July 20, 2024

Plant Folklore: Myths, Magic, and Superstition

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Plants have long been a source of inspiration, magic, and awe. Learn about the folkloric origins of your favorite garden residents now on Gardener's Path.

A vertical image of a spooky looking tree in a magical forest with light shining through the canopy. To the center and bottom of the frame is green and white printed text.Plants have long been a source of inspiration, magic, and awe. Throughout the centuries, tales have been told about powerful plants, with the power to heal and harm, to do good as well as evil. Learn more about the folkloric origins of your favorite garden flora on Gardener\'s Path now.

Before we had super-resolution fluorescence microscopy and advanced molecular biology, we looked around at the natural world in complete wonder.

Plants, our ever-present companions, presented not only a source of food and shelter, but were full of mystery and magic.

We might not know why a yew seemed to live forever when other plants quickly perished, or why mint smelled so marvelous, but we knew that these living things were important.

A vertical image of a spooky looking tree in a magical forest with light shining through the canopy. To the center and bottom of the frame is green and white printed text.A vertical image of a spooky looking tree in a magical forest with light shining through the canopy. To the center and bottom of the frame is green and white printed text.

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So we told stories that warned of the deadly powers of some plants, like belladonna, and created myths to explain how you could protect yourself from mysterious forces, like lightning.

It seems like just about any plant that has been used by humans in some way also has some sort of mythology attached.

We’re going to discuss some of the most common of these. Here are the plants we’re going to explore:

23 Plants Steeped in Myth and Superstition

  1. Angelica
  2. Ash
  3. Aspen
  4. Belladonna
  5. Birch
  6. Cedar
  7. Elm
  8. Foxglove
  1. Hazel
  2. Holly
  3. Lady’s Mantle
  4. Laurel
  5. Linden
  6. Mint
  7. Mulberry
  8. Mullein
  1. Oak
  2. Rose
  3. Rosemary
  4. Rowan
  5. Stinging Nettle
  6. Thistle
  7. Yew

Before we jump in, let’s look at a common phrase that illustrates just how much plants are a part of our culture and language.

Perhaps one of the most famous plant-based superstitions involves the phrase “knock on wood.”

Some version of this saying or practice appears in cultures spanning the globe, from Malaysia and Thailand to Egypt and Iran, and the US and Canada. South Americans knock on wood, Russians knock on wood, and Indians knock on wood.

How many times have you seen someone reach out and rap their knuckles on a table or wall, even if it’s made out of plastic or drywall?

A close up horizontal image of a hand from the right of the frame knocking on a wooden door.A close up horizontal image of a hand from the right of the frame knocking on a wooden door.

Some people even just say “knock wood” without touching anything. And, of course, there are the jokesters who knock on their own heads.

I’m guilty of knocking on wood sometimes, and I don’t consider myself remotely superstitious.

Why on earth do we do this? The fact is, we aren’t sure where the saying comes from.

The ancient Celts thought gods and spirits live in trees, and that stroking the wood could alert the spirits that you were asking for protection or rapping on wood could scare evil spirits away.

Others suggest that it originated from Christians who believed touching the wood of the cross Jesus Christ was crucified on would bring protection.

Steve Roud, a British folklorist, suggests that the practice comes from a children’s game from the 1800s where players were safe if they touched something made out of wood.

Trees are a huge part of human culture and always have been. So it’s no wonder why we would continue to incorporate them into our superstitions.

We might never know where this practice comes from, but sometimes the mystery is part of the fun.

There’s a lot more mythology, legend, and folklore to explore! Let’s look at a few plants that stand out:

1. Angelica

As the name would suggest, angelica (Angelica spp.) is certainly an angelic plant, full of good magic!

Legends say that a holy monk dreamed of talking with an angel, who showed him an herb that could cure the bubonic plague – and it just so happened to be angelica.

A square image of angelica flowers pictured on a blue sky background.A square image of angelica flowers pictured on a blue sky background.

Angelica

Angelica is a punctuation plant in your garden’s visual mosaic of beauty. And the leaves and stems, when cut very young, are delicious when crystallized with sugar or syrup and eaten as a snack.

You can find angelica seeds available at Earthbeat.

Learn more about growing angelica here.

2. Ash

Ash trees, (Fraxinus spp.) belong to the olive and lilac family (Oleaceae) and grow throughout the world in temperate and subtropical areas.

If you haven’t brushed up on your Norse mythology lately, the Yggdrasil, or tree of life, is a massive tree around which the nine worlds exist. Its branches extend into the heavens. Its roots grow into the wells and springs of the underworld where the world serpent lies.

A horizontal image of a large ash tree photographed from below up into the canopy.A horizontal image of a large ash tree photographed from below up into the canopy.

The first man was named Ask (Ash), and Askafroa, which means “wife of ash tree” in Swedish (Askefrue in Danish), guards the tree.

There’s a similar story among the ancient Celts, who called the tree uinnseann.

Guess what kind of tree features in all these myths? If your answer was ashes, you’re right!

But there’s more…

The Gaels believed that there were five trees guarding Ireland, and three of them were ashes.

In days past, people of the British Isles believed giving newborn babies a bit of ash sap would heal them or keep them strong. Some believed passing a child through the branches of an ash tree could protect them as well.

In Scotland, hopeful lovers used to eat ash leaves to induce dreams that would reveal their future as a couple.

In North America, many native tribes included the ash tree as part of their mythology.

The Penobscot said an arrow hit an ash tree, causing it to split. The first man, woman, and all the animals were believed to climb out of this crack.

The Abenkanabi said that the creator tried to build humans out of rock, but found them too cold and unfeeling, so he molded them out of ash trees so they would be strong and supple.

Sadly, ash trees around North America are threatened by the devastating emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis), and they’re plagued by invasive fungal disease caused by Hymenoscyphus fraxineus in Europe.

The velvet or Arizona ash (F. velutina) hails from southwestern North America where it grows quickly up to 30 feet tall.

A square image of the fall foliage of an Arizona ash tree pictured on a gray background.A square image of the fall foliage of an Arizona ash tree pictured on a gray background.

Arizona Ash

If you’re looking for a nice shade tree with a gorgeous rounded canopy to fill in a dry area, you can’t find a better option.

Nature Hills Nursery carries this beauty as a live plant in a four- to five-foot height in a #3 container.

3. Aspen

In Greek, the word for aspen (Populus spp.) is aspis, which means shield. People across the world have seen utilizing these trees as a method of both physical and magical protection.

Celtic warriors believed shields made out of aspen trees had protective magic. Ancient Greeks believed they had the ability to protect warriors and victors or battle would wear the leaves as a crown.

A view into the canopy of tall aspen trees with yellow fall leaves, pictured on a blue sky background.A view into the canopy of tall aspen trees with yellow fall leaves, pictured on a blue sky background.

This tree must be magical to be so good at protecting people, because the wood is actually quite soft and brittle.

People of many cultures also claim the trees talk or tremble because of their leaves, which are wide, with a wavy, toothed edge, and are held on long, flat stalks. This allows them to catch the breeze and dance around.

That’s why certain species are called “quaking” or “trembling” aspens (P. tremula or P. tremuloides).

I’m not one to think they were the tree of fairies, as Celts and Scottish highlanders did, but I’ve spent many hours lying under them in the Rocky Mountains. The way they filter the sunlight and whisper in the wind is certainly enchanting.

If you’re ever in the area of Fishlake National Forest in Utah, Pando is a massive grove of quaking aspens that is thought to be one of the oldest living organisms on the planet, though it’s currently dying. Pay it a visit, if you can.

A square image of the fall foliage and unique bark of quaking aspen trees.A square image of the fall foliage and unique bark of quaking aspen trees.

Quaking Aspen Tree

Individually, the trees only live about 150 years, but they form dense colonies.

Start your own trembling giant by picking up a tree (or four!) at Fast Growing Trees. They carry live trees in five- to six- or six- to seven-foot heights.

4. Belladonna

Atropos, Zeus’s daughter, is often depicted with a pair of scissors, which she used to clip the lifeline of humans whenever she chose.

Her name inspired the botanical genus name for belladonna, Atropa belladonna, also known as deadly nightshade.

A close up horizontal image of the dark purple berries of belladonna pictured on a soft focus background.A close up horizontal image of the dark purple berries of belladonna pictured on a soft focus background.

Wherever it grows, it has been linked to witchcraft, with potions being used to create deadly poisons and draughts to enable flight.

Shakespeare mentioned it several times in his plays, including in “Macbeth” and “Romeo and Juliet.”

This plant is highly toxic and can swiftly kill a person. No wonder it has inspired such dreary tales.

While we’re on the topic of belladonna, this isn’t the same plant as what many people call “deadly nightshade” in North America.

The plant with the bright red berries that turn dark purple as they ripen is black nightshade Solanum nigrum.

Eating a few of the ripe berries of this plant will result in a nice meal but avoid consuming the immature green berries, which contain solanine.

5. Birch

In Finland, the birch tree species Betula verrucosa, B. pendula, and B. pubescens are found all over the place.

No wonder these trees are considered one of the six national nature symbols, and they factor into Finnish folklore.

A close up of the trunks and foliage of a forest of white birch trees.A close up of the trunks and foliage of a forest of white birch trees.

The birch was long considered a holy or sacred tree. The Finnish fairy tale “The Birch and the Star” describes two lost children who find their home by looking for their birch tree.

People in Britain would use birch brooms, called besoms, to sweep out bad witchcraft along with the dust and dirt.

Some gardeners today still believe that sweeping a birch besom over the garden will rid it of bad vibes. Hey, I’ll try anything to get rid of aphids

Frigga and Freya of Norse mythology are linked to birches, and the tree represents new beginnings and renewal in Celtic myth. Samuel Taylor Coleridge called the birch the “the Lady of the woods.”

A square image of a row of paper birch trees growing by the side of a river.A square image of a row of paper birch trees growing by the side of a river.

Paper Birch

One of my favorite birches, and one of my favorite trees altogether, is the paper birch, B. papyrifera. I love the way the peeling, papery bark adds texture to the winter landscape.

Nature Hills Nursery carries this species.

River birches (B. nigra) do extremely well next to a river or pond, but you can plant them just about anywhere. They can reach a towering 80 feet and half as wide.

A square image of a river birch growing outside a residence.A square image of a river birch growing outside a residence.

River Birch

Visit Nature Hills to bring one home. They carry live, single-stem trees in #3 or #5 containers, and multi-stem trees in #5 containers, so you have options.

6. Cedar

I’m going to include both true cedars (Cedrus spp.) and trees in the genus Thuja here, which we know commonly as cedars but are actually arborvitae. Both of these hold special significance for the people who live in areas where they grow.

For the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest, western redcedar (Thuja plicata) is known as the “tree of life,” and some tribes called themselves people of the cedar, or cedar people, such as the Clatsop, Chinook, Kathlamet, Klatskanie, and Tillamook in Oregon.

A horizontal image of large Thuja trees in a forest, with snow on the ground.A horizontal image of large Thuja trees in a forest, with snow on the ground.

Native people would gather at the base of redcedars for ceremonies and to rejuvenate, and the wood was often used to create totem poles.

This broad, tall tree can reach hundreds of feet in height and can live for at least 1,500 years.

Across the world, the demigod Humbaba was the guardian of the cedar forest in Mesopotamian mythology. The cedar forest is the place where the gods dwell, and people saw the trees as sacred for this reason.

In China, people believed planting a cedar tree would ensure that your lover stayed faithful.

Want to keep a cedar tree as a reminder of love in your life?

Deodar cedars (C. deodara) have a pyramidal shape with gracefully drooping branches and they make a grand gesture in the garden.

A square image of deodar cedar trees growing in a garden border behind a retaining wall.A square image of deodar cedar trees growing in a garden border behind a retaining wall.

Deodar Cedar

Pick up a live tree in a #5 container at Nature Hills Nursery.

7. Elm

While some plants are associated with bright things like new beginnings, elm trees (Ulmus spp.) are strongly associated with the underworld.

Orpheus journeyed to the underworld to rescue his wife, Eurydice, and when he was successful, he played his harp in celebration. An elm tree grew in that spot, according to the Greek myth.

A horizontal image of an American elm tree with branches covered in snow, pictured in bright sunshine on a blue sky background.A horizontal image of an American elm tree with branches covered in snow, pictured in bright sunshine on a blue sky background.

Other tellings say that as Orpheus was about to emerge from the underworld, he looked back at his wife. This was forbidden and she was taken back to the underworld. An elm grew in her place.

Celts believed elms guarded the passage to the underworld. In Medieval London, two elm trees were used for hangings, earning the trees a dark reputation.

It’s fitting that the wood is a popular choice for coffins.

Personally, I love elms. They grow fast, tolerate all kinds of environmental conditions, don’t need a lot of pruning, and come in many shapes and sizes.

A square image of a single lacebark elm growing in a suburban neighborhood.A square image of a single lacebark elm growing in a suburban neighborhood.

Lacebark Elm

Lacebark elms (U. parvifolia) are tough as nails with rough, textural bark.

They add a nice element to the yard during the dormant season. Nature Hills carries this species in a #5 container.

DannaSpire is a columnar lacebark elm cultivar (U. parvifolia ‘DavesStraightUp’) that grows 25 feet tall and just five feet wide, at most.

It’s such a cool option for a small space or for creating a windbreak.

A square image of a tall DannaSpire elm growing in a border by the side of a road.A square image of a tall DannaSpire elm growing in a border by the side of a road.

DannaSpire Elm

Find one in three- to four- or four- to five-foot heights at Fast Growing Trees.

Find our guide to growing elm trees here.

8. Foxglove

It’s an interesting name for a flower – foxglove!

But was this actually based on a belief that foxes wore gloves? Not exactly.

Foxglove is the common name for plants in the Digitalis genus, used in ancient times as a drug, and still used today in some heart medicines.

Digitalin, a cardiac glycoside that can be extracted from the plant, can help steady rapid heartbeats and arrhythmias when used in small doses.

A close up horizontal image of pink foxglove flowers growing in the garden pictured in bright sunshine.A close up horizontal image of pink foxglove flowers growing in the garden pictured in bright sunshine.

However, the constituents of this beautiful flower were also used as a poison in old times, since these same cardiac glycosides are highly toxic – and best kept away from pets and small children.

Of course, foxes never wore gloves, but the name was recorded in England dating as far back as the 14th century. It is probably a distortion of “folks’ glove.”

According to Margaret Grieve in her tome on herbalism and lore, “A Modern Herbal,” “good folk” was the name sometimes used for fairies – and these little beings were said to live inside the flowers, perhaps responsible for their potencies, both good and bad.

This story and so much more on many other plants can be found in Grieve’s masterpiece on botanical culture. It’s sold in two parts – find Volume 1 and Volume 2 on Amazon.

The blooms are heliotropic, following the light. During old times, when more people professed to believe in fairies, the plant was said to be moving towards any fairy person that passed by.

These flowers are biennials, producing leaves one year, and flower stems the year after.

The common foxglove, D. purpurea, produces delightful purple flowers.

There are also many hybrid varieties of foxglove available, as well as some in shades of apricot, white, and pink. You might like ‘Dalmatian Peach,’ which is available at Nature Hills Nursery.

Learn more about growing foxgloves in our guide.

9. Hazel

The Celts tell a story of nine hazel trees (Corylus spp.) surrounding a well that sat at the border between the gods and Earth.

The trees dropped nuts into the water, and these were eaten by salmon swimming in the water.

A close up horizontal image of yellow catkins growing on an American hazelnut tree.A close up horizontal image of yellow catkins growing on an American hazelnut tree.

These salmon gained all the knowledge in the world, and the first person to eat one of these “salmon of knowledge” would gain that wisdom.

It’s not just the Celts believed these trees marked the border between the gods and mortals or the afterlife. The Greek god Hermes, and his Roman equivalent, Mercury, was said to carry a wisdom-granting staff made of hazel with him when he crossed between the worlds.

Norse myth says that Thor carried a staff made out of hazel to protect himself from lightning.

In China, it was believed that God gave hazelnuts to humans as one of the five sacred foods.

A square image of a hazelnut tree growing in the garden.A square image of a hazelnut tree growing in the garden.

American Hazelnut

In North America, almost any hazelnut you can buy at the store comes from Oregon, where 63,000 tons of nuts are produced each year.

But you want your own, right? Grab an American hazelnut (C. americana) at Nature Hills Nursery in a #3 or #5 container.

Learn how to grow your own hazelnut trees in our guide.

10. Holly

Druids in ancient Ireland and England believed the evergreen foliage of a holly (Ilex spp.) could bring the sun into homes during the winter.

Turns out, there’s more than one reason to bring holly sprigs indoors beyond amping up your winter decor!

A close up horizontal image of the bright red berries and foliage of yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) growing in a sunny garden.A close up horizontal image of the bright red berries and foliage of yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) growing in a sunny garden.

Native people in North America used Ilex vomitoria, commonly known as the yaupon holly, as both a ceremonial drink and to revive their spirits and bring focus.

They didn’t know it, but they were using the power of caffeine from North America’s only caffeinated plant.

Indigenous people taught the drink made out of the leaves could bring about clarity and peace.

By the way, ignore the specific epithet here. As with many things, European colonists didn’t understand the value of yaupon hollies when they named the plant, assuming it was being used to induce vomiting.

We now know that ingesting tea made from this plant doesn’t induce vomiting any more readily than drinking too much coffee.

There are endless Ilex options out there, so pick one that calls to you. Lately, I’ve fallen in love with ‘Needlepoint,’ a holly cultivar from the cornuta species.

The glossy green leaves aren’t edged in spines except for one at the tip of each leaf.

A close up of the foliage and berries of needlepoint holly.A close up of the foliage and berries of needlepoint holly.

‘Needlepoint’ Holly

If you have unresolved trauma from scraped arms and legs from a childhood of hide and seek in holly bushes, this one will come as a welcome relief.

Plus, the red berries appear even without a second plant for pollination purposes.

Invite ‘Needlepoint’ to your yard by heading to Nature Hills Nursery for a live plant in a quart or #3 container.

Learn more about growing holly in our guides.

11. Lady’s Mantle

The wonderful Alchemilla mollis or lady’s mantle – a superbly hardy garden plant that can also seed itself prolifically – has ornate, cup-like leaves notable for catching and collecting beautiful beads of dew.

A close up horizontal image of flowering lady's mantle growing in the garden.A close up horizontal image of flowering lady\'s mantle growing in the garden.

Well before the 18th century in Europe, alchemists thought there was something magical about the plant, and particularly the properties in the dew it collected.

They were said to use the drops to try and turn base metals into gold – hence the name Alchemilla, after the ancient practice of alchemy.

M. Grieve, who we talked about above, wrote that this dew was also added to magical potions.

A square image of lady's mantle growing by the side of a pathway.A square image of lady\'s mantle growing by the side of a pathway.

Lady’s Mantle

Whether you’re considering whipping up a magical brew or you just want to add some jewel-like interest to your yard, Nature Hills carries live plants in #1 containers.

Learn how to grow your own lady’s mantle in our guide.

12. Laurel

Laurel trees and shrubs (Laurus spp.) have a long, regal history. You’ve heard of a poet laureate, right?

The word laureatus is Latin for “crowned with laurel,” and medieval universities would crown graduates with a branch of the tree.

A close up horizontal image of the foliage and small yellow flowers of a bay laurel.A close up horizontal image of the foliage and small yellow flowers of a bay laurel.

It’s not just a tree of knowledge. Ancient Romans thought they would be protected from lightning strikes and plague if one took shelter under a laurel tree.

In Greek mythology, after a battle with the dragon Python, Apollo was said to have cleansed himself with laurel to provide protection from the slain dragon’s spirit.

During the witch madness of the Middle Ages, the wood of the laurel was thought to provide protection from witches as well as lightning.

And here in the US in modern times, many of us enjoy the flavor bay laurel (Laurus nobilis) leaves can add to our meals.

A square image of the foliage of a bay laurel pictured in light sunshine.A square image of the foliage of a bay laurel pictured in light sunshine.

Bay Laurel

Whether you want to grow it in a container on your patio or in your yard, you can nab a bay laurel from Nature Hills in a #1 container.

Learn more about growing bay laurel in our guide.

13. Linden

Baucis and Philemon of Ovid’s “Metamorphosis” were granted the gift of staying together for their whole lives and dying at the same time by the disguised gods Zeus and Hermes.

Baucis and Philemon earned this gift after they generously hosted the gods, not knowing who they were, when all their neighbors refused. When they died, they turned into a linden (Tilia spp.) and an oak, respectively.

A close up horizontal image of yellow linden blossoms pictured on a soft focus background.A close up horizontal image of yellow linden blossoms pictured on a soft focus background.

As a result, the Greeks associated lindens with eternal love and hospitality.

Norse gods Odin and Freya and the Celtic goddess Arianrhod are associated with lindens, and people believed that the trees could provide love and harmony.

People in Slavic countries viewed linden trees as the link between life and death, and they are often planted to ward off evil.

In Chinese folklore, the trees are thought to be able to tame a rebellious heart or provide clarity on a difficult matter.

I remember my first experience with a linden. I was walking around my childhood neighborhood and encountered a tree that blew my senses away.

It was like I had walked into a cloud of honey, the fragrance was so intense, and I could practically taste the sweetness. Accompanying the scent was the buzzing of bees, a sound so loud that I could feel it vibrating my entire body.

If there was ever a tree that could inspire love and harmony, the linden is it. I felt a swelling of joy, and I just wanted to sit under the tree and enjoy the brilliance.

There are many excellent linden options out there. The American linden (T. americana) is a little harder to find, but I think it’s worth seeking out this North American native.

A square image of an American linden tree growing in a park.A square image of an American linden tree growing in a park.

American Linden

I love the huge, heart-shaped leaves and stately shape.

Nature Hills Nursery carries this species in #3 containers if you’ve fallen in love with lindens as much as I have.

14. Mint

Next time you stumble across a bit of mint (Mentha spp.) that has escaped its garden spot, think twice about pulling it. According to Greek myth, mint is actually the goddess Minthe, transformed by a jealous Persephone.

Since Hades (aka Pluto, in Roman myth) couldn’t restore Minthe to human form, he gave her a pleasant scent so everyone could appreciate her charms.

Ancient Romans thought Venus (Aphrodite in Greek myth) wore a crown of mint and that the plant could incite lust.

A close up of the foliage of 'Kentucky Colonel' mint growing in the garden.A close up of the foliage of \'Kentucky Colonel\' mint growing in the garden.

‘Kentucky Colonel’ Mint

Personally, I’m more concerned about flavoring my cocktail than inciting lust, but maybe you’re looking to do both? If so, pick up some M. spicata ‘Kentucky Colonel’ plants at Burpee.

This cultivar is the classic choice for mint juleps. I think Minthe would approve.

Learn more about growing mint in our guide.

15. Mulberry

Depending on where you come from, the beautiful mulberry (Morus spp.) is either an evil tree or shrub, or it’s a marvelous one.

A close up horizontal image of mulberries growing on a branch, pictured on a soft focus background.A close up horizontal image of mulberries growing on a branch, pictured on a soft focus background.

Considered a sacred ancient tree (fusang) in China and an essential part of the silk industry, since it’s a host of the silkworm, people there believed the 10 birds that represent the sun live in a mulberry tree.

In German folklore, the devil uses the roots of the mulberry to shine his boots.

In Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” the characters Pyramus and Thisbie meet under a mulberry tree, and when Thisbe finds Pyramus wounded and dying there later, she takes her own life.

People in some US municipalities feel the same way that the Germans do, though for different reasons.

Some species of this tree are banned in certain areas because of their heavy pollen production and invasive growth.

A square image of a red mulberry shrub pictured on a blue sky background.A square image of a red mulberry shrub pictured on a blue sky background.

Red Mulberry

If it’s legal to grow in your area, a red mulberry (M. rubra) can be had at Nature Hills Nursery.

Mulberries are delicious and many types of wildlife adore the fruit, so if you can safely and legally grow them, they’re beautiful and productive trees to have around.

Read our guide to learn how to grow your own mulberries.

16. Mullein

A favorite for use in plant borders, Verbascum thapsus has many common names.

You may know it best as mullein, which derives from the Latin word mollis for soft, because of its downy, velvety leaves.

A close up vertical image of the yellow flowers of mullein pictured in light sunshine on a soft focus background.A close up vertical image of the yellow flowers of mullein pictured in light sunshine on a soft focus background.

Another common name is hag’s taper, or you may hear it referred to as the candlewick plant.

The wooly flowering stems, growing up to six feet tall, were often dipped in fat and lit as tapers, and the leaves were sometimes used as floor coverings and insoles for shoes. Maybe giving this a try with your favorite pair of gardening shoes would be worth a shot?

Lighting a hag’s taper was said to ward off bad witches and sorcery, and the dried fluff from the leaves and stems was made into wicks for candles.

There was also a superstition that witches would use the tapers themselves for practicing their magic – another great tidbit of folklore on mullein found in M. Grieve’s herbal from the early 1900s.

A most useful plant, mullein is still sometimes used today among herbalists and as a home remedy.

The leaves and flowers contain anti-inflammatory and demulcent compounds, including polysaccharides, saponins, and glycosides, which are said to be especially helpful for treating coughs and lung issues.

While traditional use is strong, medical research on these effects is weak.

The plants are biennial, forming a rosette of soft leaves in their first year, then blooming with striking flowers in their second year before they die.

There are a great many garden varieties to choose from nowadays, as several lovely hybrids have been produced.

Verbascum ‘Raspberry Ripple’ is particularly pretty, a cultivar of wild mullein chosen for its raspberry-red flowers, rather than the typical yellow flowers seen in mullein.

A close up of a bouquet of 'Southern Charm' mullein flowers.A close up of a bouquet of \'Southern Charm\' mullein flowers.

‘Southern Charm’ Mullein

Another striking option is ‘Southern Charm,’ a hybrid with lavender, rose, and peach blossoms. You can purchase both seeds and live plants at Burpee.

17. Oak

If you’ve ever stood at the base of a massive oak tree (Quercus spp.) and looked up, you know how impressive they can be.

It’s little wonder that many cultures associate oaks with thunder. You can easily see a thunder god reaching down from the heavens and finding a mighty oak to be the closest thing.

Even if you don’t believe in supreme beings, it’s likely that an oak, as the tallest thing in the forest, would attract lightning bolts.

A view into the canopy of a large oak tree, pictured in light filtered sunshine.A view into the canopy of a large oak tree, pictured in light filtered sunshine.

Oak trees are associated with thunder in Scandinavian folklore, and the god Thor. Russians had Perun and Lithuanians had Perkunas, both gods of thunder as well as oaks.

Ancient Greeks believed in Zeus, and the Romans Jupiter, and both were associated with oaks as well.

Ancient Hebrews believed the oak held special significance as it was the place where Abraham met with the Christian and Jewish god in the form of three angels disguised as travelers.

The Oak of Abraham, called Eshel Avraham, has drawn worshipers for centuries.

The Celtic people worshiped the goddess of the oak, Daron, and many of their rituals and ceremonies took place among oaks and using parts of the tree. The mistletoe that grows in the canopy of oak trees was also an important part of their ceremonies.

Druids believed the tannins in oaks had healing power, as did many Indigenous people of North America.

Native people also believed the trees offered strength and protection.

The Sioux have a tale of a sorceress who turns a man into an oak after he rejects her, and indigenous leaders of the Ojibwe and Dakota people in the Chippewa Valley in modern-day Wisconsin gathered around the council oak tree.

You can hardly be blamed if you want to make the majestic oak a part of your garden.

A mighty pin oak (Q. palustris) grows up to 70 feet tall and about two-thirds as wide. In the fall, it puts on an incredible show with bright red, orange, and yellow hues.

A square image of a large pin oak growing outside a residence.A square image of a large pin oak growing outside a residence.

Pin Oak Tree

Fast Growing Trees carries this species in several sizes.

After you’ve brought yours home, read our guide to growing oaks to learn how to plant and care for your new addition.

18. Rose

The rose (Rosa spp.) has been an adored flowering shrub for centuries, a sentiment shared among people of different cultures all around the world.

Legend has it that once, all roses were thought to be white – until Venus, the Roman goddess of love, cut herself on the thorns and turned the flower red forever with her blood.

A close up horizontal image of pink roses growing in a mass planting.A close up horizontal image of pink roses growing in a mass planting.

For that reason, many associate the rose with love and romance!

There is other folklore about the rose, however, that doesn’t have to do with the classic notion of romantic love.

The legend of the Cherokee rose, for example – or R. laevigata, the state flower of Georgia – centers around a species that came to the US originally from China.

It is said that after Cherokee mothers and women who walked the tragic Trail of Tears grieved all those who had fallen, their tears sprouted to become beautiful white roses, which spread all around the country as a reminder.

Do you want to grow the Cherokee rose? Well, you can!

R. laevigata is tolerant of most conditions but prefers well-drained soil and partial shade. It’s a tough and prolific plant, able to survive droughts.

Cherokee Roses

This climbing rose can reach heights of 20 feet as an evergreen perennial in Zones 4 to 10.

Seeds are available from the Red Earth Seeds store via Amazon.

Learn more about growing roses here.

19. Rosemary

Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus) was once widely believed to be a protective herb. It was thought to ward off evil spirits and witches in the Middle Ages, and was sometimes dropped into graves so that a deceased loved one would not be forgotten.

In Christian mythology, it was said that rosemary had white blossoms until the Virgin Mary draped or dropped her blue cloak onto a plant, changing the hue of the blossoms forever, earning it the name “Rose of Mary.”

The Greek goddess Aphrodite was said to be draped in rosemary at her birth, and those who worshiped her regarded the plant as holy and powerful.

This is an ingredient beloved by cooks, and a fragrant evergreen addition to the garden. You can even use rosemary to create a tiny Christmas tree.

A close up square image of the flowers and foliage of a Tuscan rosemary plant.A close up square image of the flowers and foliage of a Tuscan rosemary plant.

Tuscan Rosemary

If you’d like to add a live plant in a five gallon decorative pot to your space, visit Fast Growing Trees.

Read more about growing rosemary here.

20. Rowan

Sorbus aucuparia is commonly known as mountain ash or rowan. But some people call it by its other name: witchwood.

Scots believed that if they planted witchwoods around their homes, it would protect them from witches. You could also hang branches of rowan trees over doorways to grant the same protection.

A close up horizontal image of clusters of red rowan berries growing on a tree in autumn.A close up horizontal image of clusters of red rowan berries growing on a tree in autumn.

Germans had a similar belief, only they thought that you should carry a sprig on your person for protection.

This folktale traveled with German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania and pinned rowan sprigs to their children’s coats for protection.

If you’ve ever dreamed of finding where the fairies live, look for a rowan tree. They are said to dance underneath the branches. Or the tree could protect you from fairies. Depends on who you ask.

One of my favorite myths surrounding mountain ashes is their ability to predict the weather. A heavy crop of the bright red berries, a favorite of birds, meant winter would be hard and long.

I can tell you from watching my own rowan that this hasn’t proven true in my neck of the woods, but it’s still fun to note.

These trees fit into small spots and tolerate some shade. They also offer up a blanket of white blossoms in the spring and are punctuated with bright red berries in the fall. I think they make a great option near a patio or in a small backyard.

21. Stinging Nettle

If you told young me that stinging nettle (Urtica dioca) was a symbol of good luck and eating it three times could prevent you from becoming ill, I would have said you were enjoying maybe a little too much magic herb, if you know what I mean.

Surprisingly, that plant that gave me hours of burning, itching skin when I unknowingly brushed up against it was valued by the Scots, who consumed it during the festival of Beltane.

Celtic people believed a thick cluster of nettles signaled that fairies lived nearby. It’s also one of the essential herbs used in the Anglo-Saxon healing nine herbs charm.

A close up square image of the bristly green leaves of a stinging nettle growing in the garden.A close up square image of the bristly green leaves of a stinging nettle growing in the garden.

Stinging Nettles

The Norse god Loki makes his magical fishing net out of nettles, according to lore.

That makes more sense when you realize that nettle has long been used as a source for making textiles, much like hemp.

Seeds are available for purchase from Earthbeat.

Learn how to grow your own stinging nettle now in our guide.

22. Thistle

Have you ever wondered why the Scots chose the thistle (Onopordum acanthium) as their national symbol?

Legend has it that Viking invaders were sneaking up on Scottish armies. They removed their boots in order to be able to tiptoe quietly, but they stepped on the vicious prickles of thistle plants and alerted the Scots to their presence.

A close up horizontal image of thistles in a meadow pictured on a soft focus background.A close up horizontal image of thistles in a meadow pictured on a soft focus background.

But “thistle” doesn’t technically refer to just one plant. It’s a word used to describe a variety of prickly plants that produce a typically purple or white flower head. Most of these fall into the Asteraceae family, but not all.

People of many cultures believe that growing thistle will ward off thieves.

More than any mythical properties, I’d venture a guess that this is due to the plant’s extremely thorny exterior. If it’s enough to protect it from hungry grazers, it’s enough to keep burglars away, right?

The plant is also used to represent the Virgin Mary in Christian folklore. It’s said that the plant exudes a milky white sap to remind worshipers of the milk she used to nourish Jesus.

23. Yew

Yews (Taxus spp.) are evergreen and able to extend their lives by self-propagating via layering.

The plants lay branches on the ground that root and expand the tree’s footprint. These new parts of the tree can survive even if the original tree dies.

A horizontal image of a large yew tree growing in a rural cemetary.A horizontal image of a large yew tree growing in a rural cemetary.

One of the oldest trees in Europe is an English yew (T. baccata) known as the Fortingall yew, named for the village in which it grows. Given its impressive age, it’s no wonder that the yew was known to represent longevity and eternal life.

Of course, these trees are extraordinarily toxic if consumed, which spawned its own legends and associations.

The druids, for instance, associated the trees with death and rebirth. They also thought yews were immortal and saw them as one of the nine sacred trees.

Shakespeare talks about using yews in funerals, and people during the Middle Ages in England were often rubbed with an infusion of yew leaves after they died.

I have to say, the druids weren’t wrong. These trees do seem to be immortal. You can neglect them, many of them grow in full sun or full shade equally well, and they are rarely troubled by pests or disease.

You can find yews that are ground covers, small or large shrubs, or towering trees.

‘Tauntonii’ is a particularly appealing hybrid that spreads wider than it is tall and tolerates any sun exposure you decide to give it.

A square image of Taunton spreading yew growing in a garden border.A square image of Taunton spreading yew growing in a garden border.

Taunton Yew

Nature Hills Nursery carries Taunton yews, as these are also known, in #3 and #5 containers.

Learn how to grow your own yew trees and shrubs in our guide.

Stay Open to Wonder

Sometimes we think we have the world pretty much figured out and there’s little room left for folklore and myths.

But seeing what we’ve learned in only the past two centuries highlights, in my mind, how much more there is to learn and understand.

A horizontal image of a spooky forest with magical fairy trees in fog.A horizontal image of a spooky forest with magical fairy trees in fog.

Who knows what beliefs we hold today will be revealed to be completely incorrect? I’m going to keep my mind open to the wonder of nature.

I might not rely on my mountain ash for the weather forecast, but I’m certainly going to keep lying underneath aspen trees to watch the dancing light and listen to the trees chattering with each other. Maybe someday we’ll know what they’re saying.

What’s your favorite plant myth? Did we miss one that you expected to see on this list? Share yours in the comments.

If you’re looking for a way to get started with some of the wonders of gardening, check out these guides for beginners next:

  • Annuals vs. Perennials: What’s the Difference?
  • Growing Plants 101: The Complete Guide to Getting Started
  • How to Start Your Own Herb Garden

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