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Celebrating garden myths and superstitions

By Katie Jackson

Whether you’re superstitious by nature or not, it’s hard to avoid this month’s focus on the otherworldly, and there’s no place better than the garden to focus our attention on myth and lore.

Considering how important plants and animals are to our very survival, it should come as no surprise that, over the eons of human existence, we’ve created an abundance of garden-related traditions and superstitions, many of which have become part of our vocabularies, if not our belief systems.

Knocking on or touching wood, which is supposed to help us avoid tempting fate by either warding off bad or encouraging good luck, is a case in point. The practice has been traced back to early Germanic pagans (however, many cultures and religions across the world and centuries share a similar practice), who believed that tapping or touching a tree summoned help from protective tree spirits.

Herbs, with their often aromatic and medicinal qualities, are perhaps the most superstition-laced plants. Take parsley for example. Because it can be difficult to grow from seed, gardeners of yore used to make three sowings — two for the devil and one for the gardener — and the ability to grow parsley from seed is supposed to be proof of a person’s honesty. However, bringing a parsley plant into a house is said to bring along bad luck, as does giving it away to someone, so if you want to share parsley with a friend, have them “steal” it from your yard.

While parsley may bring about some bad luck, other plants such as rosemary, ivy and snapdragons are thought to offer protection from evil spirits and curses, so they are welcome both indoors and planted near entryways to keep such problems at bay.

A superstition that I struggle with is the one that says we should never thank someone for a plant or cutting or the plant will fail to thrive or even die. It goes against my raising to not say “thank you,” but after I sent a thank you note for a lovely plant gift and then promptly killed the plant, I decided to be safe rather than sorry: These days I offer heartfelt thanks for the pot or the potting media rather than the plant, or simply say “I’ll really enjoy this.”

What we say to plants and other garden creatures is also considered important in garden lore. Cursing parsley or basil as you’re planting it is supposed to make it grow better. Peppers are said to be hotter and more prolific if you plant them when you’re angry. Talking to plants and bees is supposed to make both more productive, though bees reportedly prefer juicy gossip rather than polite conversation.

Want to protect your garden or home? Try some garden artifacts. St. Francis of Assisi and St. Fiacre statues are always nice, but so are garden gnomes, which protect gardens from pests and evil spirits. Gazing balls and windchimes ward off evil spirits, bottle trees repel and capture evil spirits and those gnarled and wizened green man faces channel ancient forest and nature spirits to watch over plants and homes.

The list of garden lore and superstitions could go on and on, including planting by the signs and other traditions still practiced today in every culture across the globe. To learn more about these intriguing and varied traditions and beliefs, a huge selection of books and articles can be found online and in bookstores and libraries, or ask your gardening friends about their practices and beliefs. Oh, and please share yours with me at katielamarjackson@gmail.com!

Finally, if you want to spend time this month in a garden with otherworldly creatures, create your own superstition-influenced garden decorations or visit the Huntsville Botanical Garden’s Gardens of Myth exhibit, which features sculptures of mythical creatures — think fairies and dragons — created by artist Kendall R. Hart. (Learn more at hsvbg.org or by calling 256-830-4447.)

Katie Jackson is a freelance writer and editor based in Opelika, Alabama. Contact her at katielamarjackson@gmail.com.