as ‘fairy flowers’ because the fairies ring them to summon their kin! Just don’t go out trying to hear it – the ringing becomes a death knell for humans. Walking through a bluebell wood could be dangerous; some believed you’d be spirited away to fairyland.
Elsewhere in folklore, some believed that wearing a wreath made of bluebell flowers made you tell the truth. Alternatively, try turning a flower inside out without tearing it. If you manage it, you’ll win the one you love.
But despite that, they are poisonous. Bluebells contain similar compounds to foxgloves, but there are few reports of poisoning.
Bluebells can also be called ‘Granfer Giggles’ or ‘wild hyacinth’. In the West of England, it’s considered unlucky to bring it indoors. For the Romantic poets, the bluebell represented regret and solitude.
According to Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, the bluebell represents constancy, and some believe the flower to be the origin of the ‘something blue’ wedding tradition.
According to William Turner’s 1568 Herbal, boys in Northumberland scraped sap off the bluebell bulb to glue feathers onto arrows. Margaret Baker says that the Victorians believed in bloomed on 23 April, St George’s Day. Equally patriotic was its blue colour, linking it to the ocean Britannia ruled (2011, 31).
Despite its popularity as a garden shrub, the hydrangea actually contains low levels of cyanide! These common garden flowers are sometimes used as a cake topper but make no mistake, this is not edible.
Hydrangeas comes in a variety of colours, though blue is said to be the luckiest. It probably explains why they’re favoured by the Fae. It’s an interesting plant because its colour largely depends on your soil. Acidic soil contains more aluminium so the flowers turn blue. Soil heavy in lime produce pink flowers.
You should never plant a hydrangea by the door or your daughters won’t marry. The hydrangea can represent ‘heartlessness’. Perhaps that explains why having one near your door dooms you to perpetual singledom. Or maybe it got its associations because of the superstition.
Victorian men sent hydrangeas to women who’d turned them down, accusing them of frigidity. (Apparently men had an over-inflated sense of entitlement then too).
The hydrangea can also represent gratitude, abundance, heartfelt emotions, or a fourth wedding anniversary. So it’s a plant of mixed messages.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. If a witch curses you, a hydrangea can be used to break the curse by burning the bark. Due to the plant’s cyanide content, that’s not advisable.
And in Japan, an emperor used hydrangeas to apologise to the family of the girl he loved. The flower came to represent sincerity.
Do you grow any of these common garden flowers?
Let me know! You’re bound to have at least one of them somewhere near where you live!
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Alnwick Garden, The Poison Garden,
Baker, Margaret (2011) Discovering the Folklore of Plants, 3rd edition, Oxford: Shire Classics.
Gillam, Frederick (2008) Poisonous Plants in Great Britain, Glastonbury: Wooden Books.
Stewart, Amy (2010) Wicked Plants: The A-Z of Plants that kill, maim, intoxicate and otherwise offend, London: Timber Press.
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