Many cultures depend on plants for their healing, regenerative and recuperative properties. But do plants also have the power to attract love, ward off evil and restore happiness?
Want to know the real secret to surviving this struggling economy? Put a little poverty-protection in your cupboard: a jar of alfalfa. Having nightmares? Tuck some anise in your pillow. Or maybe you’re trying to attract love? Drop some apple blossoms in your bath.
Herbal lore has been passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years. Some of it is very practical, but some of it sounds downright silly. “The history and lore of herbal medicines can be fascinating, and sometimes outlandish,” says Rob McCaleb, president and founder of the Herb Research Foundation, based in Boulder. “However, even some of the most seemingly outrageous folklore uses often hint at rational treatment potential.”
Take that anise in your pillow, for instance. In herbal medicine, anise is used to help relieve gas and indigestion. As anyone who has ever made the mistake of eating a heavy meal before bedtime knows, severe indigestion is surely the cause of many a nightmare!
For ancient civilizations, herbal medicine was the only medicine they knew. But the World Health Organization says 80 percent of the global population still fulfills their primary health-care needs with herbal remedies. We rely heavily on pharmaceuticals in this country, but herbal medicine, after several decades on the fringe, has been welcomed back into the fold and given the recognition it deserves as legitimate science.
“Common herbal remedies can protect vital organs—including the heart, liver and brain—and stimulate the immune system, lower blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels, and even help prevent cancer,” McCaleb says. “Thus, they offer a level of preventive medicine there is no equivalent for in the world of modern chemical drugs.”
“We’re validating what ancient peoples already knew,” says Boulder herbalist and teacher Brigitte Mars, who has authored several books, including The Desktop Guide to Herbal Medicine. “For instance, plants that have been proven to help the immune system often have a tradition of protecting us from evil spirits and other negative influences.”
Ann Drucker, also a Boulder herbalist and teacher, agrees: “The history of people working with plants goes back 40,000 years. The wives’ tales and legends that have lasted this long are the ones that really work.”
“The future of herbalism lies in the past,” adds Mary Kathleen Rose, a Boulder gardener and herbalist who is also a massage therapist and wellness educator. “The true old-fashioned herbalist… knows that the power of the plants will never be totally measured or defined in the laboratory.”
In fact, plenty of herbal lore exists outside the realm of laboratories. Here’s a sampling of plant legends, folk tales, rituals and superstitions that many people follow, whether it’s just for fun, to honor their ancestors, or because they truly believe in a plant’s magical powers:
“Basil cures pretty much anything that ails you.”
“In many cultures, basil is considered an herb of protection and one to attract prosperity and luck,” Mars writes in The Desktop Guide. For this reason, basil has traditionally been given as a housewarming gift. “When I was little, my grandma took a basil plant over to our new next- door neighbors,” says Longmont resident Elaine Charles. “Since she also said that basil keeps bugs away, I asked her if they would rather have a fly swatter for a present.” Basil’s protective properties apparently extend to businesses as well.
“Wash the door- knobs of your business with basil water, and sprinkle a little on the threshold,” says Morwyn, a Boulder herbalist, aroma- therapist, tea-leaf reader and mystery writer. “This will ward off vandals and entice customers.” Basil is also believed to attract money, keep a lover faithful, and soothe headaches and heartaches.
“Onions can help you choose between two lovers.”
Carve each lover’s name on an onion and then set them aside; whichever onion sprouts first is the lover for you. Some sources insist that this works best when performed on December 1. Divination by onions, called “cromniomancy,” can actually be used when deciding between any two alternatives. “My grandma told me about this tradition, too,” Charles says. “I guess she really knew a lot about plants.”
“When cutting flowers from your garden, choose wisely.”
According to the Oxford Dictionary of Plant Lore, lilac and lily-of-the-valley “are considered to cause misfortune if brought indoors.” Indeed, lilacs occupy second place on the Folklore Society’s list of “Unlucky Plants” (hawthorn is first). This makes Kristi Jordan of Niwot wonder, “If my neighbor cuts the lilacs but brings them to my house, who’s stuck with the bad luck?”
“Garlic wards off vampires.”
“Garlic has a long history of ward- ing off viruses, infection and sickness,” Drucker says. “Later, it extended to all evil, to anything bad that can get you.” There’s even a hieroglyph representing garlic on one of the Pyramids of Giza; archaeologists believe it was put there to strengthen the builders and protect them from disease.
Today, you’ll find garlic braids hanging in many kitchens—a tradition that originated in Europe, where garlic was hung in doorways to keep evil spirits at bay. “I have a decorative garlic braid made of ceramic that I got as a wedding gift,” says Diane Hunter of Louisville. “I sure hope the ceramic garlic is as lucky as the real thing.”
“If you’re pregnant, don’t pick any fruit from a tree or bush.”
“My mom and godmother believed that the energy a pregnant woman exudes is deadly to the plant,” says Vicki Cornelius of Longmont. “They both swore that this is what caused the deaths of several cherry trees and raspberry bushes in their yards.”
On the other hand, Mars reports, raspberry leaf is quite beneficial to pregnant and laboring women: “Raspberry leaf is considered a supreme tonic for pregnant women because…it can nourish the mother and the growing baby, prevent false labor and facilitate birth.”
“Turn to your ‘mother’ for help.”
The ancient Greeks and Romans used motherwort for both heart palpitations and depression, and the ancient Chinese believed it promoted longevity. Seventeenth-century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper wrote: “There is no better herb to take melancholy vapors from the heart…and make a merry, cheerful soul.”
The herb is also said to help relieve pain during child- birth and ease breast tenderness. Perhaps that’s why Nancy Bevin’s midwife had her sip motherwort tea while she was in labor with her son, Zach. “My aunt, who knew about such things, had also mentioned it to me a few months before Zach’s due date,” the Nederland resident recalls. “I still drink it once in a while for PMS.”
“I will attest to its ‘heart gladdening’ properties and its regulating effect on female hormones,” Mary Kathleen Rose says. She tells of a participant in one of her herb workshops who was unfamiliar with motherwort and its uses, but remarked that the tiny ruffled flowers resembled “beautiful dancing ladies.” Says Rose, “What a fitting name for this beautiful and useful plant.”
Do You Believe in Magic?
Do plant rituals really lure good fortune and keep bad stuff away? “If it seems to work for you, and it makes you happy to follow, then why stop?” Charles says. “I’m not hurting anyone by giving basil plants as gifts, and maybe I’m helping. As a bonus, they’ll always have pesto.”
“If you’re totally focused,” Mars says, “and if you truly believe that a particular plant or ritual will bring you happiness, then it probably will.”
Common Plants and their mystical, medicinal and edible properties
Mystical Lore: Stands for perseverance in adversity and humility; helps a person overcome feelings of melancholy and anger; attracts love and prosperity. Medicinal Lore: Treats inflammation, arthritis pain, hyperactivity, hives, insomnia and many other conditions. Topically, it softens dry skin and treats skin inflammations. Edible and Other Lore: When planted near other herbs, chamomile helps them grow; it also attracts beneficial insects to the garden. Flowers can be eaten raw or cooked and are often brewed into tea. In shampoos and conditioners, it highlights blond hair. Notes: Those who are allergic to ragweed may be allergic to chamomile as well.
Dandelion (the herbal variety, like Red Rib dandelion; not the common lawn weed variety)
Mystical Lore: Attracts prosperity and luck, and makes your dreams come true; helps overcome emotional pain. Because it’s a true survivor, it stands for perseverance. Medicinal Lore: Cools heat and clears infection from the body; aids in the elimination of uric acid; treats conditions such as anemia, colitis, diabetes, gallstones, obesity and tonsillitis. Detoxifies the liver and kidneys. Edible and Other Lore: Considered one of the five most nutritious herbs on earth; is made into beer and wine; the roots are sometimes roasted and made into a coffee substitute; the mildly bitter-tasting leaves are a flavorful addition to salads. Notes: One of the easiest botanicals to grow. May cause a skin rash in sensitive people.
Mystical Lore: It was once a custom to scent a bride’s bedclothes with lavender on her wedding night to soothe her fears. Adding lavender to money spells is said to give them vigor. Medicinal Lore: Commonly used pre-WWII as an antiseptic wound dressing; used to calm nerves, settle digestion, and treat anxiety, headache and depression. Topically, it can help treat infection. Edible and Other Lore: Lavender flowers can be candied or crystallized; lavender-infused honey is a delicacy. An essential ingredient in dream pillows. In shampoos, lavender can help prevent hair loss. A drop of lavender essential oil on the corner of a baby’s mattress can help soothe teething pain. Notes: Name comes from the French word laver, which means “to wash.” Avoid large doses during pregnancy.
Mystical Lore: Represents both the coldness of fear and the warmth of love. Hang a sachet in your window for good luck, happiness, parting of the ways, new beginnings, and release of anger. Rub onto furniture to clear negative energy. Medicinal Lore: Relaxes blood vessels; calms muscle spasms; eases stomach cramps; treats cold and cough; is analgesic when used topically. Edible and Other Lore: Aroma promotes clear thinking; often used to improve the flavor of other teas; said to encourage prophetic dreams if drunk as a tea. The leaves are used raw or cooked in Asian and Middle Eastern cuisines. Freshens breath. Notes: Plant mint in your garden where you don’t mind it spreading, as it has a tendency to take over.
Mystical Lore: Considered the knowledge tree by the Celts. A cross made from mountain ash twigs and tied with red thread is a charm against witchcraft and lightning. Wine made from the berries is said to endow poetic inspiration. Medicinal Lore: Fresh juice made from the berries has a mild laxative effect; also used as a gargle for hoarseness and sore throat. Fruit extract was once used to treat scurvy. Edible and Other Lore: The bright-orange berries can be made into jam. Notes: Berries persist through winter, providing needed food for birds and other wildlife, and winter interest in the garden.
Mystical Lore: Rosebuds symbolize love and devotion: White roses symbolize innocent love; red roses, passionate love; pink roses, simple love; yellow roses, friendship. To revitalize your love life, sprinkle rosewater on the bed. As a flower essence, rose dispels shame about sexuality and helps users fulfill their true desire. Medicinal Lore: Rosehips contain large amounts of vitamin C, help strengthen capillaries, and are used in the treatment of cancer, colds, flu, high cholesterol and varicose veins. Rose roots can treat inflammation. Rose flowers break up congestion, calm the heart, regulate menstrual cycles, and treat anxiety, depression and diarrhea. Edible and Other Lore: Rose petals can be eaten raw or as tea. Rosewater made from the flowers is sometimes used in desserts. Roses are one of the most popular ingredients in potpourri. Often included in cosmetics to soften the skin. Notes: There are at least 10,000 varieties of roses cultivated worldwide.
Chart prepared by Lisa Truesdale using information from Brigitte Mars’ book, The Desktop Guide to Herbal Medicine; from Morwyn, herbalist, aromatherapist and proprietor of Dunraven House, an online metaphysical products supplier; The Oxford Dictionary of Plant Lore by Roy Vickery; and The Healing Herbs by Michael Castleman.