Lady's Bedstraw has strong Christmas associations of
Published 22/12/2015 | 00:00
Unlike Holly, Ivy and Mistletoe, Lady's Bedstraw is not a plant that many people would immediately associate with Christmas.
Lady's Bedstraw is a very common wild plant. It is widespread throughout Ireland especially in dry sandy places, on dunes and on coastal grasslands and road banks. It flowers from June to August and its frothy masses of bright yellow petals have a lovely rich and sweet smell.
The smell is reminiscent of both new-mown hay and honey, a lovely sweet summery smell. Coumarin, a fragrant organic compound, is the chemical substance responsible for the sweet smell.
In the past, bunches of Lady's Bedstraw were traditionally collected in July, were air dried and were stuffed into straw mattresses as a natural air freshener. The plant had added bonuses in that it was lovely and soft to lie on and was a natural flea repellent.
The plant has a strong association with women based on its sedative properties as it was used by herbalists during childbirth. Note, however, that the plant's name refers not to 'ladies' in the pleural but to 'lady' in the singular. In the Christian tradition the lady in question was Our Lady, Mary, the mother of Jesus.
The Gospels of Matthew and Luke each describe Jesus' birth. Both accounts state that Jesus was born to Joseph and Mary, his betrothed, in Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph travelled from where they lived in Nazareth to Joseph's ancestral home in Bethlehem to register in the census ordered by Caesar Augustus. Mary was heavily pregnant at the time and gave birth in a stable while they were in Bethlehem.
While coumarin has a lovely smell it has a bitter taste. Cattle are said to eat plants high in coumarin but donkeys and pigs are said to avoid them. Coumarin has appetite-suppressing properties and it is believed that plants with high concentrations may have so evolved as a chemical defence to discourage predation by grazing animals.
The Christian legend holds that the donkey in the stable at Bethlehem selectively avoided eating the bedstraw in its fodder. Consequently, it was on a bed of these rejected plants that Mary gave birth to the infant Jesus. The plants were Our Lady's bed straw.
And, yes, in case you are wondering, Lady's Bedstraw is native to Israel. It is found across most of Europe, North Africa and temperate Asia.
Wishing you and yours a very happy and peaceful Christmas.