Scattered throughout the folklore of Brittany are references to secret, magical plants possessing extraordinary properties. Grasses that allow you to understand the languages of beasts or to find hidden treasures; grasses that cut iron and upon which woodpeckers sharpen their beaks, even a grass that confounds, causing a total loss of sense and direction to those who happen to trample upon it.
The magical plants mentioned in the folk tales and legends of Brittany broadly fall into two categories; those we can clearly identify today and others that remain stubbornly obscure and whose identity thus remains open to boundless speculation. The first group consists of plants such as the white clover, the green fern and mistletoe, while the latter group contains such magical flora as the grass of oblivion and the grass of gold; mysterious plants that elude firm identification and which may ultimately have been mythical.
In yesterday’s Brittany, certain plants were traditionally ascribed to the Devil; most notably buckwheat, couch grass, dodder, ryegrass, sedges and thistle. Others were said to have been the work of God, particularly; carrots, oats, rye, sorrel, stonecrop and wheat. Outside these fields of demarcation lay the special magical plants, able to help or hinder man in his daily struggle for survival.
Like other European traditions surrounding the picking of magical plants, such as mandrake, the Bretons of old seem to have absorbed elements of the early rituals regarding the picking of such plants, which were well known in the ancient world, for their own special plants. The magical plants of Brittany are linked by similar gathering rituals and appear to have assumed marvellous properties that, over time, overlapped at several points.
These special plants were also used in the herbal remedies of traditional healers and in more sinister witches’ brews. However, the common white clover is a notable exception here, even when found with an extra and rare fourth leaf. Nonetheless, the noted rarity of this mutation saw the plant credited with unique powers. It was thought that a four leafed clover could help a man win bouts of gouren or Breton wrestling.
First, it was necessary to locate a stem of four leafed clover; traditionally held to be found on the spot where a mare had given birth to her first foal. Returning at night, one had to pick the clover using only one’s teeth while never allowing the clover to touch the ground. The plant needed to remain in one’s mouth overnight and until the start of the tournament for it to be effective. Another property once assigned to the four leafed clover was that whoever carried one unwittingly was able to understand the artifices of the sorcerer.
The green fern or, more accurately, the spores of the eagle fern were also attributed particular virtues. In Brittany, the fern spores collected on the night of Midsummer’s Day were held to be effective in helping one find hidden treasures and to read the secrets in the hearts of men. Like the four leafed clover, it was said to ensure victory in a struggle but also to grant invisibility to whoever held it in their mouth. Belief in the supernatural power of the fern, particularly its supposed ability to resist all magic spells, was widespread enough in Europe for the practice of collecting ferns during Midsummer to have been proscribed by the Synod of Ferrara in 1612.
In Brittany, the fern seed was a powerful ingredient for a witch’s spell. One version of the Breton ballad that tells the tale of the noted medieval lovers Héloïse and Abailard, features the enchantress Héloïse declaring: “The first drug I shared with my gentle clerk was made with … the seed of the green fern, plucked from the bottom of a well a hundred fathoms deep”. Other versions of the story make no reference to her collecting ferns from a well but simply that they were collected at midnight on Midsummer’s night.
Fern spores are minute, individually invisible to the naked eye. They are produced in little capsules on the underside of fern fronds called sporangia, each typically containing about 64 spores. When spores are ready for release, the protective membrane covering the clusters of sporangia shrivels to expose the sporangia thus releasing the spores; a process very sensitive to the level of humidity in the air. A piece of new white linen was held under the fronds in order to capture the spores as they were released. This clean cloth crucially also helped to preserve the purity of the plant’s spores by preventing them being despoiled by touching the ground; a symbolism that also featured in gathering the four leafed clover and one that was also important in gathering golden grass.
The Breton ballad, Jeanne the Witch, first set down from the oral tradition in 1849, relates the confessions of a young woman sentenced to death for witchcraft. When asked how she was able to cast a spell that spoiled the wheat crop for seven leagues around, the condemned witch replied: “You need the heart of a toad, the left eye of a male crow, and fern seed, collected on the night of the fire of Saint John. I collected a handful with my silver dish. Yes, between eleven o’clock and the stroke of midnight”. The doomed witch closes her description with a tantalising: “There is yet another herb, which I will not name, and without it, the others have no virtue”.
Golden Grass, known as aour iaotenn in Breton, is the rarest and most wonderful of all Brittany’s magical plants. Its properties are numerous: it reveals treasures; whoever possesses it is never sick again; it allows the possessor to become invisible at will and increases a man’s strength tenfold. It is also the most elusive and although it is said to glow like a candle in the night, when you approach it, its light fades and quickly disappears.
In his collection of traditional Breton ballads published in 1839 under the title Barzaz Breiz, Théodore Hersart, vicomte de La Villemarqué, records three old songs that reference golden grass. The first involves the wizard Merlin who is asked where he is going with his black dog, to which, he replies: “I am going to look for the green watercress and the golden grass in the meadow”. The Tribute of Noménoë proclaimed that: “The golden grass is cut; suddenly, it rained”. Finally, in the tale of Héloïse and Abailard, Héloïse declares: “The first drug … was made with the left eye of a crow and the heart of a toad; and with the seed of the green fern, plucked from the bottom of a well a hundred fathoms deep, and with the root of the golden grass plucked from the meadow”.
According to La Villemarqué, golden grass was a medicinal plant upon which the Breton peasants bestowed a great deal of miraculous qualities. He noted their assertion that it shines from afar like gold but that it is a far rarer substance. If someone happened, by chance, to trample upon it, they immediately fell asleep, awakening with an understanding of the language of dogs, wolves and birds. It was said that only the virtuous could find golden grass and that it could only be gathered at dawn, by hand without the use of any iron, taking care to ensure that it did not touch the ground. To pick the grass, it was necessary to approach it walking barefooted, clad only in a shirt.
This ritual bears remarkable similarities to those noted by Pliny when discussing, in his Natural History written around 77AD, the remedies derived from the forests by the ancient druids: “Similar to savin is the herb known as selago. Care is taken to gather it without the use of iron, the right hand being passed for the purpose through the left sleeve of the tunic, as though the gatherer were stealing it. The clothing must be white, the feet bare and washed clean, and a sacrifice of bread and wine must be made before gathering it: it is carried in a new cloth. […] The same druids have also given the name of samolus to a certain plant which grows in damp places. This too, they say, must be gathered fasting with the left hand, as a preservative against the maladies to which swine and cattle are subject. He, who gathers it, must be careful not to look behind him, and must not lay it down anywhere but in the water troughs from which cattle drink”.
La Villemarqué’s observations dovetail with those of Jacques Boucher de Perthes, who wrote in his Chants Armoricains (1831) that: “The golden grass is found only in Lower Brittany: the aour iaotenn grows on the plains; you can see it from far away, it shines like gold but as soon as you approach it, it stops glowing and you cannot find it. When it is in the river, it swims against the current. Whoever manages to get hold of it becomes invisible at will, discovers hidden treasures, and is never sick”.
Golden grass was also said to have been used by cunning folk to help them find lost objects. For this to be effective, it was necessary for the grass to be picked on a Friday from a field with three corners, lying as close as possible to the parish church. Golden grass was notoriously difficult to find and was believed to only grow in the middle of hay and never covering an area greater than two square feet. In order to successfully locate this grass, it was crucial to know how many Fridays had passed since the field last saw haymaking. Armed with this knowledge, the witch or sorcerer approached the field from the west side. Heading east, they would count as many steps as there had been past Fridays before stopping at the exact spot to which they had been led; they were then able to pluck as many stems as their hat could hold.
This done, one had to throw their harvest into the nearest water course; the worthless grass being carried away downstream while the golden grass rose upstream. Having re-gathered the precious haul, a short incantation was offered aloud after which one needed to turn successively towards each of the three corners of the field, pronouncing aloud the name of the object one wished to recover. It was said that the person who was at that moment in possession of the missing item was then mysteriously compelled by an unknown force towards the carrier of this magical grass.
However, some local traditions seem to offer a simpler way to locate golden grass: one need only to study the flight of a green woodpecker and when we see it stop near a grass against which it rubs its beak; we have discovered the precious plant. Thus fortified, the woodpecker can then cut through wood with ease, for this grass has the power of cutting even iron.
In addition to helping recover that which was lost, golden grass was popularly ascribed many other remarkable qualities; it could increase a man’s strength by tenfold so that he might cut an anvil with a scythe. It was also said that it ensured victory in a fight and provided its possessor with immunity from fatigue. In parts of eastern Brittany it had the gift of turning everything it touched into gold, except perhaps the beaks of woodpeckers.
Over the years, many people have striven to botanically identify golden grass. Some believe that it shares some characteristics with the carnivorous plants of the sundew family, more sinisterly known as the Devil’s ear in eastern Brittany. In his 1857 description of plants found near the River Loire and its tributaries, the botanist Alexandre Boreau recorded that “our peasants grant to the sundew magical and supernatural properties, such as that of breaking iron”. Others have found it suggestive that the aquatic herb known as dorine in French or golden saxifrage in English can sometimes give the appearance of resisting the current of small streams. While many believe that the grass is most likely a member of the clubmoss family whose plants have long been utilised in traditional folk remedies and are still widely used in a broad range of homeopathic treatments today.
The French folklorist Paul Sébillot noted that the belief in a grass which bewilders and beguiles people was once quite widespread in Brittany and the neighbouring regions of Anjou and Normandy. In Brittany, this grass was popularly known as the grass of oblivion and it was said that, when walked upon, it had the power to make one completely lose one’s sense of direction and there are several stories told of people who became imprisoned for long hours in their fields after having stepped on this grass through ignorance or accident.
The first written record of this plant is found in one of the earliest Breton-French dictionaries produced by Grégoire de Rostrenen in 1732. He describes it thus: “A creeping plant that looks like twisted green moss and which, they say, misleads those who walk on it at night, making them bewildered so that they forget their way”. The Breton scholar René-Francois Le Men, writing in 1870, called it ar ioten or the lost, reporting that: “after stepping on this grass you will turn all night long in an impassable circle and only at sunrise will you be able to find your way again”.
In his monumental work, Folk-Lore de France (1904), Sébillot notes a tradition from central Brittany relating to “the royal grass, which grows on the moor of Rohan near Saint-Mayeux. Although no one has ever seen it, it makes you lose the road, day and night, even for a man who is on horseback, if the hoof of his mount but rests on it”. In this same part of Brittany, if you thought that you had accidentally stepped on this magical grass, swiftly touching a piece of iron would help you to regain your way.
It has been told that, sometimes, an unfortunate traveller, hurrying home at sunset, unknowingly steps on the grass of oblivion and immediately loses their way. Ever alert, the mischievous korrigans, relishing the plight of this hapless soul, soon surround them and drag them into one of their endless circular dances. Sadly, daybreak will find our ill-fated traveller lying in the field, dead from exhaustion.
The grass of oblivion shared many of the magical attributes associated with other plants; like golden grass, it made it possible to understand the language of animals and to find lost items, and like the four leafed clover, it made it possible to thwart the tricks of sorcerers and was also said to grow where a mare gave birth to her first foal.
Some tales tell that the grass is sown by lightning or spontaneously emerges on Midsummer’s night. Several 19th century botanists noted the popular traditions surrounding this plant; some even going so far as to suggest that it is wolf’s-foot clubmoss, a vascular plant whose dust-like spores are highly flammable and were once used as a photographic flash powder. However, it is impossible for us today to determine with any certainty which plant is hiding behind the grass of oblivion.
Popular superstitions were once attached to other plants, often medicinal, that should not be stepped over or trampled upon. For instance, in south eastern Brittany, it was said that a pregnant woman who stepped over or even touched the common rue with the bottom of her dress would induce an abortion. The roots to this belief must surely lie in the fact that the plant, when ingested, has been widely noted as a powerful abortifacient since the writings of Pliny.
The legend of magical grass does not really need an actual plant to function and it is likely that the roots of such proclaimed magic lay in the observation of an unusual but nowadays likely explicable property in particular plants. Over time, fantastic properties were introduced which served to reinforce their unique magic and added to the plants’ celebrity; the myths becoming richer as their features merged or borrowed from one another. Perhaps the locations where the plants were noted were once important as fairy lore contains many examples of those who trespass upon certain places or commit some other transgression which sees them punished with sudden bewilderment, forgetfulness or vanishment; all states once thought brought on by these magical plants.