Take on Nature: Winking Marybuds stir old rituals

The May flower or marsh marigold has been used to ward off evil spirits on the eve of May Day in Ireland since ancient times
The May flower or marsh marigold has been used to ward off evil spirits on the eve of May Day in Ireland since ancient times

"WINKING Marybuds begin to ope their golden eyes," wrote Shakespeare in his play Cymbeline, of uncertain date. He was referring to the Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris), a flower of wet grasslands, marshes, ditches and river margins, which displays its flash of brilliant gold in spring.

Its name emerged from use in church festivals throughout England during the Middle Ages, as a flower devoted to the Virgin Mary, hence ‘Mary Gold’. In Ireland, along with the primrose, the marsh marigold is especially linked with May Eve when it was and still is used to protect households from evil influences.

The flower, known simply as the May flower ,was traditionally collected before dusk and laid on windowsills or strewn on doorsteps before dawn on May Day. Its most common Irish name reveals its strong association with this date, ‘Lus Buí Bealtaine’ – the yellow plant of Bealtaine, the old Celtic festival of sun, fire and life, heralding the return of summer and celebrated on May 1. An alternative Irish name is ‘Riasc- bhláth órga’, the golden blossom of the marsh.

The marsh marigold is a native perennial plant with shiny golden yellow flowers, each comprised of five to eight oval sepals and no petals. The flowers are held in loose clusters on strong hollow stems which bear deep green, kidney-shaped, fleshy leaves.

I observed this striking spring flower and the time-honoured tradition of its gathering on May Eve last week as I walked along a local riverside walk with my terrier, Robbie. Four enthusiastic collectors were there, lifting clumps of marigold from the bank edges of the shallow river, telling me of its protective power and of their annual ritual of sharing it with neighbours and friends to ward off evil spirits from their households.

In rural areas it was widely used around farm buildings to protect livestock and as part of floral garlands worn during traditional games and dancing to celebrate the Bealtaine festival. Such garlands, which sometimes included sprigs of rowan or hawthorn, were also placed on the horns of cows to prevent ‘milk thieves’ and marigold itself was rubbed into the udders of newly calved cows to protect the milk from ‘fairies or witches’.

The use of marigold as a potent charm against evil spirits was just one of the many rituals practised around the May festival by our ancestors. Another act at Bealtaine was the kindling of bonfires often on prominent local hills, lit by the Druids, again to keep away disease and evil.

Cattle were driven through such bonfires to keep them in health during the year. These fires were often near a sacred tree or ‘May bush’ which was a focal point for celebration by locals dressed in leaves and carrying branches as they danced sunwise around the tree, imitating the course of the sun; activities which were intended to promote the idea of fertility and rebirth.

The marsh marigold was also used in Irish folk medicine, its flowers boiled into a soup for the treatment of heart problems and although a strong irritant, the plant was reputed to be an effective cure for warts.

Early morning on May 1, walking to the shop, I passed the house of one of the May-flower gatherers. There, scattered on the doorstep, lay the stalks and flowers of the marigold. Long may the practice of such ancient customs continue to hold firm.