Tuesday evening, I attended my first meeting of the South Carolina Herbal Society here in Charleston. Because I’m very interested in learning about herbs and herbal medicine, I brought my membership form and annual fee with me. After the first meeting, I can already say that it is going to be worth it! The leader of the meeting is an experienced herbalist, and she shared for an hour and a half on herbal folklore. As we know, there is usually a thread of truth underlying “old wives’ tales” or folklore, so it was interesting to learn how people used herbs centuries ago. Although she couldn’t possibly touch on every herb and its folklore in that short period of time, she did speak about the most common herbs. I’d like to now share with you some of what I learned.
I took pages and pages of notes during the meeting, writing furiously to get it all down on paper. To keep this article from becoming a strain on the eyes, I’ll list the information as bullet points.
INTRODUCTION TO HERBAL FOLKLORE:
All plants have a personality, an essence, or a “spirit” about them. When we learn that essence, we are on our way to understanding how to use the herb. For example, herbs can have a cold or warm nature and a dispersing or a gathering nature. Although I found some of the herbal folklore to be a bit “out there,” there are underlying truths to this folklore, which a growing body of scientific evidence is confirming. One thing science has verified is that scents (herbal, floral) affect emotions and thought processes. (Here are two of many sites on the subject: Scents Affect Thoughts & Behavior and Do Scents Affect People’s Moods or Work Performance?)
Well, on to the folklore:
- Elder is known as the “Grandmother Plant” because it protects other plants and the owner’s home. (It was believed that lighting would not strike a home with an elder bush.)
- Wearing a twig on your body (woven into clothes or in a pocket) was believed to protect your health and bring good luck.
- Gathering the leaves on the last day of April and strewing inside the house and over the doorstep was believed to cast off evil spells.
- TREATMENTS/USES: Elderberries were used to treat illness. (It is still used today for colds and flu.)
- Garlic was known as the “Commoner’s Herb.”
- The ancient Greeks put it at crossroads as a supper for one of their gods so the devil couldn’t follow them and they’d have safe travels.
- The Egyptians used it at oath-taking ceremonies.
- It was used to ward off werewolves and vampires.
- TREATMENTS/USES: (1) In the 12th century, it was used as a palliative for those working in the heat of the sun (to make them sweat and stay cooler). (2) Arabians rubbed their lips and noses with it to help prevent being burned by the desert sun.
- Wherever thyme grows wild, it indicates a pure atmosphere. (It’s also where the fairies are said to play the most.)
- Wearing thyme in the hair was believed to attract the opposite sex.
- It was used in burial rites – planted on graves (as in Wales) or sprigs thrown on coffins to help the deceased to transition to the spirit world.
- TREATMENTS/USES: (1) The Romans used it as a remedy for melancholy people. (2) It can be used as a fumatory to help concentration. (3) A sachet of thyme placed under a pillow while sleeping was said to dispel nightmares and give positive dreams.
BAY LAUREL FOLKLORE:
- Commonly known as culinary bay leaf today, it was known in the 1600’s as the “tree of the sun under the sign of Leo.”
- It was believed to get rid of negative witchcraft and evil.
- Bay laurel wreaths were sign of a great accomplishment. (Think Caesar!) The leaves were also carried in a pocket or on clothing to perform better in athletic competitions.
- It was believed to protect warriors during war as well as to protect against the angry sky gods when they thundered.
- Doctors wore leaves of bay laurel because of their healing qualities.
- Lovers would split a single bay leaf, each keeping a half, for fidelity and the promise of seeing each other again.
- People used to sweep their doorsteps of the footprints of unwanted guests, then rub with bay laurel to prevent them from returning.
- TREATMENTS/USES: A bay leaf in a storage container of grains will keep insects at bay. (There’s your unwanted guests!)
- This herb was associated with death. It was NEVER grown inside for fear of death visiting the home.
- Originally, it was used to decorate tombs, not eaten. It was also used to help communicate with the dead.
- Romans placed it on a plate to protect the food from contamination or poison. (Could this be the source of restaurants garnishing dishes with parsley?)
- It was tucked inside togas and in laurel wreaths to protect against inebriation. (Do college kids know this?)
- It doesn’t like to be transplanted, and it was considered bad luck to uproot it.
- Plucking parsley while thinking of someone you want to see death visit and invoking his or her name was said to curse the person.
- TREATMENTS/USES: None mentioned in class.
- Oregano was used in spells to bring happiness, protection, and joy.
- It was used in spells to deepen love (not force someone to love you who doesn’t already).
- It was believed that sleeping with oregano under the pillow would cause psychic dreams.
- It was placed on graves to help the deceased find happiness in the next life. If oregano grew wild on a grave, it was considered a message from beyond that the deceased was happy and well.
- It was used in rituals of joyful occasions, especially marriage (called a “handfasting ceremony”), to bless with happiness.
- TREATMENTS/USES: None mentioned in class.
- The Latin name of sage is “salvia,” which comes from the words meaning to save or to heal. It’s been used as a primary medicinal herb since ancient times.
- Eating sage daily in the month of May was said to give immortality.
- Women who ate sage cooked in wine were said to be unable to conceive. (Ancient birth control?)
- Sage growing well in a garden was said to indicate the well-being of the wife and the household.
- It was used to clear away evil spirits, especially among the sick.
- It was used to alleviate sorrow over the death of a loved one.
- Writing a wish on a sage leaf, sleeping on it for three days, then burying it was said to make the wish come true.
- TREATMENTS/USES: (1) Native Americans “bathed” in the smoke of white sage (a type of sage not eaten) for purification. (2) It was used to preserve meat prior to refrigeration. (Today, it is a main ingredient in sausage.) (3) It was used to aid the memory of the aged (sages of society).
- In European lore, basil belonged to the devil. The only way it would grow well is if the person would “curse the ground” (i.e., the devil) the entire time he or she was planting it.
- Witches were said to drink basil tea prior to flying.
- Small pots of basil were given as parting gifts to guests to bless their journeys. In Romania, basil was given for engagement. (Basil given to the opposite sex was thought to cause them to love you forever.)
- The Egyptians and Greeks believed it opened the gates of heaven for the dead.
- It was used in peacemaking spells and to make up after arguments/fights.
- A basil leaf in your pocket was said to bring money to you. Soaking basil for three days then applying it to the threshold of your business was said to draw customers to your shop.
- TREATMENTS/USES: None mentioned in class.
HOLY BASIL FOLKLORE:
- A different plant than regular basil
- TREATMENTS/USES: (1) In India, it’s been used to treat various acute and chronic illnesses. (2) Helps to decrease stress.
- Rosemary is a perennial that was said to last 33 years before dying to the ground because that’s how old Jesus was when He was crucified.
- Its color was said to come from Mary throwing her blue cloak over a rosemary plant while she, Joseph, and Jesus were fleeing to Egypt.
- It was believed rosemary would ward off evil spirits.
- Smelling it often was said to retain one’s youth.
- It was used in spells for fidelity, remembrance, and to dispel jealousy.
- TREATMENTS/USES: (1) The scent was used to increase memory. (This has been scientifically proven, especially when using the essential oil.) (2) Burning rosemary was used to heal the sick and drive out negative energy/spirits from a sick room.
- Lavender was believed to be a favorite of the fairies.
- It was used as a talisman of love and protection.
- It was used in spells to sharpen the mind and increase love.
- It was believed to counter the “evil eye.”
- TREATMENTS/USES: (1) It was used to increase fertility. (2) I was used as a calming herb. (It is still used as a calming scent.)
STINGING NETTLE FOLKLORE:
- Stinging nettle is a protective herb.
- It was used to fight lust.
- Placed in a mojo bag, it was said to remove a curse and send it back to the person who sent it.
- TREATMENTS/USES: It was used to decrease the swelling and pain of arthritis. (It seems to actually do this.)
Such an interesting list of our ancestors’ thoughts and beliefs, isn’t it? Much of herbal folklore has, unfortunately, been lost. But regardless of some of their superstitious beliefs, our ancestors knew much about the healing properties of herbs. And that’s information we can’t afford to lose!
Does anyone in your family have stories about herbs and herbal treatments? Share your family’s herbal folklore in the comments below.