Mysterious magical plants can be found scattered throughout the folklore and popular superstitions of Brittany. Noted for their extreme rarity; long and patient efforts were required to locate these mystical growths. A quest that would only have hopes of success if performed by certain select people or on the most propitious days of the year. The diligent seeker could hope to be rewarded with such elusive wonders as good fortune, vigorous health or true love.
Brittany’s magical plants did not boast magnificent colours with pretty blooms and majestic stems. They were mostly anonymous, flowerless grasses and herbs that confused the searcher by their rarity and their changing habits. They were said to be found everywhere and yet nowhere; chimeral spirits that only revealed themselves according to their whims at certain hours of the night. However, some nights were believed more favourable than others and the most auspicious times often varied from region to region. Sometimes, local legends tell that only the enchantments of the sorcerer could discover such special growths.
Along the shorelines of north-eastern Brittany were said to be found bewitched herbs that enjoyed the virtue of curing all diseases. They were once cultivated there secretly by the fairies who employed them to make the ointment which was used in many of their enchantments, although some tales tell that the fairies also ate these herbs. More commonly, fairies were said to feed on Sylvies; a delicate plant whose downy seeds were sensitive enough to disperse at a fairy’s breath but highly toxic to humans and animals. In this region, fairies were renowned as skilled healers whose remedies were believed to contain many compounds from plants that possessed yellow and blue flowers, such as Flax, Garlic, Pimpernel and Witches’ Grass.
The plants of the fairies were reputed to thwart the devious designs of men and to sharpen the keenest blade but those who did not enjoy their benevolence were said to be seized with madness and condemned to wander if they came into contact with such plants. However, the forests had other marvels to discover; in the woods near Lamballe, those who ate a plant which grew only in hollow oaks would gain the ability to become invisible at will and of being instantly transported from one place to another. Such gifts were only granted to those who also held in their hand, sprigs of Mistletoe and Verbena.
One of the most benign of Brittany’s plants was the Sundew; a rare carnivorous plant often known as Morning Dew whose leaves always appear graced with water droplets which, unlike dew, do not dry in the sun. The principle virtues of this plant were said to have been its ability to cure almost all the diseases of animals and humans, while the person who possessed it was believed to exercise an irresistible attraction to the opposite sex. Rubbing one’s body with a Sundew, while walking backwards on Midsummer’s Day, was held to provide one with exceptional strength and made walking tireless. Placed in the stables, the plant protected the animals from fevers and even into the latter half of the 19th century, some here granted to the Sundew, magical and supernatural properties such as that of cutting iron.
The woodpecker has always been very common here in Brittany. Feeding on insects that live in the bark of trees, it is armed for this particular task with a beak suitable for attacking the bark. The habits of this bird seem to have preoccupied the minds of the Bretons of yesterday: how could such a modest creature make such perfect cavities in very hard trees? Clearly, it required recourse to the marvellous and observation of the bird’s habits showed that, in the course of its labours, it often flew down into the meadows. Eager to formulate a conclusion, the Breton peasants thought that the woodpecker would thus sharpen its beak on a special plant; the legend of Woodpecker Grass offered a reasonable explanation.
This plant was said to be extremely small and rare and found in damp meadows and in the trunks of ancient trees. Whoever finds it can use it to sharpen any metal for it defies the best grindstone; a sickle sharpened by it, cuts like a razor. Some local traditions conflated Woodpecker Grass with the rarest and most wonderful of all Brittany’s magical plants, Golden Grass but they are usually portrayed in the region’s folklore as two quite distinct plants.
Sometimes found noted amongst the magical plants of Brittany is the Hazel which does not necessarily present, by itself, anything particular. However, the plant was widely associated with magic and was said to produce the very best wands, especially for those seeking underground springs and seams of silver. Handled properly, hazel wands could also confirm whether one was truly loved by their partner. Additionally, hazel was the only wood said able to handle new honey which was never stirred other than with a stick of this wood.
It was once believed that each hazel bush possessed, within its folds, a branch that turned into pure gold. This branch made a wand that was reputed to equal in power those of the great fairies of old. However, this prize could only be gained if cut between the first and last chimes of the bell announcing the Christmas mass but, lest you be tempted, be aware that whoever tries and fails, was thought lost from this world forever.
The supernatural virtues attributed to certain plants were sometimes benevolent, sometimes malevolent. Plants that cast a malign shadow were numerous, if one is to believe a once popular saying from the region south of Nantes that claimed “for 700 plants friendly to man, 800 are conjured against him.”
Perhaps the most renowned sinister plant here was that known as Sorcerer’s Herb but details of how the plant was used in witches’ brews or applied as part of a bewitching spell are, unfortunately, obscured to us today. In the far east of the region, two plants seem to have borne the label of Sorcerer’s Herb; these were Ground-ivy and Mugwort and in localities where one was deemed to be Sorcerer’s Grass, the other was not and vice versa. In order to be most effective, the plant needed to be gathered during the night of Midsummer.
When used to dry-up the milk of a rival’s cows, it was thrown over the grazing pastures before sunrise but small packets of these wicked herbs were also placed under the roofs of houses and stables in order to attract misfortune to people and their animals. Similarly, clusters of five or seven hazelnuts, passed under the door of a barn and dragged to the spell caster’s home, were also believed to dry the cows in this barn. The same result could also be assured with an armful of hay instead of hazel clusters or by washing the cows’ udders with an infusion of green peas. To combat such malicious behaviour, small bunches of Tansy were hung from the beams in order to dispel evil spells and to ensure plentiful milk that produced the finest butter. White Wormwood and Houseleek were also said to have been similarly efficacious.
Maintaining the health of one’s herd and livelihood was a constant concern to the Breton farmer. Confronted with setbacks, suspicion quickly fell upon those who might wish to hinder one’s efforts or harm one’s livestock; jealous neighbours, witches and shepherds were all accused of spreading deadly epizootics at will. The magical power of certain plants was called upon in the struggle to neutralise such evil spells; small packets containing the root of Water-hemlock were hung in the stable to protect cattle from foot-and-mouth disease. For the farmer, a branch of Medlar, cut before dawn on the morning of Midsummer, was thought to provide excellent protection against witchcraft.
It was said that some witches and sorcerers, out of boredom or simply sheer malice, sometimes threw a spell upon the cattle at market by mixing the powdered liver of a wolf with their tobacco. In smelling this smoke, the animals recognised their enemy and suddenly went beserk, breaking their ropes in their efforts to flee. To combat the influence of such a spell, an amulet of Greater Periwinkle was slipped around the left horn of the beasts. Bewitched animals were also more widely treated by being adorned with an amulet containing nine cloves of Garlic mixed with a handful of salt.
Other plants seem to have possessed some kind of innate power. The most infamous was the Grass of Oblivion that caused all those who stepped upon it to immediately lose their sense of direction. Another was the Chestnut tree whose harmful shade was said to causes diseases of languor to those who fell asleep under its shade; the Ash also once carried the same reputation. However, the wood of the Beech was hung or laid in front of the house and stable in order to, by its presence, bring-on good fortune and protect against evil over the year ahead.
Field Brome was once the scourge of cereal crops such as Rye and it was thought that only some malign influence could have caused it to seemingly multiply in the field overnight. Likewise, it was believed that the crops had been bewitched when Wild Oats tended to dominate over cultivated oats in the field.
Misfortune was assured if certain plants were not treated appropriately. For instance, it was important that Parsley was sown and not planted at the risk of bringing bad luck and unhappiness upon the household. The planting of the Bay Laurel was also surrounded with danger as it was claimed that whenever it was planted, someone in the house would die before the end of the year. Bay Laurel was therefore commonly planted on the last day of the year and by someone who was not part of the household. In certain parts of the region, people refrained from making any tool handles or pegs from Broom in the belief that only accidents would befall those who used this plant for any utilitarian purpose.
Sometimes, a plant’s danger was only manifest when eaten. For instance, it was recommended to only eat Scallions in the morning because the same plant consumed in the evening, would cause an incurable migraine. Consecutively consuming seven green corms was said to cause one to change sex and it was even claimed that green corms had the power to reconstitute a lost virginity. In the early 20th century, a bizarre variant to this was noted that claimed it would be more certain if one swallowed a mixture of seven crushed corms with seven resin candles.
Of the plants that were believed benevolent to humanity, none enjoyed a greater reputation here than Mistletoe; a growth that seems to have retained strong traces of its ancient reputation as a sacred plant. Picked on the first day of the year, it was said to exert a favourable influence throughout the year, while that gathered on Midsummer was also considered to possess almost the same virtues. This plant was never so beneficial as when it was found growing on an oak tree and was used in a wide variety of folk remedies to treat all manner of ailments but especially epilepsy. Given the scarcity of oak mistletoe, it offered hope that the mistletoe found on Hawthorn also had properties similar to those of oak mistletoe.
The Privet was also once endowed with the power to cure many ailments here. Three branches placed in the fireplace were thought to cure children of thrush. To treat toothache and all complaints of the mouth, a branch, cut before sunrise, placed in the fireplace without the knowledge of the patient, was believed to bring about an effective cure. Stag horn plantain was also said to cure certain diseases by its mere presence.
While Broom was often associated with bad luck, the plant’s dual nature was such that it was also viewed as a precious aid to the harvest; beans and cabbages were seldom sowed without their seedlings being brushed with a branch of broom in the belief that its touch killed all pests such as caterpillars and aphids.
Not all of Brittany’s magical plants owed their position to superstitions long since lost to us, several seem to have accrued their marvellous properties as a result of religious beliefs. Planting a branch of Boxwood in a field on Palm Sunday was said to prevent sorcerers from casting a spell on the future harvest but it was also a symbolic way of asking for God’s blessing on the crops sown there; it was believed granted if the boxwood took root. A branch of boxwood was also placed upon each bee hive on Good Friday in order to ensure a fruitful year ahead.
However, evergreen shrubs, such as Boxwood, were believed to be one of the preferred locations for the souls of the dead here. To plant a branch of it in a field was therefore to involve the spirits of one’s ancestors in the fertility of the land and one’s future well-being. It is therefore likely that these practices were echoes of ancient traditions likely transposed to the Christian festival of Palm Sunday from the pagan celebrations surrounding May Day.
Many people once collected the flowers thrown during the procession of the Blessed Sacrament on the Feast of Corpus Christi in the belief that they would bring protection against storms. Similarly, charcoal from the Midsummer bonfire and the Yule Log were also believed to possess the ability to protect crops or houses against lightning strikes. Preservation against the latter danger was also assured by the presence of a Houseleek plant grown near the roofs of buildings.
These last examples might be vestiges of ancient beliefs now lost to us or could simply be poorly understood religious practices that transformed into popular superstition; the plants being attributed with virtues that they only possessed through their religious association. We will likely never know for sure.