Plants that conjure up the otherworldly beings in their name are the ones to watch, says Fiann Ó Nualláin.
THERE are many plants in Ireland with a lore connected to the fairies or the otherworldly “aos sí”.
Some are trees where the supernatural ones can be found dwelling; such as those lone hawthorn or blackthorn in the middle of a barley field that tradition keeps from being felled or ones that they fear or avoid; such as birch groves with all trunk eyes that scares the fairy spirits from its vicinity.
There are May bushes and often yellow flowers that may keep the milk-stealing ones at bay and other flowers that the fairies use as their food or medicine or otherwise look favourably upon. We have plenty of customs where the tradition is carried on but the original meaning may be lost.
Personally I think the yellow flowers are not just the colour of butter so a charm on the churn but an echo of more ancient sun worship — just as Brigid’s woven rush may have been the rays long before the crucifix and Christianity’s arrival and appropriation. There are many suppositions and many mysteries but it’s good to explore and enquire. The answers may just be hidden and not totally lost.
When it comes to fairy plants, I am interested in the ones that bear their name and any possible ethnobotanical link or significance of that. Sometimes it is obvious and other times there is a whole nut to crack or a tear to be shed. Today I wanted to look at three seasonal ones. Ones in bloom or use in mid-June. Out of a curiosity — and in the good old ways of the fairies — ones to fascinate.
So first up is Erinus alpinus, in its full flush of vibrant pink, whites and lilac this weekend. It is one which can be bought in garden centres across Ireland as a rockery plant (hence “alpinus”) and in the wild it can be found growing on walls and stony ground. It is a mysterious plant for several reasons; It is noted in Irish floras and as a introduced species and often as a garden escapee but how long has it been introduced? Long enough for it to bear the Irish language name Méirín sí — meaning fairy foxglove.
It looks nothing like a foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), in habitat, leaf shape or in flower shape. It does however share a botanical grouping with foxgloves; first both where grouped together in the scrophulariaceae or figwort family then both got moved into plantaginaceae or the plantain family. Cousins but do they have a similar medicinal application? Truth is we don’t fully know. Foxgloves continued on into pharmacopeia and scientific study/application while the usage, common or otherwise of fairy foxglove simply faded away; replaced with the more effective or just forgotten.
The fairy foxglove may have been introduced here via Roman Britain or later with the Anglo-Norman castle building — a stowaway on some imported quarried rocks. It may have been a monastery garden staple – the records thus far unearthed are not so revealing. We do know that it was originally native to Central and Southern Europe and in other regions it was said to follow the feet of the Roman legions.
However it is known to regions of Spain where the Milesians lived before coming to settle in Ireland — so again how long has it been introduced and by whom? In those Roman invaded regions where it grows, it is often referred to as liver balsam — did it form some medicinal concoction to soothe the liver? There is more work to be done on this mystery. For now I’d just admire and ponder rather than administer.
One that can be administered (at one’s own risk at least) is fairy flax (Linum catharticum). It was once a traditional cure for constipation. Its old known name is “Lus na mban sí” or “the herb of the woman of the sidhe” — so long before tales of the banshee were told to dispute and disrepute the wise-woman or “cailleach” wisdom of natural medicine, the plant was known as purging flax. In some herbals, it states relief of constipation, severe spasm and potential death — you have been warned.
Fairy flax is common enough in grassland and moorland. Modern homeopathy mirrors one of its oldest known uses too — as an herb of the women of the fairy mounds, it is no wonder that it has application in treating amenorrhea and problematic periods.
Tincture of the whole plant also crops up in herbals with applications to remedy loss of libido in men and women — you have been warned too. That said, there are better natural remedies for all of the fairy flax uses and so it naturally has slipped from folk’s usage and memory — but it’s nice to know of it.
My final fairy plant is a forager’s favourite, but just like those fairies not so easy to pin down — or dig up. Siógaí prátaí or fairy potatoes are perhaps more commonly known as pignuts (Conopodium majus) - allegedly eaten by the fairies; they yield an underground starchy tuber with a nutty flavour and spicy after bite but their diminutive stature is perhaps their fairy connection — well that and the below ground and netherworld retrieval thing.
The pig nut can be a pig of a nut – it’s deep enough tuber is painstakingly retrieved by unearthing its stem to root that reveals like a threadlike rope that can both veer off at a 90 degree angle to the swollen tuber or snap at any imprudish haste and leave the trail cold.
Conopodium majus is a plant of dry grassland, open woodland and hedgerows. It is often as hidden as a fairy and even as deceptive — it is in the carrot family and its spring foliage or summer white flowers make it recognisable with that in mind. It can grow amongst hemlock and other poisonous plants with similarity in foliage and flowers — so it is key to more than a meal but to survival.
The tuber can be foraged for from spring to July, before the plant has died back and you might be turning up a stomach-upsetting bluebell corm or mouth-burning lesser celendine tuber instead.
In Irish ethnobotany they are a snack — a shapeshifter in context. In English ethnobotany, from Culpepper to Shakespeare, it is a provoker of lust — another fairy pastime.
That said, the foraging process can require the patience of a saint and if you of a temperament than you might prefer the blackberries to spare your chastity, exasperation and a raft of expletives. Or like me, sin until you win (may the fairies and other spirits save me).