In her influential Dictionary of Fairies (1976), Katharine Briggs gave a list of charms that protected against fairies. This included several plants and herbs like four-leaved clover, St. John's wort, rowan and ash. These are all extremely well-known superstitions, showing up in books of fairy lore and plant lore alike.
But she also included two plants that are harder to find information on:
"Red verbena was almost equally potent, partly perhaps because of its pure and brilliant colour. Daisies, particularly the little field daisies, were protective plants, and a child wearing daisy chains was supposed to be safe from fairy kidnapping."
Briggs is the only authority to list these herbs in this way. Any later sources generally quote her. Botanist Roy Vickery wrote in 2010, citing Briggs, that accounts of the daisy chain superstition were "rather unconvincingly suggested."
So, can this information be backed up by any other collections of folklore?
Verbena, or vervain, is well-known as a ward against the supernatural, but the fact that Briggs describes it as red brings up questions. Verbena comes in multiple varieties and colors - lilac, blue, pink, white or red. Briggs placed great significance on the red color, making it the plant's most important quality: "Red was always a vital and conquering colour." She also mentions red thread and red berries as protective talismans (although red is also a favored fairy color). But the vervain native to England, the natural candidate for any fairy superstitions, would be Verbena officinalis. And this plant has small, pale, lilac or gray flowers. Briggs wrote elsewhere of verbena-related superstitions, which makes it especially odd that she fixates on the color red here.
Vervain was used in medicine as a healing herb, and also known in lore as the Holy Herb. The name, from Latin, literally means "sacred bough." The ancient Greeks and Egyptians associated it with deities such as Hera and Isis. In Irish lore, vervain was one of the "seven herbs of great value and power" (Wilde p. 182).
As pointed out by Hilderic Friend, vervain and other plants were sometimes supposed to be used by witches, but those same plants were also believed to fight off witches or the devil:
Terfoil, Vervain, John's Wort, Dill,
Hinder witches of their will.
This dichotomy is common, and Friend suggests that this was part of a belief that "the plants and materials employed by magicians...and other similar dealers in the black arts, are equally efficacious if employed against their charms and spells." (529-530) But Friend describes the plant as "slender spikes of grey flowers."
There is a tradition of vervain being connected to blood. John White, writing in 1608, bemoaned the fact that many of his parishioners would "weare vervein against blasts" - i.e., elf-blasts - and mentioned a belief that vervain was used to staunch Jesus Christ's bleeding wounds after the crucifixion. In Brittany, it was known as louzaouenn-ar-groaz, or herb-of-the-cross. John Gerard, in the Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes (1597), referred to the vervain as "Mercurie's Moist Bloude." (Or could “Mercury” be the metal, comparing the pale-colored Verbena officinalis to quicksilver?)
The color dilemma shows up in Notes and Queries series 7. Correspondents listed legends of red plants colored by Christ's blood at the crucifixion, and one person mentioned verbena. Another person countered that "The vervain (Verbena officinalis) is a purple flower" and could not have anything to do with the legend. Yet another commenter, however, shot back that historically, colors were categorized differently, and red or purple could be interchangeable. Regardless of classical color distinctions, it's clear that folklore experts were not envisioning a "pure and brilliant" red flower.
Red verbena does exist, of course, but it doesn't grow wild in the UK. Varieties like the scarlet Verbena chamaedrifolia or Verbena peruviana were imported from South America in the early 1800s, too late to have any deep folkloric history (Transactions).
A couple of people suggested to me that Briggs might have meant red valerian - a similar-looking plant with scarlet blossoms. Valerian in general (Valeriana officinalis, a white or pink flower) had similar holy or protective properties to vervain. Red valerian (Centranthus ruber) is a different thing, but is known as "good neighbors," "good neighborhood," or "quiet neighbors" in some areas of England, strikingly like the fairies' name of Good Neighbors. (Plant-Lore)
There's also red campion, which is associated with Robin Goodfellow and also called the Devil's Flower or blaa ny ferrishyn (Manx for fairies' flower). Red campion seems to frequently be pink, though.
On the other hand, these folk names don't sound like something that would belong to a fairy deterrent.
Briggs goes into more detail on daisies, giving them their own entry:
"It is sometimes said that the habit of dressing children in daisy-chains and coronals comes from a desire to protect them against being carried off by the fairies. Daisies are a sun symbol and therefore protective magic."
Daisies are not often listed as having any connection to fairies. More common is the "he loves me, he loves me not" type of fortune-telling rhyme. The daisy is associated with innocence and childhood. One alternate name in England and Scotland is "bairnwort" - bairn meaning baby, because it's "the children's flower." This association can be seen in the poem "The Daisy," by Henry Septimus Sutton (1825–1901) where it is called "the little children's friend."
In a review of daisy-related folklore in 1956, Katharine T. Kell did not mention fairies or protective qualities at all. She recounted a Celtic origin story - a woman named Malvina, grieving the death of her stillborn son, was comforted by hearing that dead infants were reincarnated as flowers, and that her son had become a daisy. Kell seems unsure about this story's origins; she seems to have had trouble tracking it down, only finding references to it being part of the Ossian cycle. The Poems of Ossian, published by James Macpherson in the 1760s, are already of doubtful authenticity, with many calling them a hoax. I cannot find anything indicating that the daisy story actually appears in the Ossian cycle. The poems were wildly popular when they first came out, and received numerous translations and adaptations across Europe and North America. The daisy story appeared in 1825 in Charlotte de la Tour's Le Langage des Fleurs, and made it back into English by 1834 (The Language of Flowers). Other authors quoted this story as if directly from MacPherson's Ossian. The daisy-as-reincarnated-infant legend is very possibly French fanfiction of a fake Celtic epic.
Kell also included some Christian legends connecting the daisy (or alternately, the white chrysanthemum) to the Child Jesus.
Coming back to Briggs, there is one other authority on protective daisies: the storyteller Ruth Tongue. For those who aren't familiar with Tongue, she's been viewed with skepticism by later scholars.
In Somerset Folklore (1965), Tongue states briefly that "ordinary daisy chains are sometimes felt to be a protection for children" (p. 33). The flowers feature in several of Tongue's Forgotten Folk Tales of the English Counties (1970). They are associated with holiness, innocence, and childlike simplicity. In "Crooker," a Derbyshire tale, a traveler carries posies of St. John's Wort, primroses and daisies to protect himself from evil forces. "The Daisy Dog," attributed to Cornwall, has a simple-minded but kind man who plants "a criss-cross of God's daisies" on a grave to protect it. (The story gets its name from the ghost dog that defends the grave afterwards.)
Most relevant is "Silly Kit and Down-a-down," a Huntingdonshire tale. In a Tam Lin-esque device, the Elfin King plots to use the main character, Kit, as payment for the fairies' "seven years' due" to Hell. Kit is an intellectually disabled and innocent young woman. Jesus himself comes to protect her, and watches over her as she playfully makes a daisy chain. In Hell, "the Devil and all the fiends" flee at the sight of Kit accompanied by Jesus. She returns home with her daisy chain, which is referred to as "Flowers of Paradise."
I do not know of any analogues to this story, although it is reminiscent of those daisies-as-Christ-symbol traditions. Tongue stated that it was told to her aunt "before 1914."
Briggs and Tongue collaborated closely on both Somerset Folklore and Dictionary of Fairies, and Briggs contributed the foreword for Forgotten Folk Tales. Based on this, Tongue seems like the most likely candidate for the contributor of daisies as protective charms.
Although most of the herbs on Briggs' list are easily located in books of superstition and folklore, red verbena and daisies are of doubtful origin. These are not the only unverified "facts" in the book. Briggs remains one of the giants of the folklore field, but the Dictionary of Fairies is one of her later books and skews more towards entertainment than scholarly research. For instance, the Dictionary’s entry for “oakmen” relies on a misreading of source material. These were already of dubious origin, but Briggs used the oakmen’s name with a different creature’s description, resulting in a completely new combo. The red verbena may be a similar case.
Here, she seems to have conflated several different things:
As for daisies: these flowers were popularly associated with children, the sun, and in Christian legend, Jesus. Their defensive properties, though, may be one of Ruth Tongue's unique themes. Oddly enough, it seems this isn't the only possible fauxlore tradition to feature daisies - there's also the French-"Celtic" story of the reincarnated infant.
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I was a bit confused by these two as when I tried to research them myself I couldn't find another source. So I appreciate your article for clearing this up.
Writing in Margins
1/17/2022 12:42:02 pm
Thank you for commenting! And good to know about the Dictionary of Plant Lore.
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Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.