I had feared for its future when our gardening guru, Alison, attacked the formerly-sprawling plants in the autumn of 2020, merrily assuring my dubious self that a good cut-back and the removal of dead wood would result in reinvigorated plants come the spring.
I really should know to trust her! She has forgotten more about horticulture than I shall ever know and I have never known her to be wrong in her encyclopaedic recollection of the right things to do in the garden.
And if mythology proves as accurate in its predictions as Alison has, then Ailsa and I are in for a lot of good fortune.
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There are quite a number of stories about why white heater is deemed to be a lucky plant.
Scottish legend has it purple heather is coloured by the blood of the Picts whom Scots defeated in an unspecified, whereas the heather which was growing on ground where no blood was spilled remained white, a circumstance which was held to make it lucky.
Another explanation is that heather’s ability to thrive where other plants cannot indicates that the plants possess some magical powers and that white heather, the rarest colour, is better-endowed with these powers than the more common purple variety.
Perhaps the saddest account of why white heather is believed to be lucky is the Celtic legend of Malvina and Oscar. Princess Malvina fell in love with a warrior
called Oscar who, on the eve of their wedding, was killed on the battlefield.
When Malvina heard the tragic news, she picked up a sprig of heather, Oscar’s final gift to her, and her tears turned the flowers white. And if you are thinking that there’s not too much good luck in that story, it continues by relating that this incident resulted in white heather being regarded as the symbol of true love; and, since those who find true love are indeed fortunate, white heather finds a place in many a bride’s bouquet and is regarded as a lucky plant.
Lucky or not, our ancestors certainly found many good uses for heather. Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem ‘Heather Ale: a Galloway Legend’ tells of one of these. “From the bonny bells of heather / They brewed a drink long-syne, / Was sweeter far than honey, / Was stronger far than wine. / They brewed it and they drank it, / And lay in a blessed swound / For days and days together / In their dwellings underground.”
This was written in 1890, some decades after Queen Victoria is credited with popularising the plant through her love for her Balmoral estate where, of course, heather grew in abundance.
Some of our ancestors believed that heather might open portals between this world and the elfin world and thought that white heather grew upon the final resting place of a fairy.
In the Highlands an infusion of heather was used to treat coughs and to soothe the nerves; and arthritis and rheumatism were supposed to be eased by drinking heather tea.
I was surprised to learn that heather tea is still produced commercially in Scotland, although I must say that I don’t know if the flowers which are used are purple or white before they are dried.