The fronds of the male fern fade during the winter time and leave behind a flaky root-stock, which grows bigger every year and turns black at the center, whereas new fern fronds sprout at the periphery. I like to think, as the years pass, the root begins to look like the scaly back of a dragon hiding beneath the earth, whereas the fronds form the dragon’s wings…
…and one may even spot the dragon’s head lurking in the soil.
The root has been used until recent times as an anthelminthic to expel tape worms. This is supposedly due to flavaspidic acid, a Phloroglucinol derivate, which is contained in the glandular hairs. The root stock and leaf stalks are deadly poisonous, especially in young plants. Overdosage may result in severe poisoning and death.
Banded grove snails (Cepaea nemoralis) overwintered between withered fern fronds. Snails and slugs are a gardener’s nightmare, though I’d like to think these banded snails are the “good ones” as opposed to the brown Spanish slug (which I myself battle by the means of sharp iron tools and worse).
However, not only gardeners of modern times are struggling in the fight against terrestrial molluscs, but also medieval knights went to battle the creatures in full armor, as a recent article at the Smithonian.com website elucidates utterly strange and still unexplained depictions in medieval manuscripts:
And as if that wouldn’t be enough, snails occur also as a metaphor for death and withering in the biblical Psalm 58:8
As a snail which melteth, let every one of them pass away: like the untimely birth of a woman, that they may not see the sun.
Not enough? I strongly recommend you to check out the Hunting for Snails blog, for a plethora of wondrous examples of snails in medieval manuscript art and this collection by the British Library.
Two early flowering plants in the amaryllis family (Amaryllidaceae), the common snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) opens its flowers just a few weeks earlier than the spring snowflake (Leucojum vernum). Both carry white, bell-shaped flower heads, sporting a green or a yellow spot on each sepal. Both do also contain poisonous alkaloids, that are a natural self-defense against pests and animals. The same alkaloids are also found in plants of the Narcissus genus.
The flowers of the spring snowflake typically appear after the snow melts, usually in late February and beginning of March. They are shaped like a cup, which gave them the name Märzenbecher in German, literally meaning “March goblets”. The Latin name Leucojum consists of the Greek word leucos for “white” (a bright, shiny white) and ion for “violet”. The flowers emit a sweet fragrance. The epithet vernum comes from the Latin word for “spring”. Other names are snowbell, dewdrop and St. Agnes flower.
The flowers of the snowdrop open in early February, often as early as Candlemass. They are more tender and when still closed, resemble a tear drop or look like a popular type of earring, called Schneetropfen in German. The English flower name snowdrop is thought to be a direct translation. The name Galanthus derives from the Greek words gala for “milk” and anthos for “flower”, whereas the Latin epithet nivalis means “of the snow” or “snow-covered”.
For some reason the snowdrop features more prominently in folklore and is now the flower associated with February, Candlemas cleansing rituals and the virgin Mary. I have blogged about this earlier. Interestingly, it seems to be missing in medieval scripture and early Christian paintings. Therefore, the snowflake is to be found on a painting of the Paradise Garden from the early 15th century. Here it is placed next to the infant Jesus and below the hem of Mary’s blue dress:
I found this painting thanks to the Met Museum’s garden blog and include it here, as it features many interesting flowers… Another fragrant, white flowering plant portrayed there is the lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis). It is a distant relative of the former and flowers much later, in May. Though named after the biblical “lily of the valleys”, it is uncertain which plant is originally referred to in the Song of Songs.
The spring snowflake is found spreading across river valleys and forest glades, taking advantage of the early spring sun and blooming when the trees are still leafless. I remember the sight of snowflake-covered meadows in the Polenztal, Saxon Switzerland: shiny white flower-cups and droplets from melting snow, reflecting the light of the spring sun; in the distance the sound of the bickering brook…
It is not surprising, the white flowers of early flowering plants would become symbols of purity and holiness. But there are also darker aspects connected to each of them, some of which I’m currently researching in context with a new incense formula. More about this later…
The 1st and 2nd of February respectively are associated with Imbolc, the Gaelic festival marking the beginning of spring, and Candlemas, the day, when all the Church’s candles for the year were blessed.
This time marks the midpoint of winter between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. It signals the return of the light of the sun and the days getting longer again.
Romans celebrated the Candelarum festival in honor of Persephone, who was kidnapped by Hades, and searched by her mother Demeter, bearing a torch. The return of Persephone from the underworld, signaled the return of the light and the end of the winter season. Romans lit candles and torches to drive out evil.
February, from Latin februum, meaning “purgation”, “purging”
The Roman Februalia was a festival of purification and purging, which later merged with the Lupercalia. The Latin term febris, meaning “fever”, might be related. (see)
In Jewish tradition the mother of a boy was considered impure for the 40 days following its birth (and for 60 days following the birth of a girl) and was not allowed to enter the temple. At the end of this period the mother underwent a purification ritual. This custom was incorporated into the Christian Catholic festival of Candlemas, also known as the “presentation of Christ in the Temple in Jerusalem” and the “purification of the blessed virgin Mary”.
If Candlemas Day be fair and bright
Winter will have another fight.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,
Winter won’t come again.
There is still time until the vernal equinox and the winter may still be long and cold, especially if this day is clear and sunny. A rainy and
cloudy Candlemas on the other hand means the worst of winter is over. The animals, such as bears and bumble bees, come out of hibernation for the first time. Snowdrops begin to flower, Christmas roses are in full bloom and the winter seeds begin to grow.
Now start sowing indoors those seeds that require warmth and light. The seed trays are kept on the window bench until April or until the last frosts are over. Then the young plants will be ready to be planted outdoors.
Traditional offerings: beeswax candles, Chandeleurs = pancakes (also kown as crêpes)
Plants: snowdrops, early flowering plants
Deities: Brigid, Persephone, Father Martin (Romanian)
Rituals: cleansing and purification rituals, divination
Superstitions: If someone brings snowdrops into the house on Candlemas day it symbolizes a parting or death. Any decoration left from Christmas, such as holly twigs, should be taken down completely by Candlemas, else there would be a death among the community before the year was out.
Another tradition holds that anyone who hears funeral bells tolling on Candlemas will soon hear of the death of a close friend or relative; each toll of the bell represents a day that will pass before the unfortunate news is learned.
Sailors would not set sail on Candlemas Day, believing that any voyage begun then will end in disaster.
Btw. we had a very rainy and cloudy 1st day of February and tomorrow looks no different… 😉
This time the herb I’m looking for is not a poisonous one – quite the contrary! It is a classic healing herb, which belongs in any herbal apothecary. A giant in the garden, its name relative is associated with an adversarial hero, who helped man and offended the gods…
The riddle included an illustration, which was to aid in finding the answer. Here is the drawing again:
The illustration hinted at the legend of Prometheus, who stole the fire from the olymp in the shaft of a Giant Fennel (Ferula communis). The drawing also shows the planetary ruler (Mercury) and associated element (Fire), which apply to both herbs. Hence the relative I was looking for, was the Common Fennel (Feoniculum vulgare). I admit this time the riddle was a little more tricky.
Thanks to everyone, who commented and shared their ideas! It was great fun reading your remarks and seeing the chain of thoughts that lead most of you to the right answer. 🙂 Other suggestions included angelica, dill, chamomile and yarrow. Since Angelica had been mentioned often, I’m sharing here for comparison my sigillum for it:
Some of you recognized, the difference in foliage and some other elements. I feel inspired though to give this image, which is already a bit older, a make-over and add planetary as well as some more hints at its folkloristic and magical attributions…
For more info about these herbs, please browse thisblog. 😉
Only few days left until the Winter Solstice, I am excited to share my next plant riddle with you. This time the herb I’m looking for is not a poisonous one – quite the contrast! It is a classic healing herb, which belongs in any herbal apothecary. A giant in the garden, its name relative is associated with an adversarial hero, who helped man and offended the gods.
The riddle is again accompanied by a new illustration I did earlier in autumn and which may help or confuse…
My contribution to the mystery and folklore surrounding the bumblebee. This sigil is inspired by my garden work and continues my line of magical images dedicated to the otherworldly emanations that cross between plant, animal and human realm.
Did you know? Bumblebees collect up to 5 times as much pollen and nectar daily as honey bees. In the animal realm they are the fastest at recognizing colors. No other insect cares as devotedly for their offspring as bumblebees.