The Folklore of Plants

Words by
Georgina Reid
| February 24, 2014

Have you heard of the vampire pumpkins from the Balkans? Apparently if they sit on the ground too long they go a little stir crazy and attack people in their houses at night. And what about the myth that the mandrake plant kills all who pull it from the ground, AND that it only grows in soil where the semen of dead men has fallen? Gross, huh?! You can find these myths and plenty more in a  very old book called The Folklore of Plants. It’s a fascinating read.

Written by  T.F Thiselton Dyer in 1848, The Folklore Of Plants is addictive reading, outlining the various ways plants, folklore and mythology are intertwined. Oh, it is brilliant, and nutty, and wonderful. You need to read it. And you can, because its available for FREE download here!

Here is part of the first chapter, to whet your appetite. Please remember that it was written in 1848, so some of the language is a little curious/politically incorrect. I have also added paragraphs to make it easier to read. Enjoy!

The fact that plants, in common with man and the lower animals, possess the phenomena of life and death, naturally suggested in primitive times the notion of their having a similar kind of existence. In both cases there is a gradual development which is only reached by certain progressive stages of growth, a circumstance which was not without its practical lessons to the early naturalist. This similarity, too, was held all the more striking when it was observed how the life of plants, like that of the higher organisms, was subject to disease, accident, and other hostile influences, and so liable at any moment to be cut off by an untimely end.

On this account a personality was ascribed to the products of the vegetable kingdom, survivals of which are still of frequent occurrence at the present day. It was partly this conception which invested trees with that mystic or sacred character whereby they were regarded with a superstitious fear which found expression in sundry acts of sacrifice and worship.

According to Mr. Tylor, there is reason to believe that, “the doctrine of the spirits of plants lay deep in the intellectual history of South-east Asia, but was in great measure superseded under Buddhist influence. The Buddhist books show that in the early days of their religion it was matter of controversy whether trees had souls, and therefore whether they might lawfully be injured. Orthodox Buddhism decided against the tree souls, and consequently against the scruple to harm them, declaring trees to have no mind nor sentient principle, though admitting that certain dewas or spirits do reside in the body of trees, and speak from within them.”

Anyhow, the notion of its being wrong to injure or mutilate a tree for fear of putting it to unnecessary pain was a widespread belief. Thus, the Ojibways imagined that trees had souls, and seldom cut them down, thinking that if they did so they would hear “the wailing of the trees when they suffered in this way.” In Sumatra certain trees have special honours paid to them as being the embodiment of the spirits of the woods, and the Fijians believe that “if an animal or a plant die, its soul immediately goes to Bolotoo.”

The Dayaks of Borneo assert that rice has a living principle or spirit, and hold feasts to retain its soul lest the crops should decay. And the Karens affirm, too, that plants as well as men and animals have their “la” or spirit. The Iroquois acknowledge the existence of spirits in trees and plants, and say that the spirit of corn, the spirit of beans, and the spirit of squashes are supposed to have the forms of three beautiful maidens. According to a tradition current among the Miamis, one year when there was an unusual abundance of corn, the spirit of the corn was very angry because the children had thrown corn-cobs at each other in play, pretending to have suffered serious bodily injury in consequence of their sport.

Similarly, when the wind blows the long grass or waving corn, the German peasant will say, “the Grass-wolf,” or “the Corn-wolf” is abroad. According to Mr. Ralston, in some places, “the last sheaf of rye is left as a shelter to the Roggenwolf or Rye-wolf during the winter’s cold, and in many a summer or autumn festive rite that being is represented by a rustic, who assumes a wolf-like appearance. The corn spirit was, however, often symbolised under a human form.”

Indeed, under a variety of forms this animistic conception is found among the lower races, and in certain cases explains the strong prejudice to certain herbs as articles of food. The Society Islanders ascribed a “varua” or surviving soul to plants, and the negroes of Congo adored a sacred tree called “Mirrone,” one being generally planted near the house, as if it were the tutelar god of the dwelling.

It is customary, also, to place calabashes of palm wine at the feet of these trees, in case they should be thirsty. In modern folk-lore there are many curious survivals of this tree-soul doctrine. In Westphalia, the peasantry announce formally to the nearest oak any death that may have occurred in the family, and occasionally this formula is employed—”The master is dead, the master is dead.” Even recently, writes Sir John Lubbock, an oak copse at Loch Siant, in the Isle of Skye, was held so sacred that no persons would venture to cut the smallest branch from it.

The Wallachians, “have a superstition that every flower has a soul, and that the water-lily is the sinless and scentless flower of the lake, which blossoms at the gates of Paradise to judge the rest, and that she will inquire strictly what they have done with their odours.” It is noteworthy, also, that the Indian belief which describes the holes in trees as doors through which the special spirits of those trees pass, reappears in the German superstition that the holes in the oak are the pathways for elves; and that various diseases may be cured by contact with these holes. Hence some trees are regarded with special veneration—particularly the lime and pine—and persons of a superstitious turn of mind, “may often be seen carrying sickly children to a forest for the purpose of dragging them through such holes.

Illustrations by Cherry Wynn-Williams