We love wildflowers for lots of reasons – the way they are a nutritious powerhouse of pollen and nectar for bees, other pollinators and a host of wildlife, they help to improve soil health, keep carbon dioxide sequestered in the earth, plus they look gorgeous! But you know what’s even cooler? Many of the UK’s native wildflowers have a plethora of rich folklore, old wives’ tales and other stories of myth and magic relating to them. In some cases, there’s even an element of truth to the stories, as some wildflowers are used in natural medicine today. Here are some of our favourites.
Lady’s Bedstraw aka Galium verum
The wildflower known as Lady’s Bedstraw is a bright yellow cluster of tiny flowers that grows in dry grasslands and in coastal areas. It gets its name as it was commonly used to stuff mattresses in mediaeval times. It was soft, sweet-smelling, and seemed to keep fleas at bay. This is probably because of its natural coumarin content.
Lady’s Bedstraw has a rich history and presence in many legends and folklore tales. It’s thought to be one of the herbs that lined the manger of baby Jesus and is also present in Norse mythology. Associated with the goddess Frigg, Galium verum was known as Frigg’s Grass, and legend has it that women who give birth on a bed of this sweet-smelling flower will have an easy labour. In Gaelic folklore, the hero Cú Chulainn would drink a tea made from Galium verum to calm his fits of rage. It is also associated with the Roman goddess Diana and fairies in Romania, where the festival of Sânziene is held every year on June 24th. On this day, women would dress in white and pick a selection of wildflowers including Galium verum, and braid them into flower crowns.
As well as being used as a natural flea repellent, Lady’s Bedstraw has many purported medicinal and culinary properties. It was used in cheesemaking as a vegetarian substitute for rennet. Some artisanal cheese makers still use it to colour Double Gloucester cheese. In traditional medicine, Galium verum was used as not only a mild sedative but also as a cure for foot ailments when used in foot baths and ointments.
Another very cool property of Galium verum is that it is a rich food source for pollinators and a particular favourite of the Elephant hawk moth and Hummingbird hawk moth caterpillars.
Foxglove aka Digitalis purpurea
Foxglove, also known as Goblin Gloves, Witches Gloves or Dead Man’s Bells, is one of the most eye-catching wildflowers of the UK and has the legends to match its stunning appearance. Strongly associated with the fairy folk, each of the distinctive spots inside the flower of the foxglove is said to be the footprint of a fairy. The tall foxglove plants are said to bob and sway, even when there is no wind – this is supposedly the foxgloves bowing to the fey folk. The name ‘foxglove’ has many potential origins, but the most romantic one is that mischievous fairies gave a fox little gloves made from the flowers, so that he might rob the henhouse without making a sound.
Foxglove is a non-edible poisonous plant but has many uses in folklore. Foxglove leaves were laid near babies’ cradles or placed in children’s shoes as protection from bewitchment. Growing foxgloves outside your house were said to protect the inhabitants from evil, although picking the flowers or bringing them into the house apparently has the opposite effect!
Used in folk medicine as a heart tonic, an extract of foxglove is used in a drug known as digitalin today to treat heart failure and arrhythmias. During WWI, people would gather foxgloves to help the war effort, as they could be used for treating dropsy and heart disease. Consuming the foxglove when not prepared as a medicine can lead to illness and even death. One unusual condition that may occur as a result of consuming foxglove is xanthopsia, which alters one’s perception of certain colours, especially yellows and greens. Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Yellow period’ is thought to be influenced by foxglove-induced xanthopsia, as he was prescribed it by his physician.
Foxgloves are loved by bees, especially long-tongued bumblebees and carder bees, as their large finger-shaped flowers allow easy access to the pollen and nectar within. Baby birds also use them as a source of food in spring.
Cornflower aka Centaurea cyanus
Cornflower gets its common name for its tendency to grow in cornfields, although this is less common now due to agricultural advances and the use of herbicides. Cornflowers became pretty rare as a result, but have been returning slowly in ornamental flower beds. This pretty blue flower is small and unassuming but has a rich history in folklore and herbal medicine. Even the Latin name has an intriguing origin – Centaurea is derived from Chiron, a centaur who was wounded by an arrow tipped in the blood of the Hydra. Luckily, a herbal remedy made from cornflowers revived him. Also, Cyanus was a young man who was so taken with this charming flower that he would spend hours in cornfields making cornflower garlands. After he died, the Roman goddess Flora transformed him into a cornflower.
Cornflower was once the national symbol of Germany, it still is the national flower of Estonia, and in France, represents the WWI Armistice in the same way red poppies do in England. Legend has it that Queen Louise of Prussia and her children hid from Napoleon’s armies in a field of cornflowers, making garlands out of the flowers to keep her children occupied. This made the cornflower a symbol of resistance and freedom.
In times past, if a young man was in love, he would wear a cornflower on his lapel. If the flower faded quickly, it meant that his love was not returned. Young women would also wear cornflowers to indicate that they were ready for marriage. It was also said that to attract love, one should wear dried cornflowers in an amulet. Cornflowers are often seen as a motif of purity, grace and blessedness – in Christian symbolism, cornflowers represent Christ and the Virgin Mary, appearing in paintings and frescoes in the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods.
Cornflower is actually edible with a subtle, mild cucumbery flavour and is used to make Lady Grey tea. It has been used in traditional medicine for thousands of years as a remedy for flu, coughs, and even kidney disease and vertigo. It’s hard to say how effective it was for these illnesses, but the flower heads do have anti-inflammatory properties, especially when used to treat eye problems. Water distilled from cornflowers was historically used to bathe ‘weak eyes’, and in rural France, it was used in an eye compress for relieving eye strain.
Cornflower is beloved by bees and butterflies as it has the richest, sweetest nectar with a sugar content of 34%. It is particularly loved by beekeepers for this reason – in fact, just one cornflower can produce up to 0.2 mg sugar per day.
So many wildflowers have fascinating cultural histories just like these – we will definitely be writing more about them in the future! All of these flowers and more can be found in the My Square Metre wildflower mixes that we use in our meadow planting. We are thrilled to be helping these native wildflowers gain a foothold in the UK again, and passing on the rich folklore and legends that accompany them.