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? Keep reading to find out.
And remember, this post is for entertainment purposes only. It is not designed nor intended to replace medical advice. Do not consume or use any of these plants if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Daffodils (Narcissus Major)
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 Hades caught her, his touch turned the blooms yellow. Since graves fall under his domain, daffodils often appear planted on them (2011: 48). It’s not surprising that the daffodil is considered the flower of the underworld (Dietz 2020: 147).
Pliny and Theosophilus claim daffodils grew on the banks of the Acheron in the Underworld, delighting the dead (Baker 2011: 48). 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!
Through their link with Narcissus, the flowers often symbolise unrequited love or even vanity. In typical contradictory ‘language of flowers’ fashion, it can also send the message, ‘The sun shines when I’m with you’ (Dietz 2020: 147). Because they return every year after winter, Samantha Gray notes they’ve come to represent triumph after tribulations (2015: 100). They make a good plant to send if you want to ask for forgiveness, or to tell someone you appreciate their honesty (2015: 100).
Bad Luck with Daffodils
That said, 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 (Baker 2011: 48). It supposedly flowers on 1 March, St David’s Day. In medieval Europe, the flower drooping while being looked at was an omen of death (Dietz 2020: 147).
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 (Baker 2011: 48). If you do want to bring daffodils indoors, bring a bunch – just one brings bad luck. A superstition in Maine believes a daffodil won’t bloom if you point at it with an index finger (Dietz 2020: 147).
However, if you avoid trampling on them, then they will bring you good luck instead! You could also apparently wear a daffodil over your heart to bring good luck (Dietz 2020: 147). It just goes to show how contrary flower folklore can be.
Some sources say Roman soldiers carried daffodils across Europe as a healing aid (Barrett 2019). Others say they carried them in case they were mortally wounded in battle. In this instance, the bulb would speed their exit from this life. Regardless of the reason, the daffodil does contain harmful toxins! The whole plant is poisonous, but particularly the bulbs.
Common Bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta)
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 (Gray 2015: 36). Walking through a bluebell wood could be dangerous; some believed you’d be spirited away to fairyland. It was especially dangerous at twilight or the witching hour (Gray 2015: 36). As a flower beloved by fairies, it’s considered unlucky to bring it indoors.
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 glycosides in all parts of the plant, but there are few reports of poisoning.
Bluebells and Myth
Samantha Gray notes that the plant’s former botanical name was ‘endymion’, after the lover of the moon goddess, Selene. According to myth, she put him in an eternal sleep so she could enjoy his beauty forever (2015: 36). This gives the bluebell its associations with dreamless sleep.
The bluebell also appears in another Greek myth, which explains its scientific name, Hyacinthoides non-scripta. The god Apollo and the god of the wind Zephyrus fought for the attentions of Prince Hyakinthos. The prince chose Zephyrus, and Apollo killed the prince in a fit of jealousy. Afterwards, he was distraught by what he’d done (Valentine 1867: 34). The hyacinth flower bloomed from Hyakinthos’ blood, and Apollo’s tears spelled the word ‘ai’ (Greek for ‘alas’) on the petals. The bluebell has no letters, which is why they’re referred to as ‘non-scripta’ (YWT no date).
In another variation of the myth, Apollo is playing quoits with Hyakinthos. The jealous Zephyros controls the wind to catch Apollo’s quoit. It strikes Hyakinthos in the head and kills him. In both tales, the hyakinthos plant, or larkspur, springs forth from his blood (Atsma 2000-2011). It’s a larkspur, and not what we call a hyacinth now.
Language of Flowers
For the Romantic poets, the bluebell represented regret and solitude. In the language of flowers, it could represent everlasting love, constancy, humility, and ‘You have put a spell on me’ (Gray 2015: 36). The English bluebell represented delicacy, kindness, and sorrowful regret (Dietz 2020: 109).
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 it 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. Just leave them in the garden.
Hydrangeas come in a variety of colours, though blue is said to be the luckiest (Baker 2011: 81). 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 produces pink flowers.
You should never plant a hydrangea by the door or your daughters won’t marry (Baker 2011: 81). 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 superstition.
The plant can represent devotion, gratitude, and both ‘Thank you for understanding’ and ‘You are cold’ (Dietz 2020: 110). Apparently, Victorian men sent hydrangeas to women who’d turned them down, accusing them of frigidity. (It didn’t occur to them that a woman just might not fancy them).
The hydrangea can also represent gratitude, abundance, heartfelt emotions, or “a boaster” (Valentine 1867: 73). So it’s a plant of mixed messages.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. If a witch curses you, hydrangea can be used to break the curse by burning the bark. Due to the plant’s cyanide content, that’s not advisable. Seriously, do not burn the plant. Instead, S. Theresa Dietz repeats a belief that scattering hydrangea bark around your house would break a hex (2020: 110).
Do you grow any of these common garden flowers?
It’s debatable how true any of them are but a lot of the stories around these plants are telling. Embedded in many of them are nuggets of truth around the toxicity of the plants. And what better way to warn someone away from something dangerous! Humans respond to stories and fear, and some of the stories about plants are tremendous!
You can also see how the representations of flowers changes. When researching the language of flowers, it’s easy to find different versions of what the flowers mean. Over time, they’ve accrued different meanings, so be careful if you decide to use flowers to send a message. Make sure your recipient uses the same meanings dictionary as you!
Atsma, Aaron (2000-2011), ‘Flora 1: Plants of Greek Myth’, Theoi Project, https://www.theoi.com/Flora1.html.
Baker, Margaret (2011) Discovering the Folklore of Plants, 3rd edition, Oxford: Shire Classics.
Barrett, Tonya (2019), ‘History Of Daffodils: Information About Old-Fashioned Daffodils’, Gardening Know How, https://blog.gardeningknowhow.com/tbt/history-of-old-fashioned-daffodils/.
Dietz, S. Theresa (2020), The Complete Language of Flowers: A Definitive and Illustrated History, New York: Wellfleet Press.
Gray, Samantha (2015), The Secret Language of Flowers, London: CICO Books.
Valentine, Laura (1867), The language and sentiment of flowers, London: Frederick Warne and Co.
Yorkshire Wildlife Trust (no date), ‘Bluebell’, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, https://www.ywt.org.uk/wildlife-explorer/wildflowers/bluebell.
Nutty about folklore and want more?
Add your email below and get these posts in your inbox every week.
You'll also get my 5-step guide to protecting your home using folklore!