Plant People: Green Man, Burry Man, Moss Man and Poison Ivy

In October, Esau and I were ambushed by burrs in Riverside Park.

Esau, the Burry Dog

The Burry Man of Scotland

In the wake of the Terrible Burr Attack, I researched burrs and discovered … the Burry Man.

Every year on the second Friday in August, the Burry Man walks through the town of South Queensferry in Scotland.  Early in the morning, he dresses in flannel undergarments and a kind of balaklava with holes for his eyes and mouth.  With his arms held out to the side, he stands patiently as attendants cover him with thousands of sticky burrs that he has himself collected. He takes hold of two staves decorated with burrs and flowers.

Then he spends the day walking through the town, guided and supported by two helpers and led by a boy ringing a bell.

Whiskey through a straw

At each pub along the way, the Burry Man is given whiskey which he sips through a straw inserted into the mouth opening of his burr-covered head. He cannot sit, turn his head, relax his arms or use a bathroom until the suit is removed at the end of the day.

“The task of being Burry Man is extremely demanding,” says the Edinburgh City Museum, “requiring stamina, a strong bladder, an indifference to the discomfort caused by more penetrative burrs, and a conviction that this custom should not die out.”

Portrait of a Burry Man

The Burry Man has been walking for centuries. The earliest documentation of the ritual dates from 1687, but the custom’s pagan roots probably reach back hundreds of years earlier.

What is the Burry Man and why does he walk?  No one knows.  One theory posits that he originally served as a scapegoat, carrying the town’s ill fortune and evil deeds in the burrs. He may have been driven away at the end of the day, or even killed as a sacrifice.

Another theory connects the Burry Man to the Green Man, a plant-entwined nature figure that some scholars trace back through the Middle Ages to ancient fertility gods.

Saint Mary's Church in England

Although clearly rooted in paganism, the Green Man appears frequently on churches and cathedrals throughout Britain and western Europe.

Le Mans Cathedral, France, c. 1240

The Green Man sprouts on many English pub signs.

Plant-human hybrid

And if you look closely, you may spot the Green Man right here in Manhattan

Happy Green Man on Riverside Drive

Meanwhile in the parallel universe of Gotham City, Batman’s nemesis, Poison Ivy, is surely a fine example of a  Green Woman

Poison Ivy, Batman's enemy

Once a mild-mannered botanist from Seattle, Dr. Pamela Isley, aka Poison Ivy, is now a ruthless eco-terrorist. Part-plant and part-human, her veins run with chlorophyll  instead of blood.

Poison Ivy battles Batman high above Gotham

Pure fantasy? Maybe not. Elyssia chlorotica is a sea slug that uses photosynthesis to make its own food. But animals don’t do that. Only plants do. Right?

Who goes there? Animal or vegetable?

Not so fast, Mr. Smarty Pants.

E. chlorotica is … well, just listen to the scientists on this one. Zoologist John Zardus recently told Science News, “This could be a fusion of a plant and an animal — that’s just cool.”  Or as another biologist said, ““Steps in evolution can be more creative than I ever imagined.”

Another distant relative of the Green Man is Robin Hood, the socialist nature boy who stole from the rich to give to the poor.

Robin Hood as The Green Man

Robin Hood’s familial relation to the Green Man may pass through Robin Goodfellow, or Puck, a member of the often malevolent faery tribe that ran rampant through the British Isles.

Later writers tried to blunt Robin’s proto-Marxist arrows by claiming he was not a commoner but a nobleman driven to criminal activity by the misdeeds of King John, Richard the Lion-hearted’s evil usurping brother.  Yeah, right. Like Shakespeare was the Earl of Oxford and Depression-era outlaw Pretty Boy Floyd was the Queen of England.

(As Woody Guthrie so eloquently put it in his song about Pretty Boy Floyd:

Some will rob you with a six-gun
And some with a fountain pen.

But that’s another story.)

Whether or not Robin’s green suit connects him to ancient fertility gods or their diminished descendants, the faeries and brownies, it certainly serves a pragmatic purpose as excellent camouflage for a wanted man trying to escape detection in the forest.  And for more extreme camouflage, check out Robin’s buddy with the animal ears below.

Robin shoots with Sir Guy by Louis Rhead, 1912.

Extreme camouflage brings us to the strange tale of Moss Man.

The hapless Moss Man after his arrest

When employees at an Oregon rock and gem museum discovered a man-sized hole in the wall, they called the Sheriff.  Deputies arrived at the scene with a tracking dog who led them into the woods behind the building. The Sheriff reports that the dog became “very interested in a particular piece of ground. The dog then bit the ground that in turn cried out in pain.”

That particular piece of ground was Moss Man, a would-be thief wearing a ghillie suit, a plant-like camouflage outfit worn primarily by hunters and Army snipers.

Inspired by dreams of Sniper School, Esau plays war games in Riverside Park.

I've got that squirrel in my sights.

Do ghillie suits hold the answer to the Pacific Northwest’s legendary Sasquatch?

Just another guy in a ghillie suit?

Odd word, “ghillie.”

The New Oxford American Dictionary defines ghillie as “a man or boy who attends someone on a hunting or fishing expedition.”  The word is Scottish in origin, which brings us full circle to the mysterious Burry Man.

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8 Comments on “Plant People: Green Man, Burry Man, Moss Man and Poison Ivy”


  1. [...] early October, a cat and a man dressed in shades of green emerged out of the still-green leaves along Riverside [...]


  2. [...] burdock and its progeny, the burr, as well as about wonderfully bizarre ancient celebrations like the burry man.  So I’m familiar with this tenacious non-native weed whose extraordinary clinginess [...]


  3. [...] temptation-in-a-squirrel-suit, dived into a low tangle of underbrush and emerged looking like the Burry Man of the British Isles. The Burry Man and his [...]

  4. Charlotte Says:

    Whoa, didn’t know their were so many people out there who longed to be not just part of nature but nature itself. Who can tolerate that much pain, I wonder, i.e. burrs sticking into yr flesh, or navigating a ghillie suit and being bitten by a dog? Very strange and wonderful!

  5. Bill Says:

    Nice stream of consciousness piece of writing, actually I learned a lot about “Green Man” that I didn’t know, particularly the relationship to one of my favorite characters Robin Hood. Thank you!


  6. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Matthew Wills, Out walking the dog. Out walking the dog said: Plant People: Green Man, Burry Man, Moss Man and Poison Ivy: http://wp.me/pGHnM-AA [...]

  7. mthew Says:

    As a “socialist nature boy” myself, I salute this meander down an ancient trail.

  8. daddy0 Says:

    The world is full of open secrets and you are discovering them. Wonderful!!!!!


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