Many May Day customs involve flowers and green branches. Flowers are woven into wreaths to exchange as gifts between lovers or to hang on doors as decoration. Or flowers are placed in baskets and left on doorsteps for the recipients to find when they arise in the morning.
In Ireland, Beltane is the only safe day for wearing Irish lilacs. In France, the flower of May Day is the lily of the valley. Any wish made while wearing it comes true. The marsh-marigold or kingcup is called the herb of Beltane and is strewn against evil in the Isle of Man. Rosemary is another Beltane herb.
In England, there was a tradition of carrying about May garlands. At Horncastle in Lincolnshire, young boys carried May gads: peeled willow wands were wreathed with cowslips. In other parts of England, the garlands are small wooden crosses covered with flowers and greenery. But the hoop-garland is the most common: made from a framework of intersecting hoops so that the final effect is of a flower-covered globe. Sometimes a May Doll (sometimes said to represent Flora) is placed within or upon it. In Italy, the Bride of May carries the maggio, a green branch garlanded with ribbons, fresh fruits and lemons.
Sometimes flowers were given as messages: plum for the glum, elder for the surly, thorns for the prickly, and pear for the popular. In Lancashire, the flowers rhymed with their qualities. Any kind of thorn meant scorn (except for whitethorn or May), while holly was folly, briar for liars, rowan for affection and a plum in bloom rhymed with “married soon.” According to Porter, in Cambridgeshire, boys gave the popular girls sloe blossoms, while “the girl of loose manners had a blackthorn planted by hers’ the slattern had an elder tree planted by hers; and the scold had a bunch of nettles tied to the latch of her cottage door.” According to Hole, lime (which rhymes with prime) was a compliment and so was pear which rhymed with fair. The rowan (or quicken) since it rhymes with chicken was a sign of affection. But briar, holly and plum stood for liar, folly and glum while the alder (pronounced “owler” in some districts) rhymed with “scowler.” Other plants you did not want to receive included nettles, thistles, sloes, crab-tree branches and elders. Obviously there are some contradictions in this list, and some unkindness as well.
I find it interesting that the three plants most often associated with May Day: Sweet Woodruff, Lily of the Valley, and Hawthorn, all are connected in folklore with the heart. Summer is the time when Chinese medicine places the emphasis on strengthening the heart and the circulatory system. It also seems appropriate for the time of the year when we are focused on relationships and coupling.
Field, Carol, Celebrating Italy, William Morrow 1990
Hole, Christina, A Dictionary of British Folk Customs, Granada Publishing 1976
Hutton, Ronald, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, Oxford University Press 1997
Porter, Enid, Cambridgeshire Customs & Folklore, 1969, quoted in Hutton
Waverly Fitzgerald was a writer, teacher, and calendar priestess who studied the lore of holidays and the secrets of time for decades. She shared her research and her thoughts on her Living in Season website and in her book, Slow Time. Waverly passed away in December 2019 and is remembered for being kind, talented, and generous—especially in the aid she provided to many writers, both aspiring and well-established, with her wellspring of knowledge.