I’ve always been interested in knowing the names of plants whenever I see them flowering along a roadside or path. While walking along a marshy area at our state park recently I was looking over at the dark pink Joe pye-weed (wondering what it’s Polish name could be)
and the lovely pale lavender color of wild bee balm (Monarda fistulosa also known as wild bergamot) when I saw this other tall plant rising above them with an unusual pinkish-purple flower head.
I hadn’t noticed this particular plant before. If I don’t recognize a plant, I take a picture and then browse through books of wild plants specific to my region to try and discover their names. I know there are apps for this now that will tell you almost instantly the name of the plant but I haven’t moved on from my old-fashioned ways. I have lots of nice full color books that I like to pull out and browse through on a summer evening.
Its name is Verbena hastata or blue vervain, also known as swamp weed and its color can vary from blue to purple. True to the name it grows in soggy, sunny areas and is indigenous to North America but I don’t think it deserves the name swamp weed, as if it were some trashy old thing rising up out of the muck. I thought it rather lovely with its erect posture and its eye-catching cluster of flowers at the top.
There are lots of species of verbena world-wide and it is somewhat similar in appearance to Verbena officinalis which I’d read about it old Polish herbals. In Polish, Verbena officinalis is Werbena pospolita. Its folk name is koszyczki Najswiętszej Marii Panny meaning, baskets of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary. A single petal appears as if it could be a tiny goblet or bowl or, to someone at some time in centuries past in Poland, a basket. This species of verbena is native to Europe and can be found in Germany (Hildegard of Bingen was familiar with it) England, France and most commonly along the Carpathian mountain range of southern Poland. Its flowers are pale pink instead of blue or purple and it tends to grow in dry places. Medicinally, however, they carry the same beneficial properties of boosting lactation in nursing mothers, in treating headaches, and combating fevers and coughs. In Poland, the leaves were steeped in boiling water and ingested as a tea or by teaspoonful when soaked in vodka or whiskey.
So satisfying to learn of two plants of the same species, continents apart, with a long history as a medicinal herb across many different cultures.
P.S. Joe pye-weed (Eutrochium purpureum) is known in Poland as Sadiec purpurowy
Photo of Verbena officinalis: Wikipedia.
Photos of Verbena hastata, Monarda fistulosa and Joe pye-weed by Sophie Hodorowicz Knab
If you'd like to read more about the plants once essential to the people of Poland utilized in their customs and traditions as well as medicinally I suggest my book: Polish Herbs, Flowers and Folk Medicine.
A Polish country cottage garden was a mix of decorative and useful herbs, vegetables, flowers and shrubs such as roses, raspberry, gooseberry, or currant bushes. It served as a flower garden and as an herb and kitchen garden, useful in a way that brought edible food, as one Polish garden writer stated, " directly into the pot." There was no specific garden plan. Flowers and herbs were usually grown in clumps near the fence or in beds beneath the windows of the house according to the preferences of the housewife. Vegetables were occasionally mixed in. The walkways were made of tamped soil and wide enough for a person to walk through. If a bit of decoration was wanted, large rocks were gathered, painted white and fashioned in a circle. Inside, a special flower or herb was planted.
The housewife grew flowers to brighten the outside of the house, to adorn the altars at church on Sundays and holy days, and to decorate the roadside shrines that were located within the village boundaries. The unmarried girls of the house tended lilies, rosemary and rue for bridal wreathes as well as lavender to place between the linens in her marriage chest. For cooking and to spice the daily fare, some culinary herbs were planted. There was marjoram for sausage, dill for pickling cucumbers, and parsley, sage and fennel for enhancing soups and stews. Many Polish housewives made their own herb vinegars from water and sliced apples that were allowed to ferment for a few months. The mixture was strained, crushed herbs added, sealed in bottles and stored in a cool pantry or larder. Herb butters were also made and packed down into crocks to use in the middle of winter or to give as a Christmas gift. (Photo :Foxglove)
Interspersed among the flowers were vegetables such as cucumbers, radishes, water cress, horseradish and lettuce. Sometimes there were beets, carrots, garlic or onions depending on the needs and tastes of the owner. It was Queen Bona Sforza who introduced various green vegetables to Poland including beans, cabbage, cauliflower, onion, celery, parsnip, cumin, coriander, caraway, hemp, asparagus, artichoke, tomato and nasturtium. Spinach also traveled to Poland from Italy, brought by monks who followed Bona in her marriage to Zygmunt. From nearby Germany came horseradish and pumpkin, which also made its appearance in Polish cottage gardens.
Excerpted from: Polish Herbs, Flowers and Folk Medicine. Revised edition. Hippocrene Books.2020
This is just an excerpt and color photo from one of the new entries in my revised and updated edition of Polish Herbs, Flowers and Folk Medicine: Allspice. It is with much happiness that I can say that I have finished editing the new and revised edition of Polish Herbs, Flowers and Folk Medicine. There are still some tasks to be completed such as preparing the index and finalizing the front and back design of the book before being sent to print. Originally slated to be released in October, Hippocrene Books, Inc. has worked really hard to overcome time lost due to Covid and to make sure the book will be available by the middle of November. Thank you Hippocrene Books!
The custom of taking the earth's bounty and offering it up in a sacred place has gone on for millenniums. And I shall do the same today.
I have gathered roses and black-eyed Susan's from my garden because I have nourished them and helped them grow.
I don't have an orchard but I do have a crab apple tree, a thing of joy that lifts the spirit when it blossoms in the spring and then yields berries than can sustain the body in the form of jellies and preserves in the summer.
I walked through fields this morning, aware that what at first glance appears to be a weed, is truly a gift, an offering from Mother Earth. I picked Queen Anne's Lace ( wild carrot) because the root can be eaten and my ancestors knew the root was high in vitamins. I cut down chickory. What looks like a pretty blue wild flower has a root that can be converted into a drink. At the beginning of the 18th century Polish agronomist Krzysztof Kluk wrote: "The roots are kept over the winter by burying in sand in the cellars. The roots were cut into chunks, dried in the oven and used in place of coffee....the roots of this plant are a much respected medicine: it opens, cleanses, loosens phlegm and fortifies the stomach and lungs. The most common way of ingesting it is through an alcoholic beverage. For the lungs, it is taken with sugar."
That this Polish custom of taking plants to church to be blessed has is its roots in pagan times does not disturb me. Instead, I feel a sense of continuity, a part of something that has been going on for as long as man has roamed the earth. There's a feeling of gratefulness.
Everything is gift.
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.
There were many important feast days when it came to gathering herbs and flowers in Poland but the single most important date occurred on the church celebration of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary on August 15. So vital was this day that it was, and still is, called Matka Boska Zielna, Our Lady of the Herbs. On this special feast day, every village woman brought a bouquet of flowers, plants and herbs to church in order to be blessed by the priest.
In the Pomorze area, the northwest section of Poland, they have a saying on this day: "Każdy kwiat woła, weź mnie do koscioła!" (Every flower calls, take me to church!)
The women gathered whatever plants or greenery grew in their region, or the herbs and flowers they especially loved or needed. In the Mazowsze and Podlasie area took hyssop, southernwood, lavender, and mullein. They also took lovage, branches of the hazel tree, hemp and mint. Both herbs from the garden and the wild were gathered. These included poppy(Polish: mak), peony (Polish: piwonia, sage (Polish:szalwia), thyme (Polish: macierzanka), tansy (Polish: wrotycz), dill (Polish: koper), caraway (Polish: kminek), mugwort (Polish: bylica), chamomile (Polish: rumianek) (Kolberg Krakowskie I 1962: 227) Since the feast day coincided with the time of the harvest, it was also customary to take a few spikes of various grains such as rye(Polish: żyto), wheat (Polish: pszenica) or oats (Polish: owies)
The gathered and blessed herbs were used in endless ways: as part of wedding rituals, and death practices but mostly, medicinally. In the country villages there were few practicing physicians. Isolated and often poverty stricken, they were usually left to their own devices to treat themselves as best they could, utilizing various herbs and plants. All the plants and herbs were felt to be stronger, more effective for having been blessed. The most popular, most well known medicinal plants, and frequently brought to church included:
Mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris) Polish: Bylica. Depending on their symptoms, mugwort was used to bathe a person back to health; used in poultices, it helped in pain along the spine or back as well as ease the pains of childbirth. If gathered from nine different areas helped women in situations where they were unable to conceive.
Southernwood (Artemesia abrotanum) Polish: Boze Drzewko. Universally used in treatment of bruises and contusion by application of poultices
Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) Polish: Piołun. Wormwood appears all over Poland in wastelands and roadsides as well as in established herb gardens. The old herbals advised that an infusion of the dried leaves as a tea as a treatment for bad breath arising from the stomach, dispelling stomach gas, improving digestive juices and at the same time can build appetite.
Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) Polish: Rumianek. An infusion of the flower was taken for a fever, stomach troubles or various women's issues such as infertility or overlong menstruation. A compress of chamomile applied to the brow relieved headache, and was applied to wounds and to the eyes when suffering from a sty.
Mullein (Verbascum Thapsis) Polish: Dziewanna. A tea brewed from the dried or fresh flowers was used for illnesses of the chest and difficulty breathing. Fried with butter it was used to gray pimples and other skin eruptions and burns.
Coltsfoot ( Tussilago farfara) Polish: Podbiał pospolity. Found in every home medicine cabinet it was used for skin rashes, scrapes and tears of the skin on the arms and legs; for a cough and difficulty breathing and as a tea for most respiratory complaints.
Comfrey(Symphytum officinale)Żywokost. This plant is one of the best loved of all healing herbs. This tall, hairy leaved plant was used to heal broken bones, tears of the flesh and also for the aches of rheumatism. It was used both externally and internally. A deconcoction from the leaves, or flowers treatedrespiratory disorders. The root mashed together with an animal fat was used as a poultice for sprains and broken bones.
Elderberry (Sambucus Nigra L) Polish: Dziki bez czarny. A common plant through all of Europe, elderberry was also called bez lekarski, i.e., medicinal elderberry, to indicate its medicinal properties. The juice from the berries was especially beneficial for coughs. It would pull away the inflammation from infected wounds when the leaves and the skin were mixed with chalk and applied to the wounds.
Horsetail (Equisetum arvense) Polish: Skrzyp polny. This was also a much valued plant for its diuretic properties and as an infusion utilized for problems with the bladder or kidneys but must herbals caution that it must be on the weaker side as it is powerful and could weaken the individual.
Linden(Tilia cordata) Polish: Lipa drobnolista. From ancient times the linden was considered a sacred tree. It was so powerful that the fibers of the linden tree could tie up a devil. Branches of linden which had decorated an altar on the feast of Corpus Christi protected the house against lightning, when planted among a field of cabbage would protect it against bugs; teas made from the flower of linden was used to treat chronic cough, mucous and phlegm in the chest and larynx, to make one sweat.
Nettle (Utica diocia L) Polish: Pokrzywa. A tea made from the leaves of nettle for respiratory troubles, chiefly coughs. The leaves and stems were mashed and mixed with sugar which made a syrup within a few days.
Plantain (Plantago maior L )Polish: Babka zwyczajna, the mashed leaves are applied to the skin for wounds and ulcers.
Thyme (Thymus Serphyllum) Polish: Macierzanka. Used in the treatment of rheumatism. When bathed in it, it treated skin ailments and added to teas to treat gastrointestinal ailments.
Yarrow (Achilla millefolium) Polish: Krwawnik. This plant was used in poultices for inflamed and pus filled cuts and wounds by mashing and applying it to the wound. For the treatment of arthritis it is made into a liniment by soaking it in spirytus(alcohol) for 24 hours and applying to the limbs.
Lately I've been taken with the notion of planting a Midsummer Garden, and call it ogród Kupalnocka, or ogródek Świętojanskie, a garden that celebrates the key herbs and plants that played an important role in the ancient summer solstice celebrations of Poland.
I always find it amazing to read about those long, long ago days, when on the longest day and shortest night of the year, ancient people paid homage to the gods of fire, water and vegetation; how they lit huge bonfires on mountaintops, along the valleys and river banks, and danced around the fires, staying up to greet the rising sun; where young maidens collected plants and herbs while dancing naked in the evening dew and then wove wreathes that were floated on water as homage to their god; and how specific plants collected on this night were felt to have special power for both healing and magical purposes, to do good or to do evil. It was a night celebrated by the ancient Greeks, Romans, Druids, Vikings as well as Germanic and Slavic tribes. The Latvians call it Jāņi ( Jan or John). The Poles call it Noc Świętojanska, the eve of St. John the Baptist, a name given to this night after the advent of Christianity, but the old names of Sobótka( for the fires that burned that night) or Kupalnocka(the night of the ancient god Kupala) persisted for centuries afterward.
At the center of the garden would be elderberry(Sambucus nigra). In Polish it is known as bez czarny or dziki bez czarny, the wild black lilac to differentiate it from the other lilac (Syringa vulgaris) and was also called bez lekarski, i.e., medicinal elderberry, to indicate its healing properties. It's a tall lovely shrub with large white flowers that eventually turn into the small, purple elderberries that is used to make syrup or wine. It was seen as both a holy and demonic tree, both magical and medicinal, untouchable except under certain conditions. Planted near the home it was believed protective of the house and its inhabitants. Wherever it grew, in an established garden or in the wild, it wasn't to be dug out or it branches cut without courting death or other grave consequences. It's roots were not to be disturbed. In those early days when little was known about the causes of illness and it was felt that an illness could be "transferred" to some other object, children who were sick were placed on the ground under the tree while the parents chanted:
"Święty bzie, weź moje bolenie
pod swoje zdrowe korzenie."
Holy elderberry, take my hurt
Into your healthy roots
Gathered on the eve of the summer solstice it had super powers to heal. The juice from the berries was especially beneficial for coughs. It would pull away the inflammation from infected wounds when the leaves were mixed with chalk and applied to the wounds. Salves were made to treat the pain of rheumatism. If one was to gather its branches for medicinal and healing purposes, it had to be done, according to folk belief, in complete silence.
The single most important plant that should be in this garden is mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris). It's Polish name is bylica. My guess is that you've seen this plant growing around roadsides and empty fields and not given it a second look. I always find it growing around abandoned railroad tracks. It grows 3 to 4 feet high, and is not very showy but it was at one time considered one of the oldest and most esteemed of herbs, woven into both witchcraft and healing practices of Poland. Sixteenth century herbals claimed it could break all spells and later herbals in the 20th century documented its continued use to incense against spells and the evil eye. On St. John's Eve branches of mugwort were hung over doors, windows and tucked into eaves against evil souls and witches; girls would run out at dawn to pluck mugwort to throw into the midsummer fires and to wear around the waist in the belief that their backs would not hurt during the harvest or around their head to keep away headaches.
It's also doubtful you'll find the next plant at your local nursery but it's easy enough to recognize growing wild in the fields because of its small yellow flowers. When you crush the flower it bleeds red on your fingertips. The plant was so much part of this night it received the name ziele świętojanskie (herb of St.John) or St. John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum). In Polish it is called dziurawiec, or dzwonki Panny Marii (bells of the Blessed Mother). Hung in the window it protected the house against lightning. A tea made from the buds of this plant assisted in many illnesses of the gastrointestinal tract, the liver as well as the respiratory tract. It's red color was believed to heal internal bleeding and clear the blood.
The herb arnica (Arnica Montana ) or Arnica Górska growing in the hills and mountain tops of Poland is often called by its more ancient folk name of kupalnik, from the ancient god Kupala. It bears a lovely yellow, daisy-like flower. It was one of the herbs that young girls (now with their clothes back on) wove into the wreaths for their hair and around their waist along with mugwort. St. John's Wort, and thyme and danced around the fire, occasionally throwing in a stem or branch from each of the herbs in order to stave off any evil.
There are numerous other herbs plants that could be included in this garden. Wormwood (piołun) also effective against witches; lovage (lubczyk) and adder's tongue (nasięźrzał) for love potions; chamomile (rumianek) to help me sleep at night; mint(mięte) for a soothing tea.
I know it will be too late to have anything substantial for this year's Sobótka but for me, my garden always seems to be about "next year" anyway, i.e., next year I'll plant earlier, next year it's going to look great, next year maybe we won't have as many rabbits, and so on. I doubt very much that I'll be dancing naked in the evening dew as I collect my plants but next year I'll have some herbs and plants to throw into the midsummer fire.
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.