May 172012

We know plants are important in our lives, but do we know how important they are? Do we recognize this importance everyday?

People who lived close to the earth, from the hunter/gatherers to the agrarians, found many different ways to pass on information about plants and the seasons of the year. One important method was to associate plants with specific deities, myths and songs. Druids were said to have worshipped trees, specifically oaks and the mistletoe that grew on them. Trees were seen to be the connectors between earth and air and the cosmos. Groves of sacred trees were used as worship spaces. And although we know today that mistletoe is a parasitic plant, it must have seemed wondrous to these ancient people – for this plant seemed to grow out of thin air. (Although now I have it on great authority that the reason there is such a strong cultural connection made between Druids and mistletoe stems from the fact that a mistletoe gathering ritual is the only authentic piece of original liturgy left. But I digress.)

Besides worship spaces, plants also were recognized as connected with deities and food. The importance of barleycorn, one of the oldest crops, was immortalized in the folk song, John Barleycorn (see below). The treatment of John is quite gruesome unless the listener realizes that he is the grain, specifically barleycorn, anthropomorphized. This song passes on information about planting, harvest and uses of barleycorn. I also believe that this song, although relatively modern, echoes a time when deity was even more intimately connected with plants. The concept of the dying and rising god, found throughout many cultures, was not only a representation of the sun, but also connected with the vegetation cycle. However, many goddesses were also associated with grains, vegetation or the earth: Demeter & Persephone, Ceres, Gaia, and Isis are just a few.

Many of our modern holidays harken back to a time when the wheel of the year was of paramount importance. Easter is celebrated in the spring, when all that seems dead suddenly returns to life. Thanksgiving celebrates survival through the sharing of the harvest and replaces, in our culture, many of the ancient harvest festivals. Other religious practices were also connected to vegetation, although most related to food. Lammas was the Celtic holiday honoring bread and grain. Dionysus was the god of the grape and he was honored with raucous parties. Religious practices abounded around the concept of fertility of the fields. Mayday and Midsummer (actually summer solstice) were the most well-known dates for such rites. And if we look into the roots of the communion, we find that it is an ancient honoring of the grain (bread) and the fruit (wine), recognizing that we take the life of plants and the earth in order to sustain our own.

Some of these beliefs have been shunned as mere superstition, others transformed into new religious or social packages, the deeper meanings nearly lost in antiquity. But I believe that we can learn something from the attitude of these older beliefs. In a world where food comes packaged in paper and plastic and styrofoam, people have lost their connection to plants and the cycle of life. By “stopping and smelling the roses,” we are reminded of the need to reclaim the wonder of spring, the miracle of a sprouting seed, the sorrow of the disappearing rainforest, the beauty of the roadside flower. Scientific understanding can deepen our awareness of the interactions between plant and animal and human, hopefully making us more appreciative of the importance of plants in this interconnected web of life. However we go about it, we need to reconnect, to find the “sacred” in plants and to honor the place they have in our lives.


John Barleycorn


There were three men who came out from the west
Their fortunes for to try.
And these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn must die!
John Barleycorn must die!

So they threw him in three furrows deep
Threw clods upon his head
For these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn was dead!
John Barleycorn was dead!

Chorus: Fa la la la, it’s a lovely day!
  Sing fa la la lay-o! 
  Fa la la la, it’s a lovely day!
  Sing fa la la lay-o!

So they let him lie for a very long time
‘Til the rains from heaven did fall.
And little Sir Johnny sprang up his head
And he did amaze them all!
He did amaze them all!

So they let him stand ‘til a midsummer’s day
‘Til his face was pale and wan.
And little Sir Johnny sprout a long, long beard
And so become a man!
And so become a man!


So they hired men with the scythes so sharp
To cut him off at the knees
And they rolled him and tied him around the waist
Serving him most barbarously!
Serving him most barbarously!
And the hired men with the crabtree sticks
To cut stem from bone.
And the miller he served him worse than that
For he ground him between two stones!
He ground him between two stones!


Now it’s little Sir John in the nut brown bowl
And he’s brandy in the glass!
But little Sir John in the nut brown bowl
Proved the strongest man at last!
The strongest man at last!

For the huntsman he cannot hunt the fox
Nor so loudly blow his horn
And the tinker he cannot mend his kettles or his pots
Without a little Barleycorn!
Without a little Barleycorn!


* I have heard many other verses to this song, but these are the ones that I have heard used most often.

 Posted by at 5:09 pm
May 062011

The mailbox fills with seed and plant catalogs boasting the newest bounty of crops bred and born to meet our modern gardening needs. And I’ll be the first to admit that I browse effortlessly until that unique plant catches my eye. And I will also admit to having shelled out significant amounts of money for these new and unusual varieties and species. But some of the plants that I truly cherish are those that were handed down – the “old world fairy” rose bushes, taken from a house long gone to development; the forsythia bush and lilacs also saved from the very same development; the tomato plants, grown from the lovingly hand-pollinated seed, saved from year to year and given to me by my grandfather. These older variety plants are vanishing from our landscapes as we replace them with the “new and improved” versions. But all is not lost. Heritage societies are preserving our plant diversity, especially older variety plants.

Why is this important? Well, it is estimated that “within 50 years a fourth of the earth’s 250,000 flowering plant species could vanish because of habitat loss.” (National Geographic, Volume 192, #3, September 1997, pg 141.) While this is just an estimate, this loss of diversity could be devastating, not only to the environment, but to humans as well. We could be losing species that hold keys to medical mysteries. In fact, “a Mediterranean vetch yielded a protein that has helped detect rare human blood disorders.” (National Geographic) It really is in our own best interest to save the plants in these seed banks.

There are many seed banks around the world and most of them are working banks. They will send seed samples to researchers in agricultural institutes and universities. There are heritage societies where people can contribute their own heritage seeds and receive other people’s seed in return, in order to propagate these plants in a wide variety of locations. Not only do these plants hold potential value for use in the kind of medical research mentioned above, but some of the older varieties are resistant to the pests, insecticides and herbicides that plague the newer versions of plants. When a set of corn viruses nearly wiped out the crop in the 1970s, researchers were desperate to protect the corn from the main nine damaging viruses. With some luck and some looking, a perennial ancestor of corn, Tao sente, was found in a remote area in Mexico. It was resistant to seven of the nine corn viruses! Careful breeding back into modern corn has resulted in a much stronger, disease-resistant crop. But Tao sente grows only in a small area in a specific habitat. This plant could have easily been lost to us altogether if that very particular habitat had been damaged or destroyed. And along with a destroyed habitat, we also would have been destroying our own chances at survival. I wonder how many other such plants we have already committed to extinction.

So while we may ooh and ahh over the latest developments in plant genetic manipulation and the careful pollinations of plant breeders, it takes a bit more heart to find the value in the older species. The modern designer plants? They have their place. But in my book, they take a back seat to those older varieties which remind us of the strolls in our grandparents’ gardens. After all, haven’t our heritage plants been crafted over time? Do we have the time to recognize that our plant diversity is disappearing? Do we have the heart to save them from extinction – if only for our own sake?

 Posted by at 4:11 pm