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A relic of medieval folklore: Corpus Christi Octave herbal wreaths in Poland and their relationship with the local pharmacopoeia

Łuczaj, Łukasz Jakub
Journal of ethnopharmacology 2012 v.142 no.1 pp. 228-240
fumigation, questionnaires, photographs, Thymus pulegioides, Matricaria chamomilla, medicinal plants, flowers, vegetation, summer, Asarum europaeum, Alchemilla, essential oil crops, Sedum, Poland
ETHNOPHARMACOLOGICAL RELEVANCE: Herbal wreaths are blessed all over Poland on the eighth day of the Corpus Christi Octave (usually in June). They used to contain many species of aromatic and medicinal plants, both collected from the wild and cultivated. The aim of this study was to document the present composition of wreaths using photographs (etic perspective) and questionnaires (emic perspective) and compare it with the local pharmacopoeia, the composition of Assumption Day bouquets (blessed in August) and historical data on the composition of the wreaths. MATERIALS AND METHODS: The study was carried out in SE Poland (near Krosno). Photographs of 245 wreaths were taken and 133 questionnaires concerning the blessed plants and their medical use were obtained. RESULTS: On average a photographed wreath contained over five species of plants and an average informant listed six species. The frequency of species in photos and questionnaires was similar. Several medicinal plants which used to be the key elements of the wreaths (e.g. Sedum acre, Asarum europaeum, Matricaria recutita, Thymus pulegioides, Alchemilla spp.) are now less frequently seen, mainly due to vegetation transformations. Nowadays only about a quarter of species in the wreaths are medicinal plants, the remaining are mainly ornamental flowers. Only a part of the local pharmacopoeia is represented in the blessed wreaths and bouquets. The wreaths were often used in fumigation practices (whole wreaths or single species taken out) for a whole continuum of purposes: from purely ritual to medicinal. Nowadays they serve a mainly apotropaic function, but help to preserve traditional ethnomedicinal knowledge. CONCLUSION: The blessing of herbal wreaths in Poland seems to be the last relic of a more widespread custom found in medieval times throughout northern and central Europe originally associated with summer solstice.