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Henrietta Munro

I am neither a trained botanist nor an intelligent gardener - just a picker-up of unconsidered trifles as I pass by, so what follows is a collection of these - the dross and the gold are probably mixed up, but when I have talked to gardening clubs I have been amazed and delighted that certainly, some of the older members know of some of the practices and use this knowledge.

In the old days herbs, or simples as they were sometimes called, really meant any plant. Hippocrates discovered over 400 plants in the 4th century which could be used in medicine and I understand that about 200 of these are still used today - bunches of herbs have been found in the hands of mummies. It was the Romans who brought large numbers of herbs to Britain and they always planted them around their houses and, of course, all the monasteries had large herb gardens - some of them can still be seen today in England.


Always slightly bruise the cloves before planting and if you have any olive stones plant them also - they will improve the flavour.

Chamomile to give it its correct name is a useful plant - if you plant it near any plants which are ailing they will pick up at once but after your sick plant has recovered remove the camomile - it leaves behind enriched soil but must not be allowed to grow too large or the process is reversed. Plant camomile near mint and it will intensify the flavour - and this holds good for cabbages and onions also.

This has so many health-giving properties that it is supposed to be the manna from Heaven mentioned in the Bible.

Lungwort is so called because the leaves look like lungs and infusions from this plant are good for chest complaints.

An infusion from this little plant is supposed to be good for eye trouble.

Mugwort has one excellent quality - if you always carry a sprig you will never get tired - perhaps we should cultivate it more than we do.

This gets its name from the good folk - folk's glove. If foxgloves are grown near most plants they will stimulate growth and help to resist disease and if grown near apples, potatoes and tomatoes their storage qualities will he greatly improved. Foxgloves in a flower arrangement make all the other flowers last longer - if you do not want the actual flowers in the vase make some foxglove tea from the stems or blossoms and add to the water.

Star of Bethlehem
This grows profusely in the Holy Land and is mentioned in 2nd Kings in the Bible - the old country name for it is Dove's dung - not as attractive as the plant.

Raspberry tea used to be given regularly to women in childbirth but gradually it was discarded in favour of modern drugs. However during the second world war when some of the new drugs were unobtainable, research was carried out on the raspberry leaf tea and it was discovered that it contained fracarine which definitely acted on the pelvic muscles of the mother with beneficial effect.

Elder Tree
This is called the witch tree and no plants flourish underneath it.


This bush gets its name because the best sweeping brooms were made from the twigs. The bush is closely associated with supernatural appearances, chiefly in the old ballads. Broom will only grow well where two lovers have met in private and pledged their troth - if this is broken later the broom will die.

You should always have a rowan tree in the garden - preferably near the gate to keep witches away; and farmers were always told to keep a cross made of rowan branches above the byre door so that witches could not take the freit from the milk.

Apple Trees
These should be grown near foxgloves to improve the flavour and the keeping qualities.

Peach Trees
It may look odd but bang some moth balls on peach trees and you will never have leaf curt. Honestly it does work.

If you have an ash in the garden and you want to cut it down, please ask its permission first - otherwise it will curse you. Never use ash twigs for your pea sticks as they will harm the plants and take all the good out of the soil. Ash makes splendid firewood - remember the old rhyme "ash new or ash old is fit for a queen with a crown of gold".

This should never be taken into the house because it is unlucky - also neither snowdrops or ivy should be taken indoors. And of course you never have a vase of red and white flowers mixed as this foretells a death.

Richard Bradley, who was a well known 18th century gardener, was told by an old man to put horse-hair ropes around trees - especially fruit trees - as no slug will then touch them.


When you plant roses you should always plant a clove of garlic which has been bruised, under each bush - green fly hate it - but do not let the garlic flower or it will spoil the scent of the roses. Another well-tried tip is to put a cake of used beef fat under the bushes - it seems to improve the flowering qualities.

In the cold weather cover these plants with a mulch of bracken - they seem to like each other; some people dig in shoots of young bracken when fuchsias are being planted.

There was an old gardener in the borders who grew the most wonderful carnations - as his father and grandfather had done before him. When he was interviewed by the BBC, and asked his secret he said the only way of growing carnations he knew was to put a barley seed - the kind you put in broth - in the carnation cutting. The radio chap was so intrigued that he had the barley seeds examined and analysed and discovered that one of the trace elements was the same as that used in the special carnation fertiliser sold today.

If you have problems with aphids or white fly grow nasturtiums near your fruit trees and you will not get any. Why? No one seems to know.

French Marigolds
These have been grown profusely in French gardens for many years - the old gardeners say they are good for anything - both the aroma and the excretions are invaluable for fruit, flowers and vegetables - they kill most pests in the soil - hence the old French gardens had each bed surrounded with a thick. border of these bonnie flowers.


When these were planted they often used to he planted in the teasings from an old hair mattress - the old folk said the hair prickled the pests to-death and so the beans grew better - but again the teasings have been analysed and found to contain valuable mineral and chemical properties as well as useful trace elements. Beans should be planted on Candlemas day and rolled in paraffin to keep the mice away. Never plant beans beside onions or garlic but carrots and leeks grown alongside are improved if grown with beans.

This should he planted freely round the garden rather than in one bed - it encourages bees and is particularly valuable in the rose bed. If you grow asparagus try planting it near parsley - they seem to like each other.

Sage, mint, thyme and rosemary all improve by being planted near the cabbage and French marigolds are particularly effective here - when you plant your cabbage plants plant a stick of rhubarb with them - this prevents club root. Twist a narrow strip of tinfoil round the roots of your cabbage plants to prevent cabbage fly. And you can lay creosoted strings around almost any vegetable plants.

Crumble moth balls and mix them in the soil when planting - and always put tarred string between the rows. Onions and garlic planted in the carrot bed will do very well.

Couch grass can be eradicated completely and permanently by sowing turnip seed thickly over the affected areas - you won't get good turnips but if you double dig the plot at the end of the season you will never have couch grass again. I do know that this remedy has been tested several times.

They also say that the best deterrent for perennial weeds is to leave them until they are nearly in flower and then cut and lay over the roots when they will die away.


The old saying about pests was: "If it moves slowly enough - step on it - if it doesn't leave it - it'll probably, kill something else."

If you are troubled with deer in the garden take a piece of rag and dunk it in creosote and stick it on a pole - after a day or so you won't notice the smell but the deer will - they hate it.

If you plant lavender near yellow crocuses or primula the birds will not touch the plants.

If you plant lavender in the strawberry bed it will improve the crop.

Banana skins are full of nourishment - dig them in near the surface as they rot quickly.

Always rinse out beer bottles and milk bottles and pour this on the garden - it is a mild but effective manure - real soapy water (not detergent) is, of course, a deterrent for greenfly and also good for most plants.

Put all your kitchen refuse in the compost heap - anything you can eat the plants will like also - tea leaves and coffee grounds should be put on the rose bed as they come from the pot.

In the old days cats and dogs and even farmyard animals used to be buried in the garden. - particularly under a vine or fruit trees - and it certainly seems a good idea.

Nettles stimulate the growth of all plants in their neighbourhood and are invaluable for compost heaps - if you are planting a new fruit tree try to find an old nettle bed - there is nothing better for giving it a good start You should grow clumps of nettles between currant bushes and if you keep cutting off the heads they will not spread. Also nettles attract butterflies and, as they are fast disappearing this is an excellent conservation idea.


The old proverbs may not appear to have much to do with gardening but they have - if you know enough about the weather to come, you can plan your gardening - eg red at night is the shepherd's delight, red in the morning is the shepherd's warning - well, the gardener needs information like that as well as the shepherd.

"With the waning of the moon, cloudy morning, fair afternoon."

"When clouds appear like rocks and towers, th'earth's refreshed by frequent showers."

"Mist before sunrise near the full moon denotes fair weather for a fortnight: mist before sunrise in the new moon denotes wet weather in the last fortnight as it grows old."

"Watch the bees they never leave the hive if it is going to rain."

Other signs denoting rain to come are swallows flying low, sheep bleating loudly and gulls screaming,

The old scottish weather sayings should not be forgotten - how many of these do you know?

"Snailie, snailie, shoot oot yir horn an' say if hid'll be a bonnie morn."

"Mony haws, mony snaws."

"If the gress grow in Janiveer it'll be the worse for a' the year."

"A green January mak's a full kirkyaird."

"An airly winter, a sairly winter."

"Februar' an ye be fair the hoggs will mend an' nae impair. Februar an' ye be foul the hoggs'll dee in ilka pool."

"If Can'lemas day be fine an' fair, the hauf o' winter's tae come an' mair. If Can'lemas day be wet and foul the hauf o' winter's gane at Yule."

And do you know the lovely old Scots rhyme about the nettle:

"Gin ye be for lang kail coo the nettle, stoo the nettle
Gin ye be for lang kail coo the nettle early
Coo it laich, coo it sune, coo it in the month o' June
Stoo it ere it's in the bloom, coo the nettle early
Coo it by the auld wa's, coo it where the sun ne'er fa's
Stoo it when the day daws, coo the nettle early."

Coo or cowe and stoo just mean to cut it well back.

Good Gardening - but don't blame me if it goes wrong. But most of the above has been proved right.

References: Old Wives Lore for Gardeners by M & B Boland.

Living a long time and listening a lot.

Henrietta Munro
It is with regret that we have to announce the death of Hettie Munro. She will be sadly missed.

This article was first published in The Caithness Field Club Bulletin  - March 1990

For more articles on Caithness plants etc try Plants In Caithness which is within the
Nature and Environment Section

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Caithness Folklore and Customs