How to start an article about fairy tales and spring’s fairy herbs? As it’s a discussion rather than an archetypal fairy tale, one cannot exactly begin with the eternal words “Once upon a time.” Yet one has to approach this subject somehow. Perhaps it should be done in a similar way to fairy tales themselves—obliquely, sideways, craftily, the way winter slides slowly into a brighter season. Spring itself often seems to be made wholly from the fabric of faerie, with its lengthening days, the slanting sunlight like pure gold, and the gorgeously vivid greens and honey shades that adorn the earth, dotted with the brilliant colors of the first blooms of the season. The flowers, too, are often linked with faerie, with entering Under the Hill, with chancy bargains, forbidden revels, and fabulous feasts.
Here in my native county of Lincolnshire, an old legend speaks of a girl whose life became bound to the cowslips that flowered around her home. She fell ill in the winter, and though her family hoped she would live to see the spring arrive, there was still no sign of it in April. Finally she told her mother that she would be dead by the following day if the green mist heralding spring had not arrived. Fortunately for her, the green mist did indeed arrive the following morning, new buds of brilliant peridot dotting the birch trees, and the girl was able to sit out in the sun and gradually recovered her health, growing more and more beautiful as the days passed. Strangely enough, on the days when the sun did not appear, she became pale and ill again. When the cowslips finally flowered, her beauty became so ethereal and fey that she greatly unnerved her loved ones—probably even more so when she warned them against gathering any cowslips. Unfortunately, one day a young man visiting the cottage picked a cowslip to give her, hoping to woo her. Her family watched her fade all the rest of that day, the cowslip held to her breast, until finally she died the following morning, becoming one with the season.
Other tales gathered from around the world are linked with the primrose, that gorgeous coin of sunny yellow shades. In Germany there’s an old tale that features a young girl and
a handful of primrose flowers. She stumbled across an old doorway covered with an astonishing array of blooms and touched a primrose to it, after which the door creaked open and a passage to an enchanted castle appeared. One rather has to wonder if she entered the castle or ran as fast as her legs could carry her in the other direction: Enchantment is, after all, a perilous thing, and sometimes the gifts it gives come with rather large burdens attached. Other primrose tales speak of doors opening and a host of fairy folk bearing gifts spilling out, showing the child how to get home and sending her along with heaps of gold for good measure. Some versions of the tale hold that a miser, observing from a distance, tried to do the same thing but had the wrong number of primroses in his hand. He was never seen again. It would seem the Good Neighbors do not care to have their generosity abused.
Another tale that features a gorgeous spring flower and a miser is that of the humble dandelion. Many gardeners lament the presence of this sunny flower; however, it has a rather illustrious origin tale. Many years ago a man was making his way home from market and happened to chance across the end of a rainbow, with the expected cauldron of coins there. He gathered them all up in a sack and carried them home as fast as may be, gloating at his good fortune, but the fairy folk, listening to what he planned to do with the gold and noticing that none of it would go to help his fellow men, decided to prepare a small lesson for him instead. When he took a shovel and the sack of coins out to bury them, they unraveled a corner of his sack. A small enchantment later, and the man in question didn’t notice the coins dropping out one at a time as he crossed several meadows. When he realized what had happened and tried to return to collect the coins, they had all been turned into the sunny gold flowers that adorn verges, meadows, grass, and gardens alike, full of medicine and food for any who needs it. Certainly a fitting reward for gold sickness!
Ground ivy is another spring herb with a beautiful story behind it. This one comes from Ireland originally and features a young woman who, when out collecting water one evening, tripped and fell down a hole that appeared out of nowhere. When she came to, she found herself in Fairyland, surrounded by the host themselves. One of them asked her to dance, which she did with great pleasure. Later there was a great feast with a beauteous array of fruits and breads and nuts and wild-tasting wines of varied hues. Had she accepted these delights, she would have found herself bound Under the Hill at their pleasure. However, a red-haired member of the company wound a band of scented herbs with beautiful purple flowers around her wrist and told her to run for home, the herbs would protect her. So she did, the host running at her heels, and when she arrived home and barred the door behind her, a voice through the door told her that had she not worn the ground-ivy bracelet, she would have been bound to their company for eternity. A guardian and protector indeed!
Still another tale speaks of the hawthorn, that noble tree long associated with faerie. This particular old specimen was growing in gnarly splendor in the middle of a field that two boys had been set to plow. One of them drew a circle around the tree to mark the ground that should not feel the touch of the iron, and then a table laden with an incredible feast appeared there. The lad who drew the circle partook of the food offered while the second boy ran for home, scared out of his wits. The lad who remained and ate of the fairy food was wise for all the rest of his days, a fit reward indeed, though one has to wonder if he already had some measure of wisdom, choosing to avoid angering the Good Neighbors!
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 it is from life to death, in the case of the poor lass and the cowslip, or from a mundane existence to a magical one, or even on a more mystical level, a change of perspective and the gaining of wisdom. Herbs and plants are the agents that allow the spells to be spun, the tale told, the web woven.
Ali English has been fascinated by herbs, folklore, and fairy tales from a very young age, and, since qualifying as a medical herbalist in 2009, now spends all her time painting, writing, teaching, and working with plants in the hills of North Lincolnshire, U.K. Her blog can be found at eldrum.co.uk and a portfolio site can be found at eldwolf.co.uk.