Plantlore. Encyclopedia Of American Folklore

Traditions associated with the growth and use of plants. Traditional uses of plants in
America vary both regionally and ethnically, but some general trends are discernible.
Traditional categories of plants include edible-nonedible, useful-nonuseful (“weeds”),
and beautiful-nonbeautiful. Overlapping these categories are customs relating to the care,
use, and potential meaning (usually luckiness) associated with each.
Since the value of many plants is measured by their usefulness as food, the category
edible-nonedible is frequendy the first applied. Food plants may be a self-evident
category, but considerable differences exist between regions and ethnicities on what is
edible. Until the 1840s, tomatoes were considered poisonous by some Americans, and
raw fruit was believed to be unhealthy for children; well into the 1940s, raw vegetables—
unpickled cucumbers or uncooked cabbage—were considered by many to be dangerous.
On the other hand, some plant foods were particularly auspicious (sauerkraut or blackeyed peas on New Year’s) or healthy, such as the common belief that dandelion greens
were the best plants for making spring tonics.
Plants are also used as medicine, and some plants do have real medicinal value:
digitalis (foxglove) as a heart tonic, rauzide (rauwulfia) as a blood pressure medication,
and catnip as an antispasmodic are well documented. Other folk cures contain traces of
important active ingredients: the Native American use of willow bark as a general pain
killer rests on the presence of salicins (aspirin), and traditional herbal cures such as
slippery elm bark or horehound as cough supressants, aloe vera for burns, or jewelweed
for poison ivy are documented. Some traditional medical cures are soothing but have
modest pharmacological (though considerable psychological) value. Such cures as mint
teas for colds, mustard, onion, or spice poultices for chest colds, or plantain leaves or lily
petals soaked in whiskey as wound dressings fall into this category. Finally, there are
cures of dubious value, such as the common American cure for anything, boneset tea,
mostly noted for its terrible taste. The taste may have been its sole value, for many
believed the worse the taste, the better the cure.
Beliefs and practices associated with plants form a major category in collections of
traditional lore. Particularly important is the class of beliefs associated with planting
customs. Among Euro-Americans, there are various days by which certain food plants
must be planted in order to assure a successful crop: Potatoes must be planted by St.
Patrick’s Day; peas, by Good Friday; corn, when oak leaves are as big as squirrel’s ears.
Spring greens must be picked and eaten on Maundy Thursday to assure luck and health
throughout the year. The prettiest flowers are those planted very early on the morning on
May Day. Certain plants may not be planted near one another: Some Pennsylvania
Germans would not plant the artemesias Wormwood and Southernwood (called “Old
Man” and “Old Woman”) near each other in the garden because it was believed they
would fight too much and neither would grow. Nor do potatoes and tomatoes go well
together. Other plants, like beans and greens, are considered good companions.
Marigolds get along with everyone. There is evidence that suggests some of these
traditional practices work well for scientific reasons. Other traditions may be largely
symbolic: Pennsylvania German gardeners traditionally planted a sedum they called
“thunder weed” at the entrance to their gardens to protect against bad weather. These same gardeners would often place a yucca plant (called “Our Lord’s Sword”) or rosemary
(in honor of the Virgin Mary) at the center of their gardens. Chinese Americans continue
the tradition of including peonies and peach trees, both exceptionally lucky plants, in
their gardens.
Plants may also be unlucky or predict bad luck: Fruit trees blooming out of season are
believed to predict a death; plants in a sick room are believed to steal oxygen from the ill
person, especially at night, hence hindering recovery. Thanking someone for a gift of
plant cutting or seeds will cause the plant to die. The gift of yellow flowers means money
will follow, but a gift of sage is followed by a quarrel. Plants, especially flowers, have
accrued symbolic meaning as well, so a gift of rosemary is for remembrance; rue, for
sorrow; roses, for true love; and a four leafed clover, for luck. In America as in Europe,
meaning is extended to the images of fertility and fruitfulness implied by certain plants.
Flowers are virginal, not yet fruitful. Seeds are the potential for fertility and fruit. Hence
brides throw away their bouquets of girlish flowers when they marry, and are in turn
pelted with rice, grain, or birdseed, a wish for a fruitful life.
Probably the most interesting area of plantlore is that Ficino. While Cartesian science
has supplanted Ficinian scirelated to magical practices and astrology. Based largely on
Ptolemaic astronomy and documents attributed to Hermes Trismegistus (reputed to have
been Moses’ teacher), the astrological significance of plants in both healing and luck was
championed in the Renaissance by scholars such as Marsilio ence, there is nonetheless
significant continuation of belief in the Renaissance systems of correspondences and
homeopathic magic (the belief that like things affect each other). Planting by the signs, a
tradition honored throughout North America, depends upon an intimate knowledge of the
moon’s position and its effect on growth. On the simplest level, it means planting crops
that bear above ground during the waxing of the moon, and planting those that bear
below ground while the moon is waning. On a more sophisticated level, it means planting
while the moon is in astrological signs that favor growth (earth, air, and water signs, each
one appropriate for particular crops) and avoiding planting during the sterile, or fire,
signs. No food crops should be planted in Virgo, for as a virgin she will not bear fruit,
although it is an auspicious sign for planting flowers. Even more sophisticated is Ficino’s
system of herbal medicine, aspects of which continue in American beliefs even in the late
20th century. Ficino recommended drinking, inhaling, or massaging concoctions of herbs
associated with the sun as a cure for melancholy or herbs associated with Venus as love
Plant shape also plays a significant role in magical use. Ginseng roots, with their
human-like shapes, are attributed with profound homeopathic qualities. African
Americans use a similarly shaped plant called Adam and Eve root as a part of the best
love charms. Homeopathic thinking also extends to the use of water from the washing of
menstrual rags in watering red flowers (an African American belief) or the prohibition
against menstruating women from planting flowers or walking through the cucumber
Yvonne J.Milspaw
Hyatt, Harry M. 1965. Folklore from Adams County, Illinois. Hannibal, MO: Western Printing.
——. 1970. Hoodoo, Conjuration, Witchcraft, Rootwork. 5 vols. Hannibal, MO: Western Printing.
Millspaugh, Charles F. [1892] 1974. American Medicinal Plants. NewYork: Dover.
Roberts, Warren E. 1979. Were Tomatoes Considered Poisonous? Pioneer America 11:112–113.
Tantaquidgeon, Gladys. [1972] 1977. Folk Medicine of the Delawares and Related Algonkian
Indians. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
Yates, Frances A. 1964. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press.