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Herbs for Mother's Day: the myth, magic and folklore

by Alistair McVicar |

With Mother’s Day just around the corner it is a perfect time to look at the myth, magic and folklore surrounding herbs. Herbs have been used to symbolise, love, faithfulness, remembrance and devotion for centuries. Below we summarise a few of them taking extracts from Jekka’s Complete Herb Book. Therefore, this Mother’s Day why not give the symbolism of herbs.

Myrtle (Myrtus Communis): love

Myrtle is a direct descendent of the Greek myrtos, the herb of love. In Greek mythology myrtle was sacred to the goddess Aphrodite (associated with love, beauty and pleasure and the planet Venus) and Demeter (the goddess of the grain, agriculture, harvest, growth, and nourishment). The Greeks believed a myrtle garland signified the same as an olive garland, except that it was especially auspicious for farmers because of Demeter and for women because of Aphrodite.

Similar to the Greeks association of myrtle with Aphrodite, the Romans dedicated it to the goddess Venus and myrtle was planted all around her temples. The story goes that Venus transformed one of her priestesses called Myrrh into myrtle in order to protect her from an over eager suitor. Also, Venus herself wore a wreath of myrtle when she was given the golden apple of Paris in recognition of her beauty. When she arose out of the sea she was carrying a sprig of myrtle, and to this day it grows very well by the sea, flourishing in salt air.

 

Rosemary (Rosemarinus officinalis): remembrance

Rosemary is steeped in myth, magic and folk medicinal use. From Jekka’s Complete Herb Book, one of our favourite stories about Rosemary comes from Spain. It relates that originally the blue flowers were white. When the Holy family fled into Egypt, the Virgin Mary had to hide from some soldiers, so she spread her cloak over a rosemary bush and knelt behind it. When the soldiers had gone by, she stood up and removed her cloak and the blossoms turned blue in her honour. Also connected to the Christian faith is the story that rosemary will grow for 33 years, the length of Christ’s life, and then die.

In the Elizabethan days, the wedding couple wore or carried a sprig of rosemary as a sign of fidelity. Also, bunches of rosemary were tied with colour ribbon tipped with gold and given to guests at weddings to symbolise love and faithfulness.

Borage (Borago officinalis): courage

The Celtic word borrach means ‘courage’. The Greeks and Romans regarded borage as both comforting and imparting courage, and this belief so persisted that John Gerard was able to quote the tag, Ego borage gaudia semper ago (I, borage bring always courage) in his Herbal. He states that: 

"Those of our time do use the flowers in salads to exhilerate and make the mind glad. There be also many things made of these used everywhere for the comfort of the heart, for the driving away of sorrow and increasing the joy of the mind. The leaves and flowers of Borage put into wine make men and women glad and merry and drive away all sadness, dullness and melancholy, as Dioscorides and Pliny affirm. Syrup made of the flowers of Borage comfort the heart, purge melancholy and quiet the frantic and lunatic person. The leaves eaten raw engender good blood, especially in those that have been lately sick."

It was for courage too that borage flowers were floated in stirrup cups given to the Crusaders. Clearly, the American Settlers also thought sufficiently highly of borage to take the seed with them on their long adventure. Records of it were found in a seed order of an American in 1631, where it was called burradge.

Heartsease (Viola tricolor): loving thoughts

Heartsease is also known as the Holy herb, Herba sacra and Holy plant; plus many other names. The Egyptians believed it originated from the tears of Isis. A Greek legend has it that the delicate white flowers were worshiped by Eros. To inhibit this worship, Aphrodite coloured them, which resulted in tricolor coloration. According to Roman mythology, the wild pansy turned into the Love-in-idleness as Cupid shot one of his arrows at the imperial votaress, but missed and struck it. As Cupid is the god of desire, affection and erotic love, the flower’s juice received the trait to act as love potion and the flower ‘before milk-white’ turned ‘purple with love’s wound’. Both the Greek and Roman priests wore amulets made of it and the Romans also used it to purify their altars after sacrifices.

Its mythical properties continued with the Druids who used it for purification and for making magic potions. In the Middle Ages it was an ingredient in a holy salve, a powerful protector against demons and disease: ‘Vervain and Dill hinders witches from their will’. Shakespeare also makes a more direct reference to heartsease in A Midsummer Night's Dream when Oberon sends Puck to gather ‘a little western flower that maidens call love-in-idleness’. 

Lavender (Lavandula): devotion

Lavender was one of the holy herbs used in the biblical Temple to prepare the holy essence. The ancient Greeks called the lavender herb nardus, after the Syrian city of Naarda. Nard ('nerd' in Hebrew, as it was commonly called).

Long before the world made deodorants and bath salts, the Romans used lavender in their bath water; the word is derived from the Latin lava, ‘to wash’. It was the Romans who introduced this plant to Britain and from then on monks cultivated it in their monastic gardens. In the Victorian era, small floral bouquets, known as talking bouquets, were gifted as tokens of love, expressing feelings that could not be spoken in public. The distinctive fragrance of Lavender was said to bring luck and expressed strong commitment. Lavender flowers are known to represent purity, silence, devotion serenity, grace and calmness.

Amaranth (Amaranthus tricolor 'Red Army’)undying love

The amaranth flower is one of the symbols of immortality and has been used as such a symbol since the time of the Ancient Greeks. The Greek amarantos means the "one that does not wither". The fact that the flower does not soon fade has led to it typifying immortality in poetry and other works.