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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 35.djvu/140

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140
THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

We must remember that the day of folklore is not past; superstition has not given place to science, and the reign of isolated absurdities still holds sway in many minds in place of law and order. It may be no worse to attribute the hidden evil of the world to plants possessed of Satan than to believe that there is a creature with horns and a cloven foot seeking for the innocent to satisfy his capacious maw.

Some of the most charming examples of plant lore are found in that portion having to do with fairies. Of course, the fairy itself is a pleasing myth that will require many ages to eradicate from the human mind, because it adds so much of innocent beauty to a majority of the nursery rhymes and children's tales. The whole deception of Santa Claus is one born to an endless earthly life, because having only a happy and healthful influence upon both the old who practice it and the young who are so delightfully deceived. There is a perennial pleasure in the thought that a tulip-blossom is a cradle in which mother fairies lull their little ones to sleep. To this day the finder of a four-leaved clover is considered by many as a person born to good luck—a notion that has descended from an older idea, namely, that the monstrous leaf was a talisman which enabled its wearer to detect the haunts of fairies. Much of fairy lore clusters around the so-called fairy rings, that is, the green circles in old pastures within which the elfs were supposed to dance at night by the light of the moon. Modern science has extracted the last breath of poetry from this common phenomenon and left it as a dry fact in the cyclopædias.

Flowers play no insignificant rôle in lovemaking at the present day, and no schoolgirl's botany is complete unless she can discourse fluently upon the language of flowers. Some plants are naturally symbolic of certain ideas. Thus, grass readily may stand for usefulness and the cypress for mourning, the poppy for sleep, and the trembling aspen for fear. Other plants do not carry their florigraphical meaning in plain sight, but have acquired their adopted meaning in ways that are lost in oblivion while the symbol remains. Thus the rose was dedicated to Venus by the early Romans and Greeks, and now stands for love, especially the deep red varieties. The constancy of the violet and the curiosity of the sycamore are far less evident than the weeping nature of the drooping willow.

The degree of credence given by many to the strange stories of fabulous plants is one of constant surprise to those whose knowledge shows up the traditions in their true light. The barnacle-tree is an instance to the point, and the following is a sixteenth-century description of it: "There are found in the north of Scotland and the isles adjacent, called Orcades, certain trees whereon do grow small fishes of a white color, tending to russet, wherein are contained little living creatures; which shells in time of maturity do open and out of them grow those little living things which, falling into the water, do become fowls whom we call barnacles, in the north of England brant geese, and in Lancaster tree geese; but the others that do fall upon the land perish and do come to nothing." There is more foundation in fact for this exaggeration of trees which, overhanging and dipping into water at high tide, may bear barnacles than in the wonder-working moonwort which would open locks, and unshoe horses treading upon it—certainly a very unsafe herb in the hands of unscrupulous house-breakers—providing the fable were true. Under the "doctrine of signatures" the author brings together a large amount of interesting matter illustrating the old idea that each medicinal plant has some sign of color, shape, etc., which indicates its healing power either for the whole body or for some particular organ. For example, red juice is for the blood, yellow for jaundice, the liver leaf—shaped like a liver—for the liver, etc. This doctrine was carried to an almost amusing excess. Thus, the shell of walnut, which resembles a human skull somewhat, was used for troubles of the brain. The aspen was employed for palsy; and mistletoe, a plant that grows in a suspended position, was good for dizziness.

Young people even could find much amusement in the chapter upon games, having plant lore as the basis and often set to rhyme.

Folk-lore in medicine is a vast subject receiving its full measure of treatment. Strange are many of the rhymes in this section of the subject. A single couplet is here indulged in: