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Manx Wild Flowers

by Bernadette Weyde
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Not everybody liked the flowers of the country side. My father, like many farmers, regarded some wild flowers as weeds and detrimental to his crops so they had to be destroyed.

“Them cursed thistles,” he would say to his men, “hard as nails to gerrout, an’ all them seeds flyin’ about, ruinin’ me crops. Get the scythe out Bobby an’ cut them down, afore the Government fines me. Get rid o’ them afore St John’s day or we’ll have two instead of worn.”

And of the flower of the spring – the dandelion – he would say, “You girls stop blowin’ them puffs about!” and us blowing dandelion clocks to tell us the time of day.

Of the corncockle, a prevalent flower in the corn fields then, father would say, “Mooer corncockles than corn.”

But he did like some wild flowers, the red little scarlet pimpernel…

“No heart can think, no tongue can tell,
The virtues of the pimpernel.”

The scarlet pimpernel was the poor man’s weather glass – little flowers which closed at night and sometimes in daytime if the sky was overcast and rain threatened. It closed up taking precautions against the weather, just like people.

My father never used insecticides or fertilisers on the farm, instead he used farmyard manure to fertilise his crops. “Bes’ stuff there is,” he said.

Every available piece of land was cropped or used for grazing. He walked everywhere with his dog Bessie at his heels – up to the tops to see the sheep, a distance of about three miles, and thought nothing of it. He and the men looked after the hedges as well – hedges built by his forefathers for the good of the animals and the farm. These hedges are our antiquity, just like our low hills.

Today, some farmers use all sorts of methods to destroy and prevent nasty weeds and pests…

“To spray the fields and scatter,
The poison on the ground,
So that no wicked wild flowers
Upon our farm be found.”
~ John Betjemen

We as children, however, loved all the wild flowers growing in the cornfields and hedgerows. We picked them, smelled them and took them home in bunches to adorn our homes. They were not ugly weeds but something beautiful to be used by us in our playtime to decorate our mud-pies; beads for our necks; perfume from rose petals, and making daisy chains with pink-edged daisies with long stalks.

Most of the hedges on the Island are planted with fuchsia and these could grow up to thirty feet on the hedges in our gardens. Named after Dr Fuchs – our particular kind of fuchsia was hardy and many people think the fuchsia should be our national flower because it grows so profusely here.

Other wild flowers popular with us were foxgloves (the bees’ flower); shy violets often found with primroses; big flowers of the ox-eye daisy with flower heads as big as pennies; heavily scented heather and red clover in the fields favoured also by bees – clover honey is lovely…

“If you find a four-leaved clover,
You will find your true love before the day is over.”

The names of wild flowers are lovely – especially the Manx: primroses – sumark soures; dog violet – lus ny cree; daisy – neayin; cornflower – coggyl. These names are the very essence of poetry, and go on and on like a silk thread through our language.

In the old days Manx people used all the wild plants for making medicine to treat diseases and also to make wine and daily use was made of them at no cost. Yarrow was one of the plants people used (airh hallooin in Manx Gaelic). It was smoked in a pipe for toothache. It was regarded as a sure treatment for ALL diseases and was used to induce perspiration. Tied in a bunch with jinny nettles, it kept away the ‘evil eye’ and the fairies…and young girls used to chant:

“Yarrow, yarrow, long and narrow,
tell unto me tomorrow
who my husband will be.”

Wine was made of the berries of the elder tree (tramman in Manx). This tree was widely used – the leave made a green dye, and the berries a purple dye. Every tholtan had its tramman tree because the people said that the fairies lived in this tree. It was grown around the houses to keep evil spirits away. If a girl washed her face in a lotion of tramman flowers and water, it would make her beautiful. The old Manx people say that Judas Iscariot hanged himself on a tramman tree.

Another favourite plant was the nettle (undaagagh in Manx Gaelic). The Manx word comes from the old Gaelic word meaning ‘flaying’ because of the plant’s blistering effect on the skin. The plant was used in Mannin to restore circulation by beating the skin with hit. It was also used in broth-making and for a cure for ‘releaxed bowels’ and to make a kind of beer.

Gorse grows on the uplands and with heather on the hills in August. In Manx Gaelic it is ‘Aittin’ pronounced ‘adjin’. Gorse was burnt on old May eve to frighten away evil spirits. Marashen Crescent and Marathon Road in Douglas are derived from the original word – the Manx for gorse field (magher aittin). Honey Hill in Onchan is derived from Cronk Chonnee – Manx for gorse hill.

Hairebells in Manx Gaelic – mairane ferrish – was the plant the fairies used for thimbles. The Manx Gaelic name for hawthorn is drine, and we used to call the berries of the hawthorn, skegs. The flowers used to be regarded as being unlucky and we never brought them into the house. The leaves, however, were eaten by children in the past and called ‘bread and cheese.’ The Manx even today, say that too many skegs are the sign of a bad winter to come and that God is providing some nourishment for the birds.

Nipplewort was used as a medicine after childbirth ‘to promote the flow of milk into the breast’ and the plant was used by Manx girls to reveal their future husbands.

Red campion is the fairies’ favourite flower and because of this was never brought into the house.

The daffodil was never brought into the house – and even to this day regarded as being unlucky, and NEVER as long as the geese were hatching!

Foxgloves (sleggan sleeu), are a poisonous plant, especially the seeds. In the past the leaves were used to treat bruises and boils and to make an ointment for skin diseases.

The name of the plant centaury – in Manx Gaelic, keim chreest – refers to the Manx legend that when Jesus climbed up to Calvary, these flowers sprung up where he pressed his feet. The plant was used to cure jaundice and was an anti-depressant, and tea was made of it for biliousness.

Common rushes – shuin – were placed before doors on Oie Voaldyn (May Day) and of course at our Tynwald ceremony.

Devil’s bit scabious – lus yn aacheoid – was used to treat rheumatism, a common complaint here because of the damp climate.

Christmas Day in the past (January 5th then), the old Manx people who had the plant Myrrh growing in their gardens used to go out and see if the myrrh was flowering. The whole plant is fragrant and used herbally. The myrrh was supposed to flower for an hour when Jesus was born and the cattle bowed their heads and the bees fluttered about the hives.

Mugwort is the herb (bollan bane) worn on Tynwald Day. It was worn on caps and coats on old May Day to keep away evil spirits.

The old Manx used to go out and get some mountain ash (rowan) and make a cross – Crosh cuirn we called it – to put behind the front door to keep evil spirits away and to bring good luck to the household. The berry makes good spirits and if eaten, the berry was supposed to make you live longer.

The old Manx were very superstitious people and afraid of witches and an old Manx saying is:

“Vervain and dill,
Hinder witches from their will.”

And because of the shortage of money, they NEVER killed a money spider.

“If you wish to live and thrive,
Let a spider run alive.”

And ever mindful of who we would marry, we chanted in Spring:

“She who on the first of May
Goes to the fields at break of day,
And washes in dew from the hawthorn tree,
Will ever after lovely be.”


(source: by Nancy Mills from Country Girl, Life on an old Manx farm with Manx dialect (1998))

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