Quaint new book explores legends behind Britain’s most-loved plants

Why broad beans are saucier than Champagne: Quaint new book by a leading botanist explores the weird and wonderful legends behind some of Britain’s most-loved plants

  • Roy Vickery has been a botanist at the Natural History Museum for over 50 years
  • His book, Vickery’s Folk Flora, makes you think differently about British plants
  • The anecdotes in the book provide some charming glimpses into the recent past 

What are the ideal ingredients for a romantic night in? Forget pricey champagne and oysters — all you need, apparently, are some broad beans (pictured)

VICKERY’S FOLK FLORA

by Roy Vickery (Weidenfeld £30, 823pp)

What are the ideal ingredients for a romantic night in? Forget pricey champagne and oysters — all you need, apparently, are some broad beans.

In Oxfordshire in the Twenties, it was said that there was ‘no lustier scent than a beanfield in bloom’. In Suffolk, it was believed that ‘beans inflame lust . . . best of all traditional aphrodisiacs was the scent of the bean flower, for this not only stimulates passion in the man, but extreme willingness in the girl’.

Phew! This is one of the many weird and wonderful nuggets that emerge from Roy Vickery’s doorstopper of a book.

Since the Seventies, the magnificently bearded Mr Vickery, a botanist at the Natural History Museum for more than 50 years, has been chivvying people for their reminiscences about the legends and superstitions surrounding plants and their usage.

Vickery’s Folk Flora won’t help you identify native flowers, but it will make you think differently about them.

One thing it makes clear is just how much power previous generations invested in plants. As recently as the Fifties, carrying an armful of lilacs was enough to get you barred from public transport in Essex. ‘Lilac was unlucky — nothing to do with the quite strong perfume,’ Vickery was informed.

Another correspondent reported that in Staffordshire, ‘foxgloves . . . were absolutely forbidden inside, as this gave witches/the devil access to the house’.

VICKERY’S FOLK FLORA by Roy Vickery (Weidenfeld £30, 823pp)

And where we see the delicate beauty of cow parsley, our ancestors saw a portent of doom.

In Yorkshire, it was known as ‘kill-your-mother-quick’ or ‘stepmother blossom’, because of the belief that picking cow parsley and bringing it inside would lead to your mother’s death.

Long-forgotten medical cures abound within these pages. A stye, it was thought, could be vanquished by holding a mouldy apple to your eye.

The anecdotes in Vickery’s Folk Flora provide some charming glimpses into the recent past.

The author records that collecting blackberries was so important that, in areas such as the North East of England, children were expected to spend the whole half-term holiday picking the fruits so they could be made into jam.

Some plants were such a part of everyday life that just about every county had its own particular name for them. Cowslips were ‘cuckoo’ in Cornwall, ‘fairy-cups’ in Lincolnshire, ‘horse-buckles’ in Kent and Wiltshire, ‘lady’s keys’ in Somerset and ‘paigle’ in Essex.

All of this seems lightyears away from our 21st-century lives, yet vestiges of this folk knowledge survive. What lovelorn youngster hasn’t plucked daisy petals while chanting ‘loves me, loves me not’, just as children have done for centuries?

 

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