Page 55 from 'Mrs Willoughby's Household book' showing a recipe for a 'bisket cake' and for a salve for a cough. The latter recipe is attributed to 'Mother Bird'.

December 11, 2023, by uazcmh

The Ballad of the Cherry Tree

This is a guest post by Trish Kerrison, who volunteered at Manuscripts and Special Collections between April and September 2023, cataloguing medicinal herbs and their uses in remedies from material held in our collections. 

In Mrs Willoughby’s Housekeeping Book of 1737 (MS 87/4), to which Mother Bird is a frequent contributor, there is a receipt for Plague Water – it lists fifty-two ingredients, the last of which, cherries, are noted as being optional.


We heard it first at Evensong,

the dreaded plague was back among

city-dwelling folk, we must seek

out ancient remedies to keep

in readiness, must say a prayer

to God to guide our footsteps where

grow the blossoms, fruits and leaves,

the roots and grasses, herbs and seeds.


Lord bless m’Lady’s remedy


A woodcutter’s daughter, I must

gather in the woodland harvest;

Sweet Angelica from the shade

of woodland fringes, much favoured

by Old Mother Bird in physicks

for settling of stomach sickness.

Wood Sorrel, in abundance, green

with leaves to wash a liver clean

and the flowers of the Elder tree

most necessary for the ease

of lungs clogged by foul congestion

in the long cold winter seasons


Lord bless m’Lady’s remedy


Further along the woodland path,

where earth is damp and richly dark,

the finest Pennyroyal grows,

that makes the blood so well to flow,

and Celandine, bright yellow blooms

watery pains and ills to soothe

And deeper in the wood’s dark heart,

where only fairies dare to pass,

Polypody of th’ oaks display

many-fingered leaves as if they

were fabric on a draper’s stall

not cures for sickness, bile and gall


Lord bless m’Lady’s remedy


In softer shade, Archangel grows

fair comfort for old joints and bones

and Lily of the Valley’s frail

white blooms to mend a heart that ails

in the night when sickness spreads

and man hovers ‘twixt life and death.

Enough! My basket overflows

with remedies that nature grows,

women now are a gathering,

carrying their spoils like off’rings

to long forgotten gods of earth,

the village green, their holy church.


Lord bless m’Lady’s remedy


In twos and threes, the women wait

to hear what next m’Lady says

Old Mother Bird inspects each piece,

m’Lady checks ‘gainst her receit

til satisfied with ev’ry grain

fifty-one gifts from God, Amen.

Old Mother Bird mithers and frets,

has no-one stored some cherries, red,

since the harvest, seven-month gone?

Then pray you the plague will not come

‘ere cherries hang down full and ripe

for this herbage will save no lives.


Lord bless m’Lady’s remedy


M’Lady, she is unconcerned,

listens not to Old Mother Bird

thinks cherries only add some sweet

‘gainst the bitter of this physick,

but Old Mother Bird lost her sons

to plague, when cherries there were none.

By their grave a cherry tree stands

late planted by her grieving hand

it blossoms pretty in the spring,

but ‘tis too short, the joy it brings

for its cherries grow shrivelled, hard

and bitter like her broken heart


Lord bless m’Lady’s remedy


The receit is known, proved to cure,

says m’Lady, talk you no more

of this, we have no time to waste

make haste to the kitchen, make haste.

We crush our leaves and mix and grind

the nuts and bark, and roots and rinds

Boil and simmer many a day,

sieve and strain, sieve and strain

‘til liquid runs as clear as glass.

Carefully bottled, stoppered fast

‘tis stored ready for what may come,

God bless us, and the work we’ve done.


Lord bless m’Lady’s remedy


What if ‘tis so that cherries, red,

are the diff’rence ‘twixt life and death?

In the graveyard, Old Mother Bird

casts down the tree with angry words,

bows branches low, down to the graves

of all the lives that were not saved

cursed its saplings to bloom in spring

but only bitter cherries bring.


The plague did not return this way,

Thanks be to God, whose name we praise,

Old Mother Bird now Rests in Peace

but still, the Cherry Tree doth Weep.


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