Clear the crown’s spent branches
with care, so that sunlight might
reach those delicate new leaves.
Snip the remnants of the old
blossoms now fallen, that the young
buds can bloom their own.
Pare the excess and the ended, let go
that which no longer serves you.
You’ll grow then, not reckless, but
in the shape that you’ve elected.
— Matthew Kosinski
You, humble gardener, have a problem. You just want to grow a simple crop of parsley. It sounds easy enough — yet it’s been weeks since you sowed your seeds, and not a single shoot has poked its tender head above the earth. What’s going on? If you were to ask an English peasant in the mid-17th century, they’d know the answer: It’s the work of the devil, of course. Parsley, it turns out, takes a very long time to germinate — sometimes longer than a month. To explain this painfully slow process, Renaissance-era farmers in England developed a bit of folklore. The devil, they said, was particularly fond of the plant, and he would steal your crop right out from under you. This superstition gave rise to a rule of thumb, “Parsley seed goes nine times to the devil,” meaning a farmer had to sow parsley seeds nine times before a successful crop would grow.1
Photo by Pintando la Luz; Source: Unsplash
When the superstition reached Appalachia in later centuries, the farmers there devised themselves a devil deterrent system. They’d pour boiling water over their freshly planted parsley seeds to ward him off. And it worked — at least, in terms of making parsley grow faster. That’s because parsley really does germinate more quickly in warmer soil.2
Did English and Appalachian farmers sincerely believe the devil was stealing their parsley plants? Maybe, maybe not. But in their folkloric explanations and remedies, they captured and passed down some practical knowledge about raising an important crop. Such is often the case with the folk traditions surrounding gardening and farming: They may not be strictly “scientific,” but they do encourage us to pay closer attention to the world we inhabit. And when we do that, we often end up learning some valuable lessons about ourselves and our relationship with this planet.
Photo by Ebba Thoresson; Source: Unsplash
The World Teaches Us a Lot When We Listen
People are “storytelling animals,” to borrow a phrase from literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall.3 We weave narratives to process the world around us. Prior to the invention of the scientific method, storytelling was our only tool for making sense of our lives — and it proved to be a remarkably effective one, especially in the botanical realm.
Plants are perhaps a natural magnet for mythology, a readymade symbol of the circle of life as they lie dormant through the winter and burst forth with magnificent vigor throughout the spring and summer.4 And because of our dependence on agriculture, our fates have long been intertwined with those of our plant companions.
“[Hunter-gatherers and early farmers] knew healthy fields and forests were crucial to a healthy human community.”
Hunter-gatherers and early farmers didn’t necessarily understand the precise mechanics of plant growth, but they knew healthy fields and forests were crucial to a healthy human community. They paid careful attention to their floral surroundings, trying to understand how things like weather, animals, and even their own behavior might influence their harvests. As a result, agricultural folktales and superstitions abounded — some more accurate than others. The “Three Sisters” legends of various Native American cultures, for example, correctly identified the natural synergy between corn, bean, and squash plants. In the Iroquois telling of the legend, the three sacred plants grew from the grave of the daughter of Sky Woman, the mother goddess. The plants gave food to Sky Woman’s grandchildren — and all humanity.5 We now know the scientific explanation for why these plants thrive when grown together: The low squash leaves provide shade and help retain moisture in the soil, the corn provides a stalk for the beans to grow upon, and the nitrogen-fixing beans create healthier soil.
This isn’t to say that all folklore has its grounding in discernable benefits. The American South’s myth that potatoes grow better when planted on the Christian holy day of Good Friday, on the other hand, is more supernatural than ecological.6
In the “Three Sisters” planting method, corn, beans, and squash are all planted in the same patch. The cornstalks provide support for the bean plants, the beans fix nitrogen in the soil, and and squash plant provides shade to keep the soil moist; Source: Oneida Indian Nation
In any case, the practical efficacy of so much plant lore speaks to the fact that we don’t necessarily need degrees in biology to learn about the world around us. We need only open ourselves to the signals sent by the environments we inhabit. The world teaches us a lot about itself when we listen — a fact dramatized by one thread of Zulu folklore, which holds that human beings used to be able to talk to trees. It was through these conversations, in fact, that people learned about the medicinal uses of plants.7
The connection between people and plants remains a core tenet of some traditional Zulu healing practices. It is believed by some sangomas, Zulu healers, that herbal medicine is most effective when patients form an intimate connection with the plants being used to treat them. To facilitate that connection, a sangoma may name the plant from which they’re drawing medicine after the patient they’re treating. This act reminds the healer that the health of the plant and the health of the patient are bound together. A sangoma may also reinforce the connection by asking the patient to ingest a small piece of the plant before giving them a full dose of the medicine. As with so much plant lore, this has a practical benefit, too: It’s a great way to make sure the patient isn’t allergic to the medicine they’re about to receive.28
Contemporary research into the efficacy of traditional plant-based Zulu medicine suggests a number of these treatments have objective therapeutic value. For example, sangomas have long used Clematis brachiata, a type of woody vine, to treat oral thrush. In a 2018 study, researchers found extracts of the vine showed “noteworthy” antimicrobial activity against three different strains of Candida, the genus of yeast responsible for thrush.9
Sangomas preparing mutis, traditional medicinal compounds. The word “muti” is itself derived from the Zulu word for “tree.”; Source: Wikipedia
Though it has become fashionable to scoff at plant medicines and herbal remedies in Western countries, maintaining a reverence for plant folklore and wisdom continues to pay off. More and more scientific investigations find that many plant compounds, evolving over billions of years in tandem with our ancestors' bodies and minds, surpass the smartest creations of drug companies.10 As we previously covered, many drugs start off as plant compounds; the earliest antibiotics were delivered to us unexpectedly by fungus11 and likely saved tens of millions of human lives.12
On Plants and Personhood
Other plant lore is less functional and more existential — but it’s no less instructive for that. These stories may not give us concrete gardening tips, but they can help us reframe our connection with the planet that sustains our lives.
“These stories may not give us concrete gardening tips, but they can help us reframe our connection with the planet that sustains our lives.”
According to the Maya creation myth, the gods first tried to make human beings out of mud and wood, but the products of these experiments didn’t have souls. Then, the gods tried using corn — and thus, humankind was born.13
Thai mythology presents a similarly deep relationship between human beings and the food that sustains them — in this case, rice. The Thai goddess Mae Phosop is considered the soul of rice, and it is said the souls of humans and rice are mutually dependent. In one story, Mae Phosop flees from humanity after being mistreated. No longer able to grow rice, the people experience a great famine. When a friendly fish eventually convinces Mae Phosop to return to humanity, she does so on the condition that the people treat her with respect from now on. If they do, she promises to provide bountiful harvests.14
Statue of Phosop, the Thai goddess of rice; Source: Wikipedia
Many Western European communities had their own harvest traditions articulating a link between humans and the crops they rely on. The customs often took the form of a “corn mother” (or “rye mother,” or “wheat mother,” or whatever crop was cultivated in that place). Essentially, people believed the spirit of the crop resided in the last sheaf left standing in the field following the harvest. This final sheaf would be fashioned into a doll and given a place of honor during post-harvest festivities. In the 1922 book The Golden Bough, Sir James George Frazer reports on the custom of Auxerre, France, where people would dress the harvest mother in fine clothes and seat her in the center of the room during the harvest dance. The celebration would conclude with a ceremonial burning and prayers for a fruitful year.15
Stories like these, which stress the spiritual links between people and plant life, convey an important message: how we treat the planet is, in a sense, how we treat ourselves. When we respect the earth, we’re also respecting the whole human community by fostering a healthy and bountiful environment for all life. We see the truth of this lesson borne out in movements like regenerative agriculture, which is based on the premise that taking care of the earth is the best way to reliably grow food enough to feed us all. Even if you’re not the type to believe that plants have literal spirits, it’s tough to argue with the results of honoring ecology.
‘You Belong to It’
Perusing the rich body of global folklore, rituals, and superstitions surrounding plants is more than just a fun way to pass the time or a historical study of the stories our ancestors told. It’s a means of learning about the very concept of nurturing — especially as it pertains to nurturing ourselves.
Take the example of the parsley seed, which needs time and warmth as it prepares to send its first shoots out into the world. Who couldn’t use some time to slow down, to germinate, in whatever sense that means to you? Who couldn’t use the helping hand of a friend or loved one, adding a little warmth to the soil of their life? Like the Three Sisters of Native American lore, we all grow heartier when we have community and kinship.
Photo by Abigail Ducote; Source: Unsplash
“As much as plant lore is about cultivating plant life, it’s also about cultivating human life.”
As much as plant lore is about cultivating plant life, it’s also about cultivating human life — about allowing ourselves to live the best and fullest lives we can. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, given just how interwoven our fortunes are with the flora of this world.
Perhaps no folktale better expresses that fact than one often known as “The Field.” The story, variations of which have appeared in multiple cultures throughout time, begins with two farmers arguing over who owns a piece of land. To settle the dispute, they turn to a local authority, often an older woman renowned for her wisdom in the community. After both farmers plead their cases, the woman stoops down and presses her ear to the field.
“What are you doing?” the incredulous farmers ask.
“I was asking the land for its opinion on whom it belongs to,” she answers calmly. “And the land says you belong to it.”16
Yet the anthropocentric worldviews that dominate the ecological discourse in many Western countries flip this notion on its head, transforming the Earth itself into little more than an exploitable resource for humankind’s benefit.17 By returning to folkloric ways of thinking about the world, and using them to complement our purely rationalist scientific modes, we just might rediscover a humble relationship with nature based on mutual exchange rather than subjugation. That combination of reverence and curiosity can point the way to a harmonious ecological future.
— The Keap Team
P.S. If the seasons and this story inspired you to spend some time in the garden in the coming months, check out our March drinks recipe, Terra. In this sour designed for the death throes of winter, rye whiskey comes together with crème de cacao, honey, grapefruit, lemon, and spice-forward Angostura bitters for a drink that will both transport and comfort you and yours.