Fae, Folklore and Fantastic Plants
Nighat Karatela delves into the magical world of plants in folklore and looks at the importance of some of our dune residents
I have always loved nature. Traipsing through lush green meadows, clambering over sturdy rocks, or curling my toes into sandy beaches, there’s something, well, magical, about being in nature. I recall marvelling at teensy mushrooms growing up in a hollowed root and wondering about how mushrooms protect trees - forming some type of partnership in arms. It’s calm, serene and the epitome of peace.
But I also love stories and legends. I blame watching endless hours of Charmed when I was a teen (anyone…?), a multi-year obsession with Lord of the Rings and the current crime-documentary spree creeping its way across YouTube and Reddit for my fantastical fascinations. So, why not combine the two?
Plants and folklore have long been intertwined. From magical elixirs famed to cure all ills to ones that warn of danger - plants have heralded the power to protect or destroy. Sand dunes have a special place in this as they provide a unique habitat to particular plant life - it’s a form of self-perpetuating system where plants in turn can catch more sand, forming sand dunes or adding nutrients.
I’ve delved into three species of sand dune wildlife that, to be frank, demand attention for their properties, uses and even folksy tales…
Sea Holly: the spiky aphrodisiac
Take the sea holly or Eryngium maritimum. It looks quite dynamic - with its multiple layers of spiked leaves creating an almost abstract look. It’s been painted many times and sea holly just looks.. in charge. And the Elizabethans thought so too - using sea holly to ‘level-up’ the aphrodisiac scale. This theme also occurs in the Shakespearean play, the Merry Wives of Windsor:
“Let the sky… hail kissing-comfits and snow eringoes [sea holly], let there come a tempest of provocation…” — Falstaff, Act 5, scene v, "The Merry Wives of Windsor", William Shakespeare
For those who need to look up what on earth kissing-comfits are and what they have to do with sea holly - they’re all a form of aphrodisiac sweetmeats Falstaff used in an attempt to woo several women. Quite forward, really.
I’m not sure I would risk attempting to pick up those spiked leaves though. Maybe just mentioning the name is enough?
Birds-foot-trefoil: toxic but stunning
From the amorous to the poisonous, meet Bird’s-foot-trefoil. This very easy to pronounce common name (I had zero difficulties at all with trefoil, none…) refers to a perennial herb common on sand dunes. It looks like the start of a perfect sunset, melding yellow with orange - it can be seen dotted around other habitats too - like gardens or moors for example. I have to praise its ability to grow just about anywhere - it’s quite a hardy wildflower!
This species however carries quite the punch. It contains toxins that release hydrogen cyanide so it really shouldn’t be ingested by humans. I was very interested to find that in a study in Southern Italy of plant species used by 59 families, parts of birds-foot-trefoil were used as a sedative, with diluted infusions used to, it claimed, reduce anxiety and insomnia. It would be interesting to look at what literature states about this but I wouldn’t recommend it!
Fae Folk and Heather
According to myth, fae or fairies are powerful yet diminutive folk that are famed to spread mischief, act as confidantes, or use their magical powers for good. They’ve famously been part of children’s bedtime stories and captured our imaginations - with film and art! As folk who live within - and perhaps even derive some of their power from - nature, their association with plant-life is rife. A quick search leads you to fairy gardens - even what to plant to attract fairies - as well as the clear association of nature with fairies. It’s quite the marriage!
Dune wildlife is no exception, with sand fairies sparkling their way into being.
Take Heather - be it the cross-leaved or bell kind - they both bloom into shockingly lavender-pink coloured petals that are loaded with nectar - and pollen. Ever tried Heather-honey? You probably should - it’s delicious. No wonder there’s an actual fairy named after Heather - take a look here:
“Ho, Heather, ho! From south to north
Spread now, you royal purple forth!
Ho, jolly one! From east to west,
The moorland waiteth to be dressed!”
The Heather Fairy
Cicely Mary Barker (1895-1973)
Cicely Mary Barker was a famous British artist - very much known for her works on fairies and enchanting paintings. Heather really is a velvety, luxurious dressing for sand dunes and wider habitats. It also attracts a huge variety of insects - so it’s no surprise that the fae folk would enjoy a bunch of Heather! Dune heathland is becoming more rare as coastal habitats are lost to development, but if you’re near a sand dune, and feeling lucky, you might be able to view this beautiful plant, as it’s visible all year.
Plants that grow in sand dunes have inspired so much - going back centuries. I like to think that nature and its gems create an artistic concoction, centering humans into a habitat that blooms curiosity. I hope you enjoyed reading about the tales and historic uses of just a few plants that thrive here.
Makes you wonder about the rest…
Guarino, C., De Simone, L. and Santoro, S. (2008) Ethnobotanical study of the Sannio area, Campania, southern Italy, ScholarSpace. University of Hawaii at Manoa. Available at: https://scholarspace.manoa.hawaii.edu/handle/10125/12485 (Accessed: November 8, 2022).
About the Author
Nighat is an avid nature enthusiast with a background in psychology and business - she enjoys hiking, writing short stories, and creating lush paintings in her free time.