THE FOLK-LORE OF PLANTS
A host of curious proverbs have, from the earliest period, clustered round the vegetable world, most of which—gathered from experience and observation—embody an immense amount of truth, besides in numerous instances conveying an application of a moral nature. These proverbs, too, have a very wide range, and on this account are all the more interesting from the very fact of their referring to so many conditions of life. Thus, the familiar adage which tells us that "nobody is fond of fading flowers," has a far deeper signification, reminding us that everything associated with change and decay must always be a matter of regret. To take another trite proverb of the same kind, we are told how "truths and roses have thorns about them," which is absolutely true; and there is the well-known expression "to pipe in an ivy leaf," which signifies "to go and engage in some futile or idle pursuit" which cannot be productive of any good. The common proverb, "He hath sown his wild oats," needs no comment; and the inclination of evil to override good is embodied in various adages, such, as, "The weeds o'ergrow the corn," while the tenacity with which evil holds its ground is further expressed in such sayings as this—"The frost hurts not weeds." The poisonous effects, again, of evil is exemplified thus—"One ill-bred mars a whole pot of pottage," and the rapidity with which it spreads has, amongst other proverbs, been thus described, "Evil weeds grow apace." Speaking of weeds in their metaphorical sense, we may quote one further adage respecting them:—
"A weed that runs to seed
Is a seven years' weed."
And the oft-quoted phrase, "It will be a nosegay to him as long as he lives," implies that disagreeable actions, instead of being lost sight of, only too frequently cling to a man in after years, or, as Ray says, "stink in his nostrils." The man who abandons some good enterprise for a worthless, or insignificant, undertaking is said to "cut down an oak and plant a thistle," of which there is a further version, "to cut down an oak and set up a strawberry." The truth of the next adage needs no comment—"Usurers live by the fall of heirs, as swine by the droppings of acorns."
Things that are slow but sure in their progress are the subject of a well-known Gloucestershire saying:—
"It is as long in coming as Cotswold barley."
"The corn in this cold country," writes Ray, "exposed to the winds, bleak and shelterless, is very backward at the first,
but afterwards overtakes the forwardest in the country, if not in the barn, in the bushel, both for the quantity and goodness thereof." According to the Italians, "Every grain hath its bran," which corresponds with our saying, "Every bean hath its black," The meaning being that nothing is without certain imperfections. A person in extreme poverty is often described as being "as bare as the birch at Yule Even," and an ill-natured or evil-disposed person who tries to do harm, but cannot, is commonly said to:—
"Jump at it like a cock at a gooseberry."
Then the idea of durableness is thus expressed in a Wiltshire proverb:—
"An eldern stake and a blackthorn ether [hedge],
Will make a hedge to last for ever"—
an elder stake being commonly said to last in the ground longer than an iron bar of the same size.
A person who is always on the alert to make use of opportunities, and never allows a good thing to escape his grasp, is said to "have a ready mouth for a ripe cherry." The rich beauty, too, of the cherry, which causes it to be gathered, has had this moral application attached to it:—
"A woman and a cherry are painted for their own harm."
Speaking of cherries, it may be mentioned that the awkwardness of eating them on account of their stones, has given rise to sundry proverbs, as the following:—
"Eat peas with the king, and cherries with the beggar,"
"Those that eat cherries with great persons shall have their eyes squirted out with the stones."
A man who makes a great show without a corresponding practice is said to be like "fig-tree fuel, much smoke and little fire," and another adage says:—
"Peel a fig for your friend, and a peach for your enemy."
This proverb, however, is not quite clear when applied to this country. "To peel a fig, so far as we are concerned," writes Mr. Hazlitt, "can have no significance, except that we should not regard it as a friendly service; but, in fact, the proverb is merely a translation from the Spanish, and in that language and country the phrase carries a very full meaning, as no one would probably like to eat a fig without being sure that the fruit had not been tampered with. The whole saying is, however, rather unintelligible. 'Peeling a peach' would be treated anywhere as a dubious attention."
Of the many proverbs connected with thorns, there is the true one which tells us how,
"He that goes barefoot must not plant thorns,"
The meaning of which is self-evident, and the person who lives in a chronic state of uneasiness is said to, "sit on thorns." Then there is the oft-quoted adage:—
"While thy shoe is on thy foot, tread upon the thorns."
On the other hand, that no position in life is exempt from trouble of some kind is embodied in this proverb:—
"Wherever a man dwells he shall be sure to have a thorn bush
near his door,"
which Ray also explains in its literal sense, remarking that there "are few places in England where a man can dwell, but he shall have one near him." Then, again, thorns are commonly said to "make the greatest crackling," and "the thorn comes forth with its point forward."
Many a great man has wished himself poor and obscure in his hours of adversity, a sentiment contained in the following proverb:—
"The pine wishes herself a shrub when the axe is at her root."
A quaint phrase applied to those who expect events to take an unnatural turn is:—
"Would you have potatoes grow by the pot-side?"
Amongst some of the other numerous proverbs may be mentioned a few relating to the apple; one of these reminding us that,
"An apple, an egg, and a nut,
You may eat after a slut."
Selfishness in giving is thus expressed:—
"To give an apple where there is an orchard."
And the idea of worthlessness is often referred to as when it is said that "There is small choice in rotten apples," with which may be compared another which warns us of the contagious effects of bad influence:—
"The rotten apple injures its neighbour."
The utter dissimilarity which often exists between two persons, or things, is jocularly enjoined in the familiar adage:—
"As like as an apple is to a lobster,"
And the folly of taking what one knows is paltry or bad has given rise to an instructive proverb:—
"Better give an apple than eat it."
The folly of expecting good results from the most unreasonable causes is the subject of the following old adage:—
"Plant the crab where you will, it will never bear pippins."
The crab tree has also been made the subject of several amusing rhymes, one of which is as follows:—
"The crab of the wood is sauce very good for the crab of the
But the wood of the crab is sauce for a drab that will not her
The coolness of the cucumber has long ago become proverbial for a person of a cold collected nature, "As cool as a cucumber," and the man who not only makes unreasonable requests, but equally expects them to be gratified, is said to "ask an elm-tree for pears." Then, again, foolish persons who have no power of observation, are likened to "a blind goose that knows not a fox from a fern bush."
The willow has long been a proverbial symbol of sadness, and on this account it was customary for those who were forsaken in love to wear a garland made of willow. Thus in "Othello," Desdemona (Act iv. sc. 3) anticipating her death, says:—
"My mother had a maid called Barbara:
She was in love; and he she loved proved mad,
And did forsake her: she had a song of willow;
An old thing 'twas, but it expressed her fortune,
And she died singing it: that song to-night
Will not go from my mind."
According to another adage:—
"Willows are weak, yet they bind other wood,"
The significance of which is clear. Then, again, there is the not very complimentary proverbial saying, of which there are several versions:—
"A spaniel, a woman, and a walnut-tree,
The more they're beaten, the better they be."
Another variation, given by Moor in his "Suffolk Words" (p. 465), is this:—
"Three things by beating better prove:
A nut, an ass, a woman;
The cudgel from their back remove,
And they'll be good for no man."
A curious phrase current in Devonshire for a young lady who jilts a man is, "She has given him turnips;" and an expressive one for those persons who in spite of every kindness are the very reverse themselves is this:—
"Though you stroke the nettle ever so kindly, yet it will sting you;"
With which may be compared a similar proverb equally suggestive:—
"He that handles a nettle tenderly is soonest stung."
The ultimate effects of perseverance, coupled with time, is thus shown:—
"With time and patience the leaf of the mulberry tree
A phrase current, according to Ray, in Gloucestershire for those "who always have a sad, severe, and terrific countenance," is, "He looks as if he lived on Tewkesbury mustard"—this town having been long noted for its "mustard-balls made there, and sent to other parts." It may be remembered that in "2 Henry IV." (Act ii. sc. 4) Falstaff speaks of "wit as thick as Tewkesbury mustard." Then there is the familiar adage applied to the man who lacks steady application, "A rolling stone gathers no moss," with which may be compared another, "Seldom mosseth the marble-stone that men [tread] oft upon."
Among the good old proverbs associated with flax may be mentioned the following, which enjoins the necessity of faith in our actions:—
"Get thy spindle and thy distaff ready, and God will send the flax."
A popular phrase speaks of "An owl in an ivy-bush," which perhaps was originally meant to denote the union of wisdom with conviviality, equivalent to "Be merry and wise." Formerly an ivy-bush was a common tavern sign, and gave rise to the familiar proverb, "Good wine needs no bush," this plant having been selected probably from having been sacred to Bacchus.
According to an old proverb respecting the camomile, we are told that "the more it is trodden the more it will spread," an allusion to which is made by Falstaff in "I Henry IV." (Act ii. sc. 4):—
"For though the camomile, the more it is trodden on, the faster it grows; yet youth, the more it is wasted, the sooner it wears."
There are many proverbs associated with the oak. Referring to its growth, we are told that "The willow will buy a horse before the oak will pay for a saddle," the allusion being, of course, to the different rates at which trees grow. That occasionally some trifling event may have the most momentous issues is thus exemplified:—
"The smallest axe may fell the largest oak;"
Although, on the other hand, it is said that:—
"An oak is not felled at one chop."
A further variation of the same idea tells us how:—
"Little strokes fell great oaks,"
In connection with which may be quoted the words of Ovid to the same effect:—
"Quid magis est durum saxo? Quid mollius unda?
Dura taneu molli saxa cavantur aqua?"
Then, again, it is commonly said that:—
"Oaks may fall when seeds brave the storm."
And to give one more illustration:—
"The greatest oaks have been little acorns."
Similarly, with trees in general, we find a good number of proverbs. Thus one informs us that "Wise men in the world are like timber trees in a hedge, here and there one." That there is some good in every one is illustrated by this saying—"There's no tree but bears some fruit." The familiar proverb, that "The tree is no sooner down but every one runs for his hatchet," explains itself, whereas "The highest tree hath the greater fall," which, in its moral application, is equally true. Again, an agricultural precept enjoins the farmer to "Set trees poor and they will grow rich; set them rich and they will grow poor," that is, remove them out of a more barren into a fatter soil. That success can only be gained by toil is illustrated in this proverb—"He that would have the fruit must climb the tree," and once more it is said that
"He who plants trees loves others beside himself."
In the Midland counties there is a proverbial saying that "if there are no kegs or seeds in the ash trees, there will be no king within the twelvemonth," the ash never being wholly destitute of kegs. Another proverb refers to the use of ash-wood for burning:—
"Burn ash-wood green,
'Tis a fire for a queen,
Burn ash-wood dear,
'Twill make a man swear;"
The meaning being that the ash when green burns well, but when dry or withered just the reverse.
A form of well-wishing formerly current in Yorkshire was thus:—
"May your footfall be by the root of an ash,"
In allusion, it has been suggested, to the fact that the ash is a capital tree for draining the soil in its vicinity.
But leaving trees, an immense number of proverbs are associated with corn, many of which are very varied. Thus, of those who contrive to get a good return for their meagre work or money, it is said:—
"You have made a long harvest for a little corn,"
With which may be compared the phrase:—
"You give me coloquintida (colocynth) for Herb-John."
Those who reap advantage from another man's labour are said to "put their sickle into another man's corn," and the various surroundings of royalty, however insignificant they may be, are generally better, says the proverb, than the best thing of the subjects:—
"The king's chaff is better than other people's corn."
Among the proverbs relating to grass may be mentioned the popular one, "He does not let the grass grow under his feet;" another old version of which is, "No grass grows on his heel." Another well-known adage reminds us that:—
"The higher the hill the lower the grass."
And equally familiar is the following:—
"While the grass groweth the seely horse starveth."
In connection with hops, the proverb runs that "hops make or break;" and no hop-grower, writes,
Mr. Hazlitt, "will have much difficulty in appreciating this proverbial dictum. An estate has been lost or won in the course of a single season; but the hop is an expensive plant to rear, and a bad year may spoil the entire crop."
Actions which produce different results to what are expected are thus spoken of:—
"You set saffron and there came up wolfsbane."
In Devonshire it may be noted that this plant is used to denote anything of value; and it is related of a farmer near Exeter who, when praising a certain farm, remarked, "'Tis a very pretty little place; he'd let so dear as saffron."
Many, again, are the proverbial sayings associated with roses—most of these being employed to indicate what is not only sweet and lovely, but bright and joyous. Thus, there are the well-known phrases, "A bed of roses," and "As sweet as a rose," and the oft-quoted popular adage:—
"The rose, called by any other name, would smell as sweet,"
Which, as Mr. Hazlitt remarks, "although not originally proverbial, or in its nature, or even in the poet's intention so, has acquired that character by long custom."
An old adage, which is still credited by certain of our country folk, reminds us that:—
"A parsley field will bring a man to his saddle and a woman to
A warning which is not unlike one current in Surrey and other southern counties:—
"Where parsley's grown in the garden, there'll be a death before
the year's out."
In Devonshire it has long been held unlucky to transplant parsley, and a poor woman in the neighbourhood of Morwenstow attributed a certain stroke with which one of her children had been afflicted after whooping-cough to the unfortunate undoing of the parsley bed. In the "Folk-lore Record," too, an amusing instance is related of a gardener at Southampton, who, for the same reason, refused to sow some parsley seed. It may be noted that from a very early period the same antipathy has existed in regard to this plant, and it is recorded how a few mules laden with parsley threw into a complete panic a Greek force on its march against the enemy. But the plant no doubt acquired its ominous significance from its having been largely used to bestrew the tombs of the dead; the Greek term "dehisthai selinou"—to be in need of parsley—was a common phrase employed to denote those on the point of death. There are various other superstitions attached to this plant, as in Hampshire, where the peasants dislike giving any away for fear of some ill-luck befalling them. Similarly, according to another proverb:—
"Sowing fennel is sowing sorrow."
But why this should be so it is difficult to explain, considering that by the ancients fennel was used for the victor's wreath, and, as one of the plants dedicated to St. John, it has long been placed over doors on his vigil. On the other hand, there is a common saying with respect to rosemary, which was once much cultivated in kitchen gardens:—
"Where rosemary flourishes the lady rules."
Vetches, from being reputed a most hardy grain, have been embodied in the following adage:—
"A thetch will go through
The bottom of an old shoe,"
Which reminds us of the proverbial saying:—
"Like a camomile bed,
The more it is trodden
The more it will spread."
The common expression:—
"Worth a plum,"
Is generally said of a man who is accredited with large means, and another adage tells us that,
"The higher the plum-tree, the riper the plum."
To live in luxury and affluence is expressed by the proverbial phrase "To live in clover," with which may be compared the saying "Do it up in lavender," applied to anything which is valuable and precious. A further similar phrase is "Laid up in lavender," in allusion to the old-fashioned custom of scenting newly-washed linen with this fragrant plant. Thus Shenstone says:—
"Lavender, whose spikes of azure bloom
Shall be, erewhile, in arid bundles bound,
To lurk amidst the labours of her loom,
And crown her kerchiefs clean with micklc rare perfume."
According to Gerarde, the Spartans were in the habit of eating cress with their bread, from a popular notion very generally held among the ancients, that those who ate it became noted for their wit and decision of character. Hence the old proverb:—
"Eat cress to learn more wit."
Of fruit proverbs we are told that,
"If you would enjoy the fruit, pluck not the flower."
"When all fruit fails, welcome haws."
And "If you would have fruit, you must carry the leaf to the grave;" which Ray explains, "You must transplant your trees just about the fall of the leaf," and then there is the much-quoted rhyme:—
"Fruit out of season,
Sorrow out of reason."
Respecting the vine, it is said:—
"Make the vine poor, and it will make you rich,"
That is, prune off its branches; and another adage is to this effect: "Short boughs, long vintage." The constant blooming of the gorse has given rise to a popular Northamptonshire proverb:—
"When gorse is out of bloom, kissing is out of season."
The health-giving properties of various plants have long been in the highest repute, and have given rise to numerous well-known proverbs, which are still heard in many a home. Thus old Gerarde, describing the virtues of the mallow, tells us:—
"If that of health you have any special care,
Use French mallows, that to the body wholesome are."
Then there is the time-honoured adage which says that:—
"He that would live for aye
Must eat sage in May."
And Aubrey has bequeathed us the following piece of advice:—
"Eat leeks in Lide, and ramsines in May,
And all the year after physicians may play."
There are many sayings of this kind still current among our country-folk, some of which no doubt contain good advice; and of the plaintain, which from time immemorial has been used as a vulnerary, it is said:—
"Plantain ribbed, that heals the reaper's wounds."
In Herefordshire there is a popular rhyme associated with the aul (Alnus glutinosus):—
"When the bud of the aul is as big as the trout's eye,
Then that fish is in season in the river Wye."
A Yorkshire name for the quaking grass (Briza media) is "trembling jockies," and according to a local proverb:—
"A trimmling jock i' t' house,
An' you weeant hev a mouse,"
This plant being, it is said, obnoxious to mice. According to a Warwickshire proverb:—
"Plant your sage and rue together,
The sage will grow in any weather."
This list of plant proverbs might easily be extended, but the illustrations quoted in the preceding pages are a fair sample of this portion of our subject. Whereas many are based on truth, others are more or less meaningless. At any rate, they still thrive to a large extent among our rural community, by whom they are regarded as so many household sayings.
1. See Akerman's "Wiltshire Glossary," p. 18.
2. "English Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases," pp. 327-8.
3. "Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases," p. 207.