If a plant was trying to talk to you, would you know it? Would you be able to decipher the message?
As I passed a giant spread of ivy covering the chain-link fence along Prospect Ave. (betw. 5th + 6th Aves), I noticed shapes made by the ivy in its in-between spaces. Might these shapes be imbued with some sort of meaning? If so, could the length of the ivy-fence be read as a headline?
Folklore and superstitions have surrounded plants throughout history, originating as people tried to understand and make sense of their medicinal effects on humans. When shapes occurred in nature that resembled recognizable visual symbols, this was thought to carry special meaning. Lady’s Thumb, for example, a plant often found today in urban areas, has a dark, heart-shaped spot in the center of its leaves; this was believed to signify that it could cure heart ailments. (1)
But what it does it mean when the plants form themselves into a shape? Is it just a coincidence, or are the above weeds sending me an emoticon for love??
Though superstitions like these are silly, it is still tempting to form stories about what plants might be thinking based on what we observe. In the picture above, there seems to be something playful in the way these weeds have made a zigzag shape, even though they are clearly following the cracks in the cement. But then, what created the cement-cracks? Tree roots?
I hope to expand upon the topic of plant folklore in future posts. For now, I’d like to share a link to an amazing book which is available to be read online grâce à Google Books. Here’s the basic info to pique your interest:
Plant lore, legends and lyrics: Embracing the myths, traditions, superstitions, and folk-lore of the plant kingdom
By Richard Folkard, Francis Bacon Library
Published by S. Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington, 1884
Original from Oxford University
Start at page 176 for the chapter on Plant Symbolism.
Also, I am particularly interested in American Indian plant folklore. In tradition, each plant is considered to have a spirit which can be communicated with. Permission is asked before taking a part of a plant, and sometimes the plant will respond with an alternative source for picking! (2) A friend of mine who studies Cherokee teachings told me each plant is said to have a sacred song that can only be heard if you become spiritually connected to the plant.
I’d like to close this post with a snippet on ginseng from another amazing online resource: a chapter on Cherokee Plant Lore from the book Myths of the Cherokee by James Mooney, published in 1900.
“Ginseng, which is sold in large quantities to the local traders, as well as used in the native medical practice, is called âtalï-gûlï’, “the mountain climber,” but is addressed by the priests as Yûñwï Usdi’, “Little Man,” or Yûñwï Usdi’ga Ada’wehi’yu, “Little Man, Most Powerful Magician,” the Cherokee sacred term, like the Chinese name, having its origin from the frequent resemblance of the root in shape to the body of a man. The beliefs and ceremonies in connection with its gathering and preparation are very numerous. The doctor speaks constantly of it as of a sentient being, and it is believed to be able to make itself invisible to those unworthy to gather it. In hunting it, the first three plants found are passed by. The fourth is taken, after a preliminary prayer, in which the doctor addresses it as the “Great Ada’wehï,” and humbly asks permission to take a small piece of its flesh. On digging it from the ground, he drops into the hole a bead and covers it over, leaving it there, by way of payment to the plant spirit. After that he takes them as they come without further ceremony.”
(1) Silverman, Maida. A City Herbal. Boston: Godine, 1990.
(2) Wood, Matthew. The book of herbal wisdom: using plants as medicine. North Atlantic Books, 1997.