Faery Trees & Magical Plants
There is an old piece of folklore that speaks of fern seeds from the male fern, gathered at midnight on Midsummer’s eve, being used to grant invisibility. This is a particular interesting one, given that ferns produce spores, not seeds! Of such a dualistic, improbable nature are many of our faery tales, which is most likely the larger part of what gives them such charm. To continue on the theme of rather improbable tales, there is also the story of Blodeuedd, created by the sorcerer Math, who made her from Oak, Broom and Meadowsweet flowers as a wife to Llew Llaw Gyffes, who had been placed under a curse by his mother, never to find a human wife. There are plenty of books that go into detail concerning exactly why she cursed him – the tale itself is too long, convoluted and complicated to be done justice in this article.
Oak also pops up as part of the mystical triad of trees – Oak, Ash and Thorn. Places where these three trees grow together will often allow a glimpse into faery, given the right time and place – liminal times like dawn and dusk, neither one thing nor the other, when the boundaries and barriers thin. Not this, not that, but something else entirely, fleeting and hard to grasp, because as soon as you think you have it, that you have trapped it with cunning words and descriptions, it changes into something else entirely, like smoke or the morning mist. In addition to the traditional Oak, Ash and Thorn, the Elder tree has long had a reputation both for magic and association with faery and witchcraft, and, like many of the plants associated with the Otherworld, possesses the usual duality. It is used both to ward off attack by malevolent faery folk, and to encourage faery itself to manifest. The Elder tree has its own guardian spirit, the Elder Mother, or Lady Ellhorn, who must always be approached with reverence when cutting berries, flowers or wood from the tree, for fear of great vengeance should any part of the plant be taken without blessing. Elder twigs used to be hung outside stables to prevent the horses inside being hagridden by faery folk. The twigs could also be worn as a coronet to allow the wearer to see into the Otherworld.
Looking back at the tales covered thus far, what is the one commonality that herbs seem to share with fairy tales? They bring about change. Herbs almost always facilitate a transformation of one kind or another, whether its from life to death, in the case of poor Baldur, or a transformation from a mundane existence to a magical one, or even on a more mystical level, a change of perspective. Herbs are the agents that allow the spells to be spun, the tale told, the web woven.
A Note on Word Usage
In this article, the words ‘fairy’ and ‘faery’ have both been used – in this particular case, ‘faery’ refers to the ‘Elder Folk’, the ‘Good Neighbours’, all the denizens of myth and legend, whereas ‘fairy’ refers more to the body of often charming folklore that has grown up around these mysterious beings. They are referred to by different names in an attempt to make the distinction between Faery itself and romantic fairy tales more clear to the reader.