A Garden for St. Brigid

January 28, 2011

St. Brigid is associated with the first stirrings of Spring, and the traditional beginning of the Irish horticultural year. Her festival marks the decline of winter and the quickening of growth (yet unseen).

A garden for St. Brigid would be composed of wild plants and herbs, it would be rich with remedies, symbolic plants and sculpt a sanctuary for the senses. More of a habitat than a garden, it would be densely layered with edible plants, native trees and wildflowers. An inspiration for her poetry and a garden alive with vitality and natural creativity.

It might be composed of the following:

Birch: A symbol of birth, regeneration and new beginnings. The first tree to colonise new ground.

Rowan: The berries are used for jelly and jam when cooked and strained. “The rowan or mountain ash has always been considered a tree of formidable magical and protective powers due to its bright flame red berries. An alternative name, ‘quicken’, refers to its ‘quickening’ or life giving powers, while the Irish name caorthann derives from the word caor which means both a berry and a blazing flame” (Niall MacCoitir).

Hazel: Represents poetic inspiration and wisdom.  The hazelnut is a symbol for the heart and for nourishment. The nine hazel trees of wisdom appear in a number of Irish myths.

Elder: The flowers are used to make elderflower cordial in June, and the berries can be cooked into chutney or jam. The cordial helps to boost the immune system and the berries act as an antioxidant.

Mugwort: Symbolically, it protects against harmful influences. Traditionally in Ireland mugwort was held over  the bonfires of St. John’s Eve (June 23), the smoke was purifying. If not placed over the fire of mid-summer, mugwort was made into garlands for the home.

Rosemary: To aid recuperation and restore vitality infuse rosemary as a tea. Associated with remembrance and relaxation. The herb can also be added to soups, stews, cakes, etc.

Vervain: A tonic for stress, and considered one of the foremost magical plants in Europe. Once tied to cattle to protect them from harm. In County Kilkenny vervain was dipped into holy well water and sprinkled around the boundaries of the farm, to ensure abundance and prosperity during the growing year.

Mallow: Mallow’s young leaves are edible when cooked and its flowers are also edible. As a herb it bestows soothing and calming properties.

Honeysuckle: This flowering vine combines beauty and strength. It is also known as woodbine, because over time its supple stems wrap firmly around trees. “This has made it a symbol in Irish legend of strength and slow, inexorable power” (Niall MacCoitir).

Hyssop: Can be infused as a tea for bronchial complaints, hence its name “The Breath of Life”.  The leaves can be used within salads, soups and stews. The flowers are edible.

Meadowsweet: It’s association to sweetening mead and flavouring cordials, and it’s healing properties pertaining to colds and fevers, has gained meadowsweet a valuable reputation.

Wood Avens: Wood Avens or Herb Bennet (Blessed Herb) was the inspiration of European architects who adorned its carvings upon buildings. The roots have a spicy and sweet smell. The plant offered protection against harmful influences.

Mullein: A medicinal plant for coughs and asthma, a tea from its flowers can aid sleep. Once referred to as Lady’s Foxglove. Traditionally a small portion of mullein was carried for protection.

Thyme: As a tea thyme can help to fight infections both internally and externally. It can be taken as a drink, or be applied externally to infected areas. There are two versions for the origin of the name thyme. “In Greek , thyme means to fumigate and the Greeks burned the herb as a disinfectant. Also from the Greek, thumus means courage” (Victoria Zak). Thyme leaves and flowers can be added to salads, sauces, soups and desserts.

Comfrey: Traditionally applied to sprains and fractures. A compost activator, with edible very young leaves, and an effective liquid organic feed.

Lavender: For flavouring, rest, and the restoration of harmony. Lavender tea can aid anxiety and tension. “Lavender, from the Latin lavare means “to wash” – and that means body, mind and spirit” (Victoria Zak).

Primrose: In Ireland the primrose was linked to May Eve, small bouquets of primroses were collected by children and displayed within doorways or windows. Flowers could also be thrown over the entrances, or thresholds of the home, in order to protect the inhabitants from harmful influences.

St. John’s Wort: This medicinal herb is also linked to the June feast of St. John, offering another layer of protection for the home and farm, when it was smoked over bonfires. “Being in possession of St. John’s Wort ensured peace and plenty in the home… and growth and fruition in the field” (Niall MacCoitir).

Yarrow: Used for love charms, as a medicinal tea (for coughs and colds), and for the cleaning of wounds. In early spring the leaves can be steamed and eaten.

References: Irish Wild Plants: Myths, Legends and Folklore by Niall MacCoitir, Irish Trees: Myths, Legends and Folklore by Niall MacCoitir and 20 000 Secrets of Tea by Victoria Zak.

Sourcing Wild Plants and Herbs in Ireland: Peppermint Farm and Garden http://www.peppermintfarm.com

Pictures: St. Bline’s Well located on the side of Slieve Gullion, County Armagh, Northern Ireland.