‘Mother mushroom and her children’ by Edward Okun.
A range of plants have fairy associations, both good and bad. It is convenient to divide them into three broad types for our discussion.
We commonly conceive of elves and fairies living in woodland, whilst certain specific tree species have strong links to fairies. Thorn trees are magical throughout Britain and Ireland. For instance, Northumbrian fairies are said particularly to prefer dancing around thorns. From across the border comes a Scottish story of a man ploughing a field who made a special effort to protect an old hawthorn, known to be a fairy meeting place- by leaving an unploughed circle of turf around it- was rewarded with a fairy banquet and a life time’s luck and wisdom in consequence. I have mentioned before the Old Lady of the Elder Tree as well as the special status of oaks as places for dancing or even as homes. In The discovery of witchcraft of 1584 Reginald Scot listed the many different types of fairies with which mothers would scare their children (Book VII, chapter XV). He included “the man in the oke,” a supernatural whose characteristics and habits are now almost entirely lost to us.
Rowan trees, in contrast, repel fairies. Rowan set over your door will allow you to watch the fairies riding past without being drawn into their procession and a rowan cross worn about your person will prevent the fairies seizing you. Both gorse and holly acted as protective barriers to fairies around a home, although it has to be confessed that they keep out humans just as well!
Today we tend to think immediately of flower fairies, but there is a much older and richer lore of flowers associated with fairies. Fairy blooms include yellow flowers such as cowslips, broom, primroses and ragwort; the stems of the latter are used like witches’ broomsticks. Blue bells are protected by fairies, and lone children picking them in woods risk being abducted. Fox gloves are known in Wales as menyg ellyllon, elves’ gloves. The fairies also favour red campion, forget-me-not, scabious, wild thyme and, more unusually, tulips.
A strange tale from Devon describes how pixies near Tavistock loved to spend their nights in an old woman’s tulip bed and the flowers thrived from their beneficial presence. When she died her flower bed was converted by the next residents in the cottage to growing parsley and the pixies blighted it. An unknown plant was used by Dartmoor fairies to heal a servant maid they had previously lamed for refusing to put out water for them at night. In a similar dual role, it is said that foxglove juice can expel a changeling and cure a child who is suffering from ‘the feyry’- that is, one who has been elf-struck.
The primary protective plant against fairies is St John’s Wort, although verbena is also effective. I have discussed two other very important fairy plants separately: fern seed can confer invisibility whilst four-leaf clovers can dispel glamour.
The link between fairies and the fairy ring where they are alleged to dance is very well established, but the associations go deeper. Fairy butter (y menyn tylwyth teg) is a fungus found deep underground in limestone crevices and elf food (bwyd ellyllon) is a poisonous toadstool. In Northumberland, fairy butter is a soft orange fungus found around the roots of old trees.
The linking of fungi with goblins and elves is well known and of longstanding. Perhaps it partly derives from the dual nature of the mushrooms- they may be edible or poisonous. They are, of course, linked to fairy rings and indicate where the elves have been dancing. One of these is the ‘Fairy Cake Hebeloma’, which is poisonous; another is the highly edible Fairy Ring Champignon. The sudden appearance of toadstools may seem magical and mysterious. Their red colouring (for the traditionally red and white spotted fly agaric toadstool) may link them to red fairy clothes whilst their diminutive size may also explain the connection. Robert Herrick in his poem Oberon’s feast imagines “A little mushroom table spread” for the tiny fairy diners and in The fairies’ fegaries “Upon the mushroome’s head/ Our table cloth we spread.”
Puff balls have been called ‘Puck’s fist’ and, in his Fairy mythology, Keightley suggests that ‘Elf’s fist’ was an old Anglo-Saxon name for the mushrooms found in rings. Wirt Sikes in British goblins relates a Breconshire belief that gifts of fairy bread by the Tylwyth Teg, if not eaten immediately in darkness, will prove to be toadstools in the daylight.