Women who wanted children were told to eat LEEKS, and not only in Wales, though Evelyn noted that "the Welch, who eat them much, are observed to be very fruitful", and the Welsh medical text known as the Physicians of Myddfai lists among the virtues of leeks that "it is good for women who desire children to eat (them)". Perhaps the reason for such claims lies in the Germanic peoples' belief that leeks contribute to "manly vigour" (Wimberley), clearly derived from their upstanding growth. CARAWAY, at least according to Gerard, "helpeth conception", but he did not go into details. BIRTHWORT must obviously be included here. The doctrine of signatures, from the shape of the flowers which constrict into a tube that opens into a globular swelling at the base, interpreted as the womb and the birth passage, ensured its use to help delivery, etc., The generic name is Aristolochia, which comes from two Greek words meaning 'best birth'. As well as helping delivery, it was said to encourage conception - of a male child, according to Pliny. Another strange usage was described by Guainino (c 1500). He encouraged the use of a kind of medicated pessary made of honey and birthwort, to be introduced before sleeping. The woman was judged to be fertile if on awakening she had a sweet taste in her mouth! (T R Forbes). Just as obvious in this regard is EARLY PURPLE ORCHID, whose twin tubers, suggesting testicles, are its signature for use for impotence and as an aphrodisiac. An old belief, which Gerard ascribed to Dioscorides, was that "if men do eat of the great or fat roots ... they cause them to beget male children; and if women eat of the lesser dry or barren root, which is withered or shrivelled, they shall bring forth females". He disclaimed the belief, though - "these are some Doctours opinions only". WHITE BRYONY is another plant with a reputation for ensuring conception, but only because this was taken to be the English Mandrake (see MANDRAKE). A childless woman in East Anglia would drink "mandrake tea", and it was even given to mares as an aid to conception (Drury. 1985). True MANDRAKE is Mandragora officinalis, the most famous of all aphrodisiacs; it was the fruit (actually called Love-apples) that was to be used, and it had the power, so it was said, to put an end to barrenness, quite independently of sexual interourse. See Genesis 30; 14-16, for example. Palestinian women used to bind a piece of mandrake root to their arm (for it could only exert its magical influence if worn in contact with the skin (G E Smith), to promote their fertility, and figures cut from the roots were worn as amulets by both men and women (Budge).
Eating a TANSY salad with a view to procuring a baby was undertaken by childless women at one time. No less an authority than Culpeper advised it: "Let those Women that desire Children love this herb, 'tis their best Companion, their Husband excepted". He recommended it either bruised and laid on the navel, or boiled in beer, and drunk to stay miscarriages. But the real authority as far as Fenland couples were concerned was rabbits. They used to say that where there were wild rabbits, there was sure to be tansy. And everybody knows what large families they produce, so the plant must have the same effect on humans. There are a lot of PARSLEY superstitions connected with conception and childbirth, summed up in the saying "Sow parsley, sow babies" (Waring). In Guernsey folklore it is the man who should wear parsley under the arm, though both should drink large quantities of parsley tea as an aid to conception (Garis). SAGE, too, has a reputation for increasing women's fertility, quite deservedly, apparently, and it has been used for that purpose since ancient Egyptian times (Schauenberg & Paris). "Sauge is good to helpe a woman to conceyve", as Andrew Boorde said, and it seems to do so by arresting lactation. So a strong infusion has been used to dry up the breast milk for weaning (Fernie). Given all this, it is difficult to understand the old wives' tale that drinking salvia cooked in wine would ensure that a woman would never conceive (Boland. 1977). Even MUGWORT, steeped in wine, has been used for the purpose, according to a 17th century prescription (K Knight).
Given the multitude of seeds in a POMEGRANATE, it is natural that it should be linked with conception and pregnancy. In a Persian story, Khodaded was one of fifty children begotten by a childless nomad upon his fifty wives, after eating as many pomegranate seeds. He had incessantly prayed for offspring, and was commanded in a dream to rise at dawn, and to go, after saying certain prayers, to his chief gardener, who was to give him a pomegranate. He had to take from it as many seeds as seemed best to him (Hartland. 1909). KOLA nuts are a sexual stimulant, so it is said, and act as aids to conception in women (Lewin).
Russian folklore contains a belief that WILLOW branches put under the marriage bed would ensure a pregnancy (Kourennoff). But this is a fruitless tree, and it would be used for contraception.
Surely one of the strangest practices under this heading was the use of DARNEL as a fumigant, and a kind of fertility treatment. The procedure, from an Irish source, but probably an ancient practice, was to "burn the meal of darnel and frankincense on a red stone, and let the smoke pass through a funnel under her [i.e., the woman being treated], and that will prepare her for conception" (T R Forbes).
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