Warning - Botanicals

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005


With the exception of linguists, most people’s current knowledge of Anglo-Saxon extends no further than a few select four-letter words. However, it’s vital to be familiar with at least one other four-letter word, at least before you play with any plants: BANE. Pay attention when you see or hear that word: it is a warning of danger. Bane derives from the Old German bano meaning death. Bane implies that a plant is poisonous enough to cause death.

Folk names tend to describe something about a plants’ use; plants with “bane” in their name frequently recall the identity of those plants’ primary victim, hence henbane or wolfsbane. However, beware: any plant with “bane” anywhere in its name is poisonous to some degree. That’s how it earned that name.

Important: the plants in this section are included for historical purposes. Experimentation with plants, particularly with those known to be dangerous, is not encouraged. Those who are fascinated with plants might consider enrolling in the various academies of botanical knowledge or an apprenticeship with an acknowledged master.

Poisonous plants may be even more lethal today for two reasons. Firstly, lack of knowledge. We don’t really know how or even if our ancestors administered the following plants. Practitioners were killed and chains of transmission destroyed. Their methods may have been very different from our own. Although they lacked our technical capacity, their knowledge of fine botanical nuances was almost certainly greater.

As an example, to this day traditional Chinese medicine, a still-thriving millennia-old discipline, discourages treatment by one single herb. Botanicals are almost always combined to create a buffering, synergistic effect. (Synergism means that the whole, the end result, is greater than the sum of its parts.) It is very possible that once upon a time ancient practitioners, skilled herb-witches, knew how to combine dangerous plants in such a way that they buffered each other, antidoted each other and made administration of individually poisonous substances possible. We no longer have this knowledge; it may be lost for ever.

Secondly, concentration and isolation. Modern understanding of plants and nature is very different from what it once was. Today we know that every botanical contains various phyto-hormones and chemical constituents including alkaloids that provide its various physical effects. In other words, once upon a time we knew that belladonna was toxic; now we know why it’s toxic, which chemical constituents are responsible for its poisonous effect. These chemical constituents can now be isolated and concentrated. The effect of the chemical constituent on its own is almost certainly more potent and concentrated than when left as part of a complex system of interlocking components. There are herbalists who will only work with whole plants believing that any form of concentration of plant powers, including essential oils, is dangerous.

Modern scientific inclination is to isolate individual chemical constituents, refine and concentrate them, so that medicine can be standardized. Standardized synthetics may also be created that are even more potent than the whole plant. The disadvantage is that by isolating a single chemical constituent, we may remove buffering that provided a measure of safety. These standardized, concentrated forms do not occur in nature and may, in fact, not be safer. The classic example is ephedrine, the nowbanned dietary supplement derived from ephedra, a plant used medicinally since at least Neolithic times.