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Angiosperms: the secret lives and lore of flowering plants

Giles Watson

Aquifoliaceae

Holly (Ilex aquifolium)

The King of Oak,

The Holly King,

Forever they shall fight,

For one brings on the summer’s morn,

The other winter’s night.

At New Year comes the Holly King

With green staff in his hand,

And then the unsheathed swords will sing,

As the Oak King takes his stand,

And off will come the Holly King’s head,

He will not blench, not fall down dead,

Though bright red blood sprays all around,

Like berries on the ground.

And half the year the King of Oak

Laments the brash beheading:

He worries through the Beltane smoke

And mopes at every wedding,

For he knows the jolly Holly King

Will serve him just the same,

And long shall all the poets sing

Of their gruesome game.

He rides out on a pale morn,

The ground is caked with frost,

The Oak King’s face is all forlorn

As he counts the cost.

He comes upon a cleft ravine,

Each crevice filled with ferns,

His grim foe’s face is dark and green;

He hails him, and he turns.

And bare the Oak King’s neck is laid

Upon the mossy ground;

All the Oak King’s debts are paid,

And gruesome is the sound.

The Holly King through winter reigns,

And Oak hides ’til the spring;

Then he shall repay his pains

And bladed steel shall ring.

At New Year comes the Holly King

With green staff in his hand,

And then the unsheathed swords will sing,

As the Oak King takes his stand,

And off will come the Holly King’s head,

He will not blench, not fall down dead,

Though bright red blood sprays all around,

Like berries on the ground.

Source material. The poem is a reconstruction of the ancient legend of the perennial battle between the Oak King and the Holly King (personifying the summer and the winter respectively). The battle motif is a common element of pre-Christian tree-lore; it has been immortalised in the fourteenth century Staffordshire-dialect poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Gawain poet was a devout Christian, as is testified by ‘Pearl’, the other major poem attributed to him. He even manages to interpret the Pentagram, which is inscribed on Gawain’s shield, as a Christian symbol, and conveniently devotes his hero to the Virgin Mary, rather than to a pagan goddess. However, it seems obvious that his Green Knight is none other than the Holly King, the overlord of the dark winter months, and Gawain is the Oak King, who must, whether by the laws of chivalry or of nature, receive a blow in return at the end of his reign. The transparency of the Gawain poet’s folkloric whitewash is testified by the fact that Morgan la Fae, a pagan goddess if ever there was one, presides over the whole affair. The trysting place of Gawain and the Green Knight has occasionally, and remarkably convincingly, been identified as Lud’s Church (the ‘cleft ravine’ of this song), a natural geological feature with a far-from-natural atmosphere, only a bracing winter’s walk from the Roaches in north Staffordshire.

Giles Watson (2001)

Araliaceae

Ivy (Hedera helix)

Adorn the final harvest sheaf

With ribbons, ivy-bound,

And give your thanks for all the green

That grows in goodly ground.

Adorn the final harvest sheaf

With ivy twine and ivy leaf:

Dry leaves fly in the wind, and whirl,

As we bring home the Ivy Girl.

The light has changed; the nights grow long;

The cold gusts fade. The golden crowns

Of maidens, manes of laden mares,

Glimpsed through yellowed leaves,

As they bring in the harvest sheaves.

Leaves stir, all bronzed, the burnished orb

Lights all with long rays: auburn glades,

The sheep, the style, the sharpened scythe,

The bundled straw, the swathe, the broom;

Through window panes, the lamp, the loom.

In stillness, silence, sylvan shadows,

The unheard sigh from earthen mould,

Wood-ear fungus, wet and pungent,

Croaking crows, and creeping cold,

Black, grey and brown: gone green and gold.

Source material. Margaret Baker, Discovering the Folklore of Plants, Princes Risborough, 1996, p. 83, remarks: “In some counties the last harvest sheaf carried home in any parish was the ‘Ivy Girl’, bound with ivy, dressed in lace and ribbons and carried in triumph as the instrument of continuity and increase for the farm.”

Giles Watson (2001)

Betulaceae

Alder (Alnus glutinosa)

The mast crashed down on the helmsman’s skull,

A thunderbolt burst on the deck,

And upon the foundering ship

The water rushed up to his neck,

And all of them drowned, all but he,

Thrown about by the raging sea,

For he grasped a plank with a desperate grip,

Watched by a black-headed gull.

Nine days he drifted, washed afar,

And the sea-crow flew before,

Until he came to waters warm,

Washed up on a foreign shore.

He lay and dreamed of broken hulls

And horned owls, falcons, raucous gulls,

Wheeled above his bedraggled form

Beside an alder carr.

On alder branches she laid him out

And dragged him to a cave;

She wrapped him up with alder leaves;

Her sun-browned face was grave,

And then she fed him, when he woke,

On fish preserved with alder smoke.

The cave was lined with grape-vine wreaths

And herbs grew all about.

On an alder pipe she gently played

To keep his spirit strong.

She lay beside him on the bed;

Her limbs were lithe and long,

By flowing rivers, soon they walked;

With alder cones, brittle stalked,

She made a crown to fit his head

All in an alder glade.

There he stayed for seven years,

But for his home he yearned,

And though he loved her honeyed kiss,

Her heart he grimly spurned.

He cut down alders, and they bled

With weeping sap, warm and red,

And boldly turned away from bliss

Undaunted by her tears.

An alder raft then builded he;

She brought him wine, and corn,

And sat upon the lonely beach,

Her face white and forlorn,

And as he drifted far away

She waved goodbye with an alder spray,

And blesséd Bran did she beseech,

For her love upon the sea.

Source material. The tale of Odysseus and Calypso on the island of Ogygia, in Homer’s Odyssey. See also Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, Harmondsworth, 1960, pp. 362–363.

Giles Watson (2001)

Birch (Betula pendula)

“Father, you are growing pale,

The lustre’s left your eyes,

Your breath is weary, voice is stale,

Your words are trite, that once were wise,

And long you stare at yonder tree;

I wonder what it is you see

But golden leaves and papered bark?

You watch that weeping tree ’til dark,

And I am filled with anxious fear

At the waning of the year.”

Tears brimming in her eyes of blue;

Birch, drive out old and bring in new.

“The loamy ground is calling me,

For time has passed me by.

By yonder birch tree bury me,

My daughter, when I die.

Put me in a wicker cage -

Stilled my laughter, stilled my rage,

Spent my heart and spent my toil -

Upon my head pile leafy soil,

And on the birch boughs, weeping low

I shall come back as a darkling crow.”

A crust of frost replaced the dew;

Birch, drive out old and bring in new.

He died before November cold

The leaves lay deep like flakes of gold;

They took his body from the church

And buried him beside the birch.

Springtide soon dispelled her grief;

The dark-veined birch burst into leaf.

The catkins hung in summertide

And seeds were scattered far and wide.

And when the branches cracked with snow

The girl looked up, and saw a crow.

And on the ground, green saplings grew,

Birch, drive out old and bring in new.

Source material. See J.M. Paterson, Tree Wisdom, p. 96.

Giles Watson (2001)

Caprifoliaceae

Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum)

Woodbind, wind and hold her,

Woodbind shall enfold her;

Hawk-moths hover in the night—

Love her and behold her.

All about the hazel wind,

Like lovers in their beds entwined.

Flowers, clothe my love in white;

Honeysuckle, twist and bind.

I loved her, but she knew me not,

Distracted was my mind;

I watched her in the garden

Where the honeysuckles wind.

I went to where the coppice grew,

A love-wand for to find;

I wandered to the tangled wood

Where honeysuckles wind.

I cut a wand, by woodbind grooved,

To hunt the fleeting hind,

But she caught me when I turned around

Where honeysuckles wind.

She married me, now we are old,

Our faces aged and lined,

And I shall hold my love so long

As honeysuckles wind.

Source material. Katherine Kear, Flower Wisdom, London, 2000, p. 89, reports a folk belief which held “that a walking stick made from a hazel stick which had been encircled and marked with honeysuckle would enable its owner to court the lady of his dreams.” Gerard’s Herbal (1636 folio) affirms that “The Woodbinde groweth in woods and hedges, and upon shrubs and bushes, oftentimes winding it selfe so straight and hard about, that it leaveth his print upon those things so wrapped.” (p. 215.)

Giles Watson (2001)

Celastraceae

Spindle (Euonymus europaeus)

Spindle spin and Spindle grow;

Mirth and magic overflow.

Ruddy seed and fine-toothed leaf,

Spindle, dispel gloom and grief.

Her father died when she was seventeen,

And wicked was the man who wed her mother,

And all her hopes and dreams he sought to smother,

Forbidding her to walk amid the green.

The old man cursed and locked her in his keep -

He hoped to drive her slowly to despair -

The floor was earthen, clammy was the air;

She sat alone, and watched the spiders creep.

And nought she had, to pass her empty time,

But a spindle, fashioned by her father.

No wool, but only cobwebs could she gather,

The windows dim, and caked with moss and grime.

She thrust her spindle fast into the ground,

And whispered, “All is not as it appears.”

She watered it forlornly with her tears;

But for her sobbing, made no other sound.

And buds grew on the spindle in the morning;

A pair of smooth, green leaves were sprouting soon.

Her delighted eyes beheld, by afternoon,

A little Spindle tree, with leaves adorning.

And overnight grew flowers greenish-white,

And after, clustered fruit as red as roses.

And behold, what morningtide discloses:

Beneath the tree, she’s dancing with delight.

The old man came to gloat and make demand,

And thought he’d find her grieving on the ground;

Bemused by her sweet laughter, nought he found,

But spiders’ webs, and a spindle in her hand.

Spindle spin and Spindle grow;

Mirth and magic overflow.

Ruddy seed and fine-toothed leaf,

Spindle, dispel gloom and grief.

Source material. The lyricist’s imagination, and a variety of folk traditions.

Giles Watson (2001)

Compositae

Ragwort (Senecio vulgaris)

I eat the milky ragwort leaves;

Touch me and I’ll squirm—

One day I’ll be a cinnabar moth;

Today I’m but a worm.

I climb the stem towards the flower—

The bloom a saffron yellow.

I share its shade with bars of black

For I’m a stripy fellow.

I’ve black hairs, and many feet—

I use them for to clutch

When the wind is blowing hard,

Or when it rains too much.

I sleep here on a moonlit night,

When all lies dark and muted,

But—Oh! What witchery is this?

My ragwort’s been uprooted!

And something big’s astride the stem—

It’s hairy, and it’s smelly.

As I look up between its legs,

I see a great, fat belly.

The wind’s increasing; I must cling

With all my tiny might—

I’m looking up its warty nose;

What a scary sight!

I hear it cackle with delight;

My insides feel like lead.

It seems that all my insect blood

Is rushing to my head.

Let me down! I’m feeling dizzy!

Woe! I think I’m dying!

Can’t you see I’m far too young

To make a start on flying?

Hills and crags are sweeping by;

The hemp-patched garments whirr;

Trees and streams lit by the moon

Pass by in a blur.

The wind is shrieking, so’s the witch,

The vertigo’s appalling—

I’ll curl up like a snail shell.

Oh dear! Now I’m falling!

A cushioned landing’s just the thing

Upon a ragwort flower.

Life is hard for caterpillars

At the witching hour.

I eat the milky ragwort leaves;

Touch me and I’ll squirm—

One day I’ll be a cinnabar moth;

Today I’m but a worm.

Source material. The caterpillar of the cinnabar moth feeds on ragwort (Senecio jacobaea), and has black and yellow stripes. Traditions identifying ragwort stems as witches’ or faeries’ steeds are common, particularly in Scotland, and are mentioned by Burns (1785), and also by Henderson (1856): “On auld broom-besoms, and ragweed naigs,/ They flew owre burns, hills and craigs.” See Roy Vickery, Oxford Dictionary of Plant Lore, p. 305.

Giles Watson (2002)

Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium)

Cheiron, wildest of centaurs, was yet

The hand which held the healing knife,

Tutor to the gods. Artemis, damp

From the wildwood, gave him wormwood,

Flourishing in sun and shade, febrifuge

And vermifuge, a fitting gift:

Blind old woman, path-weaver of the

Primeval serpent, pounded into liquid,

Green and bitter. Spectrum twister,

Ringworm turner, antidote to

The insidious venom of the shrew.

Cheiron dispensed the juice

In crystal phials, his hooves

Clattering upon marble.

Source material. See Paul Huson, Mastering Herbalism, London, 1974, pp. 86–88, and Dorothy Jacob, A Witch’s Guide to Gardening, London, 1964, p. 53. Apart from its medicinal properties, both real and fantastical, wormwood is the source of intoxicating absinth, which affects the drinker’s perception of colour. L. Harrison Matthews, British Mammals, London, 1952, pp. 56–57, casts an interesting light on the supposed “old wives’ tale” about the venomous bite of the shrew. In the 1940s, it was established that an American species of shrew, Blarina brevicauda, does indeed produce a venomous substance in the saliva, which assists the insectivore by immobilising its victims, and causing discomfort even for a human handler. The venom is introduced to the wound by means of the groove between the lower incisors. It is probable that English species produce similar, albeit weaker, venom. Whether the juice of wormwood is efficacious in the treatment of shrew bites is, however, another matter.

Giles Watson (2002)

Corylaceae

Hazel (Corylus avellana)

Wisdom lay within the ground

And she thrust forth a shoot;

The kernel cracked, and from her seed

There grew a long, white root.

Wisdom drank and Wisdom grew;

Men cut her down, and yet anew

A multitude of stems grew free

And Wisdom turned to Energy.

With Energy in every stem,

The catkins hanging down,

Her leaves spread wide above the stool,

A green and shady crown.

Her twigs grew strong in springtide showers,

She let forth crimson female flowers,

The pollen falling all the while,

Fertilising every style.

And from each nub there grew a seed,

And ’round the seed, a shell,

Condensing Wisdom in its heart:

At Autumntide it fell.

Wisdom fell into the stream

Where nymphs of flying creatures teem.

She sank towards the river’s floor;

A salmon swallowed Wisdom’s store.

A year hence, by riverside,

I sat and made my wish:

A rowan berry on a thread

I hooked, and caught the fish,

And Wisdom flowed from head to tail,

It glowed from every crimson scale.

I cooked the salmon in a pan

To learn all wisdom known to man.

I went to gather kindling wood;

I left my lad to turn

The cooking salmon in the pan,

For fear that it might burn.

His little finger touched its side,

And at its heat, he wept and cried.

He sucked his finger, scorched and red,

And Wisdom filled his little head.

Oh I am tired of fishing now,

And fool I’ll always be,

Yet still I seek the fish who ate

The seed from Wisdom’s tree:

A rowan berry on a thread,

And on the surface, crumbs of bread.

I sit and weep, by riverside:

“Wilt Wisdom never be my bride?”

Source material. J.M. Paterson writes: “Druidic legend tells of Fionn, a pupil of the chief Druid who lived on the River Boyne. The druid master intended to eat the flesh of the salmon of knowledge which he had caught in a deep pool, for its flesh... ‘would make him conscious of everything that was happening in Ireland’. Young Fionn was told to cook the salmon for his master, but not to taste it. Yet while he cooked the fish a blister appeared on its side, and Fionn used his thumb to burst it. Having burnt his thumb, he automatically put his thumb into his mouth for relief.” As a result, the boy was filled with wisdom, and the Chief Druid remained, presumably, as ill advised as ever. The story bears strong parallels to the tale of Cerridwen and Gwion, of Welsh mythology, recorded by ‘Taliesin’, and mentioned by ‘Idrison’ in ‘The Mabinogi of Taliesin’, in John Matthews, The Bardic Sourcebook: Inspirational Legacy and Teachings of the Ancient Celts, London, 1998, p. 81. The poem contains deliberate references to W.B. Yeats’s ‘Song of the Wandering Aengus’.

Giles Watson (2001)

Cucurbitaceae

Bryony (Bryonia dioica)

Rooting up the bryony,

The mandrake of the north;

Digging up the bulbous parts

To bring our Venus forth.

We’ll put our mark upon her

For we know not how to write,

And she shall win ten pints for us

On fenland’s Venus Night.

White bryony has berries red,

With twining tendrils green;

We’ll find her in the hedgerow

Climbing like a bean.

We’ll dig her up and wash her down;

Our Venus has been born.

We’ll grow the hair upon her head,

Sown with yellow corn.

We’ll take her to the local inn,

And pay the landlord’s fee;

They’ll put her on the mantel shelf,

A jolly sight to see.

The landlady will judge each root,

By leg, and arm and breast,

And we shall all shout “Cheers” to her

When she rules ours is best.

Baccy, beer and pickled onions,

These shall be our prize;

No Venus ever was more shapely

Or of better size.

And all the other bryony roots

Shall not be left to rot—

They shall be sold for good red gold

For mandrake cures the lot.

We’ll put some in our moneybox,

Our riches shall increase,

And every penny be transformed

Into a sovereign piece.

We’ll put some in our pigsty

For piglets hale and hearty,

And when we’ve done, we’ll all return,

Drink ale, and throw a party.

Our Venus, she shall reign a year,

Our plump and woody Mother,

Until we go out with our spades

And dig up yet another.

Source material. White Bryony (Bryonia dioica) has long been used in parts of rural Britain in place of the exotic mandrake, since its roots tend to take similar humanoid shapes. Venus Nights were a common practice in Cambridgeshire, and the verses of this song catalogue some of the uses to which the rejected roots were consigned. The practice of germinating corn in the “head” of the bryony root in order to imitate hair has a long history, and was recorded by Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753). See Roy Vickery, Oxford Dictionary of Plant-Lore, Oxford, 1995, pp. 393–394, and Margaret Baker, Discovering the Folklore of Plants, Princes Risborough, 1999, pp. 33–34.

Giles Watson (2002)

Cuscutaceae

Dodder (Cuscuta epithymum)

With dodder and with dead men’s hair

My bare stick nest is thatched,

My young ones hatched in spools

Of devil’s silk, spun with dew-falls

Over clover and ling, plucked

By my black bill, wax flowers

Dangling. Thanks shall I give,

By my craw, to the horned one

Who wove you, and the white worm

Of your root, which drinks green blood

And never touches soil.

Source material. Dodder is an entirely parasitic plant with no chlorophyll. It attaches itself to a range of host plants, its haustoria tapping into the sap. The Welsh name for dodder is Sidan y Brain, or “the crow’s silk”, and legend has it that the plant is spun at night by the Devil.

Giles Watson (2004)

Cypripediaceae

Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium calceolus)

The way in was wide; a gaping

Invitation. The glade was ripe

With humming when he came within.

Hemmed in his chamber, he cannot

Turn around, nor back out.

The only way is onward, through

A gate he cannot evade

And which won’t admit him.

He can smell the reward but

Cannot taste it, can see

The way out, but cannot

Breach it; must die here

In her cradle, neither

Lover, thief nor foe.

Source material. The Lady’s Slipper orchid is pollinated by insects such as bees, which are presented with a wide and inviting entrance. In order to escape from the flower once inside it, a bee is compelled to push through a narrow constriction, thus brushing against the pollinia and carrying pollen away with it when it departs. Difficulties arise when the bee is too large to pass through the constriction, since it is then doomed to die within the slipper-shaped portion of the flower which gives the orchid its name.

Giles Watson (2005)

Droseraceae

Venus Fly-Trap (Dionaea spp.)

Out of one multifaceted eye

She perceives, in fading light

The world beyond her cage,

Where once she flew, mated,

Ate dung, dropped living maggots.

She can poke a single,

Scrabbling leg between the bars,

Wave it ineffectually in air,

But green and fleshy lips

Kissed the buzz from her.

Trigger hairs dig into her, and

She cannot squirm, cradled alive

In her own little charnel house.

Her other eye gazes into the haze

Of its green and hungry metabolism.

Stasis. Dissolution.

She perceives, in fading light

The world beyond her cage.

Source material. Based on personal childhood observations of home grown Venus Fly Traps.

Giles Watson (2005)

Sundew (Drosera spp.)

Don’t struggle, dear

It only makes it worse,

Like being entangled

In sticky toffee:

Striving only serves

To stick you faster.

Now, if ever, is the time

To learn detachment,

Suspended, as you are

Between earth and heaven.

You have no need

Of earthly things:

None of them

Can aid you.

There is solace

In this death:

Towering above you

A white flower.

Source material. Based on observation of Sundews in Albany, Western Australia, where the species are spectacularly diverse. All sundews kill their prey in the same way, and many have beautiful flowers.

Giles Watson (2005)

Ericaceae

Heather (Calluna vulgaris)

Bells of heather, howling wind,

And honey bees upon the heights

Accost the Queen—a dozen drones.

The days grow long, and dry the nights.

And as the lovelorn insects fly,

Garbh Ogh goes homeward,

Home to die.

Ancient, ageless giantess,

Her cart by great elks drawn;

She dines on milk of venison

And breasts from eagles torn.

And hard she’s hunted mountain deer,

Three score and ten her hounds,

All with birds’ names. Each hound’s foot

The peaty hillside pounds.

She gathers stones to build a cairn

As drones draw stings for swords;

She builds it threefold, with a chair

To great for kings, or dukes, or lords.

A threefold cairn, stone piled on stone,

A threefold woman’s womb—

The Drone is coupling with the Queen—

The cairn becomes her tomb.

And scattered all the Irish elks,

Her wolfish hounds hunt still.

The Drone has died, his nuptials spent.

The Queen has loved; her love must kill.

Source material. According to Robert Graves, The White Goddess, p. 192, “The eighteenth century antiquary Winslow took Dean Swift to Lough Crew to collect local legends of the Irish Triple Goddess. Among those collected was one of the death of Garbh Ogh, an ancient ageless giantess, whose car was drawn by elks...”.

Giles Watson (2001)

Fagaceae

Beech (Fagus sylvatica)

I am Passienus Crispus, orator of Corne,

I am married to a Beech, Diana’s sacred tree.

So oft have I embraced her—look how her bark is worn,

For she is my oracle—my goddess, shelter me.

I have watered her with wine, I have kissed her arching trunk,

In Diana’s sacred grove, on the summit of the hill,

I’ve sipped dew from her leaves, and my ardour made me drunk,

Her fallen leaves my pillow when the night was dark and still.

I have rested in her shade when the new leaves filtered sun,

I have eaten of her nuts, and her wisdom have I found,

She has sheltered me in rainstorms, I’ve watched the water run

From her branches, down her trunk, and into the loamy ground.

I am Passienus Crispus, orator of Corne,

I am married to a Beech, Diana’s sacred tree.

So oft have I embraced her—look how her bark is worn,

For she is my oracle—my goddess, shelter me.

Source material. Pliny the Elder, Natural History, xvi, c. 91. Sir James Frazer, The Golden Bough, p. 8, argues that priests of the goddess Diana, seeing the Beech tree as her aspect, may have physically married the tree. If so, it is hardly appropriate to characterise modern “tree huggers” as “New Age”, though one might well insist that the level of their commitment is not quite the same as it used to be. See also Alexander Porteous, The Lore of the Forest, London, 1928, p. 70, and Margaret Baker, Discovering the Folklore of Plants, pp. 26–27.

Giles Watson (2001)

Oak (Quercus spp.)

I walked within the oaken wood,

The branches black with rooks,

And all was still; I silent stood,

Where the grove grew green and good,

And looked where no one looks.

I looked where no one looks, my friend,

Into the heart of oak;

Before my weary way could wend

I saw her budding branches bend,

And unto me she spoke:

“Both ways I look, my bard of lore,

To first things and to last,

For, behold, I am the door

To what will come; what came before,

To future and to past.”

I gazed at where one branch had grown

About another limb;

I gazed at where, like dryad’s throne

The darkened wood was hard as bone;

The light was dappled, dim;

I gazed at moss, which greenly grew

Upon the fissured bark,

And marvelled then at all she knew,

While the black birds flapped and flew,

And waited until dark.

I saw the armies of the past

Beneath her boughs a-marching,

And then returning home at last,

And on the ground their blood ran fast,

Her branches over-arching.

I saw the mages take her flowers

For the making of a maiden,

Saw children dance in summer showers,

And lovers use her for their bowers,

’Neath limbs with green leaves laden.

I saw a line of mortal men

Returning to the earth.

I saw my children’s children then;

I saw each die, and rise again,

All bound by death and birth.

“Oh, gnarlèd oak, who looks both ways,

And needs nought but the sun!

All things pass, and yet she stays,

Whose wisdom counted all our days

Ere they had begun.”

Source material. Based on a well-established folk-tradition that the Oak is the door to the past and the future.

Giles Watson (2001)

Gentianaceae

Centaury (Centaurium erythraea)

1.

Hunt a female hoopoe,

Stalk her startle-crested,

Or grub-getting on ground.

Do what you will, but gain

Her blood, and drip in oil.

Trace the pink wort,

Whose star-flowers purse

By swelling afternoon.

Do what you will, but pull

Her up, and pound in oil.

Burn all in a black lamp

With a long wick, let

Smoke slick the glass.

Do what you will, but wait

For worlds to turn.

Look at yourself: you

Are upside down, your

Feet wave in the air.

Do what you will, the roots

Grow through your hair.

Your feet are flowers, or stars.

2.

With curmell come, with Cheiron’s care,

For adder’s bite, in ageing wine,

For smarting eyes, smear the same

With honey mixed for dimming sight;

For spasm in the sinews sore,

For poison drunk, three draughts down,

For worms that do the navel harm

The centaur’s wort will work the charm.

Source material. The thirteenth century Dominican and occult researcher, Albertus Magnus reports, “Magicians assure us that this herb has a singular virtue for if it is mixed with the blood of a female hoopoe and put in a lamp with the oil, all those present will see themselves upside down, with their feet in the air.” By the time Francis Barret wrote The Magus in 1901, the recipe and its effects had changed: “If centaury be mixed with honey and the blood of a lapwing, and be put in a lamp, they that stand about will be of a gigantic stature; and if it be lighted in a clear evening, the stars will seem scattered about.” The latter authority is perhaps the more to be doubted, given that he also asserts that “The ink of the cuttle-fish being put into a lamp, makes Blackamoors appear.” Part 2 of the poem is derived from the list of uses of “Curmelle feferfuge” in The Old English Herbarium Manuscript V, 36 (see Stephen Pollington, Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plantlore and Healing, Norfolk, 2000, p. 304–305).

Giles Watson (2003)

Gentians (Gentianella germanica)

To go out to die, when the poet’s powers fail,

With your cheek on the green, chalk-paled grass,

In a glade by the leafy wood, gazing at gentians.

Where the adder curled about the plant

Which purged his poison, rest, eye-level

With the sun-seeking petals, the tubed caly

Fringed with pale hairs, the reddened stems

And paired leaves from a suit of spades.

Wait for the stillness when the wars fade,

When weapons rust and bombs implode

Into purse-petalled simplicity, when asylum

Doors clang open, when woes, self consumed,

Are forgotten, and all is one purple flower.

The sweet singing cuckoo gone, the fond turtles

Mated and flown, the sparkling brooks

Cloud-dulled, the love-lorn nightingale sated,

There is only silence, and these gentians.

Source material. John Clare, ‘Prose on artificial nature poetry’ in Eric Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield (Eds.), Selected Poems and Prose of John Clare, Oxford, 1978, p. 66: “Pastoral poems are full of nothing but the old thread bare epithets of ‘sweet singing cuckoo’ ‘love lorn nightingale’ ‘fond turtles’ ‘sparkling brooks’ ‘green meadows’ ‘leafy woods’ etc etc these make up the creation of Pastoral and descriptive poesy and every thing else is reckond low and vulgar in fact they are too rustic for the fashionable or prevailing system of rhyme till some bold inovating genius rises with a real love for nature and then they will no doubt be considered as great beautys which they really are” [sic]. Still one of the great unsung heroes of nature poetry - and one with a philosophy to live and die for - John Clare’s woes are described in his own poem ‘I am’, which reflects on his bouts of mental illness and imprisonment in an asylum. The poem above was inspired by my own observation of a Chiltern gentian (Gentianella germanica) at the Warburg Nature Reserve near Nettlebed on 20th August 2003, and by discussions, aired on the radio as I drove home, about the inquiry into the death of Dr. Kelly. The Anglo Saxons called all gentians “Feld wyrt” (Fieldwort), and recommended the powdered root as a cure for adders’ bites, but it would be foolish to experiment with the remedy these days, given the scarcity of gentians. See Stephen Pollington, Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plantlore and Healing, Norfolk, 2000, pp. 296–297.

Giles Watson (2003)

Geraniaceae

Meadow Cranesbill (Geranium pratense)

Since rupture bleeds within me from our parting,

And none can still the pain, or staunch the flow,

I’ll search the hedge, where cranesbill blooms are starting

And pluck them up before their flowers blow.

The dove-foot herbage and the pale-veined petal

I take in claret one and twenty days

With red snails melded, all to raise my mettle

While her choice divides her changing ways.

As pistils thrust through air and carpels close

About the seeds developing within,

I ache to hear what she cannot disclose

And sip the philtre down, through lips grown thin.

But if she should return, I’ll no more bleed

When the cranesbill springs, and shoots the seed.

Source material. Gerard and Culpepper called the blue flowered Meadow Cranesbill “Dove’s Foot” because of the perceived similarity between the leaves and the feet of doves. The more common name alludes to the strong resemblance of the enlarged stylar column and seed capsule to the head and bill of a crane. Gerard recommended the herb, taken in claret before sleep, for the miraculous healing of “ruptures and burstings, as my selfe have often proved, whereby I have gotten crownes and credit”. He adds that “the powder of red snailes (those without shels) dried in an oven in number nine” should be added to the concoction if it is to be used on an older person. Elizabethans used the plant not for healing physical ills, but as the main ingredient in love potions, but it is not clear whether they added the red slugs as well. More recently, botanists have noticed that Cranesbills have an unusual method of seed dispersal. W.B. Turrill, British Plant Life, London, 1962, p. explains: “The long ‘bill’ of the fruit is structurally the persistent and enlarged stylar column. At maturity the lower two-thirds above each one-seeded compartment splits away from the compact central portion. The seeds become detached, but each remains in a carpellary pocket attached by two threads to the corresponding stylar strip. The stylar strip acts as a spring and when a certain degree of tension is attained by the drying-out process it suddenly curls up and breaks away from the central column, with such force that the partial fruit with a seed at the bottom is shot for a distance of about seven yards...”.

Giles Watson (2003)

Herb-Robert (Geranium robertianum)

Robin redbreast lies a-bleeding,

Man, he killed him all for nought

While Herb-Robert was a-seeding,

Killed him, all for winter sport.

Robin redbreast’s blood a-clotting

On the ground where Robert lies,

Robin redbreast’s flesh a-rotting

Feeds the soil, then feeds the flies,

Feeds the seed where Robert’s sleeping

Through the hour when Wrens are kings;

Robin’s rosy blood is seeping

Up the shoots when comes the spring.

Robert lies on ground a-bleeding,

Blood-pinked flower and ruddy shoot,

Man, he dug him up a-weeding,

Exposed to air his withered root.

Man, he cannot bear the thought

Of any beast that chews the cud,

Such a curse has Robin wrought

That all their milk has turned to blood.

Man no more shall Robin kill

His blood upon the ground to sow,

No more wish Herb-Robert ill

But grant he is a good-fellow.

Source material. Herb-Robert (Geranium robertianum) and the Robin redbreast share a long-standing folkloric association with the mischievous and sometimes vengeful sprite, Robin Goodfellow, also known as Puck. Both the bird and the plant have been revered as sacred, and folk belief dictated that the killer of a Robin would never be able to have a cow milked without the milk turning to blood. To uproot a Herb-Robert may bring a similar inconvenience, or even occasion a death in the family. See Katherine Kear, Flower Wisdom: the definitive guidebook to the myth, magic and mystery of flowers, London, 2000, pp. 155–156.

Giles Watson (2003)

Gramineae

Reed (Phragmites australis)

I followed her, cloven hooves a-clattering,

The woman, goddess with the bow of horn,

Mountain shales my cleft feet scattering.

She answered, “No!” and laughed my love to scorn.

Down the slopes to the sandy Ladon’s edge,

Slowly flowing, and lush with water-weed,

I snorted madly, trampling marshland sedge;

She sighed, and turned herself into a reed.

The lonely bittern boomed, the woodcock cried,

My horned brow bristled beneath my crown,

“Where has she gone? For I would make her bride!

Is she a nymph, or did she sink and drown?”

I heard her sigh, the rattle of her beads;

I clutched at her, plunging in my lust—

My hairy hand, it grasped at nought but reeds.

They sighed and rattled with each windy gust.

“This much I’ll take!” I cried, and seized my knife;

The reeds I cut, and Syrinx-pipes I made.

The woman, who refused to be my wife,

Yet sighs and sings; her voice shall never fade.

Source material. The story of Pan and Syrinx, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book I, lines 689–712.

Giles Watson (2001)

Grossulariaceae

Gooseberry (Ribes uva-crispa)

You may find me in October when the berries are all gone—

Am I ghastly, am I grisly, am I grim to look upon?

Will I beat you, will I eat you, will I make your children sick?

No, I’ll stand here at attention and I’ll imitate a stick.

You may seek me in November when the leaves fall to the ground,

When the thorns are standing starkly, but I shall not be found.

Will I bite you, will I smite you, will I kill you with a sting?

No, I’ll hibernate in winter and I’ll not be seen ’til spring.

You may look for me in May, by the warmth I am awoken,

Like the wand of a witch, like a twig that has been broken.

Will I flay you, will I slay you, will I batter or betray you?

No, I’ll hide amid the flowers, and pinch me not, I pray you.

When you search again in June, you will find that I have spun

A web of silken gossamer, its strands caught by the sun.

Will I blight you, will I slight you, will I bring your mum to grief?

No, I’ll hide inside my silken bed, the darkside of the leaf.

In the middle of July, with gooseberries growing round,

You must seek me with your lantern, a-fluttering around.

Will I rile you or beguile you, will I rob you of your life?

No, and you shall never recognise the gooseberry wife.

Source material. On the Isle of Wight, parents traditionally scare their children with stories of the “gooseberry wife”, a giant caterpillar which supposedly eats people alive. The gooseberry wife is a typical “nursery bogey”, designed to dissuade children from stealing the ripening fruit. This song is based on the assumption that, far from being the “hairy caterpillar” so often described in the legends, the original gooseberry wife might have been the larva of Uropteryx sambucata, the Swallow-Tail Moth, which, as Edward Newman, British Moths, p. 50, observes, “exactly resembles a twig”. It feeds on honeysuckle, elder, various herbaceous plants, and on gooseberry bushes, and it pupates inside a leaf suspended from the underside of a twig by silken cords. See also Katharine Briggs, A Dictionary of Fairies, Harmondsworth, 1977, p. 196, and Margaret Baker, The Folklore of Plants, Princes Risborough, 1980, pp. 62–63.

Giles Watson (2001)

Guttiferae

St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum)

1.

The stench of goat upon your hand, bend to the fire

Throw on the long-pistilled, many-stamened flower.

Burn, eye of Baldr, ripen barley with thy light.

Pluck the bug, the bane that sucks the root.

Pluck it bleeding from the plant, before the feast.

Burn, eye of Baldr, ripen barley with thy light.

2.

Have your way with me no more, my incubus,

For it is clenched between my bosoms,

The bonny, sunwise herb.

Have your way with me no more, my incubus,

For it swelters ’twixt my tits,

The bonny, sunwise herb.

Have your way with me no more, my incubus,

For it reeks of randy fox,

The bonny, sunwise herb.

3.

Hanged man and miscreant, I conjure thee,

With my bundle of the yellow wort, bleeding

In my hand, and, dripping on my hazel wand

An owl’s head unseeing. Arise. Arise. Arise.

Hanged man and suicide, I conjure thee.

With my bundle of the sun’s herb, gleaming

In my hand. Bring me Sybilla, the faerie,

Your soul for to save. Arise. Arise. Arise.

Hanged man and malcontent, I conjure thee,

With my bundle of the wounded salve, wilting

In my hand. My christall stone shall show

The future’s moaning ghosts. Fiat. Fiat. Fiat.

4.

Wounded through your hauberk

By the halberd of the Moor,

Crusader of St. John

Soak the red cross with your cruor.

Pierced through your mail

By the lance of infidel,

This is the penance which

Will save your soul from hell.

Pounded is the poultice

And yet the knight has swooned,

The wort bears the signature

To quell his weeping wound.

Source material. Long used in rituals at the midsummer solstice, when it blooms, St. John’s wort partly owes its solar association to the bright yellow colour of its flowers. At times, the leaves have a strong smell, described by some as “goat-like”, and by others as “foxy”. The plant has long been burned in the midsummer fires, perhaps originally, as Richard Mabey suggests, as a form of sympathetic magic intended to mimic and strengthen the power of the sun. The smoke from the burning herb would waft over the fields, ensuring a generous helping of sunlight, and protecting the crops. The ancient Greeks placed a plant called Hypericum above their religious statues to ward off evil spirits, and while it is not known whether this really was the plant which in modern times has inherited that generic name, it is certainly true that Christianity appropriated the plant for its own purposes, as a charm against demons. Originally sacred to the pagan sun-god Baldr, the Christians dedicated it to John the Baptist, claiming that the bloody colour obtainable from its leaves was intended as a reminder of his martyrdom. The Revd. Hilderic Friend reports that “About Hanover... I have often observed devout Roman Catholics going on the morning of St. John’s Day to neighbouring sandhills, gathering on the roots of herbs a certain insect looking like drops of blood, and thought by them to be created on purpose to keep alive the remembrance of the foul murder of St. John the Baptist...” The insect in question was Coccus polonica, a sap-sucking bug. In a thirteenth century life of St. Hugh of Lincoln, a woman tormented by a “licentious demon” in the form of a man was instructed by another male spirit to take a sprig of St. John’s Wort and hide it in her bosom. The demon-lover forsook her house whenever she kept it in place because, he maintained, it was “disgusting and stinking”. The plant was, according to the same author, efficacious against poisons, including snakebite. Sir Walter Scott also alludes to the disdain with which demon-lovers regarded the plant, since one says “If you would be true love of mine/ Throw away John’s Wort and Verbein.” Oddly, the plant was good not only for banishing spirits, but also for raising them. The enlightened Reginald Scot, who incurred the wrath of James I by writing to quell anti-witchcraft hysteria, nevertheless affirmed in his Discoverie of Witches (1584) that it was possible to “raise the ghost of a hanged man with the aid of a hazel wand tipped with an owl’s head and a bundle of St. John’s Wort”. Moreover, the resin glands in the leaves of perforate St. John’s Wort, Hypericum perforatum, which look like tiny pin-holes, were reckoned by Paracelsus, champion of the Doctrine of Signatures, to be an effective treatment of “inward or outward holes or cuts in the skin”. Today, the herb is used to treat depression, but not in cancer patients, since it has been shown to block the effects if chemotherapy. It can also have alarming side-effects, including heightened photosensitivity. See Richard Mabey, Flora Britannica, pp. 114–115, Roy Vickery, Oxford Dictionary of Plant Lore, pp. 330–333, Margaret Baker, Discovering the Folklore of Plants, pp. 140–141, Katharine Briggs, A Dictionary of Fairies, p. 346, Lesley Gordon, Green Magic, p. 27. Vaunted as it is by herbalists, the horses who accosted me whilst I was examining a specimen near Burnham Beeches, Buckinghamshire in July 2003 were more interested in trying to eat my hat than they were in partaking of the herb, even when proffered by hand.

Giles Watson (2003)

Leguminosae

Broom (Cytisus spp.)

With flowers of the Oak,

With flowers of the Broom,

Gwydion made Blodeuedd

Without sperm nor womb.

With flowers of the meadowsweet,

Math caused her heart to beat—

Flower maiden, Muse made new,

Consort for the great god Llew.

He watched the flowers upon the floor

Arranged in woman’s form,

And as he knelt and stretched his hand

He felt that they were warm.

He watched them turn to woman’s flesh,

The leaf-veins turning red;

He saw the petals turn to hair

About the woman’s head.

He watched as breasts, and hands, and limbs,

And joints grew all as one;

She opened wide Broom-yellow eyes,

Him to look upon.

He breathed upon her open lips,

Like wind upon a rose,

And, though he’d made her, set her free,

To wander as she chose.

Blodeuedd, with eyes of Broom,

With heart of Meadowsweet,

Each cell the smallest part of Oak,

Went forth on silent feet.

Source material. The fourth branch of the Mabinogion. Although Blodeuedd was made in order to become a “consort to the great god Llew”, she had other ideas.

Giles Watson (2001)

Gorse (Ulex europaeus)

I am more prized for being concealed

Kissing’s out of fashion when the gorse is out of bloom;

Whin flowers brought within a house will bring but death and doom.

A dragon’s born within each flower,

Each gorse bush is a witch’s bower,

And quarreling will staunch a friendship—

They shall part, perforce—

If one should give another a gift of blooming gorse.

He met her on a windswept hill

Where none could see their tryst,

And as she turned towards the furze

He grasped her by the wrist.

He kissed her on the hand

And his lust and love confessed;

He plucked three yellow flowers

And he pinned them to her breast.

Her eyes were blue as cornflowers

And she looked into his heart;

“O you have given gorse to me

And ’twill tear us apart.”

He turned and sidled down the hill,

Now let your tears begin:

She blew the lad a single kiss

And crept within the whin.

And when they took her out in chains

And tied her to the pyre,

They charged her soul with devilry

And courting demons dire.

And every man and woman, child

Accused her all as one;

She whispered then, “Where are your hearts,

And where has my love gone?”

They dragged him to the faggots

And they made him taste the dust—

’Twas then that he repented

Of his wanton, wayward lust.

“I saw her dance with demons,

Skyclad, wearing not a stitch!”

The flames leapt up the wicker wildly;

All the crowd cried, “Witch!”

And when the girl was all consumed

And rendered into ashes,

They strung her lover to the pole

And gave him forty lashes.

Then sorely did the lad repent

For loving out of turn;

The embers glowed with yellow flames;

He sat and watched them burn.

He sat and watched them burn, my child,

Then went away to live

A lonely life amid the gorse,

For no one dared forgive.

He died; she came and touched his hand,

And as he reached for hers,

She impaled his open palm

On a sprig of yellow furze.

Source material. The opening verse is derived from a variety of folk traditions described in Roy Vickery, A Dictionary of Plant Lore, Oxford, 1995, pp. 156–158, and the opening line is a widespread popular saying. The remainder of the song is the lyricist’s invention. Whin and furze are synonyms for gorse.

Giles Watson (2001)

Lentibulariaceae

Bladderworts (Utricularia sp.)

The moss draws water, a thirsty sponge

Plastered over granite, inches thick,

The air above it slick with moisture.

Flowers, gorged as arteries, hang

Like heads of sanguine puppets

From stems pulsing with redness,

And like the scales of some reptile,

Green but blushing, bladders

Cobble the moss, gleaming

With a film of wetness. Beneath,

Crustaceans swim among the moss stems,

Microscopic. Bladder mouths

Gape like jaws, toothed with bristles:

One brush with a branched antenna,

And the valve-trap springs.

Sucked inside, the sealed door slams.

Prison walls exude

The juice of death.

Source material. Bladderworts (Utricularia spp.) are aquatic and semi-aquatic insectivorous plants. This poem describes an Australian species, Utricularia menziesii, observed in August 2005 near to the Point Possession walking trail, Albany, Western Australia.

Giles Watson (2005)

Butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris)

1. Look in mossy groins for curling leaves

Of butterwort. Pull these up, and for the sake

Of the squeamish, pick the flies off them.

2. Milk one reindeer (a cow may be substituted,

But is not as spectacular). Hurry; you must

Use it warm and fresh. Cooling spoils it.

3. Line a strainer with butterwort leaves,

Slimier side up. Pour milk through them,

Let it drip. Stand until sour.

4. Eat it with relish: compact and tenacious,

Delicious in taste, but setting a little aside

To use as leaven for a second pail.

Source material. Butterwort is a carnivorous plant which traps insects on its adhesive leaves. Laplanders use the leaves as a sort of rennet for solidifying milk. “Linnaeus says that the solid milk of the Laplanders is prepared by pouring it warm and fresh from the cow over a strainer on which fresh leaves of Pinguicula have been laid. The milk, after passing among them, is left for a day or two to stand, until it begins to turn sour; it throws up no cream, but becomes compact and tenacious, and most delicious in taste. It is not necessary, that fresh leaves should be used after the milk is once turned: on the contrary, a small portion of this solid milk will act upon that which is fresh, in the manner of yeast.” (John Lindley, The Vegetable Kingdom: The Structure, Classification and Uses of Plants, London, 1853, p. 686.)

Giles Watson (2005)

Loranthaceae

Christmas Tree (Nuytsia floribunda)

After the burning, grass tussocks are charcoal clumps

That crunch underfoot; blackboy trunks crumble

Into gummy, blackened scales, and Banksia cones

Puke out seeds. Hakeas are knotted scribbles,

Their pods split and blistered, waiting for rain.

The land is torpid, weak after shedding its skin.

But the season is like a new instar, or an imago

Emerging, and the grey-leaved Christmas Tree

Sprouts flowers in saffron fingers, striving

For sun. Beneath the blackened earth, hungry

Runners seek foreign roots. Unsuspecting hosts

Supply her food, assist her strange rejuvenation.

Source material. The Western Australian Christmas Tree is an arborescent mistletoe, the roots of which parasitize a wide range of hosts, both annual and perennial. It produces spectacular clumps of yellow flowers in terminal fascicles up to 25 cm long, and blooms more prolifically in the season after a fire.

Giles Watson (2005)

Nepenthaceae

Pitcher Plant (Nepenthes spp.)

The enticement is a gift of honey; the whole thing

An elaborate seduction; her red pigment

Like blotched flesh, fresh from exertion.

Lick the sweet nectar from the lip; suck it down.

A foretaste of pleasures within, you assume,

And one slip, one flail of hinged chitin

Drops you into it. Flies’ eyes bob like buoys,

Detached wings are gleaming rafts

On a sea of your own soup, welling

In waxen walls.

                          You might as well

Drown now. The nuptials are ended.

Source material. Based on personal childhood observations of home grown Pitcher Plants.

Giles Watson (2005)

Oleaceae

Ash (Fraxinus excelsior)

An ash-tree spreads     called Yggdrasill,

High-standing,     soaked and shining,

And from her drip     the dews of dawn

Fate’s flux     from wells refining.

Three maidens come there,     three all-knowing,

From the lake     which licks the tree;

One is Fated,     one is Future—

These their names—     the third: Must-Be.

They scribe their laws,     they steer the lives

Of fettered slaves,     sons of the free.

Kormt and Ormt,     Kerlaugar rivers:

Thor wades each day     their waters wide

When he goes     to watch and judge,

The Yggdrasill     ash at his side.

The bridge afire,     burnt with flames,

The waters boil,     and woe betide!

Glad and Golden     go with Glassy,

Silvertuft     and Skeidbrimir,

Goldtuft, Lightfoot,     Gone and Gleaming,

The Æsir’s horses,     and Sinir:

These they ride     to sit as judges,

And Yggdrasill     is standing near.

Three roots grow     in three directions

Beneath the ground     from Yggdrasill;

One for the dead,     one for the living

One for frost-giants,     growing still.

Ratatosk     the running squirrel,

Scampers over     Yggdrasill;

He drags a message     to the Dragon

Each day: it is     the Eagle’s will

Four Harts there are,     with heads thrown back,

Four Harts who browse     her highest boughs:

Dain is one,     and one Dvalin,

One Duneyr,     one Durathror.

More serpents sleep     ’neath Yggdrasill

Than any fool     could ever fight:

Grafvitnir’s minions,     Goin and Moin

Grabak black,     Grafvollud white,

Ofnir, Svafnir,     odious serpents

Yggdrasill’s     bare branches bite.

Yggdrasill     she groans in anguish

More than any     man can know:

Harts bite her branches,     mould makes marks,

And Nidhogg bites her     from below.

Yggdrasill,     she stands and shudders!

The great tree groans,     the giant grins,

Down roads to hell     they run, in horror,

Devoured by fire—     demon’s kin!

Source material. The Poetic Edda: paraphrases of ‘The Seeress’s Prophecy’, 19–20, 47; ‘Grimnir’s Sayings’, 29–35.

Giles Watson (2001)

Onagraceae

Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea lutetiana)

I found you, Falsehood, in the damp,

Among the humus, ripe and rank,

Where reptiles hideous, and hawks hunt,

And plants with noxious properties do dwell,

Where the wizened wizard and the hag

Of shrivelled face do chant their spells—

There I found you, among coffins decayed,

And vaults ruined, shadowed by shades.

With you I shall make men squeal,

And tramp their trotters in their own dung.

With you I shall poison the great ocean,

And raise the serpent of my wrath.

Source material. John Ingram’s Flora Symbolica describes the Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea lutetiniana) thus: “Enchanter’s Nightshade (falsehood) is found in damp and humid places where the superstitious mind may imagine every kind of hideous reptile and birds of ill-omen to congregate; and plants and weeds of noxious properties to thrive; and where the wizened wizard and the hag of face repulsive might most fitly perform their incantations; there does this plant delight to grow as amid the mouldering bones and decayed coffins in the ruinous vaults of Sleaford church in Lincolnshire and like localities.” In fact, it often grows in gardens, and seems to relish sunny spots. See Dorothy Jacob, A Witch’s Guide to Gardening, London, 1964, pp. 16–17. Circe, according to Robert Graves, The White Goddess, p. 375, was the “daughter of Hecate... [and] the Goddess of Aeaea (‘wailing’), a sepulchral island in the Northern Adriatic. Her name means ‘she-falcon’, the falcon being a bird of omen, and is also connected with circos, a circle, from the circling of falcons and from the use of the magic circle in enchantment... She was said to turn men into swine...” The last two lines are inspired by William Waterhouse’s painting, Circe Invideosa.

Giles Watson (2002)

Orchidaceae

Fly Orchid (Ophrys insectifera)

I am more prized for being concealed

By dog’s mercury, in an unwalked wood.

Kneel before me when the dew dries

In clear globes on my green hood.

A single spike from the dark mould

Thrusts through leaves of beech and birch,

The cold fled, and you shall find,

Upon the spike, we flies perch.

Others shall be men, or bees,

Or purple maids, in spotted frocks,

Slippers, lizards, monkeys. Leaves

Coiled like springs of wound clocks.

My ruse is simpler: male flies

Mistake me for a sleeping mate,

My pollen spread, I multiply

All thanks to those I imitate.

I am more prized for being concealed

By dog’s mercury, in an unwalked wood

And yet my lover is reviled,

And you would kill him, if you could.

Source material. Fly orchids are comparatively difficult to find, appearing on single spikes amongst the ground vegetation on the edges of woodlands. Like the bee orchid, it is thought that they evolved to resemble flies in order to entice the insect they imitate into “mating” with them, thereby spreading their pollen. This does not, however, account for the wide range of other orchid forms, which so excite the imagination.

Giles Watson (2003)

Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera)

Well, you can’t do it for everyone, I suppose.

I know I made all the right moves, having

Been successful on previous occasions, but she

Mustn’t have been in the mood; she didn’t

Make the right sorts of noises, not a hum,

Let alone the high-pitched buzz of ecstasy

I had been expecting. I grappled with her

Expertly (she looked fetching through my

Multifaceted lenses), but she wavered

Like a wet foxglove in an autumn wind,

And try as I might, I could not bring on

Consummation, though my hardware

Seemed in working order. I could handle

Failure, if it wasn’t for the insult, but these

Custard-coloured horns make me look

A cuckold. It’s the mockery I’m

Bound to get from all the other drones

That makes me wish I never met her.

Source material. Bee orchids imitate the size, shape and colouration of a female bumble bee. Male bumble bees attempt to copulate with the orchid lip, only to discover that yellow pollinia have been plastered to their heads. See W.B. Turrill, British Plant Life, London, 1962, p. 163.

Giles Watson (2005)

Early Purple Orchid (Orchis mascula)

Salop, semen-thick with starch:

Wipe it from the lip. Let the dregs

Drip on the table. Organs

Of generation grew in the mould,

Spliced with shoots, gave rise

To flowers on proud stalks

And fingers flecked with blood.

Grubbed up and ground,

Laced with spirits, eaten

With a spoon, licked out

Of the corners of the cup.

Provocative to venery:

Enough grew in Cobham Park

To pleasure every seaman’s wife

In Rochester. Has grown

Scarce lately, alas.

Source material. Norman E. Hickin remarks that in 1968, he did not see a single bloom of the early purple orchid in the Wyre forest, and contrasts this experience with a spring forty-five years earlier when the meadows around Dowles Church were full of them. “This can only have been caused,” he surmises, “by what was apparently a harmless and attractive pastime of little girls picking flowers.” (See The Natural History of an English Forest, Newton Abbot, 1972, p. 101.) However, given that the tubers of this orchid, which contain bassorine, a starch-like substance, have long been regarded as a highly efficacious aphrodisiac, it is tempting to attribute the decline in numbers to its reputation, rather than to little girls. Salop, a soft drink made out of the dried and ground tubers, was a popular drink in Britain before the introduction of coffee and tea, and was consumed in establishments devoted to the purpose. Salop appears to have been a common refreshment for Victorian labourers, perhaps because it is highly nutritious. Richard Mabey (Food for Free: a Guide to the Edible Plants of Britain, Glasgow, 1972, pp. 72-73) claims that one ounce of bassorine is “sufficient to sustain a man for a whole day”. The quip about Cobham Park is quoted by Mabey from an unidentified seventeenth century botanist, and the Royal College of Surgeons included orchid roots in the aphrodisiac mixture recommended in their Pharmacopoeia. The early purple orchid has presumably gained the more ominous folk names ‘Gethsemane’, ‘king’s fingers’, ‘bloody man’s fingers’ and ‘dead man’s thumbs’ because the leaves have red markings which look like drops of blood.

Giles Watson (2005)

Pyramidal Orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis)

Come out from the shade of the yew;

The oaks are done flowering, the broom

Is in full bloom at the edge of the Dene.

Grassland on limestone, a stippled swathe, over

Sheer cliffs, and ocean, smeared grey as oyster-flesh,

Meadowsweet, ruddy stemmed, half grown.

Eyes blurred by sunlight. Orchid spikes

Are smudged purple, applied with palette knife,

Interpunctions in colours of contrast.

The wind is dabbed with butterflies,

Wing-eyes impressionistic, blinking blue.

Little pointillisms, pollinia line their tongues.

Source material. Based on observation of orchids in flower on the magnesian grassland at the edge of a coastal dene, county Durham, in 1996. Pyramidal orchids favour lime-rich soils, and are pollinated by butterflies and moths, the pollinia attaching themselves to the insect’s proboscis. Summerhayes (Wild Orchids in Britain, p.50) reports “as many as eleven pairs [of pollinia] having been observed on the proboscis of a single moth”.

Giles Watson (2005)

Early Marsh Orchid (Orchis latifolia)

Another leaf in yawning spring,

Tapering tubers the first cause.

The final upward thrust gives

Orchis incarnata, the Earth

Made flesh, to a world of air.

For a fleeting time, it dwelt

Among them, those blemished

Cousins, common, spotted,

Wrinkled in the unfolding, wantonly

Opening tongues for humblebees.

But this is the hybrid’s hour,

And Earth has spawned

A swarm, a host of drones,

Not fleshlike, but bearing

The taint and signature

Of contingent flowers.

Source material. My father notes in his list of updated names for orchids illustrated in John Curtis’s British Entomology, vols 1-12 (1824-1835), that “Summerhayes (1951) accepted Orchis latifolia – the ‘Early Marsh Orchid’ – as a common British species, and provided a colour photo closely comparable with Curtis’s beautiful engraving [of Dactylorhiza maculata]; but neither the binomial nor the English name are traceable in either Clapham, Tutin and Warburg (1962) or Stace (1997)! ‘Orchis latifolia’ has evidently been ‘lost’ among the dactylorchids, where hybridization has contributed to a taxonomic and nomenclatural mess.” (See the British Insects link on the Delta website.) Many species of orchid worldwide are capable of hybridising to produce fertile offspring, which exhibit variable combinations of the characteristics of the parent plants. Often, large swathes of ground can be taken over by the hybrid forms, resulting in what is known as a hybrid “swarm”. The name Orchis incarnata was sometimes applied to a variant of Summerhayes’s ‘Early Marsh Orchid’, which was so named because it had flesh-coloured flowers.

Giles Watson (2005)

Bird’s Nest Orchid (Neottia nidus-avis)

Nine years underground

Garnering from mould;

Nine autumns’ windfalls

Blanket out the cold.

Dews of nine summers

Between the sods seep;

Nine spring awakenings

Leave her still asleep.

Then she will awake

Deep within the shade,

Beneath the green beech,

Never in the glade.

Upon a single stem

Away from human eye

Brown flowers open

Inviting the fly,

Except when the root

Unawares has grown

Twining her tangles

Underneath a stone.

She cannot break through;

She cannot grow around:

Then shall Neottia

Flower underground.

Source material. The bird’s nest orchid is entirely saprophytic, subsisting on nutrients derived from the soil by the mycorhizal fungus with which it enjoys a symbiotic relationship. It has little or no chlorophyll, and is incapable of manufacturing food through photosynthesis, but this enables it to grow in deep shade, such as that encountered in beech woods. The orchid remains as an underground root for around nine years, gradually building up enough food reserves to send forth a flower spike, which is pollinated by insects. Like many orchids, the flowers are also capable of self-pollination. Occasionally, specimens have been recorded which have met some obstruction, and yet have successfully flowered and seeded without ever breaking the surface of the soil. (Summerhayes, Wild Orchids in Britain, pp. 193-198.)

Giles Watson (2005)

Frog Orchid (Coeloglossum viride)

Little, green, unfroglike flowers,

Unnoticed misnomers, frog orchids

Spawn themselves gratuitously,

Where the turf is close-cropped,

Missed by the brushing mouths,

Shaken by the cudsweet breaths

Of occasional cows. No rhizome

Serves in their duplication, only

Seeds so miniscule a gust of wind

May send them to the stratosphere,

And, earlier, surprised ichneumons

Plastered with pollinia, in spidering

Flight, from flower to insignificant

Flower. Nectar enough to spire

The spindled fly to indifferent sky

And back again to ground, to stab

Some grub, with needled ovipositor

Primed and throbbing. Thence to return

To flowers high as cloven hooves,

Lured to green stigmas by honeyed airs.

Source material. Frog orchids do not look especially like frogs, and are easily overlooked because of their small stature, and because of the colour of their flowers, which is the same shade of green as the stems and leaves. Many orchids reproduce through the production of enormous numbers of very small seeds, but unlike other species which also reproduce by rhizomatous growth, frog orchids are almost exclusively dependent on sexual reproduction. Ichneumon flies are hymenopterous insects which deposit their eggs in the bodies of caterpillars. After the eggs hatch, the larval ichneumons devour the caterpillars from the inside, emerging from their corpses after their hosts have pupated.

Giles Watson (2005)

Green Man Orchid (Ophrys anthropophora)

Tubers twinned, like testes,

Seeding gibbets, for strung-up

Homunculi, vegetable

Marionettes, swinging

Like hanged men turned green.

An exceeding great host

Their strings held by the wind.

Source material. Man orchids bear spikes containing as many as ninety flowers. The lip of each flower is shaped like a minute human form.

Giles Watson (2005)

Jug Orchid (Pterostylis recurva)

The loam sinks and oozes beneath my foot,

Mottled with sundews, raw coloured,

Like fresh bruises. Mosquitos swarm

To suck my blood: so many of them

Each move squashes some, in their lust

For drinking. The orchid hangs green veined

In my viewfinder, the focus shifting.

It is hard to stay still, inhale to press the shutter,

Restrain the urge to slap.

                                        I would curse

The whole whining multitude, but for this:

One brush, by one of these bloodsuckers,

Against the labellum, and it is trapped,

Spreadeagled against the column. The exit route

Is narrow, smears pollen over glistening wings;

The orchid perpetuated by this.

One of them is on my hand now, proboscis primed.

I steel myself to press the shutter; let it suck.

Source material. Pterostylis recurva is a native of southwestern Australia, and is fertilised by small insects such as gnats and mosquitos. It is difficult to ascertain what benefit is gained from the transaction by the insect, or indeed, what attracts it to the flower in the first place, unless the petals somehow remind it of living flesh. However, when I photographed a specimen at Cranbrook, near the Stirling Range, in August 2005, the air was so full of mosquitos that it seemed quite believable that they should become trapped within the flower purely by accident.

Giles Watson (2005)

Pink Fairies (Caladenia spp.)

Burning raises them

Springing from stones

The hue of rusted iron.

Sunlight opens them,

Impertinent blushers

With gaping mouths.

Insects serve them,

Winged little waiters

Attending lapping tongues.

Source material. Caladenia latifolia, and the lower-growing Caladenia reptans, both of which are native to South-Western Australia, bloom in profusion in the spring following hot summer bushfires.

Giles Watson (2005)

Donkey Orchid (Diuris brumalis)

Without the ears he would be

Convincing. Anyone would take him for what

He is not, but he is belied,

And only bees would believe him.

Perhaps he too believes

Like an emperor in illusory clothes,

But nothing he has touched

Has ever turned to gold –

Nothing – except himself.

Source material. Donkey orchids imitate the forms and colours of native Australian pea plants, thereby attracting bees which pollinate them without gaining the nectar reward. It seems that the bees are blind to the vastly exaggerated lateral lobes, which look to human beings rather like donkeys’ ears. Ovid recounts that after Midas had his disagreeable adventure with the golden touch, he received an ass’s ears after presuming to dispute the musical discernment of the gods. (Metamorphoses, Book 11.)

Giles Watson (2005)

Cowslip Orchid (Caladenia flava)

A single seedling

                            clones

                 a swathe of colour,

     each flower

                         bearing

            a little bleeding signature,

a rash of authenticity.

Source material. Each group of cowslip orchid plants is genetically identical, the individuals having cloned themselves from an individual seedling. See Andrew Brown, Orchids of the South West, Western Australia, 1999, p. 10.

Giles Watson (2005)

Leek Orchid (Prasophyllum spp.)

My eyes have grown attuned to muted colours;

The scrub resolves itself into infinite shades.

I am looking for pitcher plants, and find none,

Though their pert and purple lids I know

Must hide behind every next tussock, if only

I could look forever. Without solicitation,

The marvel unsought is there: a single spike,

Red as liver, with flowers white as a corpse’s

Eyes. They stare back, like blood-drained

Blooms of Orobanche, criss-crossed

By cobwebs. Not flamboyant, but resolute

As Death. In the long grass, tiger snakes

Coil unnoticed.

Source material. I encountered my first leek orchid whilst out walking with my parents a few minutes from their home in Little Grove, near Albany in Western Australia. My father and I thought for a few minutes that the single flower spike was that of a broomrape (Orobanche spp.), to which it bears a superficial resemblance. The poem also refers to the Albany Pitcher Plant (Cephalotus follicularis), which undoubtedly once grew in the region, but is increasingly scarce, perhaps due to the impact of grazing by rabbits. The dense scrub of the region is inhabited by a variety of poisonous snakes, including the handsome but lethal tiger snake.

Giles Watson (2005)

James Bateman’s Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala

A librarian’s nightmare, even the frontispiece

Shows workmen crushed by its weight, hauling

On a block and tackle, Cruickshankian angst

Written on every feature. Each page is the size

Of an elephant’s ear, each orchid a monster

Comprising multiple darkened gullets, withered

White roots, glabrous leaves with longitudinal

Veins, and everywhere, fleshlike spots and dapples.

Mrs Augusta L. Withers and Miss S.A. Drake

Are almost lost to history, but their designs

Leer at us through panes of glass, writhing

Their way from Guatemala, via lithography

To the Ashmolean, under incandescent lights.

I remember, aged ten, reading Wells: ‘The Flowering

Of the Strange Orchid’, a Strand Magazine

Facsimile. Unconsciously, I am stepping

Backwards, fearful that some tendril will shoot

From the page, and flexing, smash the glass.

Source material. The archetypal coffee table book, James Bateman’s The Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala, London, 1837–43, was so enormous that when George Cruickshank was asked to produce a vignette for the title page, he chose to depict a group of workmen lifting the book with block and tackle and getting crushed in the process. Of the book’s forty illustrations, thirty-seven were made by Mrs Augusta L. Withers and Miss S.A. Drake, about whom little further is known. The book was on display in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford in 2005 (see Shirley Sherwood, A New Flowering: 1000 Years of Botanical Art, Oxford, 2005, pp. 142–143).

Giles Watson (2005)

Vanda sanderiana

Three degrees of initiation

For the one who seeks the Vanda:

First: a hurricane, wrecking

One’s sampan half-way up river;

Rescued by some tribe.

Second: war. Trumpets warning

Of the onslaught of savages;

Deliverance by gunpowder.

Third: the earthquake, rending

Walls with airborne bodies;

Protected by a pith helmet.

Then is Vanda revealed, bearing

Flowers the size of dinner plates

Mauve enamelled, gilded, glazed,

Etched with brown and purple veins.

Great stacks of them aligned on stems,

Through holes ripped in the floor.

Source material. During the late nineteenth century, Frederick Sander built a veritable empire out of the orchid business. He employed almost a score of collectors, whose adventures read like colonialist fantasies from a Boys’ Own annual. The most remarkable find was perhaps that made by Carl Roebelin on Mindano in the Philippines: an orchid which Reichenbach described as “The grandest novelty introduced for years... From the top of the odd sepal to the top of the lateral ones, the flower measures five inches... Some plants bore five peduncles at one time. One had three spikes with forty-seven flowers and buds, thirty-four being open at one time, thus presenting the appearance of a bouquet.” Roebelin had made his way by sampan up a river to the interior of the island, only to be shipwrecked by a hurricane. He was rescued by tribesmen who were kindly disposed towards him because they wanted his help in defeating a rival neighbouring tribe. After assisting his hosts in battle, Roebelin was given a place for the night in the chief’s tree house, only to find himself in the midst of a horrendous earthquake. As Roebelin clung to the wreckage of the house, dawn disclosed a specimen of the stupendous orchid, soon to be named Vanda sanderiana, sticking through a hole in the floor. See Peter McKenzie Black, Orchids, London, 1973, p. 67.

Giles Watson (2005)

Stanhopea spp.

Flower-flesh, slick with scent,

Stippled with blood blisters.

The lip, elaborate beyond recognition,

Drips oiliness; the sepals

Seem to sweat it. Even the bees

Who service it

                        are iridescent,

Flitting

            from flower to flower,

Enslaved

                by the aphrodisiac power

Of perfume, pungent or sickly only

To the unaroused.

A hidden trigger

Sparks an explosion,

The plant’s own

Victorious orgasm:

The green bee,

Plastered with pollen,

Knows fear, and flees

To another flower.

Source material. This poem was inspired by Episode 3 of David Attenborough’s The Private Life of Plants, and by Franz Bauer’s painting of Stanhopea insignis, reproduced in Joyce Stewart and William T. Stearn, The Orchid Paintings of Franz Bauer, London, 1993, p. 147. Instead of offering a gift of nectar, Stanhopea species attract their pollinators, iridescent green bees, by exuding a highly perfumed oil with which the drones anoint themselves in order to entice prospective mates.

Giles Watson (2005)

Pollinia

Norbert Boccius, prior of the merciful brothers

At Feldsperg, taught me patience, poring over

Two thousand, two hundred and fifty illustrations.

I need it now: I shall walk, I am sure, with a stoop

After painting this; my eye has gained a habit

Of squinting, and at night I will see pollen grains

Teased out and glutinous in water, as gardeners

See dandelions in their sleep, after too much weeding.

My painting will be an essay in the sublime writ small:

Four pollinia squashed into water, each grain awash,

Adrift from its conglomerations, floating free

From a network of elastic, magnified a hundred times

Down the barrel of my microscope. Across the channel

Lieutenants too look down barrels, seeing men as so many grains.

At Kew, my ticking watch, a burning light, a glint of brass.

Source material. Franz Bauer was employed by Sir Joseph Banks at Kew, where he painted many beautiful and meticulous pictures of orchids. He was a talented microscopist, and his painting (1801) of four pollinia of Bletia purpurea, with their thousands of individual pollen grains, is testimony to his patience. See Joyce Stewart and William T. Stearn, The Orchid Paintings of Franz Bauer, London, 1993, pp. 22, 152. Bauer always wrote p as b, and vice-versa, hence his unusual spelling of Feldsberg.

Giles Watson (2005)

Orobanchaceae

Broomrape (Orobanche spp.)

Blanched as blood-drained flesh,

Broomrapes grow in deepest shade

Despising the sun. Their leaves

Are scales, their racemes rise

From soil, like vampires’ fingers,

The flowers shadowed, bruised

Like vampires’ eyes.

Hidden from sight, roots

Clamp round roots, suck

From the flux of life.

No need to grow green:

Flourish, rather, on others’ juices.

Source material. Broomrapes are distributed worldwide in temperate regions. They do not produce chlorophyll, but are wholly parasitic, the roots clamping onto those of other plants. Their colloquial name arises from the fact that in Britain, the host plant of the Broomrape is normally Broom or Gorse.

Giles Watson (2005)

Proteaceae

‘Banksia Incognita’ (Banksia sp.)

Those first landfalls, gaining firm legs

After months of open sea, and the creaking

Of hempen rigging, can only have bewildered,

And the sounds of the morning, as Banks awoke,

Made him know how far from England he had strayed.

Above the sea spray, the heath resounding

With guttural twin notes of honeyeaters, plying

The tall, nectared inflorescences,

The lapping of the pigmy possum, drowned

By the laughing of kookaburras

And the chunter of their children—

Were there echoes of these, in the herbarium,

Where the pressed inflorescences were painted,

And the cones, bristling with hooked beard hairs,

Examined, compared with the fruits of pines?

Source material. Anon., The Naturalist’s Pocket Magazine (1800), Volume 2. The genus Banksia was first described by the Endeavour’s botanist, Joseph Banks. See Patrick O’Brien, Joseph Banks: A Life, Chicago, 1987, p. 232.

Giles Watson (2002)

Metrosideros lanceolata’ – Bottle Brush (Callistemon citrinus)

Friar birds ply them with feathered tongues,

Cackling and flapping their buff wings

Against the sprays of crimson stamens.

The uncrackable seed pods line the stems;

The brush of redness tapers to a spear.

A land of contrasts: grey-green foliage,

Bald birds, and this blazing bush.

Transported, it grows

Amongst geraniums

In every London nursery.

Source material. Anon., The Naturalist’s Pocket Magazine (1800), Volume 2. Metrosideros lanceolata is known today as Callistemon citrinus, a bottle brush. In 1800, the NPM notes, “Many gardens in England, and most of the nurseries in the vicinity of the metropolis, now boast the possession of this beautiful shrub, which is raised, without difficulty, both from cuttings and seed, and has been thought to improve by cultivation.”

Giles Watson (2002)

‘War-Re-Taw’ – Waratah (Telopea speciosissima)

Whether he was convict or free

Matters little; his love

Had come along way

To a land where birds screech

And jeer, and spiders

Hide in boots.

A wattlebird flapped from it

When he found it, tall-stemmed

In stony ground.

Thick bracts, bright red,

Like petals. Clustered,

Curled flowers, like crimson

Spider-palps, the whole

A ball, bigger than his fist.

In the absence of roses,

He picked it for her;

The tough stem scratched

His skin in lieu of thorns,

And when toil was over

And the dust washed down,

He gave it to her, and she cried.

Source material. Anon., The Naturalist’s Pocket Magazine (1800), Volume 2. War-re-taw was the rendering of Waratah (Telopea speciosissima) used by “the most intelligent residents in New South Wales...as better according with the pronunciation of the natives.” Widely recognised, as the NPM already affirmed, as “the most superb flower of New South Wales”, the Waratah has a large, red inflorescence, and grows best in stony soil.

Giles Watson (2002)

Ranunculaceae

Aconite (Aconitum napellus)

He dragged me from Tartarus,

Chained in adamantine,

Clawing up the chasm of Acone,

My eyes seared by sunlight.

My twelve canines gleamed,

My three tongues slavered,

My triple bark splattered

Dog-spit across the green fields.

My sputum sprouted wolfsbane;

Witches flew by it.

Medea picked it for her poison;

Hecate made it hers.

I was Cereberus, the thrice

Decapitated. My three

Necks bleed. Blue flowers

Mourn my murder.

Source material. According to Greek Mythology, the triple-headed hound Cereberus was dragged to the cave of Acone, near Mariandyne on the Black Sea, by Heracles. The saliva of the dying dog generated the poisonous plant Aconite, also known as Wolfsbane and Monk’s Hood. Medea poisoned a cup of wine with the same plant in the hope of disposing of Theseus, but it is said that the poison was first used by Hecate, or indeed that Cereberus is himself a later version of the witch-goddess. See Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, 97 c and 134 g,h. When used in witches’ ointments, the plant caused fibrillation, which, when combined with the psychotropic properties of plants from the family Solanacae, resulted in a flying sensation. See Margaret Baker, Discovering the Folklore of Plants, p. 9.

Giles Watson (2002)

Hellebore (Helleborus niger)

First, to forestall the onset of migraine,

Red wine I’ll drink, with garlic in the glass,

Then seek the herb that mutes all mental pain,

And, in careful measure, causeth worms to pass.

Finding it, large sepaled, palmate on ground,

I describe on earth a circle with my sword.

No bird must fly, no sparrow make a sound;

On bended knee, Aescalpius implored:

“Let no eagle circle, lest I should die,

And by no beak nor tongue my deed betrayed.

Let no fur nor feather come me nigh

As I dig about the dark thing with my spade.”

Danger makes me sweat from every pore

When I uproot grim winter’s hellebore.

Source material. Classical tradition relates that the shepherd Melampus first realised the medicinal properties of the Christmas Rose or Black Hellebore, Helleborus niger, and cured the daughters of Proteus of their mental afflictions by giving them the milk of goats which had eaten the plant. The first century physician Dioscorides lists a number of precautions required when harvesting hellebores, and these are the subject of this sonnet. On a more mundane level, hellebores have long been a folk remedy for worms, and a highly efficacious one, save for the fact that the poison often kills the patient as well. The Green Hellebore, Helleborus viridis is less responsible for such overkill than the lethal Stinking Hellebore, Helleborus foetidus. See Margaret Baker, Discovering the Folklore of Plants, p. 74; Roy Vickery, The Oxford Dictionary of Plant Lore, p.176, and Katherine Kear, Flower Wisdom, pp. 101–102.

Giles Watson (2002)

Rosaceae

Apple (Malus domestica)

Captain Spratty Knight

Wassails left and right,

Spreading fecundity

To every dormant apple tree;

He blows his horn at night

To scare off evil sprites;

We dance with delight,

And sing with Spratty Knight:

Stand fast, root, bear well, top,

Pray, good God, send us a howling crop—

And a little heap under the stairs—

Hulloa, boys, hulloa, and blow the horn!

Spratty’s got a gun,

The wicked sprites to stun;

Never taunted by their tricks:

He beats the wicked sprites with sticks;

They scurry under stones

To nurse their broken bones.

We dance with delight,

And sing with Spratty Knight:

Stand fast, root, bear well, top,

Pray, good God, send us a howling crop,

Every twig, apples big—

And a little heap under the stairs—

Hulloa, boys, hulloa, and blow the horn!

Spratty has a lamp

To dispel dark and damp,

Green crab apples, cored and roast,

And, soaked in cider, crusty toast;

He gives, with gaping glee

These good gifts to the tree.

We dance with delight,

And sing with Spratty Knight:

Stand fast, root, bear well, top,

Pray, good God, send us a howling crop,

Every twig, apples big, every bough, apples now—

And a little heap under the stairs—

Hulloa, boys, hulloa, and blow the horn!

Spratty gives a shout

To bring good faeries out;

About the tree they rush

And the robin, and the thrush

Will come, when it is day

To steal the crumbs away,

While we dance with delight

And sing with Spratty Knight:

Stand fast, root, bear well, top,

Pray, good God, send us a howling crop,

Every twig, apples big, every bough, apples now,

Hats full, caps full—

And a little heap under the stairs—

Hulloa, boys, hulloa, and blow the horn!

Spratty has a tankard,

He is a happy drunkard,

He’s a chuckler, he’s a charmer

And he’ll ask the merry farmer,

For cider, in full payment

For wassailing entertainment,

And we’ll dance with delight

And sing with Spratty Knight:

Stand fast, root, bear well, top,

Pray, good God, send us a howling crop,

Every twig, apples big, every bough, apples now,

Hats full, caps full, five bushel sacks full—

And a little heap under the stairs—

Hulloa, boys, hulloa, and blow the horn!

When winter turns to spring,

Spratty shall not sing.

When the summer sun is glowing

He’ll watch the apples growing,

But when the light is failing

He’ll once more go wassailing

And we’ll dance with delight

And sing with Spratty Knight:

Stand fast, root, bear well, top,

Pray, good God, send us a howling crop,

Every twig, apples big, every bough, apples now,

Hats full, caps full, five bushel sacks full—

And a little heap under the stairs—

Hulloa, boys, hulloa, and blow the horn!

Source material. Roy Vickery, A Dictionary of Plant-Lore, Oxford, 1995, pp. 6–7. The chorus is the wassailing song attributed to Spratty Knight, Captain of a wassailing band from Duncton in West Sussex in the 1920s. The gifts given to the apple tree and faeries are described by Margaret Baker, Discovering the Folklore of Plants, Princes Risborough, 1999, pp. 14–15. It is a common folk custom to fire guns into apple trees. If aimed at the branches, the intention appears to be the scaring-off of evil spirits. On other occasions, apple trees which have given poor crops are threatened, and shot in the trunk to make them more fertile next year.

Giles Watson (2001)

Blackberry (Rubus fruticosus agg.)

Pooka comes to piss on berries,

Blowing farts and making merry.

Samhain spirit, horned and hairy;

Pooka spits, a puking faery.

Pooka smear and Pooka spoil;

Pooka bears a pussy boil:

Before the Pooka onward rambles

He squeezes pus on all the brambles.

When Samhain comes it is too late

To beat the pissing faery.

Eat berries from the bramble bush

And you’ll catch dysentery:

In a bramble patch the parson lay

Eating berries with his lover

And fairly soon they both were sick

All over one another.

A farmer’s wife picked berries black,

In pastry pies she baked them,

She sold them at the fair and poisoned

Everyone who ate them.

They puked in all the villages,

They puked in all the towns;

The nobles had brown, smelly stuff

Running down their gowns.

The publican picked some to brew;

No wort was e’er more tasty,

But after three weeks on the john

He looked a trifle pasty,

And at the inn, they drank red wine

And all were making merry;

All rushed as one for the latrines

When they drank of the berry.

The King was in his counting house

Eating berry crumble,

When all at once his belly gave

A single warning rumble.

Berries after Samhain?

Eat them if you dare—

And soon your bum will be as sore

As the royal derriere.

And thus the parson and the king,

The publican and farmer,

Entertained the Pooka with

A diarrhoea-rama.

Source material. Brian Froud and Alan Lee, Faeries, London, 1978. Pooka, Bucca, Bwca and Puck appear to share the same etymology, and many similar characteristics, and all are often seen as popularised memories of horned deities.

Giles Watson (2001)

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)

He ran away with Auburn Mary,

Lissom-limbed, lovelorn.

Her giant father boomed behind,

“You’ll rue that you were born!

I’ll kill you when I catch you, boy,

For making off with my daughter coy!”

But he laughed the giant to scorn, he did,

He laughed the giant to scorn.

He jumped upon a rearing steed

And Mary mounted too,

The giant’s footsteps shook the ground,

He bawled, “I’ll murder you!

I’ll eat your liver, don’t you fear,

For ravishing my daughter dear;

My spear will run you through! It will,

My spear will run you through!”

He spurred the steed and Mary’s arms

Clutched tightly round his waist;

Her mantle lay upon the ground,

Abandoned in her haste.

The giant cried, “I’ll bring you woe!

I’ll hang you by your little toe

And grind your guts to paste! I will,

I’ll grind your guts to paste!”

And as they hurtled down the glen,

Their eyeballs bulged with fear,

And Auburn Mary cried, “The horse!

Boy, reach behind his ear!”

And he pulled out a granite shard,

And still the giant chased them hard

With a homicidal leer, he did,

With a homicidal leer.

He turned, and threw the shard behind;

It grew into a hill,

And as Mary clutched his waist

He trembled at the thrill,

But the giant with his chisel strode

And through the hill he gouged a road

And closed in for the kill, he did,

He closed in for the kill.

Then Auburn Mary cried again,

As the giant’s roars grew madder,

“Reach behind the horse’s ear!”

The boy drew out a bladder.

The giant belched, “Your bones I’ll roast;

I’ll eat the marrow spread on toast,

For nought could make me gladder! No,

For nought could make me gladder!”

The boy dropped the bladder now;

It burst, and all around,

The water made a mighty lake,

Ten fathoms o’er the ground.

Upon the horse the pair did huddle;

The giant laughed, “Nought but a puddle,”

And leapt it with one bound, he did,

He leapt it with one bound.

“Behind the ear!” cried Auburn Mary,

Tugging on his hood,

But all he found was a long, black thorn,

And the black horse stopped and stood;

He threw the thorn, his heart did pound,

And where it landed on the ground

There grew a blackthorn wood, there did,

There grew a blackthorn wood.

The giant ran into the spinney

And slipped on fallen sloes;

He tried to rise, but sharp, black thorns

Pierced him through the nose.

His face all scratched, his clothes all torn,

The giant stood, hemmed in by thorn

A-wailing of his woes, he was

A-wailing of his woes.

And so the boy won Auburn Mary,

And they lived in the giant’s den,

And the giant’s wrathful tones

Were never heard again,

For the blackthorn pricked him, and he cried,

Thorns pierced his heart, and so he died

To the scolding of a wren, he did,

To the scolding of a wren:

Thorn - tit-tit-tit-tit - thorn - tit-tit-tit-tit,

Rue the day that you were born,

Sloe - tit-tit-tit-tit - sloe - tit-tit-tit-tit,

Flower when the north winds blow,

Spine - tit-tit-tit-tit - spine - tit-tit-tit-tit,

And round fruit for making wine,

Root - tit-tit-tit-tit - root - tit-tit-tit-tit,

Flowers nestle by the shoot,

Bough - tit-tit-tit-tit - bough - tit-tit-tit-tit,

The giant’s not so fearsome now,

Leaf - tit-tit-tit-tit - leaf - tit-tit-tit-tit,

Even giants come to grief!

Source material. Adapted from part of the legend of ‘The Battle of the Birds’, in Joseph Jacobs, Celtic Fairy Tales, Middlesex, 994, pp. 217ff.

Giles Watson (2001)

Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.)

Beware, beware the hawthorn,

Lest it strike you down,

For if you take an axe to it

You’ll rue that you were born.

At Redmarley farm in Worcestershire

A faerie hawthorn stood,

And folk would come from miles around

To see the gnarlèd wood;

Its faerie blossoms filled the air

With an erotic scent—

The farmer took a mighty axe

And to the tree he went.

Oh, the farmer took a mighty axe

And to the tree he went.

“I’m sick of all these nosy-parkers!”

The angry farmer cried.

He chopped it down; the jagged leaves

Withered all and died.

First the fellow broke his leg

And then he broke his arm,

And not long after that, ’tis said

That lightning struck his farm.

And not long after that, ’tis said

That lightning struck his farm.

At Clehonger, I know it’s true,

A faerie hawthorn stood

And folk would come from miles around

To see the gnarlèd wood;

Its faerie blossoms filled the air

With an erotic scent—

A farmer took a mighty axe

And to the tree he went.

Oh, a farmer took a mighty axe

And to the tree he went.

“I need this land to grow good rye,

This tree is in my way!”

But with one blow he dropped the axe

And screaming, ran away,

For blood ran out the cleavèd trunk

As from a severed neck,

And I’ve heard tell that ever since

He’s been a nervous wreck.

And I’ve heard tell that ever since

He’s been a nervous wreck.

In County Meath, last century,

A faerie hawthorn stood

And folk would come from miles around

To see the gnarlèd wood;

Its faerie blossoms filled the air

With an erotic scent—

A farmer took a mighty axe

And to the tree he went.

Oh, a farmer took a mighty axe

And to the tree he went.

“I shall dispense with rituals,

I need to plough this land!”

He stopped and leant against a thorn

And drove it through his hand.

He died of septicaemia

Not many evenings after;

The churchyard, at the funeral

Was filled with faerie laughter.

The churchyard, at the funeral

Was filled with faerie laughter.

In Berwick St John, it is said,

A faerie hawthorn stood

And folk would come from miles around

To see the gnarlèd wood;

Its faerie blossoms filled the air

With an erotic scent—

A farm-lad took a mighty axe

And to the tree he went.

Oh, a farm-lad took a mighty axe

And to the tree he went.

“I need this thorn for firewood!”

And on the earthen hill;

He raised his axe and chopped all night

The hawthorn for to kill.

And from that day no hen would lay,

No fawn born in the wild,

No cow would calf, or so they say,

And no woman bear a child.

No cow would calf, or so they say,

And no woman bear a child.

On a scenic bit of real estate,

A faerie hawthorn stood

And folk would come from miles around

To see the gnarlèd wood;

Its faerie blossoms filled the air

With an erotic scent—

A builder took a mighty axe

And to the tree he went.

Oh, a builder took a mighty axe

And to the tree he went.

The branches soon were cleared away,

The trunk was chopped and piled;

He built a mansion for a lord,

His lady, and their child,

But all were dead, I’ve heard it said,

Before the Mayday morn;

And thus the May shall do to you

If you chop down a thorn.

And thus the May shall do to you

If you chop down a thorn.

Source material. The hawthorn is notorious for avenging itself against over-zealous axe-wielders. The large number of folk narratives in which a felled hawthorn gains its revenge by striking the surrounding land with infertility may well point to the fact that the May is itself a symbol of fecundity. Many observers, Robert Graves amongst them, have noted that the flowering hawthorn carries a strong scent of female sexuality. In my own opinion, the flowers smell identical to the combined sex odours of a man and a woman after intercourse. See Margaret Baker, Discovering the Folklore of Plants, p. 70.

Giles Watson (2001)

Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia)

Bare, each branch, as I walk by,

The sky like tarnished steel,

And underfoot, brown, frozen earth,

A dearth of herbs that heal.

Bent, each bough, with weight of snow;

Winds blow, the land lies bleak,

And inspiration’s wrapped in shrouds;

Dark clouds hide all I seek,

Until I climb the highland hill

Where Rowan stands alone,

And though the winds are squalling still—

All white, the branches blown—

The stars of heaven have come down:

The Rowan wears them like a crown.

It seems the constellations glow

In facets of the flaking snow.

Damp with dew, each breaking bud;

The flood breaks banks below,

And bleary-eyed, the badgers wake,

The snake is lithe, but slow,

And though the ice begins to thaw,

Once more the cuckoo calls—

Inspiration’s dormant still;

My will yet stops and stalls,

Until I climb the highland hill

Where Rowan stands alone,

And though the air still bears a chill

Her milky flowers have grown,

And all around the fecund tree

Flies the midge and hums the bee,

The ground still clammy, cold and bare—

And yet her perfume fills the air.

Fledglings fly, the ground grows dry,

And high, the skylark sings,

And butterflies on bell-flowers settle

With brittle brimstone wings.

But parched and thirsty is my heart,

My art by bindweed bound,

And sound nor sight can waken words;

Birds scratch the dusty ground,

Until I climb the highland hill

Where Rowan stands alone,

And soft and dappled shadows spill

On lichen-covered stone,

Her pinnate leaves, which filter sun,

Convince me that, ere time begun,

The first man from the Ash was grown,

The first woman from the Rowan.

Flowers fall and brown leaves curl,

And whirl, in eddies chill,

And cider apples, fed by rain;

Gold grain, the baskets fill.

But though the berries, black and bruised

Are used to brew rich wine,

And fieldfares fly, the fates refuse

The muse that once was mine,

Until I climb the highland hill

Where Rowan stands alone,

And red-lipped Bridget’s sitting still

Upon her Rowan throne;

The fieldfares come to kiss her mouth

Before their flying for the south.

Her inspiration fills me now;

Red berries weigh each burdened bough.

Source material. No tree has inspired more folkloric associations than the Rowan. See Robert Graves, The White Goddess, pp. 167–8; J.M. Paterson, Tree Wisdom, pp. 225–242; Margaret Baker, Discovering the Folklore of Plants, London, 1980, pp. 133–136; Roy Vickery, Oxford Dictionary of Plant-Lore, Oxford, 1995, pp. 319–322.

Giles Watson (2001)

Rutaceae

Rue (Ruta graveolens)

If I picked her in daylight,

She would blister me,

Smite my skin for cutting her.

This, her lobe-leafed trickery.

Before the sun comes;

Before her yellow flowers

Bloom, I shall gather

The Herb of Repentance.

You have repented, you child,

Wish not to grow round,

Want not their scorn,

Will drink it in a draught.

There will be blood spots

And pain; you shall writhe

With it in secret, waiting

For the draining out of life.

This, the midwife’s other duty

Shall be secret ever,

Else they’ll burn me,

And I shall make you rue.

Source material. Care must be taken when picking Rue, as its juices will cause blistering of the skin if exposed to sunlight. Rue was known as the Herb of Grace or the Herb of Repentance because the plant was used in the Asperges before the Mass as a brush for sprinkling holy water. Whilst the herb certainly possesses medicinal properties, it is also poisonous, and most modern herbals warn that it should be avoided by pregnant women. It seems reasonable to speculate that, during the Middle Ages, many of the women who were persecuted as witches were in fact unofficial birth control practitioners. Rue must have been particularly useful to them. See Lesley Gordon, Green Magic: Flowers, Plants and Herbs in Lore and Legend, Exeter, 1977, p. 77. The pun at the end of the song has long been used folklorically; a jilted lover may blight a marriage by throwing rue on the wedding day of the man who has wronged her, shouting “May you rue this day as long as you live.” See Roy Vickery, Oxford Dictionary of Plant Lore, Oxford, 1995, pp. 322–323.

Giles Watson (2002)

Salicaceae

Aspen (Populus tremula)

A line of poplars by the stream

Where nymphs cavort and shepherds dream;

The round leaves catch each glancing beam

Of sunlight from the west.

Beyond the stream, the cowslips grow,

Heads lolling in the dull, red glow,

And cattle chew the cud, and low;

The linnet finds her nest.

Cool peace reigns; as if in trance,

A fox stands still, and mayflies dance,

And tides of shadow spread, advance,

O’er furrows in the field.

And dragon-nymphs, with compound eyes

Climb swaying reeds towards the skies,

But in the lurking shadows lies

A darker dream concealed.

For in the dusk the dread things creep,

And from a cave-mouth, dark and deep,

There strode a giant with gaping jaw,

Feet flattening flowers on the forest floor.

Slung from his belt, the lifeblood bled

From many a severed human head;

Human tongues he kept for charms,

His toothpicks made from human arms.

He pulled a poplar for his staff,

He lurched, and gave a guttural laugh,

He trampled hedgerows, killed the calm,

And slung six cows beneath his arm.

He took them to his foetid cave;

His lips for living flesh did crave.

He tore their throats out with one bite

And crunched their bones throughout the night,

And thus, the wrong man’s wrath did rouse,

For Heracles soon missed his cows—

Wrapped poplar leaves about his head

And swore he’d see the giant dead.

No one knows what wrestlings grim

Occurred within the cave mouth dim,

But he made the giant bend his knee

And chopped his heads off, one, two, three.

And when the giant got the chop,

The grove resounded: plop, plop, plop!

With giant’s blood up to his knees

Waded valiant Heracles.

When he emerged, his hands were wet;

They dripped with blood, they dripped with sweat,

And radiant heat had turned his wreathes

To a crown of whitened aspen leaves.

A line of aspen by the stream

Where nymphs cavort and shepherds dream;

White leaves reflect each glancing beam

Of sunlight from the west.

Beyond the stream, the cowslips grow,

Heads lolling in the dull, red glow,

And cattle chew the cud, and low;

The linnet finds her nest.

Source material. Myth of Heracles/Hercules and the killing of the giant Cacus. See Robert Graves, The White Goddess, p. 193.

Giles Watson (2001)

Willow (Salix spp.)

Bind willow leaves about him, singing,

Garlanded Green George,

All your goodly gifts a-bringing,

Garlanded Green George,

Bow down to him and call him king,

Go to the river, fling him in,

And let the rites of spring begin

With garlanded Green George.

Dance about the willow tree,

A leaf for you, a leaf for me,

And all that’s left of leaves shall be

For garlanded Green George.

Lass with child, spread on the ground

Your mother’s garments, all around,

“If they catch leaves, your child is sound,”

Says garlanded Green George.

Old and infirm, spit on the root;

Good health to you when grows the shoot,

And let the revellers play the flute

For garlanded Green George.

Bedecked with leaves from toe to top,

Green George blesses beast and crop,

Goes to the tree and nought can stop

Good garlanded Green George.

Then he takes iron nails three,

And knocks them fast into the tree,

Then pulls them out, for all to see,

Does garlanded Green George.

And as he pulls them out again,

He calls on the river and the rain

To grow the hay and feed the grain,

Our garlanded Green George.

And by the river he alights;

He drops them in for the water sprites,

And every grown man grasps and fights

For garlanded Green George.

They grab Green George, the willow-lad,

Willow-bound and willow-clad,

The greenest George they ever had,

Good garlanded Green George.

They throw him in the waters wide

Where willows bend on either side,

And cow gives calf and man takes bride

From garlanded Green George.

Source material. The song describes a spring fertility ritual celebrated by the gypsies of Transylvania and Roumania, as described by J.G. Frazer, The Golden Bough, pp. 126–127. The garments of pregnant women are spread beneath the willow, and if leaves are lying on them in the morning, the mothers will be granted safe deliveries. The old and the sick spit on the tree in order to prolong their lives. Green George himself embodies the spirit of the willow tree, and by throwing the nails into the river, and by being thrown into the river himself (Frazer suggests that an effigy is used), he “ensures the favour of the water-spirits by putting them in direct communication with the tree.”

Giles Watson (2001)

Sambucaceae

Elder (Sambucus nigra)

An ancient Elder stands alone

With dark-leafed ivy overgrown:

Thick perfume, and the milky white

Flowers in the growing night,

Here in the bark your eye may trace

The outline of a wizened face,

But few are those who’ve lived to see

Who lives within the Elder tree.

A Danish king with men four score

Came to England to make war;

They fought their way up to the wolds,

Pillaging and stealing gold,

Until at last one summer’s night

He came to camp in old Rollright.

He came there shouting, Stick, stock, stone!

As England’s King shall I be known!

Three of his men were less than sure

That he was right to thus wage war;

A wee way off they stopped to stoop,

And huddle, in a little group.

But up the hillside forged the king,

His other men stood in a ring;

They stood there chanting, Stick, stock, stone!

As England’s King shall he be known!

But as the King climbed up the hill,

All down his back he felt a chill;

He turned around: nought could he see

But a gnarled old elder tree.

He shrugged his shoulders and he grinned,

“Why, it was nothing but the wind!”

He climbed on, laughing, Stick, stock, stone!

As England’s King shall I be known!

And yet it seemed the air grew colder;

He felt a hard hand grasp his shoulder.

He whirled about, and who was there

But the Elder Witch! She gave a glare,

And as she spoke, the King did shake:

Seven long strides shalt thou take,

And if Long Compton thou canst see,

King of England thou shalt be!

The King looked up the gentle slope,

He laughed, “Why, Witch! You have no hope

Of stopping me! In seven strides

I’ll see around me on all sides:

In six I’ll be atop this hill,

And you’ll be forced to grant my will!”

He strode on, snickering, Stick, stock, stone!

As England’s King shall I be known!

But as the King began to stride

Before him rose a barrow wide;

It hid Long Compton from his view.

His sword upon the ground he threw,

“You Witch! You hag! That isn’t fair!

Curse you and your tangled hair!

He grabbed her wrist, cried, Stick, stock, stone!

As England’s King shall I be known!

The Elder Witch laughed hard and long,

And at last she sung her song:

Long Compton town thou canst not see,

So England’s King thou shalt not be.

Rise up stick, and stand still stone,

For England’s King thou shalt be none.

Thou and thy men hoar stones shall be,

And I shall be an eldern tree!

An ancient Elder, now a hedge

Blooms along the pathway’s edge:

And beyond, a ring of stones,

With moss and lichens overgrown.

And higher up the gentle slope

Stands the King, bereft of hope,

And another, huddled group of three:

Rollright stones, and Elder Tree.

Source material. Local Cotswold legend about the Rollright Stones. The refrain is traditional.

Giles Watson (2001)

Scrophulariaceae

Cow Wheat (Melampyrum spp.)

Beneath the beeches, wood ants spread seeds,

Grappling the grains in champing mandibles,

Hoarding their own bread, black and bitter,

Between the grass stems. Crickets stridulate.

Women would have them for their cows,

Browsing the purse-lipped flowers, making

Milk more yellow, by the coarse sympathy

Of ingestion, and the belch of churning cud,

But banish them from wheat fields. The bane

Of blackened flour bakes as pauper’s bread.

The roots entwined will not untangle.

Black seed will not winnow, in any wind.

Source material. Cow wheats (Melampyrum spp.) are semi-parasitic plants which derive water and minerals from the roots of grasses. The seeds are spread by ants, and bees are the only insects strong enough to open their flowers and pollinate them. The seed is reminiscent of wheat grain, but black in colour, and it is said to make bread black and bitter. As a result, it has been known as “poverty weed”, because it reduces the market value of cereals. However Linnaeus asserted that the best and yellowest butter is made when cows browse on cow wheat flowers. See Richard Mabey, Flora Britannica, London, 1996, p. 334, Macgregor Skene, A Flower Book for the Pocket, Oxford, 1935, p. 281, and C.A. Johns, Flowers of the Field, London, 1949, pp. 201–202.

Giles Watson (2003)

Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)

The foxgloves, in that they are bitter

Are always hot and dry,

With cleansing qualities therewith,

And yet, the Ancients sigh,

“Foxglove, growing from my wall,

Alas, thou art no use at all.”

They came with dropsy, one by one;

Knocked on her cottage door.

She led them to her kitchen dark,

The weary and the sore.

Her kitchen hung with charms, and herbs

Both poisonous and strong,

Her hearty patients left her care

And scorned the ancient song:

One Dr William Withering

Came to her Shropshire town;

He stroked his beard suspiciously

And wore a sceptic’s frown.

He watched them cured of dropsy all

And maladies of the heart,

For Mrs Hutton made them well

All by her secret art.

She said, “The foxglove cures their ills;

No herb has greater worth.

Wise women know it very well

And thank their mother Earth.”

He took her chanted recipes,

To Worcester town he went;

“For sure, the Ancients got it wrong—

This herb’s from Heaven sent.”

He published all his findings,

And thus fulfilled his dream

To make his mark, and show at length

That science was supreme.

Historians, they vaunt his deeds,

“Great Withering,” they rave,

Whilst wise old Mrs Hutton lies

In an unmarked grave.

Source material. Documentary evidence concerning Mrs Hutton is sparse, whereas that which vaunts the achievement of Dr William Withering as the “discoverer” of the medicinal qualities of Digitalis is plentiful. According to Margaret Baker, Discovering the Folklore of Plants, pp. 60–61, “Dr William Withering, a medical practitioner in Warwickshire, discovered the value of digitalin (contained in the dark green leaves of the foxglove) in the treatment of heart disorders, after noticing its effect on the dropsical patients of a wise woman in Shropshire. He published his theories in An Account of the Foxglove and Some of its Medical Uses (1785). When he died in 1799 a carved foxglove decorated his memorial in Edgbaston Old Church. Foxglove’s medical benefits were encapsulated poetically by Dr Withering himself: “The Foxglove’s leaves, with caution given,/ Another proof of favouring Heav’n/ Will happily display:/ The rapid pulse it can abate,/ The hectic flush can moderate,/ And, blest by Him whose will is fate,/ May give a lengthened day.” The chorus is an adaptation of the rather more sceptical words of Gerard’s Herbal.

Giles Watson (2002)

Solanaceae

Belladonna (Atropa belladonna)

The vulgar believe, and the witches confess,

A pipe of oyntment shall begrease their staffs.

Where hairs grow, there they rub it,

Shove the shaft between their legs, and fly.

We rifled the lady’s closet. There we found

A pipe with which she greased her long, black broom.

Thereon did she gallop, through thick and thin

And flew up through the chimney in her room.

Thumbscrewed and racked, she confessed,

How her pestle worked to pound the berries black.

By means of them she flew, or so she claimed,

When she was put to pricking and the rack.

I am the grease bird, she said, eating grass,

Goose-like shall I peck upon the ground.

I shall become fish-fingered, fin-handed,

Fling out my arms and underwater fly;

I shall float up and dive down, ere I die.

Source material. Deadly nightshade, or belladonna, was one of the principal active ingredients of witches’ flying ointments. The opening verses are adapted from two medieval sources; the first from the fifteenth century: “The vulgar believe and the witches confess, that on certain days and nights they anoint a shaft and ride on it to the appointed place or anoint themselves under the arms and other hairy places and sometimes carry charms under the hair.” The second describes an inquisitorial investigation into witchcraft in 1324: “in rifling the closet of the ladie, they found a Pipe of oyntment, wherewith she greased a staffe, upon which she ambled and galloped through thick and thin, when and in what manner she listed.” The final verse is based on a description of the effects of using Belladonna in an ointment, recorded by Porta, a friend of Galileo, in 1589. See Richard Evans Schultes and Albert Hofmann, Plants of the Gods: Origins of Hallucinogenic Use, New York, 1979, pp. 88–89.

Giles Watson (2002)

Thorn Apple (Datura stramonium)

In the hold of the Golden Hind

Came seeds to help him lose his mind.

To make him meeker than a lamb

His wench shall give him half a dram.

In the hold of the Golden Hind

Among the plundered jewels

Lay apples of Stramonium,

The conker-case of fools.

Drake sailed for honours from his Queen,

The jimsonweed came too;

Scattered on the rank-tared ground,

Seeds split, the strange plant grew,

Thrusting forth its jagged leaves.

Its trumpets white grew well,

And many a man who wandered by

Grew waxen at the smell.

The flowers dropped, the apples grew,

Encased in thorns of green,

About the time that Francis Drake

Was knighted by his Queen.

Three wenches picked them when they dried

To spike their husbands’ ale,

So they could leave them senseless

When the sabbat moon rose pale.

Their husbands swooning on the floor

As if they’d never wake,

Three wenches flew on stangs and brooms

Thanks to Sir Francis Drake.

Source material. “[Thorn Apple] was used by herbal ‘wizards’ (though not medieval ones: it didn’t arrive in England until the late sixteenth century)—and perhaps ‘witches’ too. At the end of the seventeenth century John Pechey maintained that ‘Wenches give half a dram of it to their Lovers, in beer or wine. Some are so skilled in dosing of it, that they can make men mad for as many hours as they please.” Richard Mabey, Flora Britannica, p. 303. Datura stramonium is, like Deadly Nightshade and Mandrake, a member of the Solanaceae, and has similar effects when taken internally. It seems reasonable to assume that since John Pechey’s “wenches” were so skilled in its use, they would have known how to exploit its more interesting effects for themselves, whilst at the same time temporarily disposing of their husbands with its aid. It also seems at least a fair hypothesis that Datura was introduced as a result of Drake’s voyage, since it is a native of South America, where Drake had been active in disrupting Spanish shipping, much to the indignation of King Philip of Spain, and to the delight of Queen Elizabeth. It would, however, be unreasonable to assume that English witches, ever resourceful by necessity, should have taken an entire century to discover the merits of the Thorn Apple.

Giles Watson (2002)

Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger)

I shall look for henbane

In the darker places,

Where nature’s graces grow pale

And the frail root is white

And writhing like a worm

Smoked from an aching tooth.

I shall say sooth, I shall fly

By horse and hattock

Through the sabbat-black sky.

The flower like veined flesh,

Its purpled pulse corpse cold,

And pistil like a licking tongue,

The leaves haired and viscid,

Flower heads funnelled and drooping

With their own deep narcotic.

Into hot water, this herb I hurl,

Raise a storm, and stew

My ointment while the winds whirl.

Some shall I save, to burn

With frankincense and fennel,

Cassia and coriander,

With black candles on a stump

In a dim wood,

When the darkling birds take flight.

Spirits of the night shall rise

Where henbane burns, dimly,

Like the smouldering in their eyes.

Source material. Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), is the witch’s plant par excellence on account of its strongly narcotic and toxic properties. It contains a combination of atropine, hyoscyamine and hycosine. The herb has been used as a pain-killer, and especially for treating the symptoms of tooth decay. The normally astute naturalist John Ray described its use in 1660: “The seed of Hyoscyamus placed on a coal gives off a smoke with a very unpleasant smell: when passed through the mouth and nostrils by a tube it drives out small worms (vermiculi) which sometimes grow in the nostrils or the teeth. They can be caught in a basin of water so that they can be seen better.” The existence of these worms is attested by several other authorities, but dismissed by John Gerard, who described henbane-administering dentists as “mountibancke tooth-drawers”. (See Roy Vickery, The Oxford Dictionary of Plant Lore, pp. 177–178.) Henbane was a common ingredient in witches’ flying ointments. Storms could be raised by throwing some of the plant into boiling water. The incense recipe for raising spirits of the night is cited by Jon Hyslop and Paul Ratcliffe, A Folk Herbal, Radiation Publications, Oxford, 1989, p. 15. “To be rid of them”, they add, “burn Asafetida and Frankincense.”

Giles Watson (2002)

Mandrake (Mandragora officinalis)

“They hanged a felon from this tree;

He swung from that there bough.

And as he twitched, he voided pee.

A mandrake grows there now.”

I looked at my companion’s eye;

He sideways glanced at mine,

“’Tis likely one of us shall die

When we undermine

Mandragora, mandragora,

When the demon screams,

For one shall die, and one shall live,

And one shall have foul dreams.”

His misty breath rose from his hood,

His hound slunk at his knee.

The moonlit, silhouetted wood

Of the hanging tree

Cast its shade upon the place

Where foetid things must grow,

And thrice in circles did he pace,

And chanted, grim and low:

“Mandragora, mandragora,

When the demon screams,

One shall die, and one shall live,

And one shall have foul dreams.”

He grabbed the tail of the hound

And tied it to the plant;

The cur a-cringing on the ground

Began to whine and pant.

From sackcolth he unwrapped a bone

And held it for the hound,

And from the plant there rose a moan.

I quailed at the sound:

“Mandragora, mandragora,

When the demon screams,

One shall die, and one shall live,

And one shall have foul dreams.”

And then the moan became a howl

Most horrible to hear,

And every badger, every owl

Fled the glade for fear,

And when the howl became a screech

I fell down to my knees

All gods and spirits to beseech;

It faded by degrees.

“Mandragora, mandragora,

When the demon screams,

One shall die, and one shall live,

And one shall have foul dreams.”

Beneath the moon, the root gleams pale,

’Tis like unto a man.

But who shall live to tell this tale

If tell this tale he can?

Three of us wait for the dawn

And one of us must die,

But which will rue that he was born—

My friend, his dog, or I?

Source material. This lyric is based on two legends about the mandrake, both of some antiquity. The oldest, concerning the method of harvest, in which the wrath of the mandrake demon is supposedly unleashed on the unfortunate dog, appears to have its origins in ancient Greece, and may be still older. The more recent, which holds that the mandrake springs from the urine or sperm of a man dying on the gallows, probably dates from between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Schmidels relates in 1751: “At the foot of the gallows on which a man has been unjustly hanged for theft it is said that there springs from the urine, voided just before death a plant with broad leaves, a yellow flower, and a root which exactly represents the human form even to the hair and sexual organs... To dig it is said to be attended with great danger, for it gives forth such groans when drawn from the earth that the digger if he hears them, dies on the spot.” Some traditions insist that the death, either of dog or digger, occurs not instantaneously, but at sunrise. The assumption that the uprooting of the plant might cause nightmares for a third party is the author’s own, but it seems a logical one. Readers interested in the fascinating history of mandrake lore should consult C.J.S. Thompson’s superb study, The Mystic Mandrake, New York, 1968.

Giles Watson (2002)

Umbelliferae

Hemlock (Conium maculatum)

Socrates said that trees and fields

Taught him nothing; men did.

So I killed him. He sipped me

From the cup they offered.

Thrice Diotima spat

Into her bosom.

Toads find refuge

Under my ferned leaf,

My purpled stems

And my umbelled flower.

Thrice my poison drips

Upon their warted skins.

I shall temper the black knife

Forged in the hour of Saturn.

Thrice shall you thrust it through me

With fire in the iron.

The steam shall hiss with mouse-stench

And I shall drip on the black silk

You wrap about the blade.

Source material. Hemlock (Conium maculatum) is a highly poisonous umbellifer with purple-spotted stems, and often a strong odour of mice. The first verse is inspired by the foreword to Robert Graves’s The White Goddess, which identifies Socrates’ world-denying philosophy as contrary to the spirit of poetry. Germanic folklore holds that toads gain their toxicity through sitting under hemlock plants. See Stephen Pollington, Leechcraft:Early English Charms and Healing, Norfolk, 2000, p. 129. The Greater Key of Solomon advocates that a sorcerer’s black handled ritual knife be tempered in hemlock juice and the blood of a black cat. See Paul Huson, Mastering Herbalism, London, 1974, p. 256.

Giles Watson (2002)

‘Sun-Flower of New South Wales’—Flannel Flower (Actinotus helianthi)

Some, who came of their free will,

Must have felt nostalgia, perhaps

Longed for an English spring,

Or a loved one.

And so they picked the Sun Flower,

Like an ox-eye daisy cut out of flannel.

Once picked, it was eternal

Like the New Holland sun.

Source material. Anon., The Naturalist’s Pocket Magazine (1800), Volume 6. The plant depicted is the Flannel Flower, Actinotus helianthi. It is not a daisy, but an umbellifer. The inflorescence does not wilt after picking, and may be kept for years in a vase without shrivelling or changing colour.

Giles Watson (2002)

Verbenaceae

Vervain (Verbena officinalis)

Herba sacra swept the altars

Of Jupiter, scoured temples

And houses at Verbenalis, hung

From garlands at weddings.

Herba veneris made philtres

For Elizabethan lovers, was good luck

For Florentine witches, febrifuge

And expectorant, in decoction.

Simpler’s Joy, tied to a ribbon

Of white satin, purged the plague,

Prophylactic against scrofula and bites

Of rabid dogs, calmed the migraine.

Yn Ard Lus, sewn into the hems

Of Manx men and women, was sought

But not requested, hints given,

A guess made. No words exchanged.

Source material. Paul Huson, Mastering Herbalism, London, 1974, p. 84; Margaret Baker, Discovering the Folklore of Plants, pp. 152–154; Roy Vickery, Oxford Dictionary of Plant Lore, p. 381; Richard Mabey, Flora Britannica, London, 1996. p. 312. The names in italics at the beginning of each stanza all refer to Verbena officinalis. Manx herbalists insist that the herb is most efficacious when given by a friend, but it is rendered ineffective if asked for directly. Mabey reports Colin Jerry’s observations: “The procedure for getting a piece is rather complicated. It cannot be asked for directly. Broad hints will be dropped and perhaps the possessor will take a hint and a plant will discreetly change hands, usually wrapped in paper. No word should be exchanged. It must always change hands from man to woman or vice-versa. It can be stolen, but I have not stooped to that yet.”

Giles Watson (2002)

Viscaceae

Mistletoe (Viscum album)

Mid-way between the earth and sky, he grows,

On oak or apple, where the cold wind blows,

The sperm of the gods in berries white,

The mistletoe, who slew the god of light.

His roots lie in no soil, yet leaf he bears,

The arbour of the birds he boldly shares,

And though he seems ill-fitted for the fight

The mistletoe has slain the god of light.

His wood is strong, though not from earth begotten

And woe must follow when he is forgotten,

His berries gleaming, shrouded in the night

The mistletoe has slain the god of light.

In night sweats Baldr dreamed, and all was dim,

And he awoke and screamed, and unto him

Came Frigg, his wife, and he the god of light,

She wept that Baldr could not bear the night.

On Sleipnir Odin rode, to Misty Hell,

In Hell’s High Hall he strode, and cast a spell

To wake the corpse of a seeress, long dead,

And unto him she spoke dark words of dread.

“What is the news from Hell?” She muttered:

“’Tis gruesome news to tell.” His lantern guttered.

“Woe among the Æsir! Baldr killed—

By a single dart his blood be spilled.”

Then Odin brought the word, and Frigg was wroth

She made each tree and bird to swear an oath

Not to bring her Baldr unto harm—

She bade the Oak, the Beech, the lowly balm,

The mistletoe came too, with berries white,

And offered to swear true, to save the light,

“But you are far too young,” said Frigg the fair,

“Too insignificant this oath to swear.”

But Loki, evil spirit, made a dart

Of mistletoe, to pierce Baldr’s heart,

And gave it to his sightless brother Hod,

And Baldr fell down dead, a bloody god,

Slumped against a hummock, all was ended

Slain by a tree ’twixt sky and earth suspended.

Slender was the dart, and sharpened well,

Baldr’s bane—it summons him to Hell,

And brother Vali, born thus to aspire:

To burn his brother’s murderer in the pyre,

Shall not wash his hands, fresh waters shun,

Nor comb his hair, until there’s justice done.

Source material. ‘Baldr’s Dreams’, the ‘Song of Hyndla’ and the ‘Seeress’s Prophecy’ from the Poetic Edda. See also Margaret Baker, Discovering The Folklore of Plants, p. 99.

Giles Watson (2001)

Xanthorrhoeaceae

‘Grass Gum Tree’ – Grass Tree (Xanthorrhoea sp.)

Later called Blackboy,

The leaves like his headdress,

The flower like his spear;

Armies of Blackboys

Make hillside silhouettes,

The white man’s fear.

The trunk, hollow,

Breaks into a thousand

Cedar-coloured scales,

The outside always

Charred by fire, and inside,

Large, disgusting grubs:

A native delicacy.

Exudes a gum. The natives

Knead it into paste, stop

Leaks in their canoes.

The white men ship it home;

The London Dispensary

Calls it Resin Acaroides.

It cures consumption.

A strange source of salves

For an English disease.

Source material. Anon., The Naturalist’s Pocket Magazine (1800), Volume 2. The Grass Gum Tree was colloquially known as the Blackboy Tree until this became politically incorrect. It is now known as the Grass Tree, of the genus Xanthorrhoea. It consists of a hollow, easily demolished trunk, topped by long, grass like leaves. The inflorescence is a tall spike, shaped, as the NPM observes, like a “bulrush” or reedmace.

Giles Watson (2002)


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