Plants, their Names and Romanian Folktales

Healing plants can have wondrous names proving their millennial use in medicine, household or purely recreational as well as a fertile popular imagination when it comes to the Romanian folktales.

Herbs have been used in medicine since before Ancient Egyptian. Sumerian clay tablets, for example, list numerous plants, some highly used today such as myrrh and opium.

When it comes to the common names given to the healing plants, there is a fragile boundary between the sacred and the profane as some plants are named due to their association with legends (chicory, mil-foil), mythology (Sita-Ielelor ‘silver thistle’, snowdrop), celebrations (daffodil, garlic, lily of the valley, Năvalnicul ‘hart’s-tongue’, Sânzienele ‘lady’s bedstraw’), Christian worship while others are simply given human traits thus desecrating or sanctifying them (anthropomorphism).

Plants, their Names and Romanian Folktales
Romanian naive art

The fine line between the beneficial and the malefic use of plants is seen in their dual use, as medicine or as poison; in their various uses, for the soul of for the body.

It is worth mentioning that the beneficial and malefic use of plants is derived also from the way God and Satan are portrayed in the popular belief: associating flowers and green grass with the positive forces of nature and attributing thistles, thorns, prickly nettles to the underworld.

The Romanian Folklore of Plants and Celebrations

Celebrate originates in Latin celebratus “much-frequented; kept solemn; famous,” past participle of celebrare “assemble to honor,” from celeber “frequented, populous, crowded;” with transferred senses of “well-attended; famous; often-repeated.” – a collective experience meant to last.

Celebrations are perhaps meant to freeze into memory various events so that time, as a whole, will make sense.

Plants and Romanian folk celebrations

Dragobete, Head of Spring and Sister Flowers – 24 February

The celebration of Dragobete (first flowers of spring as Dragobete is celebrated on 24 February / 24 Făurar, Februarie in Romania). During the celebration of the Finding of the Head of St. John the Baptist, nicknamed in rural areas the celebration of Head of Spring, we can pick the very first flowers that lift their heads from underneath a blanket of snow: snowdrops, crocuses.

A celebration dedicated to pure love takes place now and we can throw these spring symbols down a moving water.
The concept of sister flowers appears now, flowers that grow during the same time of the year but never near each other. Pick them and throw them on a moving water so that they can finally meet and your sins will be forgiven.

Dragobete, dragobeti have a few connotations: lads which experience the first thrills of love, the green tiger beetles used in love spells.

Clean or unclean, how do we pick a Dragobete plant – the fern?
Once we spot it, before picking it one must make the sign of the cross upon it, to bless it. Then one must bring it an offering, such as is the custom, of bread, salt and sugar. Quietly, place the offering at the plant’s root. The Dragobete plant must be picked whole, with its root, then placed where it is needed the most, to perform its magic: a baby’s crib, a maiden’s bosom, the home’s eave… or behind the icon on the wall. Then, only, the Dragobete plant may be tucked in the maiden’s belt when she goes to the Sunday dance, in the hope that village lads will ask her to be their partner and they will dance and be joyful the way she, too, dance with the Dragobete fern tucked in her belt.

Because Dragobete, as a celebration, supports pure love, harmony, steadfastness and stability.

Plants, their Names and Romanian Folktales and Celebrations
Mircea Cojocaru, De Dragobete

Navalnic, Impetuous, and the Fern

Navalnic, Impetuous, as a plant connected with this time of year, has also a legend. Navalnic was a fine young man who enjoyed flirting a little too much. He often hid along the forest paths awaiting lonely maidens to walk by, hoping for a kiss. But Navalnic pushed his luck a little too far when he caused Saint Mary with baby Jesus in her arms to catch a fright. Saint Mary turned him into a plant on the spot:
“Impetuous you’ve been
And so you shall remain!
A weed of love, unclean,
A love weed to blame.”

The legend of Flyboy and its Speedwell plant

Flyboy, Zburatorul, is associated with the evil eye and is antagonistic to Dragobete’s symbology. Its plant is the speedwell or longleaf speedwel supposed to counteract the effects of the evil eye.

The Flyboy’s legend takes off like this.
Once upon a time there was a lovely maiden who fell in love with a Flyboy. A charmer. Now her mother thought it will be better not to intervene between the two so she cooked up a plan. ‘Our cow is sick,’ she complained to the girl. Do you think Flyboy will help? We only need a string of longleaf. The village charmstress will concoct us a cure, a good charm. It is our only cow. Will he help?’ And he did, and they got the longleaf and the charmstress boiled it and she extracted its essence. And she gave it to the mother, which sprinkled it over the maiden as she slept. And so the girl was saved.

Mucenici and Crocuses, Brândușele – celebrated on 9 March

For 9 March, 9 Martie, to celebrate the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste or the Holy Forty Romanians make Mucenici or Măcinici. This celebration also coincides with the start of the agricultural year.

Basically shapes of eight are made of sweet dough and there are two ways to prepare them, following recipes from Muntenia and Ardeal or from Dobrogea and Moldavia. I was lucky to enjoy both and, believe me, they are delicious.

Mucenici from Muntenia and Ardeal (left) and from Dobrogea and Moldavia (right). Double – Yummy!

What does the eight shape of Mucenici means?

The eight shape is named brânduși or brândușei – from brândușă, crocus.

From the eight shape the upper circle represents the crown (similar to a saint’s halo) and the bottom circle symbolizes the mace that as used to smash the martyrs’ ankles.

The Legend of How the Crocuses, Brândușele, came to be

It is said that long ago, before stories came to be written, earth had a step-mother… But she was kind-hearted and always kept busy. Each season something else to do, each month with its own routine.

Every March, after the long winter, when nature was still half frozen, she would pull the crocuses out of the ground so that humans could enjoy them and smile again after the long dreary months they just sailed through.

But also to remember that, the way they enjoyed the crocuses now, their dead relatives and friends enjoyed the same flowers during winter when they would show their flowers on the other side of the ground where living people could not see them.

All is relative in life.

These would be the Spring Crocuses, of curse.

The Legend of Young Basil and Lady Crocus (Busuioc si Brândușa)

Basil was a king’s son, a prince by birth and ways, by bravery, knowledge and nature. And when his time came he fell in love with a beautiful, gentle, clever girl named Crocus. But Crocus also caught the eye of a dragon, a fiery horse (a zmeu). Who did what any self-respectable, all-powerful creature would do: kidnap the maiden he wanted, taking her for himself. Yet Basil saved Crocus – and I think he killed the dragon as well. And today the world enjoys basil plants and crocus flowers, the offsprings of the first Basil prince and Crocus maiden.

The Sângiorz or Saint George (Sfantul Gheorghe) celebration, the Narcisus and the Lilly of the Valley – 23 April

Sângiorz or Saint George is a Transylvanian celebration of Spring held on the 23rd of April, honoring flowers such as Lilly of the Valley, Narcissus.

On this special day maidens pick flowers, narcissus and Lilly of the valley too, and make crowns they place on milking jugs. After three days the flowery crowns are fed to the cows, for abundant and sweet milk all year round.

Plants, their Names and Romanian Folktales, Saint Geroge
Naive art from Romania, Saint George Slaying the Dragon

The Feast of Drăgaica / Sânzienele celebrates Midsummer Day – 24 June

The day when the skies open and all the living creatures can speak.

Dragaica or Sânzienele are celebated in Romania on the 24 June (24 Cireșar, Iunie). During this feast we celebrate the Lady’s Bedstraw plant and other summer flowers: golden-rods, wild roses.

During this night we celebrate an agricultural deity, protector of wheat fields and of married women, a Romanian fairy similar in strength and symbology with Hera, Diana, Juno or Artemis.

Lady’s Bedstraw and golden-rods have both yellow flowers

Legend says that fairies who bath in spring on the night of Sânziene wear clothes made of white flowers. In the North of Romania, in the corner of Maramures county, there is a minuscule geographical and historical area called Forest Country, Țara Codrului. Here, between the fields of hemp, folk tradition calls to sprinkle the yellow flowers of Sânziene so that their yellow tint will rub onto the shade of hemp flowers.

On the night of Sânziene the maidens ready to get married can place under their pillows white and yellow flowers, to dream of their love to be. They also plate small crowns of flowers they later throw on the roof of their homes. Of course, the white of the Sânziene flowers is symbolic for purity of heart and body.

The yellow flowers of Sânziene are also known as the flowers of Saint John the Baptist. Popular beliefs says that Lady’s bedstraw can cure epilepsy, ‘le mal caduc‘.

More plants and a few spells

If you wish to convince a man to get marries, legend days, put a few petals of borage or Starflower, limba mielului, in a glass of wine and he will be willing soon. But remember, true love doesn’t need spells.

If you take a bath in lovage (privet), leustean, leaves and rose petals the boy you fancy is sure to fall in love with you. Privet is also good to warn off the evil action of the full moon.

Have a strong wish? Write it on a piece of paper and wrap in in leaves of mint, menta. Then tie it in a piece of red cloth. By the time the scent of mint will warn off your wish will come true.

The Legend of the Olive Tree

It is said that Zeus, the ruler of the Olympian gods, decided to gift the new city of Athens to the God that will gift its inhabitants the most useful gift.

Poseidon came with his almighty trident derived from Zeus’ lotus scepter and hit the rock at his feet. At once salty water sprouted, running down the mountain.

Next came Athena with her battle spear and she plunged it in the earth. An olive tree sprouted at once.

Then the inhabitants of Athens had to show their preference and they chose the olive fruits over the salty water. So Athena became the goddess patron of the new city. Legend says that all the olive trees around Greece originate from this first tree gifted by Athena.

These were known as moria, olive trees considered to be the property of the state because of their religious significance.

The most sacred Moria tree is on the Acropolis, Athens
The most sacred Moria tree stands in front of the ancient temple of Erechtheion on the Acropolis of Athens, Greece. Thought to be the same location of the very first olive tree given to Athens by the Greek goddess Athena.

Olive oil against the evil eye

Romanians believe in the evil eye. It is enough for someone to pay you a compliment or glance in your direction, especially if they have green eyes, and if you complain of nausea or headache (among other symptoms such as dizziness, fever, stomach pain, bad luck, financial ruin, serious illness and so on) – then something has to be done to counteract the effect.

First, how do you know if you’ve encountered the bad eye? Pour water in a white bowl and drip some olive oil in it. If the oil gathered into globs, you’re safe from curse. But if the oil scatters around the bowl, that’s the evil eye. There are light spells against the evil eye performed with holy water and matches and rhymes that have to whispered.

That’s why babies are bathed in water with a branch of Lythrum salicaria, or purple loosestrife, rachitanul, to protect them from the evil eye.

I discovered these facts and legends about plants, as well as their various names and Romanian folktales during my latest research. I probably ran away with it, but I found everything so interesting that I wanted to keep it for further reference – so I wrote this blog post. It is sad that, with each generation, fewer Romanians remember our rich heritage and try to keep it alive, for I am sure that we wouldn’t have had such a wealth of myths and legends if it wouldn’t have been for our ancestors, who passed it on through stories and songs when no other means of safekeeping were available.

I hope you found it interesting too.

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