October 21, 2015

In the Grimm's tale of Cinderella, the young girl plants a hazel shrub on her mother's grave.
M a n u e l/Flickr

So many of the princess-related fairy tales we know today have been sanitized quite a bit. Cinderella is one of the stories that has lost its creepiness over the years.

In the original Grimm’s version, the story opens with the wife of a rich man falling ill. She calls her daughter to her deathbed and tells the young girl that she’ll always be watching her from heaven and that if she’s good, she’ll always find protection when it’s needed. Within a year, Cinderella’s father marries again and the new wife comes with two stepsisters. In this version, the father does not die. In fact, it is worse than that: He remains in the picture but allows his first daughter to be abused and neglected. As he heads out on a business trip one day, he asks each girl what they would like him to bring back for them. The stepsisters ask for expensive gifts, but Cinderella asks only for the first branch which knocks against his hat as he rides home.

Grimm's writes of the protection the hazel provides in his story of Cinderella.
Sigfrid Lundberg/Flickr

At that time in England, it was very common for the hazel shrub to be grown as a hedgerow between fields. In fact, it was a whip of hazel shrub that the father brings home to Cinderella. In another Grimm’s tale, we learn that the hazel is sacred to Mary, mother of the Christ child, and was blessed by her as a protection against adders and snakes. How much more snake-like would you have to get than Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters?

Cinderella takes the cutting out and plants it on her mother’s grave, where she has continued to visit and cry at least three times a day. The shrub grows exceedingly quickly and soon becomes the refuge of a bird who speaks to her as her mother’s interpreter from heaven. As the story develops and the well-known ball is at hand, it is the shrub and the bird who act as Cinderella’s fairy godmother. Her every wish is granted, if only she whispers it under the branches of the hazel.

The hazel shrub is the plant from which we get hazelnuts or filberts.
jackie-dee/Flickr

After the final ball, the prince already knows the house to search with Cinderella’s lost shoe, though he doesn’t know which woman he’s seeking. The stepsisters each cut off a part of their foot to make the shoe fit. As the prince rides off with each in turn, they pass Cinderella’s mother’s grave, where two doves warn of the deception. The prince then notices the blood dripping from each sister’s foot and turns back to the house to continue his search. In the end, Cinderella gets her prince and the birds peck out the eyes of the step-sisters. Grisly!

Most likely, the hazel in this story is the European variety, Corylus avellana. It and its American relative (Corylus americana) are the commercial source of hazelnuts. The shrub is relatively easy to grow, given good soil that drains well. We started a few shrubs along our pasture fence because it is said that cows give good milk when they have the opportunity to graze on the fruit and leaves. Ours are only 2 years old, so they have about two more years before they begin to produce nuts. I may try a wish or two while sitting under the branches as well … just in case!

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