The fields and hedgerows are awash with the blaze of wildflowers right now. Sadly, I don’t think many people see them, as we are always in such a hurry to get from A to B; we are focused on the destination, not the journey.

One fellow you can’t possibly miss at the moment, though, is this…

It’s called Rosebay WillowherbIt grows taller than me, up to a height of 2m, in great swathes of vibrant eye-popping purple, and it’s everywhere! Roadsides, embankments, railway sidings, bogland, woodland, building sites, and anywhere the ground has been recently disturbed. It brightens up all the abandoned, un-loved forgotten places, and I just love it!

In ancient times, it was the first plant which grew on the hillsides after the gorse had been burnt back, which is why it was named Lus na Tine in Irish, meaning ‘fireweed’. This has become its popular name. Medicinally, its root was powdered and thought to stop internal bleeding, whilst an infusion brewed of its leaves was used to treat asthma.

Despite its proliferation, however, I could find no mention of it in Ireland’s myths, even though it is a native plant. Hopefully, someone out there with more knowledge will enlighten us in the comments.

Other wild flowers I am loving right now, and which are prolifically and delightfully in full bloom are MontbretiaFealeastram Dearg in Irish, and Fuschia, Fiúise or Deora dé in Irish, although neither of these are native to Ireland.

Montbretia in Co Kerry

In Irish mythology, Cuchulainn suffered from alternating bouts of malaise and rage. It was quite possibly drug induced, perhaps through use of Amanita, but according to the stories, he was treated by being bathed in infusions of Meadowsweet.

Meadowsweet

Its Irish name is Airgead Luachra, which I believe is translated as ‘Cuchulainn’s Belt’… perhaps he always carried it with him in a little pouch attached to his belt in case of emergency; this was how physicians of the time carried their medicines.

Interestingly, it is from this plant that aspirin is derived; meadowsweet contains salicylic acid, which is a disinfectant, pain-killer and anti-inflammatory. Right now, the hedges are a-froth with its downy creamy flowers, and insects love its heady sweet scent.

In Irish, the Bluebell is known as Coinnle Corra. Of course, these delicate spring-blossoming wild flowers are long gone, but they have their place in Irish mythology: on her wedding night to Fionn mac Cumhall, Grainne was said to have mixed bluebell with tormentil and secreted it into the wedding guests’ wine, thus sending them all to sleep so she could elope with her beloved Diarmuid.

Although it was traditionally used to stop bleeding, and also as a diuretic, I can’t find any reference to it as an anaesthetic. Apparently, in ancient times, the bluebell’s sticky sap was used as a glue to bind books, and to stick feathers to the ends of arrows.

Tormentil is a little yellow flower which looks similar to a buttercup, and which commonly grows all over Ireland between May and September. It was used for pain relief and to treat digestive problems.

In Irish, its name is Néalfartach; neal meaning ‘depression/ gloom’, and fartach meaning ‘hurt/ injury’. In Co Cork, however, it was known as Lus an Chodlata, meaning ‘herb for sleep’, suggesting that it may well have been used for promoting sleep.

According to mythology, the warrior Nera disappeared into the Otherworld at Samhain, the beginning of winter, yet returned bearing summer flowers: wild garlic, golden fern and primroses, Sabhaircín in Irish.

This is a strange and convoluted story in which Nera receives a violent vision from the Sidhe showing the awful fate of his people if they don’t destroy the Hill of Cruachan. He warns Queen Medb and convinces her that he speaks the truth by giving her the summer flowers he brought back from Tir na Nog.

Honeysuckle, known as Féithleann in Irish, is associated with the tragic love story of Baile and Aillinn. These two lovers both died unnecessarily from grief, believing the other already dead. An apple tree grew from Aillinn’s grave mound, and a yew from Baile’s. These were eventually cut down, and tablets made from them, engraved with their stories. When these tablets were brought to King Cormac’s house in Tara, they sprang together and cleaved to each other as tightly as honeysuckle around a branch and could not be parted.

Finally, the foxglove, known as Lus Mór in Irish, meaning the ‘great herb’, is used to describe the beautiful blush of the pure cheeks of Étain, Deirdre, and warrior Conall Cernach.


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32 thoughts on “Flower Power in Irish Mythology

  1. Awesome post, Ali! I’m going to have to come back to this and learn it. It’s really hard for me to find references to medicinal uses for plants (actually it’s even harder for me to identify most plants, but that’s different.) 🙂 Thanks for confirming for me how people carried pouches with herbs, I’ve seen that several times in journeys and such and it’s exactly the way you described it.

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  2. I always enjoy your posts, Ali, and the way you bring the old stories to life with your photos. These are all lovely 🙂 When I was small, apparently, I could name most flowers, as my grandmother used to take me for long walks and point them out, naming them. I’ve forgotten a lot of them now, sadly, but my love for wildflowers is still there. It’s fascinating to read about what their different uses are, as well.

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  3. I love that story of Baile and what’s her face, so cute. I also happen to like flower stories and their medicinal properties FASCINATE me. Icy has done a couple posts recently on position flowers that I’ve loved.

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  4. Talking of Huckleberries, we have Whimberries here in South Wales, Ali. They have a very short season at the end of July and have to be picked with a special comb tool. Sheep’s Poo can be mistaken for Whimberries because they look very alike and grown on the ground, so be careful what you’re picking. They are full of goodness and we always stock up well with them when they become available. Great on their own, or in a sponge pudding with custard.
    Lovely photography. You’re certainly having a great time with your camera.

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  5. One or two thoughts, first aspirin is completely synthetic. Salicylic acid is found in a number or plants, notably various willows (Latin for willow is Salix, hence salicylic acid). This is good for treating fevers, but not as a pain relief medicine. Experiments with salicylic acid in the nineteenth century led to the discovery of the brilliant pain relief compound – acetylsalicylic acid, which was originally marketed as aspirin. An extract of willow bark might help a fever but do nothing for your headache.
    Foxglove in medicine has a curious story, an eighteenth century doctor heard about a local ‘wise’ woman who claimed to cure dropsy (severe water retention). Her medicine seemed to work some of the time but she refused to let the doctor know what was in it, she was making too much money from it and didn’t want the secret revealed. Then one too many of her patients died and she was accused of poisoning him (this by the way is the reason wise men and women disappeared in the nineteenth century, life expectancy rose under the care of doctors, it didn’t under the care of more traditional practitioners). The doctor said he would help her if she told him what she was using for dropsy, she was released and the doctor heard about foxglove.
    The doctor began to experiment, and discovered, whilst taking small doses of foxglove himself, that it affected the heart rate. He finally concluded that whilst the effects on dropsical patients were too inconsistent, he had, on the other hand, discovered the world’s first effective heart medicine. It is still used today, dangerous, but in the right hands a lifesaver.

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  6. I enjoy these kind of posts, but my foraging is usually limited to something I can eat. I don’t think I’d want to make my own medicine even if I knew what I was doing. It’s about huckleberry season here, maybe I ought to go look.

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  7. “Its Irish name is Airgead Luachra, which I believe is translated as ‘Cuchulainn’s Belt’”
    “Airgead” is normally translated as “money” and Google translate tells me that “luachra” is “rushes”.

    Foxglove contains a toxin which can be used to treat heart conditions. You really need to know what you’re doing, though, because it’s deadly poisonous in the wrong dose to the wrong person!

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    1. Hi Fiona! Unfortunately, I have no Gaelic, so have to rely on other people’s translations, which sometimes aren’t literal. Sorry that I got that wrong. Is this your area of specialisation? I didn’t know the foxglove could be so dangerous. I guess that’s something one should always be aware of, flowers look so pretty and harmless, but can be deadly if not treated with caution, unless you absolutely know what you are doing. Don’t try this at home, folks! 😁

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      1. I’m no expert, unfortunately like most Irish people I learned the language at school and forgot most of it. I did remember airgead=money, but I had to look up “luachra”.
        I think I found out that foxgloves were poisonous from a crime novel! Just like most of my knowledge of herbal medicine comes from Outlander 😉

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  8. Thank you for your interesting blog about wild flowers in Irish mythology. Our wild flowers will be coming out soon in Western Australia but not many people will see them – partly because they are getting scarcer every year, but mostly because people have their noses fixed to their iPhones and can’t be bothered looking for them. All the best and more blogs, please Ali. Colin

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    1. Haha! Same here, Colin! I have to confess, I had no idea our hedges and little roadside wildernesses were so stuffed with wild flora! They are flourishing! It was only because I started walking instead of driving that I began to notice them, and wonder about them. I would love to see all your beautiful exotic Australian wild flowers… maybe you might email me a picture? Yeah, my post was very late this week, I spent some time with friends in Sneem in Co Kerry. I didn’t take my laptop. Im trying to live a bit more in the moment and not stress if I miss posting once in a while. It is an addiction I cant shake though, so don’t worry, I always seem to find something to post about! 😁😁😁

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      1. I like your addiction, Ali. Sneem sounds great. Hope you had nice weather. Did you go to Skellig Michael? It’s a bit pricey and 100 people all go up and down the steps together. I’m doing a fair bit of walking around my area of Perth, which is in practise for walks in Italy’s Aosta Valley at the end of the year with my daughter. Like your rhododendron, we have arum lillies which are a noxious pest. Their nasty tendencies belie the fact they’re both great looking plants. I think you’d love listening to an Aboriginal person talking about the Dreamtime and songlines, both are from our myths and legends formed over the last 40,000 years.

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  9. Absorbing compilation of Irish flora, and the myths surrounding each of these blooms. With the wealth of medicinal properties of many of these flowers, Ireland ought to be promoting herbal medication in a significant way, which, surprisingly, does n

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    1. ….seem to be the case. Whereas in India, it is just the other way round. Herbal medicine (known as Ayurveda), extending to not only medication but also cosmetic formulations, is a big industry and widely patronised by the people.

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      1. Hi Raj, I think there has been a revitalisation of herbal remedies in the West in recent years, but generally, it seems to be the medical profession which is reluctant to embrace it. Doctors don’t like any form of ‘alternative’ healing. Much knowledge has been lost over the centuries, through persecution of medicine men and women as witches, and then through such awful events as the Famine, when so many people died or emigrated. Also, I think using herbs and foraging, whether for food or healing, was seen very much as the poor peoples occupation. Maybe one day it will be as accepted over here as it is in India. Thanks for stopping by. 😊

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  10. A great look at the beautiful plant life of Ireland and the associated legends attached to them. It’s a shame their use as simple medicines is so overlooked these days. I remember reading a copy of Culpepper and was fascinated by the use that various plants were put too. It’s odd that willow and meadowsweet both contain the natural ingredients for aspirin yet they have been ignored in favour of a manufactured drug.
    Always interesting Ali thank you.
    xxx Massive Hugs xxx

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    1. Not that odd really, since aspirin contains a more concentrated dosage and is easier to take. You’d be chewing willow bark for a long time before you could get the same effect as one aspirin pill with water!

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      1. Hmmm… don’t think I’d fancy that lol! I’m sure though that our early physicians found better ways of prescribing their medicines, ie drying and powdering, which would probably concentrate them, or boiling/ steeping in water to make teas and tinctures, mixing with fats to make salves, etc. And like everything else with a commercial value, I suspect once the medicinal properties of plants were realised, they were probably cultivated and processed in large quantities. Just speculation, but that’s how things seem to work, humans have been quick to cotton onto that in other areas, so why not herbs and medicines too?

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    2. Thanks David. I guess supply couldn’t keep up with demand. It was probably easier and cheaper to manufacture it synthetically for our growing population. I would like to see a return to more use of natural remedies, though. We have retained some knowledge, but is it enough? Some plants can be just as dangerous as a drugs overdose. Hope you’re doing well, David… huge hugs to you!

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