Madonna Lily

(Lilium candidum) Probably the oldest domesticated flower, known to have been grown in Crete from about 3000BC (Woodcock & Stearn). An old name for this lily is Juno's Rose. The legend is that Jupiter, to make his infant son Hercules immortal, put him to the breast of Juno. The drops of milk that fell to the ground became white lilies, while those that went into the sky became the Milky Way. But this lily is better known, as the common implies, for its association with the Virgin Mary. The Buckinghamshire name Lady Lily is relevant; in fact any plant name referring to 'Lady' or 'Lady's' must always show there was a connection with the Virgin. But it is this lily that is the Virgin's plant par excellence, and her emblem, always shown in pictures of the Annunciation. Indeed, the lily of sacred art is always the Madonna Lily, and after the twelfth century it is always used as the symbol of purity, associated with the Virgin. Later, after the fourteenth century, it is very occasionally shown in the hand of the infant Christ, again as the symbol of purity (Haig). It is also the symbol of chastity (Haig) (it will only grow for "a good woman" (M Baker. 1977)), beauty (Zohary), and celestial bliss (Woodcock & Stearn), for to early medieval artists and theologians this was the flower of heaven. It is used also as an emblem of St Catherine of Siena, and is even called St Catherine's Lily occasionally, but another dedication is to St Dominic. St Anthony of Padua, when not with the infant Christ in his arms, invariably has a lily (Haig). And that is not all, for it seems it was the emblem of St John the Baptist and of St Joseph (Woodcock & Stearn). Long before this, it seems to have been sacred to the Minoan goddess, for a lily appears at her feet when she is enthroned (Willetts).

With such an impressive list of dedications, it comes as no surprise that this lily has been used against evil influences (and as an antidote to love philtres (Napier)), and these beliefs are carried on to ordinary superstitions. Madonna lilies are often seen in old gardens - in Wiltshire it was said they were there to keep ghosts away (Wiltshire). If a man treads on a lily, he will crush the purity of the womenfolk of the house (Radford). From the graves of people unjustly executed, white lilies are said to spring as a token of the person's innocence (Grimm), and from the grave of a virgin, three lilies grow, which no-one but her lover may gather (Dyer). Because white lilies have this association with the commemoration of the dead, they are generally unlucky plants to have in the house (Vickery. 1985), but of course they are often used at funerals (Drury. 1994). Nevertheless, to dream of lilies means joy (Mackay), happiness and prosperity (Raphael).

There are one or two strange beliefs connected with this lily. One of them, recorded in Dorset, claimed to foretell the price of wheat by studying the lily. People counted the number of blossoms on the majority of spikes, each blossom representing a shilling a bushel (Udal). The other interpretation suggests that the more flowers, the cheaper the corn (M Baker. 1977). The other belief, even stranger, is old and concerns the investigation of the sex of an unborn child. Take a lily and a rose to the pregnant woman. If she chooses the lily, it will be a boy; if the rose, a girl (Cockayne).

The bulbs are edible, though very bitter, and are cooked and eaten in parts of Asia, Japan, for instance (Le Strange). They are used medicinally, too; pulped, they are used as a poultice, for boils, carbuncles, etc., (Gutch & Peacock; Maloney). There is a long list of historical references to this type of medicament. Hill, for example, declared that such a poultice is "excellent to apply to swellings". Boiled with milk and water, it was used as "an emollient cataplasm to broken breasts" (Thornton) (cracked nipples, did he mean?). Gerard, of course, had a number of examples in which lily roots were declared to be efficacious, and recorded too far more ambitious claims for it, such as it "expelleth the poison of the pestilence and causeth it to breake forth in blisters in the outward part of the skin", and took note of "a learned gentleman ... who ... hath cured many of the dropsie with the juice thereof tempered with Barley meale, and baked in cakes, and so eaten ordinarily for some month or six weeks together with meat, but no other bread during that time".

The petals may be used, too. Macerated in alcohol, they make a good antiseptic, good for sores and burns (Palaiseul). To make what used to be known as "Brandy leaves" in Sussex, petals, not leaves, were used (Parish). They were steeped in brandy, and bound to abscesses, sores and ulcers. Exactly the same process was in use in Dutch folk medicine, applied there to sore or inflamed breasts (Van Andel). In Dorset, they used the petals for gatherings and whitlows, by scalding the petal and simply applying it. There were more complicated methods, like taking forty petals and steeping them in a quarter pint of brandy before using (Dacombe). The simpler method was used in Hampshire for cuts and bruises, but the practice occurred over a much larger area than this might suggest (Vickery. 1995), and it was known in Ireland, too (Maloney). In fact it is still used by herbalists for similar purposes (Palaeseul), and if using it for burns and scaldings, it was said to leave no scar (Wiltshire). A thirteenth century monk prescribed the lily as a sovereign remedy for burns, for "it is a figure of the Madonna, who also cures burns, that is, the vices or burns of the soul" (Haig). Traditionally, this lily is a cure for corns, and it is suggested that Roman legions planted it round their camps - it certainly grows apparently wild in all the countries that were in the Roman empire (Coats. 1956). It has travelled to South America, too, for it was used as a fumigant and as an ingredient in ritual baths, in Brazilian healing ceremonies (P V A Williams).

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