Lengthening days and warmer temperatures, up to 17C at times, are all helping nature to emerge from a long winter sleep, writes Donal Hickey
The greening of the countryside, with trees beginning to don their summer coats and wildflowers shooting up everywhere, has been noticeable in recent weeks. Lengthening days and warmer temperatures, up to 17C at times, are all helping nature to emerge from a long winter sleep.
First out was the yellow primrose, which can be seen in some places early in the year. Unsurprisingly, its Latin name is primula vulgaris (first flower). Bluebells, buttercups, and cowslips are also adorning the scene.
A wealth of tradition and folklore surrounds our wildflowers, some of it linked to the ancient festival of Bealtaine, in May, to mark the coming of summer.
In parts of the south-west, it was believed a string of primroses placed at the doorway of a house on May eve would offer protection from the fairies who would not pass under or over the string.
In his scholarly book, Irish Wild Plants, Niall Mac Coitir says loose flowers were strewn on the thresholds of front and back doors and on the floors of the house and byres. Bunches of primroses were also tied to cows’ tails to keep evil spirts away and primroses were rubbed on cows’ udders to improve milk yield.
In counties Cork and Limerick, it was said to be unlucky to bring primroses into a house where a hen was hatching. There are also religious connections. People still pick primroses and other wildflowers for decorating May altars to the Blessed Virgin.
Romantically, you could be said to walk the primrose path of love, but Mac Coitir tells us the flower also had practical uses. An infusion of primroses was seen as a remedy for nervous disorders and for promoting relaxation. Plants, or course, are still used as relaxants.
“In Co Cork, a tea made of primrose was considered a good cure for insomnia, while in Co Dublin toothache could be cured by rubbing the affected tooth with a leaf for two minutes,” he writes. “In Ireland, a salve made of primrose and other herbs was also used as a cure for burns.”
A like plant is the primrose, which is regarded similarly in folklore. It, too, was rubbed to cows’ udders to protect milk. Ointment made from cowslip was used as a cosmetic and for removing skin blemishes such as spots, wrinkles and freckles. It was also used for treating insomnia and “to strengthen the nerves and provide relief from giddiness, hallucinations and ghostly presences”.
Wild plants were woven into all aspects of life in Ireland and appeared in the Brehon laws. A four-leaf shamrock was said to bring luck to gamblers, while a girl putting nine ivy leaves under her pillow would dream of her future husband.
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