The plants are surrounded by myths, legends and stories and the cardinchas were not going to be less. It is a Mediterranean herbaceous and perennial plant that rarely exceeds seventy centimeters in height and receives various names: carrasquillas, carlinas, carpazos or ajonjeros.
It is easy to find it in pastures, dunes, on the edge of roads and in pastures and meadows located between one thousand and two thousand meters of altitude, where it flowers from June to September.
It is easily recognized by its rigid stem and its spiny, clipped, lobed and hemispherical leaves, and yellow flowers.
Effective against witches and warlocks
It is believed that the cardincha or eguzkilore -in Basque flower of the sun- was at the time a pagan symbol of solar worship in certain Pyrenean areas.
In Basque mythology there is a beautiful legend that tells how Amalur – mother Earth – created this plant to protect humans after sunset, when the sun retired to rest. Apparently its beauty and geometric perfection caused witches and evil spirits to confuse it with the star king and flee in terror.
In other places it was believed that the sorginak (witches) and lamias could not enter the houses before having counted all the leaves of the plant, as they were not able to do so before dawn, they had to return to their underground shelters waiting from another occasion.
These legends would explain why the cardincha was placed on the door of some houses and hamlets. Of course, tradition warned that for its power to be effective it had to be collected on the morning of San Juan.
Remedy against the plague and predictor of storms
There is a legend that has endured in popular folklore throughout generations and that attributes healing properties to the cardincha and that is related to its scientific name. To know it we have to go back to the Middle Ages, when a terrible plague epidemic ravaged the army of Charlemagne when he was about to conquer Rome. The emperor retired to his chambers to make the decision to continue in his endeavor or to return. Apparently, during the night an angel appeared to him showing him a cardincha. The next morning Charlemagne had the plant collected and with the liquid he obtained from its cooking he managed to save his army.
Later, other stories changed the protagonist and placed Emperor Charles V at the epicenter of the action. It would be precisely this last version that Linnaeus used to name the genus: Carlina, which belongs to the Asteraceae family and of which more than thirty different species have been described.
The passage of time has made it possible to isolate an active principle -carlin oxide- which, despite having a certain antibiotic effect, does not support, at least from a scientific point of view, the healing legend against Yersinia pestis.
Another of the most well-known singularities of the Carlina is its meteorological prediction, which has been used in different parts of our geography. From time immemorial, shepherds observed that when the rain or a great storm approached, the leaves of the cardincha would retract and that the opposite happened when a period of atmospheric stability approached.
This biological effect is due to the fact that with high pressures the leaves become rigid, while with ambient humidity they achieve enormous flexibility. Nature would have endowed the plant with this defensive mechanism to preserve pollen from the rain.
Pedro Gargantilla is an internist at the Hospital de El Escorial (Madrid) and author of several popularization books.