Honeysuckle

(Lonicera periclymenum) The very familiar plant of woods, hedges and bushy places, anywhere that gives it a base from which to carry out its clockwise climbing. So familiar, and well-loved, that it is difficult to realise that it has a distinct association with witches, either as a means to thwart, or as the exact opposite, a plant for witches to use for their own ends. Certainly, its evil-averting powers outweigh its evil-working claims. On May Day, when, so it seems, there was always a lot of ill-wishing about, honeysuckle took care of the butter and milk, and the cows (Grigson). It was a favourite in Scotland (pregnant women were advised to wear it (Dempster) ), along with rowan, and was looked on as a mighty barrier to the ingress of witches, to the extent of being the subject of a popular rhyme. To be mentioned in the same breath as rowan is praise indeed:

The ran-tree an' the widd-bin

Haud the witches on come in (McPherson).

The widd-bin twig would be wound round a ran-tree wand, and then put over the byre door (Milne). D A Mackenzie reckoned it was its spiral-growing habit that gave it such a reputation. Maclagan quotes a correspondent from north Argyllshire who said that a cure for the evil eye lay in getting a good long bit of the iadh-shlait [honeysuckle, that is, though some dictionaries give ivy as well], "take it and twist it this way round the whole body", while reciting some form of words not actually given. The point about this is that the protection lies not in any inherent quality itself, but in the way it grows. For there was a firm belief that witches or those that have the evil eye are forced to stop whatever they are doing and to follow out every detail of an involved design that may be presented to their eyes. So interlacing and complex interwoven braided cords were deliberately made to distract, delay and confuse evil eyes, and were worn specifically for that purpose. The intricacy of a honeysuckle wreath serves exactly the same purpose (Gifford). Even when the wreath was used by a witch to cure an ailment, such as was certainly done in 18th century Scotland to remedy children with "hectic fever", as well as consumptive patients, it did not stop a witch from being charged. There is a record of Janet Stewart, in 1597, standing her trial for just this kind of healing (Rorie. 1994). She was charged with healing sundry women "by taking ane garland of green wood-bynd, and causing the patient pas thryis throw it, quhilk thereafter scho cut in nyne pieces and cast in the fire". The method of use was to let the wreath down over the body from head to feet.

But of course, as in all magical patterns, exactly the opposite can be quoted. The witches themselves will use honeysuckle against victims who will use the same plant for protection. In the ballad of Willie's Lady, for instance, the witch tries various means of preventing the birth of the Lady's child, including a "bush o' woodbine" planted between her bower and the girl's. Once this restricting, constricting, plant has been removed, the birth proceeds normally (Grigson). It is worth noting that both honeysuckle and plants that have a similar habit - like, woody nightshade - are named after the elves in Germany, e g Alprauke, Alpkraut, etc., (Grimm). Very often, it was the witch who had to use the plant in order that its curative powers could succeed - see the case of Janet Stewart above.

This might explain why woodbine is an unlucky plant. From Scotland to Dorset there are records of a general belief that to bring it indoors is very unlucky; in Dorset they say it brings sickness into the house with it, and in west Wales it was believed it would give you a sore throat (Vickery. 1985). Honeysuckle was never brought into a Fenland house where there were young girls; it was thought to give them erotic dreams, especially if it were put in their bedrooms. If any of it was brought in, then it was said that a wedding would shortly follow (Porter) - not surprisingly, if the girls' minds were concentrated in that direction. Sussex boys bound a honeysuckle bine round a hazel stick, and when after several months the wood was twisted like barleysugar, its possession gave instant, and presumably magical, success in courtship (F R Williams). Presumably it is this twining habit that makes honeysuckle a symbol of constancy (Tynan & Maitland).

Of course, the berries are poisonous, but really only if excessive amounts of them are eaten. Such excess would produce severe vomiting and diarrhoea (Jordan).

The plant is still in use as a "heart tonic", and for chest colds, coughs and asthma, rheumatism, liver trouble (the leaves are still used for jaundice in Ireland (Maloney) ), sore throat, etc., (Conway) this last known in Gerard's time - "... the water ... is good against soreness of the throat". Gypsies use the juice from the berries to cure the condition, and also canker in the mouth (Vesey-Fitzgerald). Coulton quoted a 14th century manuscript, prescribing for "hym that haves the squynancy" a remarkable amount of disgusting rubbish, but containing as an ingredient "gumme of wodebynde".

A recipe for asthma is to mke a conserve of the flowers, and beat it up with three times their weight of honey; a tablespoonful dose is to be taken night and morning, to relieve the condition (Hatfield). An ointment is used for the treatment of ulcers (Vesey-Fitzgerald), while the bark, used in some unspecified way, is useful for gout (Barton & Castle). Another use of the bark is for dropsy; a heaped tablespoonful of thin flaked bark to a pint of cold water, brought just to the boil, is taken in wineglassful doses three times a day to cope with dropsical and glandular complaints (Hatfield). Another decoction of half an ounce of the leaves to a pint of water, is to be taken to relieve constipation and diseases of the liver and spleen, the latter figuring in Gerard's quite enthusiastic catalogue of the virtues.

The Welsh medical text known as the Physicians of Myddfai records an extraordinary leechdom for "pain in the eye" - "seek the gall of a hare, of a hen, of an eel, and of a stag, with fresh wine and honeysuckle leaves, then inflict a wound upon an ivy-tree, and mix the gum that exudes from the wound therewith; boiling it swiftly, and straining it through a fine linen cloth; when cold, insert a little thereof in the corner of the eyes, and it will be a wonder if he who makes use of it does not see stars in midday.". A 15th century leechdom was still recommending honeysuckle for eye trouble: For a web in the eyes or spots in the eyes: take the juice of wild teazle and the juice of woodbine and put them in the eyes when thou goest to bed. And it shall break it well" (Dawson).

This is still not the end of the claims made for the curative powers of honeysuckle. Lupton confided a sure cure for warts by using woodbine leaves, "stamped and laid on ., using them six times ...". You can put the juice from the leaves on stings, too (Page. 1978). There are some Irish manuscripts that prescribe it in one form or another for much more serious complaints, one, from about 1450, for epilepsy, no less (Wilde). All these seem inappropriate to the popular conception of the honeysuckle; we cannot really perceive it as a drug. Much more in keeping with the vague feeling that the plant inspires is its use as cosmetic, either a lotion, or an ointment. One example was written in the mid 16th century: "Take a pint of white wine, one handful of woodbine leaves or two or three ounces of the water of woodbine, add a quarter of a pound of the powder of ginger; seethe them all together until they be somewhat thick, and anoint a red pimpled face therewith, five or six times, and it will make it fair" (Lupton). And taking a drink made from the infused flowers is a pleasant way of getting rid of a headache (V G Hatfield).

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