THE FOLK-LORE OF PLANTS
PLANTS AND THE WEATHER.
The influence of the weather on plants is an agricultural belief which is firmly credited by the modern husbandman. In many instances his meteorological notions are the result of observation, although in some cases the reason assigned for certain pieces of weather-lore is far from obvious. Incidental allusion has already been made to the astrological doctrine of the influence of the moon's changes on plants—a belief which still retains its hold in most agricultural districts. It appears that in years gone by "neither sowing, planting, nor grafting was ever undertaken without a scrupulous attention to the increase or waning of the moon;" and the advice given by Tusser in his "Five Hundred Points of Husbandry" is not forgotten even at the present day:—
"Sow peas and beans in the wane of the moon,
Who soweth them sooner, he soweth too soon,
That they with the planet may rest and rise,
And flourish with bearing, most plentiful-wise."
Many of the old gardening books give the same advice, although by some it has been severely ridiculed.
Scott, in his "Discoverie of Witchcraft," notes how, "the poor husbandman perceiveth that the increase of the moon maketh plants fruitful, so as in the full moone they are in best strength, decaying in the wane, and in the conjunction do entirely wither and fade." Similarly the growth of mushrooms is said to be affected by the weather, and in Devonshire apples "shrump up" if picked during a waning moon.
One reason, perhaps, for the attention so universally paid to the moon's changes in agricultural pursuits is, writes Mr. Farrer, "that they are far more remarkable than any of the sun's, and more calculated to inspire dread by the nocturnal darkness they contend with, and hence are held in popular fancy nearly everywhere, to cause, portend, or accord with changes in the lot of mortals, and all things terrestrial."
On this assumption may be explained the idea that the, "moon's wane makes things on earth to wane; when it is new or full it is everywhere the proper season for new crops to be sown." In the Hervey Islands cocoa-nuts are generally planted in the full of the moon, the size of the latter being regarded as symbolical of the ultimate fulness of the fruit.
In the same way the weather of certain seasons of the year is supposed to influence the vegetable world, and in Rutlandshire we are told that "a green Christmas brings a heavy harvest;" but a full moon about Christmas Day is unlucky, hence the adage:
"Light Christmas, light wheatsheaf,
Dark Christmas, heavy wheatsheaf."
If the weather be clear on Candlemas Day "corn and fruits will then be dear," and "whoever doth plant or sow on Shrove Tuesday, it will always remain green." According to a piece of weather-lore in Sweden, there is a saying that to strew ash branches in a field on Ash Wednesday is equivalent to three days' rain and three days' sun. Rain on Easter Day foretells a good harvest but poor hay crop, while thunder on All Fool's Day "brings good crops of corn and hay." According to the "Shepherd's Calendar," if, "Midsummer Day be never so little rainy the hazel and walnut will be scarce; corn smitten in many places; but apples, pears, and plums will not be hurt." And we are further reminded:—
"Till St. James's Day be come and gone,
There may be hops or there may be none."
Speaking of hops, it is said, "plenty of ladybirds, plenty of hops." It is also a popular notion among our peasantry that if a drop of rain hang on an oat at this season there will be a good crop. Another agricultural adage says:—
"No tempest, good July, lest corn come off bluely."
Then there is the old Michaelmas rhyme:—
"At Michaelmas time, or a little before,
Half an apple goes to the core;
At Christmas time, or a little after,
A crab in the hedge, and thanks to the grafter."
On the other hand, the blossoming of plants at certain times is said to be an indication of the coming weather, and so when the bramble blooms early in June an early harvest may be expected; and in the northern counties the peasant judges of the advance of the year by the appearance of the daisy, affirming that "spring has not arrived till you can set your foot on twelve daisies." We are also told that when many hawthorn blossoms are seen a severe winter will follow; and, according to Wilsford, "the broom having plenty of blossoms is a sign of a fruitful year of corn." A Surrey proverb tells us that "It's always cold when the blackthorn comes into flower;" and there is the rhyme which reminds us that:—
"If the oak is out before the ash,
'Twill be a summer of wet and splash;
But if the ash is before the oak,
'Twill be a summer of fire and smoke."
There are several versions of this piece of weather-lore, an old Kentish one being "Oak, smoke; ash, quash;" and according to a version given in Notes and Queries (1st Series v. 71):—
"If the oak's before the ash, then you'll only get a splash,
If the ash precedes the oak, then you may expect a soak."
From the "Shepherd's Calendar" we learn that, "If in the fall of the leaf in October many leaves wither on the boughs and hang there, it betokens a frosty winter and much snow," with which may be compared a Devonshire saying:—
"If good apples you would have
The leaves must go into the grave."
Or, in other words, "you must plant your trees in the fall of the leaf."
And again, "Apples, pears, hawthorn-quick, oak; set them at
All-hallow-tide and command them to prosper; set them at Candlemas and
entreat them to grow."
In Germany, too, there is a rhyme which may be thus translated:—
"When the hawthorn bloom too early shows,
We shall have still many snows."
In the same way the fruit of trees and plants was regarded as a prognostication of the ensuing weather, and Wilsford tells us that "great store of walnuts and almonds presage a plentiful year of corn, especially filberts." The notion that an abundance of haws betokens a hard winter is still much credited, and has given rise to the familiar Scotch proverb:—
Another variation of the same adage in Kent is, "A plum year, a dumb year," and, "Many nits, many pits," implying that the abundance of nuts in the autumn indicates the "pits" or graves of those who shall succumb to the hard and inclement weather of winter; but, on the other hand, "A cherry year, a merry year." A further piece of weather-lore tells us:—
"Many rains, many rowans;
Many rowans, many yawns,"
The meaning being that an abundance of rowans—the fruit of the mountain-ash—denote a deficient harvest.
Among further sayings of this kind may be noticed one relating to the onion, which is thus:—
"Onion's skin very thin,
Mild-winter's coming in;
Onion's skin thick and tough,
Coming winter cold and rough."
Again, many of our peasantry have long been accustomed to arrange their farming pursuits from the indications given them by sundry trees and plants. Thus it is said—
"When the sloe tree is as white as a sheet,
Sow your barley whether it be dry or wet."
With which may be compared another piece of weather-lore:—
"When the oak puts on his gosling grey,
'Tis time to sow barley night or day."
The leafing of the elm has from time immemorial been made to regulate agricultural operations, and hence the old rule:—
"When the elmen leaf is as big as a mouse's ear,
Then to sow barley never fear.
When the elmen leaf is as big as an ox's eye,
Then say I, 'Hie, boys, hie!'"
A Warwickshire variation is:—
"When elm leaves are big as a shilling,
Plant kidney beans, if to plant 'em you're willing.
When elm leaves are as big as a penny,
You must plant kidney beans if you mean to have any."
But if the grass grow in January, the husbandman is recommended to "lock his grain in the granary," while a further proverb informs us that:—
"On Candlemas Day if the thorns hang a drop,
You are sure of a good pea crop."
In bygone times the appearance of the berries of the elder was held to indicate the proper season for sowing wheat:—
"With purple fruit when elder branches bend,
And their high hues the hips and cornels lend,
Ere yet chill hoar-frost comes, or sleety rain,
Sow with choice wheat the neatly furrowed plain."
The elder is not without its teaching, and according to a popular old proverb:—
"When the elder is white, brew and bake a peck,
When the elder is black, brew and bake a sack."
According to an old proverb, "You must look for grass on the top of the oak tree," the meaning being, says Ray, that
"the grass seldom springs well before the oak begins to put forth."
In the Western Counties it is asserted that frost ceases as soon as the mulberry tree bursts into leaf, with which may be compared the words of Autolycus in the "Winter's Tale" (iv. 3):—
"When daffodils begin to peer,
With heigh! the doxy over the dale,
Why, then conies in the sweet o' the year."
The dairyman is recommended in autumn to notice the appearance of the fern, because:—
"When the fern is as high as a ladle,
You may sleep as long as you are able.
When the fern begins to look red,
Then milk is good with brown bread."
Formerly certain agricultural operations were regulated by the seasons, and an old rule tells the farmer—
"Upon St. David's Day, put oats and barley in the clay."
Another version being:—
"Sow peas and beans on David and Chad,
Be the weather good or bad."
A Somersetshire piece of agricultural lore fixes an earlier date, and bids the farmer to "sow or set beans in Candlemas waddle." In connection with the inclement weather that often prevails throughout the spring months it is commonly said,
"They that go to their corn in May may come weeping away," but "They that go in June may come back with a merry tune." Then there is the following familiar pretty couplet, of which there are several versions:—
"The bee doth love the sweetest flower,
So doth the blossom the April shower."
In connection with beans, there is a well-known adage which says:—
"Be it weal or be it woe,
Beans should blow before May go."
Of the numerous other items of plant weather-lore, it is said that "March wind wakes the ether (i. e., adder) and blooms the whin;" and many of our peasantry maintain that:—
"A peck of March dust and a shower in May,
Makes the corn green and the fields gay."
It should also be noted that many plants are considered good barometers. Chickweed, for instance, expands its leaves fully when fine weather is to follow; but "if it should shut up, then the traveller is to put on his greatcoat." The same, too, is said to be the case with the pimpernel, convolvulus, and clover; while if the marigold does not open its petals by seven o'clock in the morning, either rain or thunder may be expected in the course of the day. According to Wilsford, "tezils, or fuller's thistle, being gathered and hanged up in the house, where the air may come freely to it, upon the alteration of cold and windy weather will grow smoother, and against rain will close up its prickles." Once more, according to the "Shepherd's Calendar," "Chaff, leaves, thistle-down, or such light things whisking about and turning round foreshows tempestuous winds;" And Coles, in his introduction to the "Knowledge of Plants," informs us that, "If the down flieth off colt's-foot, dandelion, and thistles when there is no wind, it is a sign of rain."
Some plants, again, have gained a notoriety from opening or shutting their flowers at the sun's bidding; in allusion to which Perdita remarks in the "Winter's Tale" (iv. 3):—
"The marigold, that goes to bed with the sun, and with him rises weeping."
It was also erroneously said, like the sun-flower, to turn its blossoms to the sun, the latter being thus described by Thomson:—
"The lofty follower of the sun,
Sad when he sets, shuts up her yellow leaves,
Drooping all night, and, when he warm returns,
Points her enamour'd bosom to his ray."
Another plant of this kind is the endive, which is said to open its petals at eight o'clock in the morning, and to close them at four in the afternoon. Thus we are told how:—
"On upland slopes the shepherds mark
The hour when, to the dial true,
Cichorium to the towering lark,
Lifts her soft eye, serenely blue."
And as another floral index of the time of day may be noticed the goat's-beard, opening at sunrise and closing at noon—hence one of its popular names of "Go to bed at noon." This peculiarity is described by Bishop Mant:—
"And goodly now the noon-tide hour,
When from his high meridian tower
The sun looks down in majesty,
What time about, the grassy lea.
The goat's-beard, prompt his rise to hail,
With broad expanded disk, in veil
Close mantling wraps its yellow head,
And goes, as peasants say, to bed."
The dandelion has been nicknamed the peasant's clock, its flowers opening very early in the morning; while its feathery seed-tufts have long been in requisition as a barometer with children:—
"Dandelion, with globe of down,
The schoolboy's clock in every town,
Which the truant puffs amain
To conjure lost hours back again."
Among other flowers possessing a similar feature may be noticed the wild succory, creeping mallow, purple sandwort, small bindweed, common nipplewort, and smooth sow-thistle. Then of course there is the pimpernel, known as the shepherd's clock and poor man's weather-glass; while the small purslane and the common garden lettuce are also included in the flower-clock.
Among further items of weather-lore associated with May, we are told how he that "sows oats in May gets little that way," and "He who mows in May will have neither fruit nor hay." Calm weather in June "sets corn in tune;" and a Suffolk adage says:—
"Cut your thistles before St. John,
You will have two instead of one."
But "Midsummer rain spoils hay and grain," whereas it is commonly said that,
"A leafy May, and a warm June,
Bring on the harvest very soon."
Again, boisterous wet weather during the month of July is to be deprecated, for, as the old adage runs:—
"No tempest, good July,
Lest the corn look surly."
Flowers of this kind are very numerous, and under a variety of forms prevail largely in our own and other countries, an interesting collection of which have been collected by Mr. Swainson in his interesting little volume on "Weather Folk-lore," in which he has given the parallels in foreign countries. It must be remembered, however, that a great number of these plant-sayings originated very many years ago—long before the alteration in the style of the calendar—which in numerous instances will account for their apparent contradictory character. In noticing, too, these proverbs, account must be taken of the variation of climate in different countries, for what applies to one locality does not to another. Thus, for instance, according to a Basque proverb, "A wet May, a fruitful year," whereas it is said in Corsica, "A rainy May brings little barley and no wheat." Instances of this kind are of frequent occurrence, and of course are in many cases explained by the difference of climate. But in comparing all branches of folk-lore, similar variations, as we have already observed, are noticeable, to account for which is often a task full of difficulty.
Of the numerous other instances of weather-lore associated with agricultural operations, it is said in relation to rain:—
"Sow beans in the mud, and they'll grow like wood."
And a saying in East Anglia is to this effect:—
"Sow in the slop (or sop), heavy at top."
A further admonition advises the farmer to
"Sow wheat in dirt, and rye in dust;"
While, according to a piece of folk-lore current in East Anglia, "Wheat well-sown is half-grown." The Scotch have a proverb warning the farmer against premature sowing:—
"Nae hurry wi' your corns,
Nae hurry wi' your harrows;
Snaw lies ahint the dyke,
Mair may come and fill the furrows."
And according to another old adage we are told how:—
"When the aspen leaves are no bigger than your nail,
Is the time to look out for truff and peel."
In short, it will be found that most of our counties have their items of weather-lore; many of which, whilst varying in some respect, are evidently modifications of one and the same belief. In many cases, too, it must be admitted that this species of weather-wisdom is not based altogether on idle fancy, but in accordance with recognised habits of plants under certain conditions of weather. Indeed, it has been pointed out that so sensitive are various flowers to any change in the temperature or the amount of light, that it has been noticed that there is as much as one hour's difference between the time when the same flower opens at Paris and Upsala. It is, too, a familiar fact to students of vegetable physiology that the leaves of Porleria hygrometrica fold down or rise up in accordance with the state of the atmosphere. In short, it was pointed out in the Standard, in illustration of the extreme sensitiveness of certain plants to surrounding influences, how the Haedysarums have been well known ever since the days of Linnseus to suddenly begin to quiver without any apparent cause, and just as suddenly to stop. Force cannot initiate the movement, though cold will stop it, and heat will set in motion again the suspended animation of the leaves. If artificially kept from moving they will, when released, instantly begin their task anew and with redoubled energy. Similarly the leaves of the Colocasia esculenta—the tara of the Sandwich Islands—will often shiver at irregular times of the day and night, and with such energy that little bells hung on the petals tinkle. And yet, curious to say, we are told that the keenest eye has not yet been able to detect any peculiarity in these plants to account for these strange motions. It has been suggested that they are due to changes in the weather of such a slight character that, "our nerves are incapable of appreciating them, or the mercury of recording their accompanying oscillations."
1. Tylor's "Primitive Culture," 1873, i. 130.
2. See "English Folk-lore," pp. 42, 43.
3. "Primitive Manners and Customs," p. 74.
4. Dublin University Magazine, December 1873, p. 677.
5. See Swainson's "Weather-lore," p. 257.
6. See "Flower-lore," p. 226.
7. See Notes and Queries, 1st Ser. II. 511.