A Celtic Spring of Flowers, Folklore, and Food
Welcome to spring! Even if it’s 36 degrees outside and snow is piled up on the sidewalk, spring began last Saturday, March 20th. Soon (or eventually) color will burst out across the landscape, first leaves, then flowers, then berries. The world will spring to life again. In celebration of this annual miracle, today’s post looks at a few of the plants that have already begun to brighten the Irish, Scottish, and Welsh countryside as well as exploring the folklore, magic, and medicine associate with them. Just for fun, I’ve included ideas for food and drinks that can be created from these spring botanicals. The list of plants that are about to flower is quite long, so I’ve chosen just a handful of them. If your favorite isn’t here, I’m sorry. Please share about it in the comment section.
A Trio of Trees
The word flower generally calls to mind small plants, such as roses and daisies, that spread across fields, but many trees, bushes, and vines flower as well. Trees are highly significant in Celtic folklore. Among them are the hawthorn, blackthorn, and rowan. All three are considered faerie trees and, in spring, are covered with white blossoms. The trees may sound boringly similar thus far but they’re not. For example, some Hawthorn trees can have pink or even red blossoms. But the real differences show up in the folklore.
Hawthorns, according to Celtic folklore, are sacred and magical. They are said to guard the entrance to the faerie world and mortals disturb a hawthorn only at great peril. The one exception is at Beltane (May 1st) when people traditionally hang ribbons or pieces of cloth on hawthorns as an offering for a wish. Hawthorn berries are edible (except for the seeds which contain cyanide) and can be collected when they fall to the ground. Never pick them off the tree! Folklore even recommends that you ask permission of the tree’s guardian spirit before taking the berries off the ground.
Blackthorns are inhabited by Luanitshee (moon faeries) who are fiercely protective of it. They don’t like humans messing with their tree, especially on Beltane or at Samhain (October 1—November 1). It is said that anyone who does will suffer great misfortune. So if you like sloe gin (made from a mixture of juniper and the blackthorn berries) it’s probably best to buy it in a bottle. This tree has a bit of a sinister reputation as it is associated with the Morrigan, the triple goddess of war, wounding, and death, and with the Cailleach, goddess of winter who brings about that bleak season by hitting the ground with a staff made from a blackthorn branch. Despite all this, the tree is connected with protection and with the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.
Rowan trees, in Celtic folklore, are seen as highly protective. Plant them near your house and, it is said, they will protect the structure from lightning and fire. The rowan also is reputed to protect against witchcraft and enchantments. The tree often is planted in graveyards as it is said to keep the dead from rising. An Irish tradition is to place rowan flowers on window sills and doorsteps to prevent evil spirits from entering the house.
A Rainbow of Flowers and Herbs
Spring fields and gardens are arrayed in color. There is the blue of bluebells which are said to call the faeries to their gatherings, the purple of early crocuses, and the sunny yellow of gorse bush blossoms. Below are a few more flowers grouped by color.
Red: The Heart, Love and Passion
Red clover, in Celtic folklore, is considered one of the hot herbs (along with cinnamon, ginger, and clove). Folklore associates these herbs with the heart. Hot herbs were believe to arouse passion and often were used in love charms and spells. Red clover, in Celtic folk medicine, was thought to energize people by stimulating the heart and cleaning the blood. In contemporary herbal medicine, red clover is used to cleanse the body of toxicity. This is achieved, however, through the lymphatic system, not the heart.
Strawberry flowers are another spring delight. While the flower itself is white with a yellow center, it will result in the delicious red fruit in summer. This plant is a member of the rose family. Of course, roses are associated with love and chocolate-dipped strawberries as a part of a romantic meal have become almost cliché. In Celtic folklore, roses are about more than romance. They also bring good luck and protection, and can be used to call good spirits to surround you.
There is an abundance of yellow flowers which bloom in Scotland and Ireland in the spring. Among them are buttercups, daffodils, and daisies. This is a good thing because yellow flowers, according to the lore, will keep you safe. On Beltane morning, yellow flowers are scattered outside of houses to protect against faerie magic. Throughout the rest of the year, simply putting a yellow flower in your pocket is said to protect you from evil.
Another beautiful yellow flower, the primrose is, in Irish tradition, a symbol of spring. It is laid across thresholds on May 1st to welcome Beltane. It also symbolizes protection and safety, and is placed on doorsteps throughout the spring and summer to encourage faeries to bless the house and all those living in it. In herbal medicine, primrose oil is used as an anti-inflammatory and is said to be especially helpful in easing pain from rheumatoid arthritis.
Green: Hope and Renewal
Mint: This is a general term for three herbs: peppermint, spearmint, and wintergreen. In Celtic folklore, the first two are said to protect, heal, and strengthen. Wintergreen is reputed to relieve fears and anxiety, leaving one with a sense of calm. All three are refreshing. Herbal medicine claims that two drops of peppermint oil on the forehead will relieve a headache. Of course, peppermint also is well-known as an aid to digestion.
Stinging Nettle can cause a painful rash if touched with bare hands, nevertheless, it is associated with protection and healing. For centuries it has been used as a folk cure for a variety of ailments. In modern herbalism, it is used primarily as an anti-inflammatory for arthritis and as an aid in curing anemia. The last is quite logical since stinging nettle is rich in iron. As an herbal, it often is prepared as a tea. In Ireland, nettle soup is a traditional dish. It’s loaded with nutrients and tastes a bit like peppery spinach. Click here for a recipe.
Food and Drink for Spring
Here are a few more ways to enjoy these delightful spring plants. Just click each link for the recipes.
1) Blackberry Gin Fizz Float from Sunny Anderson at Food Network. Note: this is made with gin from juniper berries, but sloe gin would work too!
2) Strawberry-Cucumber Ice Pops, Strawberry Ginger Lemonade, and Strawberry Scones from Bon Appetit.
3) Cauliflower Fritters with Peas and Mint from The Kitchn.
4) Minty Watermelon and Cucumber Salad from Taste of Home.
5) White Chocolate Mint Mousse from Nigella Lawson at Food Network.
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Slan go foil!
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