The folklore of flowers proves an expansive subject, both terrifying and interesting in equal measure. Much like the world of trees and plants at the best of times. They follow their own cycles, often independent of human intervention. They’ll often grow in seemingly inhospitable environments. They’re living creatures, but they’re rooted to the spot. They are hardy or delicate, wild or cultivated.
They can also be incredibly dangerous.
Poisonous plants are a particular interest of mine and I like to call it toxic botany. One of my favourite places to visit is the Poison Garden at the Alnwick Garden where some of the plants are even kept under lock and key. Others, like henbane, produce such a noxious smell that you don’t even want to go near them.
At the Poison Garden, knowledgeable guides lead small bands of visitors among the beds. They point out the different varieties and relate tales associated with the folklore of flowers. Some of them are common plants you’d find in your garden, others are more difficult to cultivate.
But here are three of my favourite specimens, as we delve into the folklore of flowers!
Belladonna AKA Deadly Nightshade
Atropa belladonna, also known as deadly nightshade, is extremely poisonous! It comes from the Solanaceae family…along with peppers, aubergines, tomatoes and potatoes!
Its name, belladonna, comes from the Italian, ‘beautiful ladies’. In bygone days, Venetian women believed that dilated pupils made them more attractive.
It’s not as mad as it sounds. The pupils naturally dilate when the person is aroused, so it would serve to make the ladies look more interested than they perhaps were. Quite handy if you’re after a husband.
Its name, Atropa, comes from Atropos, the third of the Greek Fates. It was her job to cut the thread of life after it had been measured out by her two sisters. It was also sacred to Bellona, a Roman war goddess. Belladonna is very heavily associated with death.
Deadly nightshade is believed to be the Devil’s plant. Parents told their children that those caught picking the berries would meet the Devil face to face. They needed a way to discourage their children from eating the berries; they’re apparently quite sweet. They’re also highly toxic, so keep away from the entire plant. All of it is extremely dangerous.
Along with opium poppy and other plants, belladonna was believed to make up the ‘flying ointment’ used by witches. Commentators thought the ointment helped the witches to fly to their gatherings, but it’s more likely that a combination of the plants caused hallucinations.
The foxglove is also known as dead man’s bells, fairy thimbles, and witches’ gloves. They are among the prettiest of the poisonous plants. The digitalis extracted from foxgloves is used in heart medicines. But do not consume any part of the plant yourself.
The plant is toxic, but planting it in the garden may grant your house protection. It is also said to attract fairies and according to legend, the white spots inside each bell are marks left by fairies. But don’t pick the foxglove and bring it inside, as it’ll annoy the fairies.
Leave it outside where it’ll be a favourite spot for bees!
In some sources I read, the name ‘fox glove’ was just a misspelling of ‘folk’s glove’. In others, the name came from the fact that fairies apparently taught foxes to ring the bells, warning other foxes of hunters in the area. Another tale claimed that the fairies gave the flowers to the foxes to wear over their paws so the hens in the hen house wouldn’t hear them coming!
Its legends extend beyond fairies. According to Roman mythology, Juno grew tired of Jupiter conceiving children with other women – but not her. The goddess Flora touched a foxglove to her belly and breasts, and Juno conceived the god, Mars.
All this from a plant that now gives us digitalis for heart medicine!
Angel’s trumpet, or Brugmansia suaveolens to give it the proper name, is another member of the Solanaceae family. It’s toxic, but its unpleasant taste makes accidental poisoning rare. Some people make tea from the seeds. This dodgy practice is what usually causes poisonings. It contains a lot of scopolamine, which gives it psychoactive properties.
But this post is about the folklore of flowers! At one time Brugmansia was allegedly a favoured murder weapon. Professional assassins thought it caused a lack of movement, or induced sleep, in victims. Whether this ever worked isn’t clear since most reports say the plant’s chemicals cause agitation.
Some people even believe that Brugmansia is an ingredient in the powder used to make zombies!
In more magical terms, Brugmansia can be used to encourage communication with the dead. It’s a little more dodgy than using a Ouija board.
They are related to deadly nightshade and black henbane. That’s one fairly poisonous family tree! They are beautiful though, and there’s something very magical about them. I often wonder if the trumpets sound in the dead of night.
The study of the folklore of flowers reveals some interesting and unusual stories.
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! I highly recommend Wicked Plants: The A-Z of Plants That Kill, Maim, Intoxicate and Otherwise Offend by Amy Stewart if you want to know more about the folklore of flowers.
Have you got any of these in your garden? Let me know in the comments!
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