Friday 13th – unlucky for some?

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It is probably the juxtaposition of ‘unlucky Friday’ and ‘unlucky 13’ that has made much of Western civilisation so nervous on that particular day. Just to make you feel really nervous about these things, 2012 has had three ‘Friday 13th’s each 13 weeks apart…

….and it’s a leap year which is supposedly really bad as it affects the crops so we’ll all starve.

Bet you didn’t know that wheat had its own Google calendar did you? Well, obviously it doesn’t; which is the point. Many of these superstitions are based in legend and have been added to and tweaked as society has changed. The number 13 was considered lucky in Ancient Egypt as it symbolised the glorious afterlife. Christianity perceives 13 as unlucky because there were thirteen at the last supper. If we look at plants and unlucky number 13 the prime slot goes to Norse legend.

There is a Norse myth where 12 gods were having a dinner party in Valhalla. One of these guests was Balder, god of joy and the sun, who was the favourite and much loved by the others. Loki, god of mischief, had not been invited and he was jealous of Balder, so he gate-crashed the party. Then he went on to trick the blind god of winter, Hoder, into shooting Balder with a mistletoe-tipped arrow. Why mistletoe? Well, Baldur’s mother, the earth or mother goddess, Frigga, had made all the plants on earth swear an oath not to harm Baldur. The mistletoe had been considered too young to swear an oath, and Loki had discovered this.
Conveniently for Loki, European mistletoe (Viscum album) is toxic. It contains a poisonous alkaloid which causes acute gastroenteritis, blood vessel collapse and very possibly death. My issue with this tale is that one would have to eat the mistletoe berries or leaves or drink a tea made from them in order to ingest the toxin.  Unless Hoder was able to send the poison-tipped arrow directly into a blood vessel, I’m not convinced that Baldur would have died. (Not an experiment to try at home!) Baldur was brought back to life, by the way, so 13 was less of an unlucky number for him than for Loki.

Like many toxic plants, mistletoe is also useful for ‘good’ medicine; particularly for respiratory problems. While poisonous to humans, the berries are a good source of protein for many birds. Mistletoe is also an important pollen and nectar plant for bees. It’s also been found to increase habitat diversity, so it might be a parasite but it’s not a pest. And you thought mistletoe was just for kissing under at Christmas!

What other plants could be considered ‘unlucky’? Hawthorn or May blossom (Crataegus monogyna) is one. Superstition has it that to bring May blossom into the house invites illness and death into the house too.  Just as well we didn’t have Friday 13 in May – that would have been seriously bad fortune. Hawthorn has so much folklore surrounding it probably shunts mistletoe out of our current top spot. The flowers are said to smell sweetly – or of death and decay. It is a ‘witching plant’ favoured for broomsticks and wands. Hawthorn is also a medicinal plant, good for improving heart conditions and reducing depression. It has sharp thorns and edible berries and has been a favourite hedging plant in Britain for hundreds of years because of it great usefulness at all times of the year, so it does seem strange that it’s also classed as ‘unlucky’. Perhaps that stems from someone years ago taking a spray of May blossom into the house on Friday 13th and then a family member took ill and died. Coincidence? Poison? Superstition? I leave the choice to you…

If you’d like to know if you have ‘unlucky’ or toxic plants in your garden, or need general garden advice, contact us for a consultancy visit!

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