Superstitions and Folklore of the Hedgerows
Speaker: Christine Iverson
Date: 25th April
Christine at Tuppenny Barn
A forager by heart and fascinated by the folklore and superstition connected with our wild plants, Christine loves nothing better than wandering the hedgerows looking for berries and plants to turn into jams, chutneys, alcohol, crafts and simple remedies.
Christine first explained a rule of thumb called Hooper’s Law which gives us a way to estimate the age of a hedgerow (Max Hooper was a scientist who studied and wrote about hedgerows and biodiversity) The simplest method is to count the number of species of tree or shrub found in a 100 ft length of hedge. This number (averaged over three or more sample stretches) multiplied by 100 gives a rough estimate of the age of the hedge. So, a hedge with an average of five woody species might be tentatively dated to the 16th century.
She then entertained us with tales of the plants growing in our English hedgerows and the lore and legends associated with them. For example, fairy related plants include bluebells – did you know that if they ring at dawn they are calling the fairies to a meeting? If children pick them they will be spirited away by the fairies. Also, they were used as a blue die for book-binding.
There are many stories related to the hawthorn – it is thought the flowers smell of death so they are unlucky if taken indoors, however a hawthorn globe hung up indoors will protect from fire. Persons washed in the dew from the hawthorn tree, handsome will be. We all seemed familiar with bread and cheese from the berries and leave!
Blackthorn is known as the witch tree, also unlucky if the blossom is taken in doors. When it blooms it is time to sew the Barley. Blackthorn is also useful as part of a cure for warts, a slug rubbed on the wart and then impaled on the thorns will charm the wart away. Wart charmers used to wander from village to village to ply their trade. Poppets were also made from blackthorn and used to put spells on folks.
Elder is also known as a witches tree and is always to be found in the wise women’s medicine chest. It was useful as an insect repellent to keep the flies away. The buds were a laxative and the flowers used to make elder flower cordial, also a natural antihistamine. Berries can be used to make wine or cordial, are an anti-oxidant and good for chest colds when mixed with cloves and sugar. The mid-summer berries can cast out devils and give the strength of 40 men!
Sloe berries are still used to make sloe gin and the green berries as a purgative.
Oak trees are regarded by Druids as a sacred tree, if you dream of oak trees you will live a long and healthy life. If the hair of a sick person is nailed to and oak tree, the sickness will be transferred to the tree. Oak apples can make ink or hair die. Mistletoe growing on oak trees must be harvested with a gold cutter and must not be allowed to touch the ground.
The Dog Rose has itchy seeds, a symbol of fertility. Eating rose hips can render you invisible (or visible). Rose hips are a good source of vitamin C when made into syrup re WW2. The blackberry bush has an association with lawyers with its backward facing thorns, because once this thorny plant becomes attached to you it will not let you go until it has drawn blood!
Brambles also have curative powers, their arches have special healing properties and can cure boils, hernias etc if the sick person is taken through the arch. The same applies to the cleft in Yew trees. Bramble vinegar can be used to make a salad dressing. But a word of warning, don’t pick the berries after Michaelmas because that was when Satan was thrown out of heaven, landed in a blackberry bush and peed in it! However, it can afford protection if placed by the front door as any witches trying to enter stop to count the berries and forget what they were doing.
Nettles are a useful plant too, they can used to make soup or tea and can remove mental health devils if the person afflicted is thrashed with them. Also thrashing horses with nettles helps with the mating process. If you have trouble concentrating wear some nettles in your socks it helps enormously!
Juniper has a myriad of uses, it’s spikes afford protection against wild beasts and the evil eye. It is useful for when you need an exorcism and when placed over the door will protect against devils and witches. The berries give flavour to gin, are an aphrodisiac and a bastard killer! They can also cure flatulence and jaundice.
St. John’s Wort has powerful healing and longevity properties – sleep with it under your pillow you will live another year and without depression or suffer from hallucinations! Soldiers used it to make themselves invisible.
Further reading, Christine recommended a book by Charlotte Latham who lived in Fittleworth and wrote “Homely Conversations” in 1868 about West Sussex superstitions and old wives tales, published by the Folklore Society as a good read in the same vane.
What a fascinating talk from the Hedgerow Apothecary!
A mature hedgerow along a country Lane