The Seven Sacred Plants of Midsummer

In Brittany, the arrival of midsummer was traditionally celebrated by the lighting of massive communal bonfires and their attendant rituals; ancient practices that, despite the best efforts of the Church to suppress them, continued here well into living memory.

It is important to note that in establishing its liturgical calendar, the early Church took care to divert the popular feelings associated with the major pagan festivals by supplanting these with Christian ones. Thus assigning the Feast of Saint John to the twenty-fourth of June was likely a deliberate attempt to displace the Midsummer festivals so popularly rooted in European culture.

As a major celebration of the power of the natural world, we should not be surprised that native plants once played a key role in many of the rites associated with the celebration of Midsummer in Brittany. Sadly, the original names of the most important ceremonial plants have now been lost to us; they having long been dispossessed by designations such as Saint John’s Plant, the Grass of Saint John or Saint John’s Wort and the Herbs of Saint John. In some parts of France, Saint John’s Plant was another name given to Saint John’s Wort but in Brittany it was a term applied to Stonecrop.

Stonecrop
Stonecrop

Bunches of Saint John’s Plant were used in the ceremonial processions around the Midsummer bonfires; young women, alternating with young men carrying burning torches, would carry it while they circled the communal pyre. After nine circuits had been completed three times, the women held out their branches towards the centre of the fire while the men used their flaming torches to describe a series of three circles above their heads. While the men took their burning brands into the surrounding fields, the women passed their branches through the fire and circulated amongst the crowd as the smoke from the smouldering plant was believed to fortify one’s eyesight over the year ahead. Likewise, Garlic, roasted in the Midsummer fire, was prized as it was believed to be a powerful medicine against fevers.

The Stonecrop branches that had been used by the dancing women were usually retained by them as a charm against illness over the year ahead. They were taken home and often hung from the ceiling beams; if they continued to grow, it was taken as a sign of good luck but if they withered, as an omen of a death in the household within the year. In the local folk medicine, Stonecrop was commonly used as a purgative and also in the treatment of burns.

In the Breton tradition, the Herbs of Saint John were more popularly known as the Seven Sacred Herbs of Saint John; a collection of plants that included Daisy, Ground-Ivy, Houseleek, Mugwort, Sage, Saint John’s Wort and Yarrow. To harness the innate power of these plants, it was believed necessary to harvest them at the most auspicious time – the summer solstice, when the benevolent force of nature was thought at its most powerful; an energy that was said to be transmitted to the plants themselves.

Gathering Midsummer plants
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In time, the morning of St. John’s Day replaced actual Midsummer in popular devotion but it was still believed necessary to only gather the plants with the left hand whilst walking backwards, barefoot through the dew in a state of grace and on an empty stomach; such proscriptions were said to help ensure that the hand did not take too much of nature’s bounty.

This ritual bears remarkable similarities to those noted by Pliny when discussing, in his Natural History written in the late 1st century, the remedies derived from the forests by the ancient druids: “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.” Like other European traditions surrounding the picking of special plants, yesterday’s Bretons seem to have absorbed some elements of these early rituals for their own plants.

The Dog Daisy or Marguerite was often known as the sun’s flower in Brittany and was once employed against a wide range of ailments. Dried and crushed, the plant’s flower was applied directly to wounds as a treatment but the same compound was infused in cold water when the resultant liquid was used as an eye bath to relieve conjunctivitis. A decoction of the plant, boiled in red wine, was drunk before bedtime in order to reduce a fever but a decoction boiled in water was believed to deliver calming, anti-spasmodic benefits and to aid digestion.

Dog Daisy
Dog Daisy

The plant’s leaves and roots were crushed and macerated in white wine overnight before the compound was applied as a poultice to treat sebaceous cysts although some healers recommended regularly bathing the cyst with this liquid instead. Other healers here thought the ailment was best treated by the application of a hot plaster composed of the plant’s leaves previously boiled in vinegar. When boiled with Walnut leaves, an infusion of the plant’s petals was said to be a useful means of purifying the blood if drunk regularly. Preparations made from the plant were also said to be effective in treating rheumatism.

Ground-Ivy, sometimes also known here as Saint John’s Belt, was a plant more commonly employed in the fight against bronchial disorders at which some healers swore that it was without equal. A length of the plant was crushed and boiled in water which was then left to infuse for a further third of an hour and usually sweetened with a little honey. A few bowls of this concoction was taken three times a day before meals as an effective treatment. When boiled in milk and drunk before going to bed, the plant was believed to alleviate coughs and asthma. A compound of crushed leaves and lard was applied as an ointment to treat burns, while an amulet containing the same mixture was often given to children to wear in the belief that it protected them against night terrors.

Ground-Ivy
Ground-Ivy

In Brittany, Houseleek was once attributed marvellous qualities; Breton households traditionally cultivated one or two plants on the lower parts of their roof to preserve their homes against lightning strikes and to warn against the approach of a witch as the plant was said to immediately wither whenever a witch entered the house. Folk healers most popularly applied the plant’s juice directly into the ear to treat infection and severe earaches but the fleshy leaves were also peeled and applied directly to cuts and burns and even crushed to form a poultice used in the treatment of corns and eczema.

Mugwort is another plant that was sometimes known as Saint John’s Plant and was popularly regarded as a magical herb in the late Middle Ages; it was believed that, if gathered on the eve of Saint John’s Day, the plant provided protection against disease, evil spirits, poisons and all misfortunes arising from fire and water. In the region’s traditional healing remedies, the plant’s flowering stems were used to treat menstrual difficulties and to strengthen the digestive system. Some healers advocated its consumption, before breakfast, after it had been macerated in white wine for eight days while others recommended that it be infused in water for thirty minutes and taken as a decoction three times a day between meals.

Houseleek
Houseleek

The herb Sage is another plant whose effectiveness has been attested to since the days of Ancient Rome. In Brittany, its use was recommended in all manner of treatments for curing various ailments in animals and humans, even rabies. Infusions prepared from the plant’s leaves were taken to aid menstruation and to treat abdominal bloating and diarrhoea; used as a mouthwash, the same concoction was used to combat toothache and bleeding gums. Applied topically, the plant was used as a remedy against skin irritations and minor injuries.

Another plant whose medicinal value has been noted since antiquity, Saint John’s Wort, also known as Saint John’s Beard, was once the key ingredient in a variety of treatments and natural remedies here. The plant’s flowers and leaves produced an effective emollient and skin balm with anti-inflammatory qualities. One popular remedy derived from the plant called for its leaves to be macerated in vegetable oil and exposed to sunlight for three weeks; the resultant oily mixture was then filtered through a cloth and applied directly, as an ointment, in the treatment of burns. The same blend was also massaged into the body to alleviate rheumatic pain and to treat wounds and sores.

Mugwort
Mugwort

Preparations from the plant were also taken in the belief that it purified the blood. Since the Middle Ages, the plant has possessed a reputation as a mood elevator or anti-depressant and modern scientific research would tend to support such beliefs. Alongside its ability to chase away melancholia, Saint John’s Wort was also considered a plant capable of warding off evil spirits. Likewise, Chicory, picked by the root on the morning of Midsummer was said to thwart the evil spells that might be cast against you.

The virtues of Yarrow have been noted since ancient times when it was said to help heal wounds. In the traditional medicine of Brittany, the plant enjoyed a reputation for possessing a multitude of healing properties; preparations from the plant were used to stimulate the appetite, cure digestive difficulties and relieve menstrual pain. An infusion of the plant’s flowers, taken three times a day before meals, was believed to attack intestinal parasites. A decoction of the plant in hot water was taken as a remedy against colds, fatigue, stomach aches and even varicose veins and haemorrhoids. However, some healers advised treating the latter problem with a plaster that had been soaked in the same decoction; this was also the procedure used to treat sore and chapped breasts. One recipe to ease toothache called for a little of the plant’s leaf to be crushed and inserted into the ear nearest to the afflicted tooth in order to gain relief from the pain. The plant’s extracts remain in popular use in herbal medicine in France today.

Sage
Sage

Typically, all these plants were dried and carefully stored to help cope with the everyday ailments anticipated over the course of the year ahead.  Sometimes, they were mounted in bouquets or wreaths and placed to bring on good luck or to ward off the evil spells. When combined appropriately, this combination of herbs was believed able to counteract most fevers and be powerful enough to repel witchcraft. In the 16th century, bathing in water in which a hot decoction of these herbs had been mixed was believed to aid female fertility.

Midsummer’s Day was also believed to be the most auspicious occasion for gathering the plants that made the strongest love potion, namely: Marjoram, Myrtle, Thyme and Verbena. The dried leaves were ground to a fine powder and taken as a snuff. However, if a woman wanted her partner to love her dearly, it was recommended that she put a Walnut leaf, picked on the eve of Midsummer, in her left shoe while the Nones bell was ringing. An equally bizarre ritual was advised for those whose love was unrequited; it was thought necessary to collect some Elecampane before sunrise on Midsummer’s Day. Once dried, the plant’s crushed leaves were mixed with ambergris and worn in an amulet around the neck for nine days. All that then remained was to somehow get the object of one’s desire to eat, without being aware of doing so, a little of this concoction three times.

Saint John's Wort
Saint John’s Wort

Additionally, Midsummer was also a time very closely associated with some of Brittany’s magical plants, many of whom were also reputed to carry harvesting rituals similar to those reserved for the Seven Sacred Herbs of Saint John. Gathering these plants on the night before or on the morning or evening of Midsummer was believed to protect their magical virtues.

The fern or, more properly, the spores of the Eagle Fern collected on the eve of Midsummer were held to be effective in helping one find hidden treasures and to read the secrets hidden in people’s hearts. It was said to ensure victory in a struggle but also to grant invisibility to whomever held it in their mouth. Belief in the supernatural power of the fern, particularly its ability to resist all magic spells, was widespread enough in Europe for the practice of collecting ferns during Midsummer to have still been proscribed by Church Synods into the early 17th century.

Yarrow
Yarrow

Sometimes said to emerge spontaneously on Midsummer’s night, the Grass of Oblivion was thought to make it possible to understand the language of animals and to find lost items. It was also believed able to allow one to thwart the malice of witches but whoever unknowingly stepped on it, immediately lost their way and at risk of finding themselves at the mercy of the mischief of the korrigans.

Panicaut gathered before dawn on Midsummer’s Eve was believed to be cure sick animals, while the health of cows was thought preserved over the year ahead if their hooves were rubbed with a paste made of the ground Herbs of Saint John gathered before dawn on Midsummer’s Day. Similarly, to protect against witchcraft over the year ahead, it was necessary to assemble, at dawn, all one’s sheep at a crossroads on Midsummer’s Eve and smoke them with the Herbs of Saint John picked on the previous Midsummer.

Such fires, lit at crossroads, were said to prevent witches passing there during the night and some have suggested that the ancient fire festivals of Europe, such as the bonfires of Midsummer, were, in fact, rites aimed at cleansing the land of curses and the malevolence of witchcraft in an attempt to ensure a fruitful harvest and healthy livestock over the year ahead; once such key concerns for our ancestors.

Published by Bon Repos Gites

Enjoying life in Kalon Breizh - the Heart of Brittany.

145 thoughts on “The Seven Sacred Plants of Midsummer

  1. Interesting, Colin. Love the plant illustrations. Growing up in Guyana, we had lots of medicinal plants for all kinds of ailments. Check out this 1930s Shanto song, “Weed Song” by Guyanese Bill Rogers about a woman selling medicinal plants in the local market. There’s even French Toyo in the mix. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=00wXT7Ksv6E]

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I laughed at the use of elecampane and wonder how they would convince their ex to eat it! The last story about burning to protect the land makes the most sense considering the time of year. Great post! Maggie

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Thank you!! I am happy that you liked it! 🙂 Ha, yes, many of those old love spells required the target to eat or drink something without their knowing. I suppose it’s a convenient ready-made excuse if things do not work but I’d not be surprised if there was a ‘real’ reason. Hmm

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for taking so much efforts to bring the history and culture of your part of the world to the readers…plants have always been integral.to.our culture ..there are so many in India like basil, bettle ,banana without which the religious functions are not complete..so many have medicinal properties …
    Stay blessed always..
    Stay safe.
    🙏🌹🙏

    Liked by 4 people

    1. You are very welcome! Thank YOU for taking the time to read it! 🙂 Yes, plants have been integral to humanity’s growth and very existence – something that we seem inclined to forget as we bulldoze yet another field or clear yet another forest. 😦

      Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s a scene from the Decameron where a married woman who had told a persistent suitor that she would only submit to his advances if he could produce May in Winter. Thanks to witchcraft, he does – much to the woman’s horror 😦

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Oh, he’s a god of nature. Thanks, everyone in the painting is wearing very intriguing facial expression as to why I asked the question. Yes, I now see the wintry in the background.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. This is incredibly informative and nostalgic. Nostalgic of the ancient times. It’s very sad that globalisation and modernisation should wipe out ancient practices and rituals. From this beautiful piece, it’s clear that it’s not only happened in the East, but also in the West. Thanks for this interesting piece! I’ve bookmarked it to read again later. The pictures are wonderful and go very well with the overall write-up. 😊☺️ Best wishes from India…

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Many thanks! I am glad you liked it. 🙂 Oh, yes, lots of primary resources: Souvestre’s Les Derniers Bretons (1835) and Le Foyer Breton (1844) are great places to start. De Rostrenen’s Dictionnaire (1732), La Villemarqué’s Barzaz Breiz (1839) and de Perthes’ Chants Armoricains (1831) also contain some useful snippets and the works of Bonnemère, Sébillot and Hélias contain much anecdotal observations from the 19th and 20th centuries. Le Floch, Le Carguet and Dujardin also have much to report and you’ll find their observations mainly in journals such as the bulletins of the Société Archéologique du Finistère, Revue Celtique, Ethnologie Française and Chronique Médicale. 😉

      Liked by 3 people

  5. To say the least, I really liked this one very much! My father would have delighted in it. Thanks for doing all the research necessary to bring all this interesting information to your fans. I always enjoy your excellent writing. This one was special for me. Thanks!

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Makes one realize how much good knowledge and spiritual wisdom both, that we have lost or given up or hidden, depending on our motivations I guess. Thank you for sharing as always such well researched and interesting information told as wonderful story.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Your texts are incredibly fascinating and enchanting. I can imagine life in beautiful Brittany and the rituals that evolved over the years, the use of plants and herbs for medicinal purposes, I feel certain has influenced many of our present day beliefs and contributed to the discovery of useful treatments for illnesses, for example poultices actually do work. Your choice of art is a visual treat. Thank you Colin. I always look forward to your lovely posts.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. In my book, garlic cures just about anything. With regards to the other plants, I couldn’t say. 🙂

    I have a question for you. In all of your research of Breton folklore, do you recall seeing anything about the juice from a pansy (or another plant), when rubbed on a sleeping person’s eyelids, causing the slumberer to fall in love with the first person they see upon waking?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Ooh, that is a gem! Unfortunately, no, I have not come across anything similar as I would definitely recall that! 🙂 The closest is bay leaves which were meant to let you see, in a dream, the love of your life! 😉

      Liked by 2 people

  9. Hey, you create amazing posts, by the way thanks for liking my post, you are my first visitor.
    I am so thankful for the onle like you left behind to my post , lots of love ❤️

    Liked by 3 people

  10. Very cool and interesting – I know OF St. John’s Wort? Because we have something of that here? Extracts or supplements or something? I really don’t know much about it until reading your words. But I know is something to help people.

    Your traditions, rituals or beliefs … have depth in the past from history … mine … eh … mine are different … Sorta in some places.

    The native Americans knew what plants were healing and which were not – we have some beliefs from them. They knew the earth ❤️ they respected the earth for those reasons ❤️

    And some today don’t believe in modern medicine … instead they want holistic / natural. They want to trust the earth… ashes to ashes, dust to dust. ✌️

    I love learning all these traditions, things and background of where and how they came to be.

    Crazy to think who would have figured out some of these ?

    And that’s why you are more Wes Craven than me!!! Lol … because you have pagan prior to church!! I never really thought about that… huh 🤔 interesting

    I had church 😏… but also a large mix of Disney and Hollywood influence lol 😘❤️✌️

    My exposure to pagan would be Salem, Massachusetts – amazing area ❤️

    Aloe is a big one here … I am allergic to aloe though so I have one ( 🪴 is only one I have been able to keep alive!! ) but I can’t ever use it … is ok I know how to handle sunburns – I have expert level in that area lol ✌️ I have complete surefire remedies that help!! Lol trusted and tried lol

    Also … cannibis or marijuana is up and coming over here … it’s a plant 🌱 … it does have medicinal purposes… cancer and glaucoma are 2 things that marijuana can help. But also mental health

    They have lost control with that movement lol … it be like prohibition now 🙄

    It’s legalizing all over the United States 🇺🇸

    They give up – they have bigger fish to fry – way bigger problems 😮

    I know old weird remedies with Vicks Vaporub 😄✌️

    Relieves congestion, repels mosquitoes, helps dry skin, there is plethora of uses!! 🙌

    I also know a gazillion unusual uses for Vaseline lol 😄✌️

    Plants are not usually my thing … but I love sage and thyme … they say sage wards off evil spirits and brings calm … and garlic – helps with vampires 😮😘

    Garlic is actually very healing for the body also✌️

    I live a few hours away from a place called Gilroy, California

    They claim to be the Garlic Capitol of the World 🙌

    They have a HuGE festival once a year – everything garlic … but yum ❤️ …well mostly lol ✌️ (maybe not so much Garlic ice cream lol)

    The ENTIRE TOWN smells like garlic – strongly lol

    I would rather Hershey, Pennsylvania lol ✌️ (that entire town smells like chocolate 🍫) ❤️ mmm 😋

    I know unusual uses for vinegar and things … I do have a pestle and mortar set lol ✌️😄 .. I use it all the time … but I always feel little old world using it lol 😄

    Mostly for cooking … but I have separate one for other things too lol ✌️😘 not witchcraft though – it is things like face masks or conditioning hair lol …shh 🤫 my little secrets lol 😘✌️

    Ohhhh you should do one on beauty secrets!!! ❤️🙌

    Gazillion dollar business right there – what does the past say about that? Cause beauty has always been a thing so they must have had creams and things too! I’m sure you have some serious beauty secrets lol – do share someday lol ❤️✌️

    I love that you keep the past alive ❤️

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you!! I am very glad that you enjoyed it!! 🙂
      Yes, it is amazing how deep the superstitions and old beliefs surrounding the powers of plants run!
      Sage is also very common in the old lore here! There’s even an old saying that runs along the lines of “How can a man be sick if he has sage in his garden?” and I guess that says a lot about how powerful if was thought to be! I love oregano but can’t find a thing on it haha.
      Vinegar, Vicks and Vaseline eh? You have to admit that this is a wonderful title for a post!! 🙂 🙂 Once you are settled again, you should write it! 🙂
      Thank you for taking the trouble to read this and to share your thoughts – I appreciate both!! Stay well! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  11. Gathering ferns ? Brackens ? Our village is in the far northern hills of England, Gathering ferns and brackens was allowed, but on regulated days.
    A woman caught gathering on the wrong day was sentenced to be dragged on a cart round the village, naked from the waist. The court records don’t specify which half of her.

    Wonderful illustrations…

    Liked by 2 people

      1. The court roll record of this humiliation was sixteenth century. ( Cumbria, then Westmorland)
        By the fifteenth century, women in the valley were trading in alum, for the dyeing industry.
        Cheating, by collecting supplies too early ?

        Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, I too have read about its crusader link but only in English language works. Annoyingly, I can find no reference earlier than the 1970s! I would have thought such a link would have been mentioned in the old botanical texts, so, have to wonder how true the Hospitallier link is 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Thank you for sharing this wonderful post! Fortunately, we Chinese living in modern life, yet the traditional Chinese medicines are applied like before.
    The image of branches growing remind me the poem of Yeats “I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing”. Do you know a folk song, whose lyrics are from this poem?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you!! I am very glad that you liked it! You are right, herbal remedies were once commonplace but their continued use has survived in so few places down to the present day. There are maybe lessons the rest of the world can learn from China on this.
      That is indeed a beautiful verse!!! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thank you for the reply.!! Yes, as the title of an article about Chinese medicine and herbal remedies says:
        “Whose hometown doesn’t have the fragrance of herbs?” Our ancestors left for us many wisdoms for life. We ignored often those ancient but precious presents which are quietly living around us.

        Oh, I got wrong…! “I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing” is Whitman’s verse, not Yeats poem. The song I mentioned is sung by a female singer of neo-folk style. I tried to find with the title of the poetry as keyword but I still can’t find the name of that song and the singer…

        Liked by 2 people

  13. The grass of oblivion thwarts the malice of witches – this doesn’t just lead into the past, it absolutely plunges us into history, bringing it alive and fearsomely kicking. A wonderful post.
    Gwen.

    Liked by 2 people

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