Whilst the grey, cold days of January have us yearning for spring there are a few plants braving the cold, some of which have some interesting folklore associated with them.
Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis)
Their cheerful yellow flowers provide a welcome splash of colour early in year, as well as being a valuable source of nectar. They are not a native of Britain, originating from southern Europe, and were introduced in 1596.
The common name, winter aconite, is a reference to the leaf shape, a characteristic by which plants were classified in the 16th century. Winter aconite has similar foliage to true members of the aconite family such as monkshood and wolfsbane. Gerard’s herbal called this plant ‘Winter woolfes-bane’. Gerard also claimed that the winter aconite could be used to treat the sting of a scorpion. Hopefully this is not a first aid treatment which we will need to put to the test at Cressing any time soon!
Read more about Winter Aconites here:
Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis)
Perhaps the first sign that spring is just around the corner is the snowdrop poking its way through the frosted soil. Snowdrops are not native to Britain; they were introduced in the 16th century. Another name for the snowdrop is ‘Candlemas bells’. A glass of snowdrops could only be brought into the house on Candlemas Day (2nd February) as they were considered unlucky on any other day.
Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum)
There are many superstitions regarding the root of the mandrake, which resembles a carrot or parsnip. It was supposed to look like the human form as the roots sometimes fork like legs.
It was believed to be fatal to dig up the root, which would scream upon being dug up. None might hear its terrible groans and live. Thus, anyone who wanted a plant of mandrake should tie a dog to it in order to pull it up!
It was used as an anaesthetic to deaden pain. But was also considered an aphrodisiac and fertility aid. The Mandrake was so highly valued that substitutes were soon sought to keep up with demand – black and white Bryony (British natives) were the plants herbalists came up with, their roots resembling those of Mandrake and also possessing narcotic properties.
Cyclamen (Cyclamen coum)
These dainty looking flowers are actually very tough and are a welcome sight from January to March. They look very similar to the autumn flowering cyclamen (Cyclamen hederifolium), the main difference being in their leaf shape: C. coum has a rounded leaf, whilst C. hederifolium has a leaf similar in shape to ivy. Both types of cyclamen have the common name ‘sowbread’ due to the tuberous roots often being eaten by wild pigs.
Nicholas Culpeper wrote: ‘Sow bread, it is so dangerous a purge that I dare not take it myself, therefore would I not advise others. Outwardly in ointments it takes away freckles, sunburning and marks that Small Pox leaves behind; dangerous for women with child, yea so dangerous that both Dioscorides and Pliny say that it will make a woman miscarry if she do just stride over it.’
You may be familiar with wassailing as a forerunner of carol singing, but there is also a long tradition of wassailing ceremonies in orchards. The purpose of these orchard-based ceremonies was to make your dormant apple trees fruitful, drive away malevolent spirits and awaken new growth and good health.
Wassailing ceremonies varied from region to region, but might include:
- A procession down to the orchard, possibly led by a wassail King or Queen.
- Once gathered around the oldest tree pieces of toast would be dipped into the wassail bowl, and placed on the branches of the tree to attract good spirits.
- The cider from the wassail bowl would be poured over the roots of the tree, while pots and pans were clattered to ward off evil spirits and wake the trees from their winter slumber.
- The crowd would serenade the tree with traditional songs and chants, often followed by Morris dancing.
Maybe we should be holding a ‘Cressing Temple Wassail’ to improve our apple harvest?!