Getting Started

Plant Magic: A Year of Green Wisdom for Pagans & Wiccans - Sandra Kynes 2017


Getting Started

When you decide to do more than reach for a jar of dried herbs on your kitchen shelf for magic, you are taking a big step into the enchanting world of plants. While the first few steps may seem intimidating—upon realizing the vastness and complexity of the green world—it is also exciting to know that you are joining the ranks of all those wise women and men of the past who worked with plants for magic.

Why Scientific Names Are Important

While the common names for plants are easy to remember, they are a continual source of confusion because one plant may be known by a number of different names. For example, the plant commonly known as meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) is also called queen of the meadow. And the plant commonly known as gravel root (Eutrochium purpureum) is also known as meadowsweet and queen of the meadow. For this reason, it is important to know the scientific (genus and species) names when studying or purchasing plants or plant material.

In addition, some names often get applied incorrectly, causing more confusion. For example, both northern adder’s tongue (Ophioglossum pusillum) and American trout-lily (Erythronium americanum) are called adder’s tongue. And while dogtooth violet is another name for the trout-lily, it has sometimes been applied to northern adder’s tongue. This may seem like minor confusion on paper, but it is important to know which plants we are using because some are extremely toxic and can be dangerous to handle.

When working with plants in the wild, in addition to toxicity it is important to know whether or not a plant is considered endangered or threatened in your area. For example, all the trout lilies (from the genus Erythronium) are endangered in Florida. A good resource for information on endangered or threatened species is the US Department of Agriculture’s website database at: http://plants.usda.gov/threat.html.

Don’t be overwhelmed by so much information, just be aware and open to learning. Let’s start by understanding scientific names. The genus and species of a plant are part of a complex naming structure initiated by Swedish naturalist, Carl Linnaeus (1707—1778). His work became the foundation for the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature.

While Table 1 illustrates the basic seven-level hierarchy of plant classification, the full modern taxonomy has at least sixteen levels, which includes super-divisions and orders, sub-classes and families, and more. For simplicity, we will deal mostly with genus and species with a few mentions of family.

Table 1. The Basic Hierarchy of Plants

Kingdom > Phylum/Division > Class > Order > Family > Genus > Species

As new information about plants emerged over time, their names were changed to reflect the new data. This is one reason why we find synonyms in botanical names. For example, the scientific names for the belladonna lily are noted as Amaryllis belladonna syn. Callicore rosea. Synonyms are used because the antiquated names have been kept to aid in plant identification. Another reason is scientific disagreement.

Most names are in Latin because this was a common language that people who were engaged in scientific research used during Linnaeus’s time. The first of the two words in the scientific name is the genus, which is a proper noun and always capitalized. A plant’s species name is an adjective that usually provides a little description about the plant. The genus for yarrow is Achillea in honor of the Greek hero Achilles, and one species of yarrow is millefolium. The word millefolium indicates a leaf of many parts (mille meaning “thousands” and folium, “foliage”).

Occasionally you may see a third word in a scientific name preceded with “var.” This indicates that it is a variety of that species. For example, the white-flowered rosemary has the scientific name of Rosmarinus officinalis var. albiflorus. A variety is a naturally occurring variation in a species. On the other hand, a cultivar, or cultivated variety, is a variety that was created by human hands. Cultivar names are most often in English surrounded by single quotes. An example is a type of rose Rosa floribunda ’Angel Face.’

An “×” in a name indicates that the plant is a hybrid between two species. Mentha × piperita, peppermint, is a naturally occurring hybrid between spearmint, Mentha spicata, and water mint, Mentha aquatica.

While it is not necessary to memorize scientific names, write down the names for the plants you work with so you can always refer to them when necessary. This is important if you are purchasing plants or if you are working with their essential oils so you can be sure to get the correct ones. And, of course, it helps when checking if wild plants are endangered.

Frequently Used Words and Terms to Know

As you go through the names of plants, some words appear often, such as the word “wort,” as in Saint John’s wort. This comes from the Old English wyrt, meaning “plant” or “herb." 1 Bane is another word that we find in wolfsbane, henbane, and others. This is an Anglo-Saxon word for poison, and it was incorporated into the names of toxic plants as a warning.2

We also find some words frequently cropping up in scientific names. Vulgaris, as in thyme (Thymus vulgaris) or in primrose (Primula vulgaris), means “common.” Officinale or officinalis, as in dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) or vervain (Verbena officinalis), means that it is (or was when the plant was named) officially recognized as a medicinal plant. Anthe in both the scientific and common name for the chrysanthemum comes from the Greek anthos, meaning “flower.” The Latin folia and folium means “foliage,” and we find it in the American beech (Fagus grandifolia), meaning “grand foliage,” and, as mentioned, yarrow (Achillea millefolium), “thousand-leafed.”

There are also some botanical terms that are helpful to know. Throughout the book, plants may be referred to as an annual, biennial, or perennial. As its name implies, an annual plant completes its life cycle in one year. It flowers, sets seed, and dies in a single growing season. German chamomile (Matricaria recutita) and the common sunflower (Helianthus annuus) are examples.

Biennials take two seasons. These usually only bloom and set seed in their second year. Angelica (Angelica archangelica) and mullein (Verbascum thapsus) are examples of biennials. Perennials live from year to year. Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) and lady’s mantle (Alchemilla vulgaris) are examples of perennials. While the top portion of these plants die back in the autumn, the roots remain alive but dormant through winter. In the spring, perennials come up again. Table 2 provides a list of other helpful terms.

Table 2. A Brief Listing of Helpful Botanical Terms

Axil

The area of a plant between a stem or branch and a leaf stem

Basal leaves

Leaves at the base of an upright stem that are different from those on the stem

Catkin

A thick, usually drooping, cluster of tiny flowers

Flower head

A dense, compact cluster of tiny flowers

Lobed

A leaf with deeply indented edges, such as oak or maple tree leaves

Rhizome

An underground stem that is usually considered as a type of root

Sepal

The outermost part of a flower that protects the young bud and is usually green

Toothed

A leaf with jagged edges, also called serrated

Umbel

A flower head structure (think umbrella) that can be flat-topped or globe-shaped

Whorl

A circular or spiral growth pattern of leaves, needles, or flower petals

Precautions

Handling and using plants must be done with knowledge and common sense, and with safety in mind. Women who are pregnant or nursing must be especially careful. The banes, of course, are poisonous, but other common plants are poisonous or toxic, too. While some of these should not be handled, others can be done so with care. When in doubt identifying wild plants, it is best to avoid working with them.

Astrological Influences

Since ancient times, the movement of the planets was used to determine the most appropriate time for various agricultural tasks. The Greek poet and farmer Hesiod (circa 650 BCE) advised others on how to use the planets and stars for determining the right time to plant and harvest their fields.

Up through the Middle Ages, astrology was closely integrated with astronomy, mathematics, and medicine. This extended to understanding the celestial influences on medicinal plants. The famed English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper (1616—1654) wrote several books on astrology and integrated his astrological knowledge with his herbal practice. In addition to plants, various parts of the body were believed to be under celestial influence. Because of this, a physician usually did not make a diagnosis or determine which plants to use before performing a series of complex astrological computations.

Just as today, there was scientific disagreement amongst herbalists in determining which celestial bodies influenced which plants. As a result, we sometimes have multiple associations. What does that mean for us if we incorporate astrological influences into plant magic? Like most things in a Pagan and Wiccan path, we need to work it out for ourselves if our magic is to be meaningful and powerful. Study the plants with which you want to work and their astrological influences, and then follow your intuition.

When astrological influences were originally determined, the planets consisted of five—Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn—as well as the sun and moon, which were often referred to as luminaries. Of course since then the outer planets have been discovered, and modern astrology, quite naturally, includes them. Table 3 provides a brief overview of the aspects and attributes associated with the planets. Despite all the uproar in recent years, I have kept Pluto as a planet.

Table 3. Planetary Aspects and Attributes for Magical Work

Sun

Growth, manifestation, motivation, power, prosperity, protection

Moon

Creativity, emotions, fertility, guidance, love, transformation, wisdom

Mercury

Communication, inspiration, intelligence, messages, money, travel

Venus

Fidelity, friendship, love, passions, relationships

Mars

Action, courage, defense, lust, protection, sexuality, willpower

Jupiter

Authority, control, justice, luck, opportunities, success

Saturn

Ambition, discipline, goals, knowledge, loyalty, purification, strength

Table 3. Planetary Aspects and Attributes for Magical Work (continued)

Uranus

Changes, community, goals, independence, inventiveness, motivation

Neptune

Adaptability, awareness, creativity, otherworld/underworld, vision

Pluto

The afterlife, karma, memory, renewal, sexuality, wealth

The Influence of Fixed Stars

While we know that twinkling is a way to tell the difference between a star and a planet, people in ancient times and up through the Middle Ages did not. They did, however, notice a difference in behavior and made an intelligent distinction. In medieval Europe, the stars and planets were called fixed stars and wandering stars, respectively. Fixed stars rose and set as did the moon, but they seemed to stay in the same pattern in relation to other stars. The planets were called wandering stars because their positions changed. They also seemed to move independently, unlike the stars of the constellations.

Medieval astrologers in Europe and the Middle East considered the fifteen stars noted by Agrippa as particularly powerful for magic. Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486—1535) was the author of the most widely known manuscript on magic and the occult, Three Books of Occult Philosophy. Agrippa correlated the energy of certain plants commonly used in ritual and magic with the energy of stars in order to draw down their power.

Throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the use of fixed stars for magic and astrology was common practice, but because some stars have rather fatal or negative associations, the use of fixed stars in astrology gradually fell out of favor. However, modern astrologers have rediscovered these stars as a source of knowledge and have been using them as a way to add information to readings. Today, astrologers point out that the negative aspects ascribed to some stars simply serve as warnings and point to aspects of life that one may need to be particularly mindful.

Table 4. The Fixed Stars

Star Name

Constellation

Attributes

Ala Corvi*

Corvus

Drive away evil spirits and all forms of negativity

Aldebaran

Taurus

Courage, honesty, intelligence, steadfastness, success

Algol

Perseus

The forces of the natural world, intense passion, strength

Alphecca

Corona

Borealis

Quiet achievement, artistic skills, a change in social status that is earned, love

Antares

Scorpius

Defense, mindfulness of the potential for self-destruction, protection

Arcturus

Boötes

Exploration, leadership, protection, success in the arts, teaching

Capella

Auriga

Ambitions; public position; a warning not to let ambition, position, or wealth get out of hand; wealth

Deneb Algedi

Capricornus

The importance of balance, integrity, justice, wisdom

The Pleiades

Taurus

Communication with spirits, peaceful energy, inner knowledge, love

Polaris

Ursa Minor

Guidance, goals, protection against spells

Procyon

Canis Minor

Fame; mindfulness that fame, power, and wealth can slip away; power; wealth

Regulus

Leo

Authority, leadership, wisely used power, strength, success

Sirius

Canis Major

Communication, faithfulness, guardianship, passion, marital peace

*The name Ala Corvi could refer to the stars Algorab or Gienah as both

of these names have shown up in various translations of Agrippa’s work.

Table 4. The Fixed Stars (continued)

Star Name

Constellation

Attributes

Spica

Virgo

Abundance, insight, knowledge, protection, psychic abilities

Vega

Lyra

Artistic talents, hopefulness, idealism, social awareness

Lunar Gardening

As our nearest celestial neighbor, the moon has influenced people more intimately than the planets and stars. We can see this in the fact that we celebrate it with our esbats. Gardening by the cycles of the moon helps us work with natural rhythms for planting, maintaining gardens, and harvesting. Lunar gardening is not as mysterious as it may sound. The moon’s gravitational pull is well known for its effect on the tides. However, it also affects the underground water table and the flow of moisture in the soil.

There are four basic moon phases for lunar gardening. The first is the new moon, which is also called the dark moon. The other three phases in order of occurrence are waxing, full, and waning. To better understand what is going on during the phases, let’s take a look at the positioning of the sun, earth, and moon, as well as the ocean’s tides.

The New Moon

The new moon brings a high tide to the ocean called a spring or moon tide. The word spring in this regard does not refer to a season. This word harkens back to its Old English usage, which meant to “grow” or “swell.” 3 Likewise on land, the pull of the new moon draws underground water upward, bringing more moisture to the surface. This is considered a fertile time that is good to sow seeds, plant aboveground crops (such as tomatoes and Brussels sprouts), transplant garden plants or repot houseplants, and graft trees.

During this phase, the moon is between the sun and earth. (Refer to Figure 1.) The moon is pulling the sea and groundwater higher because it has the extra gravitational pull of the sun. The new moon is a quiet time, a time for divination and personal workings. This is a time for incubation and holding power.

Image

Figure 1. The position of the moon varies during the four phases.

The Waxing Moon

Although the light of the moon is increasing during this phase, there is less gravitational pull than during a new moon. On the ocean, it causes a neap tide, which occurs on the quarter moons. From the earth, a quarter moon actually looks like a half moon. This is when the sun, earth, and moon form a right angle. The name for this tide also comes from Old English and means “scarce.” 4

Like the new moon, a waxing moon is considered a fertile time that is good to sow seeds, plant above ground crops, transplant garden plants or repot houseplants, and graft trees. It is a time of strong plant growth.

Magically, this is a time for growth, gathering knowledge, and inspiration. Much magic begun now culminates at the full moon. The waxing phase is conducive for creativity because of the high energy and clarity of vision it brings. It is also conducive for teaching.

The Full Moon

The gravitational pull of the moon is actually downward during this phase. While the ocean is having another spring tide, the groundwater and water in the soil are being pulled down away from the sun. The sun, earth, and moon are in alignment again, but the moon is on the opposite side of the earth from the sun. However, they are not in perfect alignment, otherwise we would have a lunar eclipse every month. In this position, the moon is working against the sun’s stronger gravitational pull.

For plants, the moon is pulling more moisture into their roots. This is the ideal time for planting belowground crops such as onions or potatoes. It is also a good time to pull weeds, thin out plants, prune, harvest, and mow.

Magically, the energy of the full moon is intense. This is a time for sending forth your will because of the high-powered energy that can propel it to manifest. This energy and bright moonlight occurs for three nights: on the night of the full moon, the night before, and the night after.

The Waning Moon

Like the waxing phase, there is a neap tide and less gravitational pull during the waning moon. There is also a decreasing amount of moonlight leading into a rest period. Like the full moon phase, this is a good time to pull weeds, thin out plants, prune, harvest, and mow.

The waning phase is a time for turning inward and reflecting. It is a time for reaping what was put forth during the waxing phase. The waning phase is a good time for banishing spells and releasing what is unwanted. The decreasing moonlight carries away what we cast off.

Parts of Plants and Their Symbolism

Through the centuries, herbalists discovered that different parts of plants served different purposes. In ritual and magic work, we often use various parts of plants because of their symbolism. For example, flowers are often used for love and sex magic, seeds for fertility, and fruit for abundance and manifestation. In addition to using a certain type of plant, you may find that coordinating a particular plant part with your purpose can add power to your spells and rituals.

Residing under the earth, roots are the most natural plant part for grounding energy and providing stability to our rituals and magic work. Roots also keep us grounded during psychic or astral work. As a symbol of longevity, roots encourage us to hold secrets when bidden. Roots offer access to the underworld, making them useful for connecting with ancestors, spirits, or chthonic deities.

Sturdy wood and bark from trees and the woody parts of other plants provide extra protective energy to rituals, spells, and charms. Wood and bark are also a gauge of growth and can aid us in manifesting our growth on various levels: social, emotional, and spiritual. Being at the center of or encircling a plant, wood and bark symbolically provide balance and bolster strength.

From the time they burst forth in the spring until the wind whisks them away in the autumn, leaves enfold the world with aerial enchantment. Personifying energy and growth, leaves give our magic and personal endeavors an encouraging boost. Showy or subtle, flowers are the crowning glory of plants. They represent beauty with a goal: attraction, sex, and fertility. Using flowers can be especially potent when they add fragrance to our magic work. It’s no wonder that for thousands of years poets and lovers have sung the praises of flowers. Of course, leaves are often aromatic, too.

With the base word “fruit,” fruition means completion or culmination, and so a piece of fruit symbolizes manifestation and success. Fruit represents an increase in power or energy. The feel and smell of fruit is the personification of abundance and freedom from want. Use fruit to increase what you have and to gain what you seek.

Seeds and nuts represent the beginnings of things and can be instrumental when encouraging something new in our lives. They also represent duality, such as the alternation between life and death, light and dark. Carried on a breeze or snuggled into the earth, seeds and nuts move between the worlds, representing beginnings, changes, and cycles.

Our Relationship with Plants

We have a very fundamental, symbiotic relationship with the plant kingdom: plants provide us with oxygen and we provide them with carbon dioxide. In addition, plants have been vitally important for everything: providing food and medicine, materials for building shelters, and fibers for clothing.

In most ancient cultures, people believed plants to be magical, and for thousands of years they were used as much for ritual as they were for medicine and food. The presence of herbs in burial tombs attests to their power beyond medicinal purposes. Although the common concept of alchemy being the transmutation of base metal into gold, it was originally focused on plants and the search for the elixir of life.

Greek philosopher Aristotle (384—322 BCE) noted that plants had psyches. Also, there is an ancient Hindu belief that plants exist simultaneously in this world and the world of devas and other nature spirits. These ideas did not remain an ancient notion. In the 1970s, the Findhorn Foundation community in Scotland let it be known that it was through plants that they were able to contact and work with nature spirits. Working with plants for magic provides us with energy from the plants and access to nature spirits on whose aid we can call.

Spend a few minutes simply looking at a plant, and then place your hands on either side of it to sense its energy. If the plant is too large to do this, hold your palms facing it. If you are not sure what energy feels like, do this simple exercise first. Bring your hands together and rub your palms back and forth over each other until you feel them getting warm. This activates the chakras (energy centers) in your palms. Continue for another moment and then separate your hands to about shoulder-width apart. Slowly bring your hands closer together until you can feel a little bit of resistance.

Rub your hands together again, and when you separate them, move them toward each other and then away several times. As you do this, you may get the sensation that there is a ball between your palms that keeps them from touching. That’s the feeling of energy. It is usually very subtle and it may take time to learn how to sense it. Working with houseplants is a good way to get started, and it will create good energy in your home.

When we tune into a plant’s energy, we also share some of ours, which allows us to communicate with the plant and nature spirits. Taking time to be with and feel a plant’s energy will let us know whether or not we may cut a piece from it. Respect is the most important aspect we bring to our relationship with the green world. If you get the feeling that you should not cut a piece from a plant, don’t. Instead, gather parts that have fallen to the ground and leave an offering.

Over time as we work with plants, we may find that we are given additional information on how to employ them in our magic. When gathering plant material for a specific purpose, take time to visualize what you want to achieve as you connect with the energy of the plant. You may often receive details on what to do with each plant part. While this type of experience may be surprising, it is always gratifying.

And now, no matter which month you start in, begin your journey through the year with the magic of plants.

1 Philip Durkin, The Oxford Guide to Etymology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), xxxviii.

2 Wolf D. Storl, The Herbal Lore of Wise Women and Wortcunners: The Healing Power of Medicinal Plants (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books), 234, 2012.

3 Sam Hinton, Seashore Life of Southern California, New and Revised Edition (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1987), 19.

4 Sam Hinton, Seashore Life of Southern California, New and Revised Edition (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1987), 19.