The Rosary Plant
A long, long time ago in Poland there was a shrub that was considered to be magical and secretive. It was often seen at burial and internment sites. Bouquets were made of it and placed on graves and tombs. It protected the living from powerful spirits looking to do wrong and also gave peace to the deceased.
Besides Poland, European bladdernut (Staphylea pinnata), was also a familiar shrub among other ancient Slavs, Celts and Germanic tribes. The Polish name for it, kłokoczka, is derived from word klekotania, from the characteristic klek, klek noise made from the seed pods of the plant rattling in the wind, the sound of which in those early pagan years was connected with frightening away evil powers. This feature caused it to be planted on burial graves and mounds, a place always connected with the spirit world. It was believed to protect against evil powers, vampires, demons, water spirits. It was also used during exorcisms, magical practices and occultism.
The meaning and practices associated with bladdernut changed considerably with the influence of the church and the growth of Christianity but many of the very early pagan beliefs remained alive in the form of folk customs and traditions. The shrub, seen growing near a home or a within the boundaries of a farmyard, guaranteeing the absence of dangerous spirits, remained in folk belief for a very long time but also became intermingled with the new Christian faith.
The shrub became known as a holy shrub. Christians began to carve religious figures out of the thicker branches to adorn churches and roadside shrines. The branches with leaves and flowers were was added to Easter palms and became part of the wreathes made on the feast of Corpus Christi. Bouquets of bladdernut were also brought to church Our Lady of the Herbs(Feast of Assumption of Blessed Virgin Mary-August 15) to be blessed. The blessed and dried plant was scattered on fields of growing crops to ensure the harvest and protect the land from natural disasters.
Crosses carved from branches of bladdernut were nailed above the door of a home or inserted at the various corners of fields. These were generally made before Easter and the crosses nailed near the door of the house after the Resurrection mass. These customs existed in the regions around Kraków, Rzeszów and Low Beskid (Beskid Niski) region. The thicker branches were crafted into pipes, recorders, cigarette holders and wooden plungers for butter churns, believing that plungers made out of bladdernut made good butter. The Hucul (western Ukraine and Romania) maidens made bracelets and necklaces out of it. Oil was produced from the seeds and used in primitive lighting devices to illuminate a room. It's most important use, however, came from the clusters of drooping white flowers that developed into bladder-like pods that held shiny brown seeds. A hole was made on two sides of the roundish seeds and threaded together with thin wire or twine to make rosaries. Hence, it's other name, kłokoczka paciorkowa, i.e., bladdernut, the rosary plant. The shrub was cultivated in monastery gardens where monks made rosaries for personal and public use, and where the leaves were burnt as a form of incense.
The rosary shrub is found in southern and eastern Poland as well as in Slovakia. It likes shady places among clumps of trees. It flowers from May to June and can grow 15 feet high and taller. It is currently on the list of protected plant species in Poland. It can be bought in various nurseries in the U.S. and UK.
More details about the feast of Corpus Christi or the Feast of Our Lady of the Herbs can be found in my book Polish Customs, Traditions and Folklore.
One of the biggest moments in my life was being able to sign for my very own library card. When I'm not reading, researching and writing I'm riding my bike, sewing or gardening. I love flea markets, folk art, and traveling to Poland.