They range in height from a mere half-inch to 6 feet or more, and in color, from gray to green to pearly white. Their temperament may be sweet or sly or surly; some are said to have the intelligence of an insect, others, the wisdom of the ages. They have caused delight or consternation in almost every culture from earliest recorded time. But a recurring common trait of these slippery folk is their special relationship with plants.
Entire books have been written about fairies: about the origins of the concept, the folktales that describe their habits and deeds, their clans and tribes and individual names, their relation to reality. We’ll home in here on a few fairy facts of special interest to herb lovers. Keep them in mind as the summer solstice approaches—who knows what’s to be seen “on a bank where the wild thyme grows"?
Fairies have been thought to cause annoying maladies such as stitches, itches, sneezes, and cramps. St.-John’s-wort (Hypericum perforatum) is the chief protective herb against such ills. Other herbs in the powerful pantheon of seven fairy herbs are vervain (Verbena officinalis), speedwell (Veronica officinalis), eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis), mallow (Malva sylvestris), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), and self-heal (Prunella vulgaris).
These are said to be best gathered at noon on a bright day, near the time of a full moon.
A Modern Legend
We have it on good authority that if you leave tiny cakes or cookies in a bed of thyme on Midsummer Night, the fairies will come in the night and devour them.
Fairy or Faerie?
The etymology of the term “fairy” is long, complex, and ambiguous. Most sources agree, however, that faerie originally referred to the place where fairies dwelt (“fay” + “aerie”), rather than to the creatures themselves.
A Curious Story
In 1917, Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright, ages 10 and 13 respectively, photographed each other playing with a variety of fairies at Cottingley, near Bradford, in England. The fairies were tiny, gauzy creatures with iridescent wings. The photographic plates were examined by professionals and declared authentic; the photos were published in the December 1920 issue of The Strand magazine with an explanatory article by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A book discussing the photos, the girls, the circumstances, and the nature of fairies was written by Edward L. Gardner and first published in 1945 or thereabouts. It delves at some length as well into the relationship of fairies to the growth principle of plants (see Some Books to Read).
Martha Ensign Johnson of St. Anthony, Minnesota, has created a series of portraits and poems of fairies and their respective herbs, some of which grace these pages. They were made for her daughter, Elizabeth, “a true believer in the little folk”, and incorporate interesting herbal lore. Martha’s little creatures are in the tradition of Cicely Mary Barker, whose delightful Flower Fairies series has recently been brought back into print 70 years after its first issue (London: Frederick Warne).
May 1–2, Andover, Massachusetts. Join Betsy Williams at The Proper Season for her annual Faerie Festival, a weekend of story, song, Morris dancing, dime-sized cakes, and wee sips of fairy punch. Guests—who flock from all over New England for this event—can make fairy paper or fairy baskets, decorate fairy twig chairs, and join renowned needleworker Erica Wilson in stitching flower fairies in crewel. For information, call (508) 470-0911.
July 17, Manchester, Michigan. April Victoria will host her annual Faerie Tea from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Historic Mill, featuring dainty cookies and storytelling. Fairy leaf dolls, peacock-feather fairy houses, herbal fragrances, and other ethereal treats will abound. For information, call (313) 428-0040.
Briggs, K. M. The Fairies in English Tradition and Literature. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1967.
Edwards, Gillian. Hobgoblin and Sweet Puck: Fairy Names and Natures. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1974.
Gardner, Edward L. Pictures of Fairies: The Cottingley Photographs. Wheaton, Illinois: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1966.
Keightley, Thomas. The World Guide to Gnomes, Fairies, Elves, and Other Little People. New York: Crown Publishers, 1978. Reprinted from an 1878 edition.
Thiselton Dyer, T. F. The Folk-Lore of Plants. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1889.