Plantlore: Fennel, Gorse and Sea Buckthorn

Posted by Sarah Jane Humphrey on

Within Cornwall, where myths, legends and folklore are rich in abundance and still spoken about today, there is little surprise that many of the county’s plants have stories and beliefs tied to them. These stories add extra depth to the plants that I study and help inspire me as I recreate their beauty. 

From time immemorial, people have sought to understand the mysteries of the natural world. A rich heritage of plant lore exists in Britain and we can race this as far back as the bronze age, which began here over 4000 years ago. 

As cultures tried to make sense of plants, seasons, trees and nature’s unpredictability, a wealth of myths and legends connected to plant life were created and relayed. In addition to their imaginative appeal, these oral traditions offered practical advice about which flowers, trees, and plants could provide foods, remedies, and construction materials.

Trees have always been part of folklore, but lots of other plants have become a part of old stories and beliefs as well such as herbs, shrubs, bushes, and flowers. 

Three plants that I have been passionate about and studying recently are Sea Buckthorn, fennel and gorse, and each have their own stories, properties  and beliefs tied to them.  You can pre-order my limited edition prints here.

Sea Buckthorn

Sea-buckthorn is a large, deciduous shrub that has long, narrow, greyish leaves and small, green flowers. Its bright orange berries are probably its most distinguishing feature. It grows wild along the east coast of England and the coast of Northern Ireland.

Sea Buckthorn has a long history of medicinal and therapeutic use, and varied properties in its juice, seeds, leaves and pollen within many cultures stretching back thousands of years. Thought to help remove free radicals, improve blood pressure, treat obesity and boost immunity, it is known in various cultures around the world as a ‘wonder plant’, ‘holy fruit’, ‘liquid gold’ and a ‘superberry’. 

With a name that means shining horse', according to one ancient Greek legend, Sea Buckthorn leaves were the preferred food of the mythical winged horse, Pegasus, and consumption of the plant played an instrumental part in getting the horse airborne.


Fennel or foeniculum vulgare is a perennial herb of the carrot family grown for its edible shoots, leaves, and seeds. The plant is native to the Mediterranean, but is now found throughout the world.

The base of its long stalks weave together to form a thick, crisp bulb that grows above ground. Above the bulb, at the tip of the stalks, it has light, feathery leaves that resemble dill. When it goes to seed, fennel also produces small yellow flowers among the leaves.The seeds and extracted oil are suggestive of anise in aroma and taste and are used for scenting soaps and perfumes and for flavouring candies, liquers, medicines, and foods, particularly pastries, sweet pickles, and fish. They make a fine addition to prophetic incense blends, as well as oils and decoctions.

In the past fennel was hung over doors to prevent the devil, or witches, from gaining access to homes with dark magic – and fennel seeds were put in keyholes for the same reason. The herb has furthermore been believed to be a symbol of fertility, protection and healing.

Used by the ancients in wreaths, to be worn by victors after the games in the arena, gladiators mixed this plant with their food to increase their strength. In later times, Fennel was strewn across the pathway of newly wedded couples. 

Within medicine fennel syrup eases chronic coughs, fennel tea relaxes the stomach and reduces bloating and it is also used as a diuretic. Fennel oil is used in aromatherapy for calming the mind and relaxing and in India fennel seeds are eaten raw for improving eyesight. Ancient Romans regarded fennel as the ‘herb of sight’, root extracts were often used in tonics to clear cloudy eyes.


Gorse or ulex europaeus .Conasg (Gaelic for gorse) means prickly or armed. Their spiny branches reduce water loss which mean it can survive extreme exposure to wind and salt.  

Common gorse can be seen in all kinds of habitats, from heaths and coastal grasslands to towns and gardens and it generally flowers from January to June. Common gorse is a large, evergreen shrub, covered in needle-like leaves and distinctive, coconut-perfumed, yellow flowers during the spring and summer. 

They say that ‘When gorse is in bloom, kissing is in season.’ In late spring, gorse flowers smell of coconut and vanilla and in the heat of summer their seed pods explode in the hot sun, when walking the footpaths of Cornwall this can be identified by pops and crackles. Bees love gorse and it's a good source of food for them on warm winter days and in early spring.

Gorse is a symbol of the sun god Lugh, as it carries a spark of sun all year. Bringing gorse into the house in May is done to ‘bring in the summer’. Gorse is believed to help bring a piece of work, a project, a relationship or a troublesome thing to a complete and final end. Giving someone gorse flowers is known to be unlucky, for both giver and receiver. 

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