The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft - Judika Illes 2005


Although every plant on Earth possesses its own magic powers, some are specifically identified with witchcraft. These make up the majority of the plants featured within this section. (A few exceptions are those significant to the history of witchcraft.)

Imagine the first people on Earth, wandering through primordial forests, overwhelmed by this green world. In the beginning, there must have been too many plants of which to keep track but after a while, as with anything, individual natures would emerge. Some plants were discovered to be wonderfully nutritious or seductively delicious. Others were sources of water when none else could be found. Some plants were fonts of healing. Some eased labor pains, stimulated milk supply, or discouraged pregnancy when it was unwanted. Some plants just made you feel good. Inhaling their fragrance relieved your mind of worries. Inhaling other fragrances made you drop whatever else you might be doing and focus single-mindedly on romance instead. Other plants turned out to be the equivalent of keys: they opened the doors to other realms. Some provided portals to the spirits. And then there were those dangerous plants: should you taste even as little as a berry or perhaps just touch the wrong leaf before putting your fingers in your mouth, the results could be fatal. One definition of modern witchcraft is that it is the surviving remnants of Paleolithic spiritual traditions focused on sacred plants and the beverages brewed from them. Witches, then, are devotees but also ritual leaders—those experts who understand the nuances, gifts, and dangers of the most volatile plants.

Formerly sacred plants evolved into witchcraft plants. The plants didn’t change but attitudes towards them did. These plants, for one reason or another, tend to be ones that must be handled with care and expertise so as to avoid danger, damage, death, and disaster. Once upon a time, the skill and knowledge required to safely handle and manipulate these plants was admired.

In general, “witchcraft plants” fall into several categories. The following are not mutually exclusive. Many witchcraft plants fall into several categories at once.

Image Witchcraft plants offer power over life and death. Some exert powerful influences over the human reproductive system. These include fertility enhancers, menstrual regulators, herbal contraceptives, and abortifacients. Aphrodisiacs, those plants that promote sexual interest and ability, may be included in this category too.Just as some plants are identified with birth and life, others have associations with death, whether for spiritual reasons or because the particular plant is deadly poisonous, or both.

Image Some plants possess the power to intoxicate; they stimulate the euphoria sometimes crucial to shamanism, witchcraft, and some spiritual rituals. They stimulate joy, exultation, and feelings of well-being, at least temporarily.

Image The modern term “entheogen” describes substances that are gateways to visionary experiences. Used with knowledge, skill, and experience, these substances may unlock portals so that the shaman and witch can journey and fly.

Witchcraft plants include wild, uncultivated plants that resist domestication, prickly, stinging plants that assert powerful boundaries, and poisonous and psychoactive plants. Many witchcraft plants are associated with the moon and with female reproduction and sexuality.


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.

Safety Tips

Image Never use any botanicals without expert professional supervision. This extends to more than just standard internal administration. Even handling certain plants can be dangerous.

Image Do not wildcraft (i.e., don’t harvest from wild places), for two reasons:

1. This is the botanical equivalent of poaching animals; many botanicals are severely endangered in the wild.

2. Plants can be deceptive. It’s very, very easy to assume that one is picking one plant when one is, in fact, picking another. This is particularly true with mushrooms, who bear reputations as tricksters, sometimes deadly ones. The classic example occurred in Northern California. Japanese mushroom experts, visiting the area, brought their harvest home and prepared them for dinner and were promptly poisoned, some fatally. They were genuinely experts: what they picked was absolutely identical to mushrooms that were safe in Japan, except that the Californian variant was lethal.

Botanicals have local and folk names; these are the names they’ve been called in a specific language or region. Many of these folk names are very revealing; they tell you something about the plant’s nature and uses. However, many folk names are shared. Half a dozen plants are known as motherwort; the only thing they may have in common is that they’re beneficial in some aspect of maternity, whether conception, birth, or nursing. If you ask for motherwort, you may receive any one of these half dozen plants, at least one of which is also a powerful cardiac stimulant. However, each and every plant has only one Latin designation. That Latin designation is used internationally to describe only one single plant. Latin designations are the lingua franca, the common language of the worldwide botanical community. For safety’s sake, because otherwise you may have no idea what plant you’re working with and many plants have profound and sometimes dangerous physical effect, always use the plants’ Latin classification.

Corn, rye, and other grains, as well as ergot fungus, are discussed in ERGOT. Fly agaric mushrooms (Amanita muscaria) are discussed below.


(Alnus spp.)

Other English names include: black alder, red alder, and owler. In Danish, its name is synonymous with “elf king” while in German it’s called the Walpurgis tree or Walpurga.

Despite the confusing similarity in names, alders are not the same as elders, although both species of trees have powerful associations with witches and elves.

Alder is a moderately sized tree indigenous to the British Isles and most of Europe, all the way across Russia to Siberia. Alder is also native to the Caucasus, Turkey, and North Africa, from Morocco to Tunisia. It was introduced to the Western Hemisphere during the Colonial Era and is naturalized in eastern Canada and the United States. (Some species of alder are also indigenous to the Andes region.) It is an extremely common tree and is now understood as an ecologically valuable tree because of its ability to improve the fertility of soil by fixing nitrogen from the air, although for centuries alder was a tree of ill repute.

Alder is unique for several reasons:

Image Alder is renowned for its proclivity for water. Alder thrives in bogs, marshes, and swamps where other trees can’t grow. Alders are allegedly attracted to water, hence the use of its wood for dowsing rods. Because its wood doesn’t rot in water, it was perceived as a particularly powerful and valuable tree. Neolithic houses were built on alder stilts, as are the shacks of swamp witches. The city of Venice was built on alder. Alder loves and is beloved by water spirits and is believed to provide safety to their devotees.

Alder is identified with water and with the color red. Water is the element most associated with magic, with the moon, witchcraft, and feminine power. Red is the color of blood and hence identified with birth (babies arrive amidst blood), death, menstrual mysteries, witchcraft, and women’s power.

Image Alder “bleeds.” When alder is struck or cut, its pale heart wood gradually turns red. The modern scientific explanation is that this phenomenon is caused by the effects of nitrogen. The obvious nonscientific explanation is that the red color represents blood, although whose and under what circumstances has been subject to interpretation. The initial explanation, based on folklore, herbal, and magical traditions, seems to have been that alder menstruated like a woman, making it a rare, magically powerful and protective tree, and leading to its association with female deities and women’s enchantments.

Later, particularly in Northern lands alder came to be understood as inhabited by spirits. It is the spirits who bleed and mourn (and are angered) when the tree is cut. These spirits include the elven king but especially his daughter.

Alder’s identification with the color red is increased by its annual production of red catkins—so-called because of their perceived resemblance to cats’ tails. (In actuality, these are the tree’s berries.)

Alders represent the goddess or the witch in her guise as hag or crone. The Earth Mother, the Great Mother, both gives birth and accepts the dead back into her womb, her cauldron of regeneration where souls are renewed and born again. The alder shares the essence of the Great Mother who welcomes the dead. It is a tree of death but also of resurrection.

Traditionally witches meet beneath alders. Alders, like elder, contains portals to other realms, such as those of the elves, fairies, and the dead. These thresholds are concealed within the tree but will open to those who know how to find them (and even perhaps, by accident, to innocent bystanders!).

Image Alder is known as the Walpurgis tree because German witches allegedly ate alder buds during their flight to the Brocken mountain on Walpurgis Night.

Image Witches used alder branches to stir up and control the weather.

Image Alder was particularly associated with red-haired witches. Allegedly, alder wood in the hands of a red-headed woman supernaturally boosted her own magic powers.

Image Italian witches blended alder sap with madder to produce vivid red dyes that were used to color the scarlet ribbons, charm bags, and clothing so prized by Italian witchcraft.

Image In Italy, alder wood is incorporated into the May Eve bonfires.

Image In Ireland, the tree was used for divination, especially for diagnosis of the magical or spiritual roots of illness. In Irish tradition, it is forbidden to cut an alder. Many still hesitate today.

Image Magical flutes, pipes, and whistles were carved from alder. Oracle flutes, instruments of divination, previous to being carved from alder, were formed from the bones of sacrificial victims.

Post-Christianity alder’s reputation grew ominous and negative. The bleeding tree’s magic blood was explained as a reminder of the crucifixion.

Most of alder’s uses were for ritual and magic (and feminine magic at that) and so it wasn’t considered a “practical” botanical. Hildegard of Bingen described it as a “useless tree.” There were a few exceptions: in Scotland, alder was prized for fine furniture. Scottish Bog Alder was also known as “Scottish mahogany” and was considered a luxury wood.

Alder is also a crucial component of many natural dyes. Depending upon the part of the plant, alder is used to make black, green, and red dyes as well as to tan leather.

According to the old medicinal law of similars, like is used to cure like. Just as with the similar-sounding elder, alder, the tree of witch-craft, is used to prevent and ward off witchcraft. Alder’s main medieval uses were to protect against witches and vermin (fleas, lice, and mice; the sticky leaves may catch resident fleas).

A traditional remedy suggests that inner alder bark simmered in wine serves as an antidote against magic potions. On Walpurgis Night, branches of alder were crossed and placed against doors to prevent witches flying overhead from landing and entering. (Although the Walpurgis tree is so identified with witches’ activities on this night, one wonders if this tradition isn’t a distortion of some old witchcraft practice.)

See also Elder; CALENDAR: Walpurgis; PLACES: The Brocken.

Amanita Muscaria or Fly Agaric

(Amanita muscaria)

Other names: Witches’ Eggs

Amanita muscaria, also commonly called fly agaric, is not a botanical. It is a fungus, a type of mushroom. However, these are modern classifications. Ancient people looked for similarities of essence as well as for differences and distinctions. Mushrooms were (and are) used similarly to botanicals and so it is classified here amongst the botanicals.

Even if you know next to nothing about mushrooms or botanicals, even if you don’t know what’s so special about Amanita muscaria, it’s pretty certain that you’re familiar with what it looks like even if you don’t recognize its name. You may never have seen a real one, but you’ve undoubtedly seen its picture. Amanita muscaria are the big red speckled mushrooms known as toadstools that are inevitable components of folkloric imagery. Look at traditional illustrations of witches, dwarfs, or fairies and you’ll likely find at least one amanita tucked into a corner.

Mushrooms were understood as very special and powerful. Mushrooms pop up overnight directly from Earth or emerge from tree trunks, fully grown as if by magic. Some have psychotropic properties; many are poisonous, some to the point of fatality.

In Germany, mushrooms in general are known as hexensessel or “witch’s chair.”

Psychotropic mushrooms, of which Amanita muscaria is the classic example, have historically been used in spiritual rituals worldwide. In fact there are scholars who believe that Amanita muscaria may have initially inspired a vast proportion of all human spiritual traditions and religions.

Among the traditions that some believe derive from mushroom cults are the Eleusinian Mystery religion, various ancient Egyptian traditions, Judaism and Christianity. Some scholars believe that Amanita muscaria was the mysterious biblical manna as well as Jesus Christ’s “bread of life.” There is even a Dead Sea Scrolls’ scholar who has suggested that New Testament references to Jesus are actually euphemisms, eventually forgotten, misunderstood, and distorted, for Amanita muscaria, hence the emphasis on the host as sacrament. Others believe that soma, the mysterious brew of the Aryan people of India mentioned in the Rig Veda, is really amanita.

Amanita’s associations with shamanism and ancient religion are so primordial and powerful that they transcend associations with witchcraft. Thus, images of Amanita muscaria show up everywhere, in Easter imagery as much as in Halloween’s. Folkloric toys are created in the form of these mushrooms—I have a Polish carved wooden toy amanita. You remove the polkadotted red roof to reveal carved wooden soldiers within. Even though amanita is poisonous, its image proliferates in children’s books, not as scary images like spiders but friendly ones. (Can you imagine artists blithely submitting similar images of datura or wolfsbane?) Those dancing mushrooms in Disney’s Fantasia? Amanita muscaria. Some even believe that the image of Santa Claus in his red and white suit may be a coded reference to amanita. Certainly his reindeerdriven sleigh can only be a reference to the cultures of the far north, where Amanita muscaria is intrinsically tied to shamanism, with reindeers integral to the ritual. (You’ll find out why below.) Santa’s habit of going up and down chimneys is also strangely reminiscent of shamans’ and witches’ flight.

Fly agaric is not uncommon throughout Eurasia and North America. It prefers poor soils, growing in marshes or along roads. It grows near birch, fir or pine trees, and is a traditional component of Siberian shamanism, where it’s sometimes called “lightning mushroom.” Based on linguistic studies, its use in that region may go back at least as far as 4000 BCE.

Amanita muscaria provokes a state of intoxication and allegedly opens portals to other realms. It has traditionally been used for divination, to contact spirits or journey to other realms and to locate lost, stolen or missing objects, especially those believed hidden in Earth.

Although Amanita muscaria is highly toxic, historically certain methods of preparation make it safer for use. Ibotenic acid, one of the psychotropic chemicals in amanita, is almost wholly retained in urine and not used by the body. (This is not true of its other chemical constituents, including the poisonous atropine and muscarine.) The traditional method of use, among the Finno-Ugric people of Finland, Lapland, and Siberia was to drink the urine of reindeer, which ate the mushrooms. (Reindeer may even have taught people about Amanita muscaria.) Reindeer meat may also be eaten in order to receive the hallucinatory experience. This is traditionally believed to be the safest method of use.

Amanita muscaria is among the ingredients cited in formulas for witches’ flying ointments. However, it is not among the magical ingredients traditionally cited in medieval grimoires. Shamans desired to meet, commune, consort, and battle with spirits; medieval sorcerers just wanted to boss them around.

Medieval sorcerers, with all their emphasis on commanding and compelling spirits, weren’t interested in using substances that couldn’t be commanded as well. Amanita is, to say the least, unpredictable. It is also potentially fatal. It is not safe for individual experimentation under any circumstances, nor has it ever been considered appropriate for solitary sorcery. Instead amanita’s use has historically been restricted to shamanism and to those folk magic practices directly descended from shamanism.

Because it is potentially fatal, Amanita muscaria has historically been a component of group ritual supervised by sober observers. Because dosage is so crucial, because the amanita cannot be standardized, and because there’s no room for mistakes, amanita lore has always been transmitted orally and within shamanic channels.

According to Russian folklore, the presiding spirits of these mushrooms manifest in the form of small red tubular beings who are able to communicate with those under amanita’s influence. (The mushroom may be understood as providing a portal for communicating with these spirits.) These spirits can be helpful and provide information, however they are also reputed to be wild tricksters with a taste for mean practical jokes, funny to them perhaps but tragic for their target. They may try to persuade the consumer of the mushroom to do potentially dangerous things—one more reason why sober supervision is so crucial.

Vivid red Amanita muscaria with its white polka dots may be understood as the mushroom equivalent of Amazonian poison arrow frogs. Its bold color announces its poisonous nature.

Decoctions of Amanita muscaria have historically been used to kill flies, hence it is also commonly called fly agaric. Amanita muscaria’s many other nicknames reflect its background in shamanism and witchcraft. Words used to name fly agaric are frequently connected to words for that shamanic tool the drum, and to toads. The common rationale for toad references has to do with childlike images of toads sheltering from the rain under large umbrella-like toadstools. However, among the chemical components isolated from Amanita muscaria is bufotenine a secretion otherwise found in toads’ skins.


(Malus pumila or Pyrus malus)

Apples are magical fruits. Slice them in half horizontally and the star or pentacle secretly hidden within is revealed. In ancient days, apples were associated with love, lust, and pleasure, but eventually love, lust, and pleasure fell out of grace and apples became identified with witches and the devil.

The most famous apple of all may be the one with which Eve tempted Adam; the story is often told as if the apple were a euphemism for sex. Apples were already long associated with love, sex, and forbidden pleasures when Christianity came to prominence, whereupon translations then identified the apple as the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. However, apples are native to temperate regions and are not indigenous to the region where Bible stories were first told. Many biblical scholars are absolutely certain that apples were not the forbidden fruit (figs, quinces, and pomegranates are the front-runners, although of course the argument has been made that all trees existed in the Garden of Eden, therefore the forbidden fruit could be anything).

Apples became synonymous with sex, sin, and feminine wiles. Fairy-tale apples, like the one the wicked witch-queen feeds Snow White, look seductively beautiful and innocently tasty but are secretly poisonous and perversely dangerous. Apples remained prized love spell ingredients—there are literally hundreds of love spells featuring little more than apples. Perhaps for this reason, apples became classified as more than just a food; they were witches’ tools, especially those bright scarlet apples.


(Atropa belladonna)

Atropa belladonna has many names: banewort, deadly nightshade, devil’s cherry, dwale, but most popularly belladonna which means “beautiful lady,” a surprisingly innocuous, even seductive name for such a deadly plant. The standard explanation for this folk name says that it derives from an extract made from the berry’s juice that was used in ladies’ eyes during the Renaissance to create a dilated “doe-eyed” expression, which was, at that time, considered very beautiful and seductive.

However, centuries previously, belladonna was sacred to the Roman war deity, Bellona, daughter of Mars. The plant was considered under her dominion and to share her essence. Ancient Roman priests allegedly drank some sort of elixir containing belladonna prior to ritual appeals to Bellona. The word belladonna contains the name Bellona within it, and it may have been a euphemistic pun on her name so that one could refer to her without actually calling upon this beautiful but fearsome Lady. Belladonna, like the goddess Bellona, is a beautiful but lethal killer.

Belladonna’s genus name Atropa honors Atropos, one of the three Fates, whose name means “the dreadful,” “the merciless,” or “the cutter.” Atropos is the Fate who cuts or terminates the thread of life.

All parts of the belladonna plant are poisonous including flowers, leaves, and roots. However the berries are the most virulently poisonous part of all: as few as three can kill a child. Do you remember those advisory stories reminding you not to assume that because birds can eat berries, that those same berries are safe for human consumption? Belladonna berries are the perfect example; many birds munch on the berries with impunity, something that is impossible for humans and for many mammal species.

Belladonna is a member of the nightshade family and is frequently equated with Deadly Nightshade. The names may or may not be used to indicate the same species. Various types of nightshade do exist that are also deadly, including Black Nightshade (Solanum nigrum) and Russian Nightshade (Scopolia carniolica), also known as Russian belladonna.

The primary toxin is the alkaloid atropine, which first stimulates the nervous system, then paralyzes it, causing muscular convulsions. Belladonna may also cause hallucinations, cramps, severe headache, mental stupor and, of course, death. Fly agaric (Amanita muscaria, see page 152) is the traditional antidote, however, it, too, is potentially fatally poisonous and the antidote must be administered at an incredibly fine, delicate balance and only by a skillful, professional hand.

Belladonna is a perennial that grows rampant among ruins and in wastelands. It is still found in this manner in Great Britain. It is rarely found wild in North America but is instead a cultivated plant. As its name implies, it has lovely flowers and so is often a prized component of poison gardens, where it may be appreciated visually and from a distance.

Belladonna’s alkaloids are used to make atropine, an eye medication. Until World War I belladonna was not an uncommon medicinal plant. Trained herbalists and pharmacists knew correct methods of use. The main pharmaceutical crop was derived from wild belladonna growing on stone ruins in the wilder regions of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was used to treat asthma, sciatica, and various other disorders.

As a beautiful and dangerous plant, belladonna was beloved and prized by herbalist wise-women who marked their skill by their proficiency with such plants. (There is no margin for error; no room for smoke and mirrors. It is impossible to fake your ability and knowledge with plants such as these; the truth will immediately be demonstrated.)

According to ancient witchcraft traditions, belladonna is at the peak of its power on May Eve (Walpurgis Night), so European witches only picked it on that night, when it is at its most powerful and magical.

See also CALENDAR: Walpurgis; PLACES: The Brocken.


(Betula alba)

Other names: The Lady of the Woods

Birch trees are unusual: their bark is white unlike the more usual brown. Birches are the botanical equivalent of the sacred white doe or buffalo. They are symbolic of light, purity, healing, and magic.

Birch is the tree of birth and new beginnings. This isn’t merely mystical palaver but is based on some historical truth: birch trees are believed to have been the first to cover the land emerging from the Ice Age. Its use is certainly ancient; Ötsi, the Neolithic “Ice Man” who was found frozen in an Alpine glacier was carrying a birch bark bag when he perished. Birch is believed to epitomize female qualities. If oaks are essentially male, then birches are female. They are associated with powerful goddesses like Brigid and Sarasvati. Baba Yaga lives in the heart of a birch forest.

The name allegedly derives from Sanskrit bhurga, meaning “tree whose bark is used for writing upon.” Birch bark is used in that manner among various Native cultures of North America, most notably the Ojibwa, who put birch to many uses, but also in Russia, where birch bark “paper” is incorporated into spell-casting to leave messages for nature spirits.

Amanita muscaria mushrooms grow beneath birches so birches are closely identified with these hallucinogenic mushrooms. The mushrooms may be understood as gifts of the tree. Birch wine and beer are also made.

Various traditions illustrate the identification of birch trees with new beginnings:

Image The birch is the first tree in the Ogham alphabet (Beth).

Image Cradles are traditionally carved from birch wood to provide blessings and protection and a good start for a new baby.

As the tree of new life, the birch was frequently chosen to be the maypole. Birch is among the most traditional materials for crafting a witch’s broom.

Roman officials carried bundles of birch twigs as symbols of authority. A bundle of birch twigs with an axe in the center was known as a fascis and was originally intended as a symbol of generation and fertility. (Axes were symbols of rebirth and fertility deities, both male and female.) The fascis was appropriated by Mussolini and the word has since derived new meanings.

Once upon a time, bundles of birch twigs were used to slap cattle and women (gently!) to boost fertility and offer blessings and protection. Many horned deities carried similar bunches of birch twigs. English has no specific word for this bundle of birch twigs but in Hungarian the word virgàcs (pronounced veer-goch) names this item. Krampus, Santa Claus’ Central European “helper” is never without his virgàcs. The symbol also survives among the traditional accoutrements of the chimneysweep as well as among the birch twigs used to enhance the experience of the Finnish sauna.

See also DIVINE WITCH: Baba Yaga; HORNED ONE: Krampus; PLACES: Bathhouse.


(Erythroxylon coca)

The coca plant is indigenous to Bolivia and Peru and has a long history of ritual and magical use there. Cocaine, the illegal stimulant, is a derivative of the coca plant; indigenous ritual incorporated the whole plant, not refined, concentrated derivatives. There is tremendous resentment among traditional ritualists for the way their sacred plant has been manipulated, corrupted, and politicized. However, controversies centering on coca began shortly after the arrival of Spanish Conquistadors.

Caution! Potentially poisonous and, depending upon where you are, most likely to be illegal!

Coca use was discouraged by the Spanish, not because of its addictive qualities but because chewing coca leaves was associated with heathen devotion to the “huacas,” the indigenous sacred shrines. The danger associated with coca was perceived as spiritual, not physical. Coca was a reminder of Peru’s pagan past that the Inquisition preferred to erase. For the Spanish Inquisition, coca was the plant most identified with Peruvian witches and organized opposition to the new religion and regime. However, wealthy mine-owners wished to encourage coca’s use so as to stimulate worker productivity. On October 18, 1569, a compromise was reached when King Phillip II urged priests to beware of the use of coca in witchcraft and superstition but to allow its use as medicine, especially as a stimulant to encourage the heavy forced labor imposed upon the Indians.

Coca leaves were used in Peruvian love magic, as offerings to the spirits, and as an ingredient of psychotropic brews. Coca’s international associations with magic and stimulation, rather than with addiction, still existed during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when power potions first became popular in the United States, including the one that bears its name, Coca Cola®.

In 1630, an edict against stargazers (astrologers) and witches was posted on all church doors in Peru. Among their crimes, witches were accused of using “certain drinks, herbs, and roots” including coca, San Pedro, and datura.


(Datura spp.)

Datura names a widely distributed family of herbaceous shrubs with fragrant, trumpetshaped flowers and usually spiny seedpods. There are approximately 20 species of datura growing around the world. Common folk names include angel’s trumpet, devil’s trumpet, devil’s herb, horn of plenty, Jimsonweed and thorn apple. Many datura species have beautiful white flowers that bloom only at night, closing during the day—thus the plant possesses a profound lunar affiliation. Datura is cultivated for these beautiful flowers and various species remain staples of California’s botanical nurseries.

Most species of datura are indigenous to the Western Hemisphere, however several originated in Eurasia, most probably in the region around the Caspian Sea. It is abundant in Russia from the Black Sea regions through Siberia, but thrives everywhere with the exception of very cold regions. Datura is used ritually wherever it is found, including widespread regions of Africa, China, India, Mexico, and the North American southwest. Remains of seeds and seedpods found within a ritual context in South Texas, together with remains of other psychotropic plants, have been dated back to 2000 BCE.

Datura is used to hex and to break hexes, to induce sleep and visionary dreams. It has historically been used to communicate with other species, especially birds, and to enter other realms, especially that of the after-life. Unfortunately, it may be a one-way trip. Datura is deadly poisonous. Its active ingredient is hyoscyamine, which is similar to atropine but has a more powerful effect on the peripheral nervous system, causing powerful hallucinations.

Thorn apple is the form of datura most familiar in Western magic. Thorn apple (Datura stramonium) has been known in Europe since the sixteenth century, apparently introduced by the Romany who are believed to have been instrumental in datura’s spread through Europe.

The most notorious datura may be Jimsonweed, which is a corruption of Jamestown Weed. There are two versions of how this species of datura acquired that name:

Image In 1676, soldiers were sent to Jamestown in the Virginia colony to quell a local rebellion and somehow accidentally ate the plant. This was followed by an 11-day period of delirium. The news spread throughout the colonies and Britain and the name stuck.

Image The plant was named in honor of the first place in the American colonies where datura was deliberately cultivated for medical use.

Once upon a time datura was an important medicinal incorporated into treatment for madness, melancholia, and seizure disorders. Its no longer used as such; the toxicity rate was too high and safer replacements have been developed. In 1968, the United States banned the sale of over-the-counter preparations containing datura.


(Sambucus nigra)

The elder, known as the “witch tree,” is powerfully identified with witchcraft, the magical arts and goddess-oriented Pagan tradition.

The elder is a threshold tree: it serves as a portal that allows souls to pass between realms. Ghosts, spirits, and elves can pass into the mortal realm via elder trees and bushes but, remember, one-way signs don’t exist in the magical, shamanic world. Elders are also portals where you can access other realms.

In order to establish contact with other realms, try burning elder bark, blossoms, roots, and wood as incense. (If gathering botanical material yourself, remember to ask for permission from the plant first and always to leave a gift in return.)

The elder is sacred to the Germanic deity, Hulda, known affectionately as Mother Holle. Hulda was once an extremely prominent, important deity, so entrenched in people’s hearts that, unlike some other spirits, she was never entirely banished. Unable to completely eradicate her, local Christian authority dubbed her a Queen of Witches, with the immediate implication that all who were devoted to this queen were witches themselves. In Denmark, the elder tree itself is called Frau Hylle or Hyllemoer, Danish for Mother Holle or Frau Holle. In Anglo-Saxon it was known as Hylder or Hylantree. As part of Hulda’s ritual, circle dances were performed around the tree.

For the ancient Germans and Slavs, old elder trees, especially those that nestled close to a house, were the home of family ghosts. Because they are threshold trees, elders are often incorporated into funeral rites.

Image Heathen Frisians buried their dead underneath elders.

Image In England, grave-diggers traditionally carried elder wood so as to protect them from any malevolent ghosts lingering in the graveyard.

Image In other areas, it was customary for the driver of the hearse to carry a whip made of elder wood.

Perhaps because of associations with Hulda, elder became identified with witchcraft. Elder bushes personified witches. It was believed that witches could transform into elders as surely as they could assume the form of a cat. One single solitary elderberry bush popping up in an unexpected spot might actually be a witch in disguise—another reason to treat the elder with respect. Perhaps in the spirit of that old saying “it takes one to know one” elders are also powerful agents used to ward off malevolent spells.

Elders have a powerful reputation as protective trees, especially for fending off malevolent witchcraft. Traditionally fingernail parings, hair or teeth are buried beneath elders so as to prevent their use in malevolent spells. Afterbirths of calves and foals are buried beneath elders so that neither the new-born animals nor their mothers can be bewitched. (These practices may also be simultaneously understood as offerings to Mother Holle, the elves or the ancestors, depending upon whose spirit resides within the particular elder.)

Elder wood is carved into amulets to prevent unwanted enchantment. Green elder branches were also buried in a grave to protect the dead from witches and evil spirits.

Elder is incorporated into many spells, especially those for love and protection. A nickname for elder sap is “blood.” Sap was understood as literally the blood of the tree, in the same way that bark is its skin and leaves the tree’s hair. Because the elder was believed to house important spirits, to embody Hulda’s essence or to even be a witch in disguise, elder “blood” was potentially incredibly powerful, more powerful than most sap. Northern European spells that cite “blood” as an ingredient may, in fact, be requesting elder sap instead.

Elder is a short, bent, crooked tree that never grows very tall, hence the constant confusion between whether it’s a bush or a tree. It is not a tall, forbidding, imposing tree. Unlike other witchcraft plants, elderberries are not toxic but tasty and nutritious—as anyone who’s had elderberry preserves or wine can attest.

Unlike so many other witchcraft plants, elders are friendly plants; they’re understood as a tree that likes people and is by nature helpful and affectionate. (Spirits residing within may or may not be as friendly and benevolent: Frau Holle and the elves both possess reputations for volatility, although this may be in response to defamation and loss of respect and offerings.)

Elder’s roots among spiritual traditions of Northern Europe and its associations with spiritual entities and ancestral spirits were so powerfully entrenched that it created a dilemma for ascendant Christian authority. Attempts were made to either taint the tree as evil and diabolical, thus to be shunned by all righteous people, or to incorporate elder into Christian tradition, so that its use could continue under proper auspices. Both methods were historically tried.

In the days before the easy availability of wax and hence cheap candles, elder was a source of light.

Elder Candles

1. Slice the pith of elder branches into round shapes.

2. Dip these slices into oil.

3. Set the slices alight and carefully float them in water to create floating “candles.”

In areas where attachment to Hulda was particularly strong, attempts were made to brand the elder as an evil tree, something to be feared. The only people who would use elder with impunity were witches. (There may be some truth to this: because it was believed spiritually hazardous to harvest any part of the elder without requesting permission from the resident spirits, only those who knew how to do this, who remembered these practices and didn’t fear them, would be willing to gather twigs or berries.)

Elder retained its associations with paganism but now paganism was identified with the devil rather than with helpful deities. (One tradition from this era suggests that if you wanted to invite the devil over for a visit, burning an elder log in your fireplace officially extends an invitation.)

In an attempt to break chains of transmission, to seal up the portals and make people fear venturing near thresholds, Christian missionaries painted the elder as an evil tree. Various legends emerged:

Image An elder whip was used to scourge Jesus and that’s why elder’s branches bear cracks on the skin.

Image Judas committed suicide by hanging himself from an elder.

Image It was widely believed that Christ had been crucified on an elder wood cross, which is why the tree is now so stunted and bent.

On the other hand, in attempts to ingratiate the elder into Christianity and substitute associations for the pagan goddess with the Virgin Mary, another legend suggests that Mary hung Jesus’ swaddling clothes on elder branches under which she had sought protection from a storm. (There is a northern legend that lightning never strikes elders, although whether Mary would have known this in first-century Egypt or Judea, where the date palm or tamarisk is the primary sacred tree is impossible to verify.)

Regardless of these efforts, elder’s identity as a powerful spiritually charged plant was impossible to shake. Historically, date palms weren’t easy to obtain in Northern climates and so the elder, that ancient local sacred plant, was a frequent substitute. In Allgau, Germany, for instance, the cross for Palm Sunday “palms” was formed from elder branches instead.

See also CALENDAR: Midsummer’s.


(Ulmus campestris)

Elm trees are widely distributed, from as far south as Mexico, to as far north as the Himalayas. One species, the Scotch Elm (Ulmus montana) is also known as the Wych Elm. In German, however, the entire species of elms may be classed as “Hexenulme” or Witch’s Elm.

The elm has a reputation as a cranky tree, allegedly dropping branches onto people’s heads deliberately. Elms can be very tall and as such served as local landmarks. Meeting under an elm was an easy direction to follow because elms were frequently the tallest, most imposing trees around. Witches allegedly danced around elms, particularly on May Eve.

Romany magical tradition prizes the elm as a tree of particularly powerful enchantment. Romany magic wands are traditionally crafted from elm although the wood can never be cut but only received as a gift from the tree in the form of naturally fallen branches. (Frustrated because there is no fallen branch? If the tree wants to work with you, a branch will be available, perhaps falling directly onto your head. If not, that’s your signal to look elsewhere or to be patient.)

Elms were associated with death and passage into the realms of the Dead. Spirit guardians of burial mounds were believed to make their homes in elms. The wood was once used to craft coffins.

Enchanter’s Nightshade

(Circaea lutetiana or Circaea alpine)

This is Circe’s plant; the enchanter in question is the Greek witch-goddess Circe. Other names for it include Walpurgis Herb, Great Witch Herb, Sorcerer of Paris (the Trojan prince, not the city), Paris Nightshade, Magic Herb, and Great and Common Witch’s Herb. In German, it’s called Hexenkraut (Witches’ Herb); its Anglo-Saxon name was Aelfthone, as it was believed to counter elf-derived illnesses.

Despite its common folk name, it is not as toxic as other plants nicknamed Nightshade, such as Black Nightshade, Deadly Nightshade or Russian Nightshade. There are two species of Enchanter’s Nightshade. The most common—Circaea lutetiana—is from Eurasia. It grows best near streams and damp, marshy places, often associated with witchcraft and magic.

A variation of the species prefers higher altitudes. Alpine Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea alpine) is also called Circe of the Alps. Both plants are associated with hexes, binding charms, and love spells. Enchanter’s Nightshade was one of the plants whose possession was sufficient evidence to warrant accusation of witchcraft.


(Hyoscyamus niger)

Hyoscyamus niger earned its English folk name because of the danger it posed to free ranging poultry. Among its other names are devil’s eye, god’s bean, henbell, hogbean, Insana, Jupiter’s bean, and poison tobacco.

Henbane is a biennial that was originally indigenous from Mediterranean regions through Asia Minor. It’s been transplanted to the United States where it now grows wild on wasteland, old, neglected gardens, cemeteries, and ruins.

Henbane’s active component is hyoscyamine. It is very dangerous when used excessively or over extended periods of time. The general consensus among the ancients was that excessive use of henbane caused madness and insanity. Henbane’s effect is similar to that of datura; however it was indigenous to regions of Europe where datura was unknown until late in the Middle Ages and so henbane was for centuries Europe’s most accessible, if secret, hallucinogen. (Toadstools—Amanita muscaria—were typically gathered from the wild; henbane is relatively easily cultivated.) For many generations it was the most prominent, beloved “witch plant” in Europe. It is also used similarly in Africa and India, although there it has more indigenous competition.

Henbane was once among the most important ritual plants of the German lands, sacred to Lord Balder. According to Germanic tradition, for optimum power the ritual harvesting of henbane must be accomplished by naked women, under the direction of magical spirits. This may indicate that the women are ritually channeling these spirits during the harvest.

Henbane was traditionally used for conjuring up those spirits as well as for divination. Henbane seeds were burned in European bathhouses, a place traditionally associated with divination and spell-casting, well into the Middle Ages. Henbane was also used as a charm in medieval weather magic. It was also once among the ingredients of a very popular medieval beer, one that apparently intoxicated in more ways than one.

All parts of the henbane plant are deadly poisonous. Allegedly even inhaling the scent of its fresh leaves may lead to intoxication and stupor. The dead in Hades were crowned with henbane wreathes, but then they were past worrying about it. Henbane is believed to have been the poison used to kill Hamlet’s father in Shakespeare’s play.

Although it is poisonous, henbane has historically had various medicinal uses and was believed beneficial for hernia, lung disorders, and pain relief—provided one had a herbal physician with enough skill and knowledge to administer it. Because it has narcotic properties, it has traditionally been used medicinally as an anesthetic and a sedative. It was used for various gynecological treatments. Traditional midwifery utilized henbane as a soporific during childbirth so as to create an early form of “twilight sleep.” The Irish name for Hyoscyamus niger is gafann. Meted out in very carefully measured doses, it was once valued in Irish herbalism for its anodyne and sedative properties.

During the era of the Inquisition possession and use of henbane was considered sufficient proof for conviction of witchcraft.


(Juniperus communis)

Juniper is not poisonous. Every year, juniper trees are safely brought into the home at Christmas. Its berries are found among the spice aisles of food markets, not to mention as the primary flavoring in gin. Juniper is a component of many over-thecounter medical preparations, bath oils, herbal, and cosmetic products. However, it is not safe for use by pregnant women or by those actively attempting to conceive.

Juniper is an evergreen widely distributed throughout the Northern hemisphere, with a long history of use in magic, midwifery, herbal medicine, and the brewing of intoxicants. Like those other small trees, elder and rowan, juniper is simultaneously identified with witchcraft and an alleged guard against it.

Long ago, in Western Asia, juniper was associated with Lady Asherah and her daughters Anat and Astarte. Like those renowned, powerful goddesses, juniper is associated with birth, death, and prophetic ability.

Juniper earned its fame as an herbal menstrual regulator. For women who lacked periods or whose cycles were irregular, preparations of juniper could jump-start them onto the road to regularity and fertility. However, timing and need are everything: juniper was also famous as a contraceptive and herbal abortifacient. Depending upon one’s perspective, juniper was understood as a woman’s stalwart botanical ally, providing whatever she needed, or as an evil tree under the dominion of Satan.

Juniper is included in many love spells and aphrodisiac formulations. When administered to men, frequently in the form of a potion, it allegedly increases sexual prowess and irresistibility. When administered to women, especially if in the form of a bath or douche, as in the Hoodoo formulation known as Hot Mama for instance, it may be understood as being intended to have contraceptive effects. (There is as yet no conclusive scientific information verifying or disputing this historic folkloric use of juniper, although, pregnant women are strongly cautioned against its use.)

Juniper’s magical uses aren’t limited to love and reproduction: it was also burned to stimulate clairvoyance and for protection from disease. (The volatile oils released by the burning wood provide an antiseptic effect.) Even after World War I, French hospitals burned juniper branches alongside lavender to minimize rates of infection and the spread of disease. Juniper wood was traditionally included in Samhain bonfires to stimulate clairvoyance among those who inhaled its fumes.

Juniper was also believed by some to ward off witchcraft. If one understands “witchcraft” to be synonymous with malevolent magic, then the belief makes sense; however it remains ironic, because by the late Middle Ages and beyond in Central Europe, juniper had become almost exclusively associated with witches and midwives.

Juniper became famous for its use as an herbal contraceptive and abortifacient at a time when such things were against the law and believed by many to set one literally onto the road to Hell. This was particularly true of the subspecies Juniperus sabina, popularly known as savin or sabin, which grows in Alpine regions and Central Europe and is a particularly potent menstrual regulator. The phrase “giving birth under the savin” was a common euphemism used during the Middle Ages for induced miscarriage.

An eighteenth-century traveler visiting Swabia (now in modern Germany) writes that savin bushes served as a code, providing clear messages that couldn’t be spoken aloud. Savin bushes in a garden signaled that the garden belonged to either a midwife or a barber, who at the time also frequently offered abortion services. Desperate people stole entire bushes or raided them for materials. Local authorities, on the other hand, periodically destroyed savin bushes as preventive measures. Eventually in many Central European areas, the only savin bushes to be found were discreetly hidden among other plants on private property. Bushes on public property had all been destroyed. If the botanicals don’t exist, women can’t use them.

Do not be in a hurry to plant savin bushes or at least not for personal use. They are beautiful, fragrant, powerful plants. However, although juniper bushes survive, the skilled practitioners who knew their secrets did not. Like the other plants in this section, administration required an experienced practitioner with a skillful hand. The wrong dosage, by a very slight margin, could cause disaster. The Brothers Grimm story The Juniper Tree recounts the tale of a woman who, unable to conceive, makes a paganinfluenced sacrifice under her juniper tree. She conceives, but late in pregnancy (too late; she dies) she develops a desperate craving for juniper berries. The story is mysterious and indecipherable unless one understands the implications of that tree and those berries, inferences the Grimms’ sources would have immediately understood.

Juniper’s role as a component in intoxicating beverages remains today. It was once used to flavor whiskey. Genevrette is a French beer-like drink brewed from equal parts barley and juniper berries. The Dutch alcoholic beverage known as jenever eventually evolved into the English potion, gin.

See also CALENDAR: Samhain.


(Mandragora officinarum, also classified as Atropa mandragora)

Mandrake’s claim to fame lies in the magical resemblance of its roots to the human figure. Individual specimens are identifiably female or male (and a few very special ones may be both). There is no plant more identified with magic and witchcraft.

Mandrake’s main magical uses have to do with love, sex, fertility, and wish fulfillment. Because it has narcotic properties, mandrake also has a long history as an early anesthetic.

In Arabic, mandrake is known as Father of Life (referring to its fertility-inducing powers) and Djinn’s Egg or Devil’s Apple (these aren’t demonic references but are instead intended to refer to mandrake’s power as an aphrodisiac to provide forbidden pleasures. Islam has no demonology comparable to that of witch-hunt era Europe.) In Hebrew, the word for mandrake is translated as “love-apples,” referring to its aphrodisiac properties.

The mandrake plant is indigenous to Mediterranean regions, especially Crete, Sicily, and the Levantine coast, as well as Iraq, North Africa, and Spain. It grows wild and is not uncommon in these areas. Nineteenth-century missionaries traveling to the Middle East wrote that women used this plant in the same manner and for the same purposes as described by the Bible. Mandrake’s natural range extends as far north as Mount Vicentia on the southern edge of the Venetian Alps.

Although it grows rampant in warm, dry climates, it may be cultivated with care in areas not naturally conducive to its growth. The master herbalist John Gerard (1545—1612), for instance, cultivated it in his greenhouse.

Magical references almost inevitably discuss just the roots; the whole plant is lovely and useful, although potentially poisonous if taken internally. Mandrake has apple-like fruit (all those apple names aren’t mere affectation) and lovely flowers possessing a strong aroma.

Mandrake is a member of the Nightshade family, many of whose members contain deadly poisons. Mandrake, too, is poisonous—the berries are particularly toxic. However, for magical purposes, mandrake is virtually always used as an amulet. It is carried, placed under the mattress, or shaped into a doll. It is safe to handle mandrake root (unlike wolfsbane, for instance, which is so toxic, even touching the plant may cause irritation) but not to take any part of the plant internally or to otherwise apply it to the body.

Many tales and legends describe mandrake’s magic powers but the most famous occurs in the Old Testament. This is significant because although biblical injunctions are frequently used as the rationale for persecuting witches, in this case, the Bible recounts a magical success story. The biblical patriarch Jacob is married to two sisters. He loves the younger one, Rachel, passionately but she’s infertile and desperately wants to conceive. He doesn’t love the older sister, Leah (who desperately loves him) although that hasn’t stopped him from fathering her many children. One day, Leah’s oldest son, Reuben, old enough to understand his mother’s situation, finds a mandrake root and brings it to her so that she can use it to magically gain Jacob’s love. Word gets around and Rachel shows up, demanding the mandrake so that she can use it to magically conceive. The two negotiate and, ultimately, Rachel gets the mandrake, conceiving soon afterwards.

The Bible carried mandrake’s reputation around the Eastern Hemisphere; the name “mandrake” developed an aura of allure and power but there was one problem: true mandrake doesn’t grow wild in cold climates. People in these colder areas wanted mandrake too but it wasn’t available. What were they to do? They began referring to local plants with similar uses and human-shaped roots as “mandrake” too. Thus the name “mandrake” may refer to a variety of different and unrelated plants. True mandrake belongs to the Mandragora species.

If you purchase mandrake in Greece or the Middle East or North Africa, it’s quite possible that you’re receiving the real thing. If you’re anywhere else, you’re most likely receiving some substitute. These substitutes can be very powerful—some even prefer them; however be aware that the prices charged should reflect what you’re actually getting. There is no need to spend huge sums on Devil’s Apple, black bryony, May Apple, white bryony or ginseng.

These all have human-shaped roots similar to mandrake. Many possess a similar magical nature and most are, like mandrake, intended for use as amulets not for internal use, because they are poisonous if consumed.

True mandrake has been an important medicinal plant for just as long as it’s been an important magical one. When discussing any sort of medicinal use, that information applies only to true mandrake, the Mandragora species.

Along with opium poppies, mandrake was among the very first anesthetics in existence. Mandrake was first administered either as a potion made by boiling the root in wine, or as an inhalant made by soaking cloth in mandrake infusions. Greek physicians offered their dental patients mandrake root to chew as a local anesthetic. Hippocrates, the author of the Hippocratic oath and considered the founder of modern medicine, wrote of mandrake in approximately 400 BCE, “a small dose in wine, less than would occasion delirium, will relieve the deepest depression and anxiety.”

Mandrake can induce deep sleep, however the incorrect dosage can cause the big sleep from which one never awakens. Fatal doses are very possible, demonstrating that, then as now, anesthesia can be among the most dangerous parts of the surgical process. The medicinal was usually prepared from the root, as is the magical amulet.

During antiquity mandrake root was used as an anesthetic, antiseptic, narcotic, and tonic. Until the early modern era, mandrake wine was used to treat insomnia.

Diluted mandrake root juice was used as an anesthetic during surgery in first-century Greece. Mandrake was used as an anesthetic by the Romans and by the renowned Arabic physicians. Its most dramatic use, however, was in Roman-occupied Judea. Crucifixion was not a unique punishment; the Romans crucified masses of people. Jewish women brewed draughts from mandrakes and soaked sponges in the liquid to offer men nailed to the crosses, causing an anesthetic effect. Depending upon the dose, this could be fatal—a mercy killing. Sometimes, however, the person only had the appearance of death, often fairly long-term. The body would be returned to their family. Eventually they would recover. When the Romans discovered what was going on (perhaps witnessing too many dead men walking) policies were changed: it was decreed that before any man was released from the cross, his legs would be broken and/or he was to be brutally pierced with a spear.

Magically, mandrake is always used as an amulet and never taken internally.

Image For purposes of enhancing fertility, mandrake is carried as a charm or placed under the bed.

Image Men traditionally carried mandrake in mojo bags to serve as love charms.

Image Breton and Norman fishermen once wore jewelry made from mandrake root pieces as protective talismans.

Even when mandrake was an important medicinal (and perhaps because mandrake was such an important medicinal) it has always been associated with witchcraft and magic. The ancient Greeks associated mandrakes with Circe and called it Circaea, although that is now the modern botanical classification for Enchanter’s Nightshade, not mandrake (see page 161). Other European folk names include Witch’s Herb (Hexenkraut), Satan’s Apple (this time meant demonically), and Monster Root. Its medicinal background is recalled in the nickname Doctor Root.

In France, it was such common practice to carry a mandrake that, in 1429, the Franciscan Friar Richard denounced the practice and destroyed great numbers of them. Her inquisitors accused Joan of Arc of carrying one for wealth, although she claimed to be unfamiliar with them. The French fairy Magloire presides over the use of the mandrake root. Some believe that the concept of the Hand of Glory (in French main de gloire) derives from mandrake’s classical name, Mandragora.

Nowhere was the magical use of mandrake root more popular or inventive than in Germany. Historically, virtually nowhere on Earth has there been harsher treatment of witches than in Germany or more concentrated effort to exterminate them; however, ironically or not, there are equally few other places on Earth where magical and botanical knowledge has ever been more persistent. In sixteenth-century German lands, a synonym for witches was Alraundelberin or “mandrake bearer.” “Alraune” already indicated a witch; it now came to mean mandrake, as well (well, really black bryony) so that mandrake and witch became synonyms.

Although technically alraune just means “mandrake” more is implied. The alraune describes a magical system, whereby the mandrake root (the alraune) is cared for, fed, and bathed by a person; in return the alraune provides that person with magical wish fulfillment, protection, and good fortune. This is very similar to various African rituals and to modern African-derived root-working.

The alraune became a staple of medieval German magical practice. Every Friday the root was bathed in wine, wrapped in white silk and laid in a box that was as beautiful or magically empowered as possible. One would whisper one’s desires to the mandrake and hopefully watch them come into fruition.

A slightly different variation existed too: the mandrake root might be surgically enhanced to further its resemblance to a human being (a bit of plastic surgery, in effect), dressed in little clothes, and placed on a throne to serve as oracle or household guardian. Because this practice was extremely illegal (this was at the height of the witch-trials), the seated doll might be kept upright in a small hidden closed cabinet or box (rather than laid flat as in the other method). A popular modern collector’s doll from Germany is known as the Hexen or Walpurgis doll; these tend to be fairly demonic creations, packaged in coffins as if they were vampires. They offend those who resent the false demonization of witches. However, they may also be understood as a corruption and continuation of this alraune tradition, the little “witch” in a box.

The concept of a wish-fulfilling mandrake doll is very ancient; allegedly Thessalian witches were able to animate mandrake mannequins and send them out to do various magical jobs. (A similar scenario exists in Abraham Merritt’s pulp novel, Burn Witch Burn.)

Although some loved and venerated alraunes, others perceived them as diabolical conduits to Satan. Many believed that it was impossible to get rid of an alraune. One’s only option was to sell it. Otherwise, no matter what you did—burn it, toss it in the sea, stamp it to bits—it would be right back, hale and hearty and intact upon your shelf.

In rural areas, people may have obtained their own alraunes, but in urban areas professionals sold them on the magical black market. The risk was tremendously great, to both purchaser and vendor, however the price the alraune demanded was very high: fortunes were made. Real practitioners may have been wary of exposing themselves; however black marketeers, often petty swindlers, knew a hot property when they saw one. You must recall that what was being sold as “genuine mandrake” was already really black bryony, a local root. By the sixteenth century it had become common practice to doctor these roots.

Mandrake roots have always been embellished to enhance their human resemblance. However what was based on tradition soon became fraud. The most authentically human-looking mandrake roots are old ones that have years’ growing but who wants to wait that long to make a profit, especially when witch-hunters are expected in town? A potential buyer would explain why they wanted a mandrake (for fertility usually or for sexual magnetism); the vendor would tell them that he had a mandrake growing in a pot and to come over tomorrow. The vendor would hurry home, doctor a bryony root to look as if it would fulfill the purchaser’s desires and then stick the root into a pot of dirt, so that when the buyer arrived it would look as if it emerged from the Earth in exactly that form. Specimens may be found today in museums in Germany as well as in London and Vienna. They are cut to resemble women, men, couples, even a woman cradling a child.

All kinds of superstitions were associated with mandrake, particularly regarding the manner in which it must be gathered. Although it can be carefully dug out the same as any other root, it became traditional to pull the entire mandrake plant from the ground in one fell swoop.

Because it’s the intact root that desired, it must be pulled from Earth without damaging it. Various legends and traditions sprang up including one that suggests that pulling mandrakes is the equivalent of a game of tug-of-war. If you fail to dislodge the mandrake, it might pull you in return, causing you to disappear into the depths of the Earth.

According to another legend, mandrake screams when it is pulled; hearing the scream is fatal. Another version suggests that the first one to pull up the root dies. All kinds of complex machinations for harvesting mandrake developed: one had to stuff up one’s ears with wax, tie a dog to the plant and then somehow induce him to jump away with such force that the entire root is pulled out of Earth in one piece. This practice allegedly kills the dog. Once this sacrifice has been made, the plant is believed safe to handle and use and exists as an object of wish fulfillment. (These are all superstitions, although they are based on tradition: see below. Mandrakes are grown in nurseries today; no dogs are killed during the harvest nor are there any other mandrake-induced fatalities involved in the harvest. Let’s just say that if any dog ever died during mandrake harvests—and these legends may have no basis whatsoever in fact—the mandrake’s scream isn’t what killed it.)

A later legend that developed in places where mandrake was considered diabolical suggests that it grew only at crossroads, the home of the devil, or underneath gallows—usually erected at crossroads—where the mandrake was nourished by emanations from the corpse. (One cheerful tradition suggests that mandrake isn’t any ordinary plant root but is, in fact, a hanged man’s congealed urine or semen.) Along those lines, it was believed that mandrake’s form reflected that of the dead man, especially if he died a virgin or lived as a congenital thief. (These legends inspired the German novel Alrauna by H. H. Ewers, which in turn inspired no less than five film adaptations. See CREATIVE ARTS: Literature.)

These superstitions are rooted in metaphysical beliefs that had become distorted and demonized. Frequently they are cover-ups for pagan traditions, simultaneously beloved (or at least the potential results are desired) and feared. The machinations with the dog, for instance, may be cover-up for a canine sacrifice that was once intrinsic to the harvest.

The tradition that the mandrake kills the one who initially pulls it from the ground may be based on a Jewish legend (recounted among Louis Ginzburg’s multi-volume Legends of the Jews) that Reuben found the mandrake lying near a dead donkey. (The donkey’s link to the mandrake has sexual connotations that aren’t immediately grasped today.) Interestingly, according to Transylvanian Romany tradition, the root of an orchid used similarly to mandrake is gathered in the same manner by attaching a dog to it. The dog doesn’t die but is encouraged to lunge away by luring it with donkey’s meat.

In Poland, mandrake was gathered by laying bread and money on the ground. The root was carefully pulled up; the offerings were laid in the resulting hole as payment and the hole carefully covered with Earth. The root was bathed in milk, carefully dried, and then wrapped in silk and carried home in a box. In Abruzzi, Italy, mandrake, like other magical plants, was believed best harvested on Midsummer’s Eve.

Sometimes a living plant was desired, not just the root. Having a living mandrake plant on one’s property allegedly brings great fortune, health, and happiness. However, one must take care in transplanting it—any injury to the plant allegedly results in insanity for the guilty party.

See ANIMALS: Donkeys; DICTIONARY: Alraune; Mojo.


(Viscum album)

Other names: Witch’s Branch; Witch’s Broom

Mistletoe is native to a region stretching from Northern Europe to Northwest Africa and east all the way to Japan. Wherever it is found, mistletoe is considered holy, sacred, powerful, and magical.

Mistletoe is unique: it was understood as a plant that wasn’t a plant—a sort of magical plant. Mistletoe doesn’t grow in Earth; it’s a parasite that attaches itself to trees and eventually may kill them. (Identification of mistletoe with witches wasn’t always meant positively. Other inferences were also intended.)

Mistletoe’s poisonous berries look like tiny golden full moons. In German, these berries are known as “witch’s berries.”

Mistletoe may be the golden bough that inspired Sir James Frazer’s influential book of that name. Mistletoe was sacred to the Greeks and Romans, who believed that it originated when lightning struck trees. For them, mistletoe represented life energy and generative, magic power. If Frazer is correct, mistletoe was sacred to Diana, Queen of Witches.

The Celts nicknamed mistletoe “thunderbroom,” uniting male and female sexual symbolism. No other botanical is as profoundly associated with Druid magic. The Druids believed that it was inauspicious for mistletoe to ever touch the ground and so created an elaborate method of harvest, which involved plucking it from the tree, using a golden sickle, with nets to catch it before it landed.

In Germanic tradition mistletoe is under the dominion of Freya, and brings blessings of love and fertility. Of course, Freya has two sides: she’s a love goddess but also a death goddess.

Mistletoe’s most famous appearance in mythology occurs when it is the object responsible for the death of Lord Balder. Balder has disturbing dreams; his imminent death is indicated. To forestall this tragedy, his mother, Frigg, travels about the Earth seeking assurances from every living being that they will never harm her son. Because mistletoe is so small and puny, she doesn’t think it’s necessary to ask. The moral of the story is an important one in herbalism: the most innocuous plants sometimes are the most lethal.

Mistletoe is used in various medicinal preparations that can only be safely prepared or administered by a master herbalist. Because of its pagan associations, and because of this needed skill, mistletoe became associated solely with witchcraft medicine and the magical arts, except for once a year on Christmas Eve, when this formerly sacred plant is hung from the ceiling to stimulate kissing, love, and romance.



(Artemisia vulgaris)

Other names: Motherwort; The Red Goat

Caution! Mugwort is not safe for pregnant women or for those actively attempting to conceive. Mugwort Essential Oil, also known as Armoise, its French name, is unsafe for everyone and is potentially fatal. Dried or fresh mugwort herb (the whole thing, not some concentration) is safe for occasional use by most adults.

Mugwort’s Latin name refers to it as common or vulgar Artemisia, as if any member of that plant family could possibly be common or vulgar. They are named in honor of the goddess Artemis. The most famous explanation is that she gave the plant as a gift to the physician centaur Chiron, who tutored Achilles and many other renowned Greek heroes. However another version suggests that the plant is named after Artemis because most of its medicinal uses involve female reproduction over which she has dominion.

Image Mugwort has been used to stimulate menstruation, whether to induce fertility or to terminate pregnancy.

Image Mugwort has historically been used to harmonize menstrual cycles with lunar cycles. If one understands that Artemis shares the same essence as the moon, then one is harmonizing oneself with the goddess as well.

Once upon a time, mugwort was considered among the most important of women’s herbs. It was incorporated into infusions and baths and burned as incense.

Image The ancient Anglo-Saxons considered mugwort first among their nine sacred plants, calling it the Mother Herb.

Image In Poland, mugwort, known as bylica and called the Mother of All Herbs, is the most powerfully magic plant of all.

Image In Russian, mugwort is called chernobyl, which obviously has terrible modern connotations because of the disaster at the nuclear power plant in the town bearing that name. The word has long held magical significance in Russian witchcraft traditions and also makes reference to crow’s beaks and has associations with the spirit, the Queen of Snakes. It is sometimes a forbidden word, not to be uttered during certain forms of spell-craft because if uttered, the spell is immediately nullified.

Image In the southern Tyrol, mugwort is called “broom herb”; because of its association with witches’ brooms.

The plant allegedly protects against witchcraft, ghosts, and thieves. It is a traveler’s herb, providing safety and protection. Another nickname for mugwort is Saint John’s Girdle, commemorating John the Baptist, who allegedly roamed the wilderness eating wild honey and wearing a mugwort belt.

Mugwort is among the original bitter herbs; it doesn’t taste good and so has very few culinary uses. Mugwort’s uses tend to be restricted to women’s reproductive issues and to magic. By the Middle Ages, possession of Artemis’ sacred gift was considered sufficient evidence for conviction of witchcraft. Only midwives or witches (and for many, those terms were synonymous) could possibly use mugwort, a botanical that must be handled with care.

It may be used to stimulate fertility, however if used during pregnancy, it may have disastrous effects. Its potential gifts are dependent upon administration by skilled herb-doctors who understand both the nuances of the botanical and the nuances of the female body.

It doesn’t grow easily from seed but grows wildly rampant in wastelands and ruins. Those who desired mugwort were often forced to gather it in the cemeteries and ruins it favors, increasing its sinister associations. (When it’s happy in its environment, mugwort grows so well that in part of the North American Midwest, where it has been naturalized, it’s treated as a pest, fit for nothing but eradication.)

Although dried mugwort may be easily and inexpensively purchased from herbal suppliers, living mugwort plants can be difficult to obtain today. Mugwort, the ultimate witch plant, is most frequently found today in packaged “dream teas” and “dream pillows.” It is almost always the activating constituent in dreamstimulation products although, because mugwort tastes so bitter, it may be buffered by many other ingredients. As might be gathered, mugwort’s other profound gift is stimulation of dreams and clairvoyance. It usually has a fairly dramatic effect: mugwort opens the portals to other realms and shoves you through. It is worthwhile remembering that Artemis the Huntress was not a gentle goddess by anyone’s standards.

Mugwort sometimes reaches heights of five feet, blooming and achieving its peak power at Midsummer’s Eve. Mugwort is among the plants most associated with Midsummer’s. Mugwort ashes from the Midsummer’s bonfires bring good luck all year round.

See CALENDAR: Midsummer’s Eve; DIVINE WITCH: Artemis.


(Verbascum thapsus)

Mullein is a tall, straight plant with downy leaves. When dried, the down on its leaves and stem are excellent tinder. In the days before wax was inexpensive, dried mullein stalks made excellent torches. They were used as such in the rites of the dark moon goddess, Hecate, to whom they are sacred. Hecate, Queen of Witches, is completely nocturnal. She only accepts petitions after dark and she’s fairly picky about forms of illumination. Mullein stalks are her favorite choice. This history is reflected in mullein’s many nicknames: The Hag’s Taper, or the Witch’s Taper, or Corpse Candle.

Another nickname is graveyard dust. Hecate rules the frontier between death and life, often escorting people back and forth over the border. Powdered mullein, her sacred herb, is considered an acceptable substitute for true cemetery dirt called for in magic spells.

Mullein’s associations with death aren’t limited to Hecate or Eurasia. Mullein is also sacred to Oya, the spirit of Africa’s Niger River, who has become increasingly prominent in African-Diaspora faiths where she is Queen of the Cemetery Gates. Oya is the only one among the Yoruba spirits, the orisha, who has no fear of the realm of the dead. Like Hecate, Oya is a powerful witch and herbalist who protects women and children.

Mullein is used in various herbal preparations, particularly for ear infections. It was believed to ward off wild animals. (Animals in general will not consume mullein because the downy leaves irritate their throats.) However, because of its associations with dark goddesses and pagan magic, mullein retained a somewhat sinister reputation and was identified as a witchcraft plant.



(Urtica dioica)

The nettles are a family of plants widely distributed over Earth and were once considered very beneficial and widely used. Cloth was spun from nettles. The plant supplied the thread used by Germans and Scandinavians prior to the introduction of flax.

The tops of the leaves may be cooked and are very nutritious. (Stinging nettles really do sting and must be picked with gloves; however once dried or cooked, the sting is gone.) Many beneficial medicinal uses exist. By the Middle Ages, however, in the same places where it had once been prevalent and much used, stinging nettles were so associated with witchcraft that possession was grounds for accusations of being a witch. How did this once beneficial plant develop such an evil reputation?

Although nettles are used to dissolve gallbladder stones, heal wounds, and to relieve the stiffness of arthritis, its primary medicinal associations are largely female-oriented. Stinging nettles are a woman’s friend. Traditional medicinal uses included soothing and hastening labor, so the nettle became perceived as a demonic plant because Eve had been doomed to suffer in childbirth. Attempts to relieve labor pains were considered pagan, sinful, and defiant.

Stinging nettles have other uses: they are classified as a galactogogue, meaning that they stimulate and increase a woman’s milk supply. That’s a fairly innocuous use. However, honey mixed with the juice of Roman nettles (Urtica pilulifera) and applied to a strip of linen inserted vaginally prior to intercourse was an early attempt at contraception in ancient Egypt, as well as the bordellos of ancient Rome. The honey worked as a barrier. Nettle juice may have some spermicidal properties.

Nettles represented wilderness, wild women, and the general quality of being wild. Because they sting and because the juice of nettles provides the antidote for that sting, nettles were identified as the botanical equivalent of snakes, whose venom both heals and harms. Snakes were understood as the animal companion of Satan. Nettles were perceived as diabolical plants. Consuming them allegedly stimulated lust, which perhaps doesn’t seem so bad today, but was, once upon a time, among those sins for which witches, especially alluring, enchanting ones, were blamed. Nettles came to represent witches; they share the witches’ essence and back then that wasn’t meant as a compliment.

The botanical name for what is known in English as blind nettles—Lamium album—derives from Lamia, often understood as a synonym for “witch.” Lamia, in mythology, was a tragic queen reduced to stealing, killing, and maybe consuming other women’s babies.

Stinging nettles are traditionally used in witchcraft to remove curses and break spells. They are protective, guardian plants. Their stinging, prickly nature epitomizes their watchdog nature. What type of dog is most frequently chosen to serve as a guard? A cute, little, fluffy one or a dog that at least looks like it could inflict some damage? The trade in Rottweillers, Dobermans, and pit bull terriers says it all. Stinging nettles are their botanical equivalent. With stinging nettles on your side, who would trespass against you? Or so many thought.

The power of stinging nettles was cruelly turned against convicted witches. Witches were frequently dressed in nettle shirts when they were lead to the funeral pyres. This was for many reasons:

Image to break their magic and nullify any potential last spells or curses that the witch might cast, because the judges were afraid of their victims

Image to visually identify them as witches, lest bystanders forget why they were being burned

Image to signify the Satanic pact by the use of this diabolical plant

Image to discourage others from wanting any contact with the stinging nettle—only witches would continue to use them

Image merely to torture them even more with this botanical equivalent of a hair shirt.

It didn’t help that stinging nettles, like mugwort, grows most prolifically among stone ruins and in the cemetery. However, the fairy tale The Wild Swans suggests some awareness of injustice toward the nettles, magical practice, and practitioners of witchcraft. (See FAIRY-TALE WITCHES: Hans Christian Andersen.)

Opium Poppy

(Papaver somniferum)

Caution! Potentially poisonous and, depending where you’re located, almost definitely illegal.

There are many species of poppies, however only two, the opium poppy and the wild setaceous poppy, which may be the root ancestor species of all poppies, contain morphine in any significant amount. Opium poppies were perceived as the most powerful and magical of the species for obvious reasons. However, opium poppies tend to be illegal, even if you’re only planning to add these pretty flowers to your garden, even if you have no intention of producing opium but only wish to use these plants magically or ritually. It is highly unlikely that most of us will ever have access to opium poppies. (Attempting to order them from a seed catalog will likely get you the wrong kind of attention. You try explaining to drug officials that you’re only interested in ritual use.)

As with mandrake root, when discussing historical medicinal use, only true opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) is indicated; however, when discussing ritual or magical use, any of the many other poppy species may substitute. Vivid red corn poppies are the most popular substitute. They were also dedicated to Demeter (as are opium poppies) and serve similar magical function. Another substitute might be the red poppies classified as Papaver strigosum or “witch poppy.”

Opium poppies are most notorious as the source of opium. This overshadows every other use the plant has ever had—the leaves were once eaten as potherbs, and poppy seeds are nutritious and a source of cooking oil.

Poppies contain a tremendous amount of seeds; they are literally countless. Because of this, poppies are among the flowering plants most associated with human fertility. They are the floral equivalent of a pomegranate. As such, they were associated with the generative powers of the Earth and sacred to powerful goddesses.

Opium has been used as an aphrodisiac and intoxicant since the Stone Age, however ancient forms of usage were different than those of modern times. It was once less concentrated, the ancients not having access to derivatives or synthetics. The ancients didn’t have the technical capacity to isolate chemical constituents as is done today. There was little concept of “recreational drugs.” (There still isn’t in traditional societies today.) Instead opium poppies were understood as unique, sacred, both beneficial and dangerous and as packed with magic power as with seeds.

Opium has extremely ancient associations with human beings. Although its origins remain shrouded in mystery, opium poppies have been cultivated since that old time immemorial; no wild population exists. Some poppies may escape from a field and wander; abandoned poppy fields will thrive; but basically opium poppies live where people plant them.

Poppies were cultivated by European Neolithic cave dwellers. They are believed to have eventually traveled from Northern Europe to the Mediterranean during the later Neolithic period, following the amber trade route. By the Bronze Age, opium poppies were well distributed throughout the Eastern Hemisphere and used medicinally, as a food source, and as an intoxicant. The most ancient form of use, for instance, was an infusion, either opium poppyinfused water or wine. Helen of Troy’s elixir of forgetfulness, nepenthe, is believed to have contained opium as well as those other witches’ plants, mandrake and henbane.

Medicinal use of opium disappeared in Europe in the wake of the Black Death, hence its later associations with Asia where it was still used medicinally, ritually, and magically. (It was eventually reintroduced by the physician/ alchemist Paracelsus in the form of laudanum.) Although gone, opium poppies were never quite forgotten: perhaps because they retained their mystique, were mysterious and powerful, and because herbal skill and knowledge was required for safe, successful administration, opium poppies became associated with witchcraft. Opium poppies are believed to have been among the ingredients in witches’ flying ointments.

Because of their notoriety, it is easy to overlook the beauty of opium poppies: although they also come in other colors including white and purple, most are a vivid blood red, the color anciently identified with luck, life, and good fortune. That red color also emphasizes opium’s association with fertility power and the deities who preside over it.

Image The Greek Corn Mother Demeter drank opium to relieve her state of grief over the loss of her daughter Persephone. She wears a necklace formed from opium pods. Although very little is known about the religious rituals known as the Eleusinian Mysteries that were devoted to Demeter and Persephone, opium poppies seem to have played a part.

Image Hathor’s necklace is formed from opium pods and mandrake. Hathor is the ancient Egyptian goddess of joy and intoxication. In addition to opium poppies, Hathor presided over beer, wine, and musical intoxication, too.

Image Isis sometimes holds poppies, too. Thebes, in ancient Egypt, was renowned for its poppy fields.

Image Poppies are sacred to the Russian forest witch, Baba Yaga. The seeds are incorporated into her initiation rituals.

Image Nyx the Greek goddess of night, carries a bouquet of poppies, while her son Thanatos, “Death,” wears his poppies in a garland.

Image Hermes was also associated with poppies. Originally a shamanic fertility deity, associated with horned animals like sheep and goats, Hermes retains his function as messenger between realms. His home is in Mekone, which translates as “poppy town.” His magic staff can cause sleep if he wills it so. That staff with its two entwined serpents remains emblematic of the medical profession. Snakes and poppies were once representative of healing and the physician’s art.

Image Opium poppies are associated with the sacred physician, Asklepios, Apollo’s son. Visitors seeking treatment at the Temple of Asklepios were given poppy extract to induce curative dreams. Asklepios is sometimes depicted holding the readily identifiable opium capsules in one hand and his serpent entwined staff in the other. (Asklepios’ staff, unlike Hermes’ caduceus, only has one snake.)

Mythic associations are based on actual observation. Poppy seeds will remain viable within Earth for a very long time. Should the soil then be disturbed or churned up, long dormant seeds will suddenly germinate en masse and fields of brilliant red flowers will spectacularly bloom. The ancients identified this phenomenon with the resurrection of the dead and renewal of life, and it was vividly demonstrated during World War I when fields of battle in Flanders and Northern France blossomed with countless scarlet poppies.

Somniferum, the Latin name given to distinguish opium poppies from other poppies, derives from Somnus, the Roman Lord of Sleep, hence such related words as somnambulist and somnolent.

Today opium poppies are dreaded and banned as the source of illegal and dangerous narcotics. “Narcotic” in modern terminology implies “dangerous,” “addictive,” and frequently an “illicit” or “illegal” drug. However, in traditional medicinal usage, in the word’s most technical sense, “narcotic” indicates a substance that induces sleep. Narcotics, in the medical sense of the word, are powerful sedatives and soporifics; they relieve pain and put you to sleep, enabling healing to occur. For millennia, opium was the only reliable anesthetic in existence.

Alkaloids were first discovered by studying opium poppies—as were the entire concept of alkaloids. In 1803, a German pharmacist isolated the very first alkaloid. Discovering that it was highly narcotic and the primary active constituent of opium, he named it morphine in honor of Morpheus, the Greek Lord of Dreams. Opium has since been discovered to contain 40 other alkaloids.

Like Amanita muscaria (see page 152), another ancient intoxicant, the visual imagery of poppies is often divorced from the botanical’s physical effect. In other words, poppies serve as ornamentation for all kinds of illustrations dedicated to children or mainstream holidays. Poppies are so deeply imbedded within human culture that the image survives even where the actual plant and the rituals within which it featured does not.

Image Crimson poppies decorated a great quantity of European postal cards from the classic age of postcards, especially Christmas and New Year cards, the period corresponding to the Winter Solstice when Earth is sound asleep.

Image Poppies appear in the film version ofThe Wizard of Oz as the Wicked Witch’s magical tool.


An ancient synonym for witch, cunning person or wise person is root-worker, root doctor, or the gender specific root-woman or root-man. A root doctor may work with other parts of plants as well as many other genres of magic, however roots are special.

Although all parts of a plant possess their own enchantment, in general, roots are considered a plant’s most profound source of magic power. Roots are buried within Earth and so it’s believed that they absorb Earth’s secrets and hidden wisdom.

World famous wonder-working roots include:

Image Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum)

Image High John the Conqueror (Ipomoea jalapa), a species of Morning Glory

Image Ginseng (Panax quinquefoliusm or Panax schinseng)

Image Angelica (Angelica spp. especially archangelica), knowledge of this root was the gift of an archangel

Root-workers dig into Earth to gather supplies. Once upon a time, digging into the Earth Mother without permission was tantamount to rape. But how do you ask for permission, how do you know whether you’ve received it and what is the proper ritual for harvest? The root-worker knows. These eventually became professional secrets, transmitted orally.

It is not necessary to kill the plant in order to gather the root, although that is what is most frequently done today. A skilled gardener can carefully dig up a plant, remove part of the root and then replace the plant, also leaving payment for whatever was taken and for disturbing its peace. This takes care and time and precision.

Roots are used for magical, spiritual, and medicinal purposes. Roots serve as lucky charms. High John the Conqueror in your pocket allegedly serves as a draw for good fortune and bestows sexual magnetism on its bearers. Other roots promise fertility or love or protection or success.

Once upon a time, knowledge of roots, the type a root-worker possessed, also implied a certain knowledge of the female reproductive system. The Bible’s first command to people is to be fruitful and multiply. Ancient Jewish sacred texts discuss the contexts where it is permissible to break that commandment. Vague references are made to a “cup of roots” (a potion brewed from roots) that can permissibly terminate pregnancy in certain circumstances. Although the actual formula isn’t specified, it wouldn’t have to be: back then, the root-workers would know. This information was transmitted orally over generations; it may never have occurred to people that this basic, standard information could ever be entirely lost. Those formulas were lost, but the references to cups of roots survived. In medieval Europe, this lead to “roots” having an ominous reputation.

Many roots are treated as living beings—unlike other parts of the plant, which are almost uniformly treated as materials for use. Roots must be cared for so that in a reciprocal relationship they will care for you, too. Roots are “fed” on schedule, daily or weekly or otherwise, with sips of alcoholic beverages, sprinklings of powder, or dabs of enchanted oils. Hopes, dreams, and fears are whispered to them. They may be wrapped in silk or carried in charm bags, kept under one’s pillow or slipped into one’s bosom. Mandrake roots or those roots resembling them are carved to look like little people, making it even easier to talk to them and envision them as alive.

In the twenty-first century, this type of witchcraft is most commonly associated with African-derived magical systems, particularly hoodoo or conjure, because it was marketed and so was relatively public. However root-working is international and exists with variations virtually everywhere on Earth, although it may now be secret and almost forgotten.


(Sorbus aucuparia or Fraxinus aucuparia)

The rowan is a small tree closely identified with magic and spirituality in Northern lands. Its English name is related to the Sanskrit “runall” meaning “magician” and the Norse “runall” meaning “a charm.” Rowan tree may also be understood to mean “rune tree.” Rune staves were traditionally carved from its wood.

Rowan is also etymologically connected to “alruna,” the name given to ancient Germanic prophetesses and magical practitioners. Another nickname for rowan is “witch tree.”

Image In the Scottish Highlands, use of rowan wood for any other reason but spiritual ritual was forbidden once upon a time.

Image Celts in other regions made black dye for ritual robes from rowan’s bark and berries.

Image Rowan trees were planted around or near stone circles.

Image In Wales, rowan trees were planted to guard and protect the deceased.

Image Cattle were driven through rowan hoops to generate fertility, break any malevolent spells, and offer protection.

Rowan trees were so deeply imbedded in the spiritual fabric of Northern lands that their use couldn’t be prevented; instead it was redirected. Rowan’s most frequent modern magical usage is to prevent witchcraft. Many will tell you that it’s called “witch tree” because it prevents witchcraft. In fact, it’s more of a case of “it takes one to know one.” Rowan is one of those unusual plants that are simultaneously identified with witchcraft and also allegedly protect against it. Rowan may be understood as possessing the power of a witch so powerful that she can negate all other spells cast.

Like other trees (but even more so), it is important not to harvest any part of it without first asking permission (and giving the tree a chance to refuse), and then offering libations and gifts in return.

Image Rowan is identified with Brigid and her festival of Imbolc.

Image Rowan is identified with the Norse deity Thor. As one of his sacred plants it was believed beneficial for ensuring virility.

To this day rowan is planted near homes for spiritual protection. The finest dowsing rods for locating metal are crafted from rowan. Rowan also contributes to intoxicating beverages: the berries were made into wine in the Scottish Highlands, the Welsh brew a rowan berry flavored ale and the Irish have used it to flavor mead.

See CALENDAR: Imbolc.


(Ruta graveolens)

Caution! Rue is not poisonous, however it is not safe for pregnant women or for those actively attempting to conceive.

Rue grows over much of Asia and Europe. Among its folk names are “Mother of the Herbs,” indicating rue’s importance, and “weasel”’ or “weasel snout,” indicating its affiliation with that magically powerful trickster animal.

Another folk name, “Herb of Grace,” is intended to indicate that rue has been incorporated into Christian tradition; it is considered among the Virgin Mary’s blessed herbs. Rue is used to ward off malicious magic. It’s also called “witchbane” because it allegedly keeps witches away. However rue’s historical association with witchcraft, magic spells, and pagan ritual predate its associations with Christianity.

Rue is the primary plant in Italian magical traditions. It was sacred to Diana, Aradia, and Mars. In Italy and elsewhere, rue is famed for breaking the power of the Evil Eye. (Rue and weasels are among the few able to withstand the basilisk’s deadly eye.) Something as simple as a sprig of rue pinned to one’s clothing prevents the Evil Eye as well as many other malevolent spells. Among the other rue-associated Evil Eye preventatives is the Italian cimaruta amulet. Cimaruta literally means “sprig of rue.” It is an amulet formed in the shape of a sprig of rue, and usually made from silver, tin or some silver-colored metal. It is enhanced by small charms that hang from the “fingers of rue.” Most are associated with fertility such as keys, fish, crescent moons, and horns.

Rue is believed to promote clairvoyance. It was also a primary tool of protective magic. Rue’s ability to prevent malevolent magic and return negative spells may be understood to resemble that of powerful witches able to turn back malevolent spells cast by others.

Any witch powerful enough to break a malicious spell could cast one of her own, if she so chose. Rue was thus a component of ancient curses; the plant strengthening the necessary verbal component. The verb “rue” as in “you’ll rue the day you were ever born” is believed to derive from these ancient practices.

However, rue’s most recognized use from antiquity through the Middle Ages was as an herbal abortifacient. Armed with this knowledge, Ophelia’s mad scene in Shakespeare’s Hamlet takes on different resonance. Shakespeare’s audience most likely would have understood the reference; this was fairly common knowledge, at the time, not obscure secret wisdom. Rue, thus, had a shadow reputation as a dangerous, frequently illicit botanical. Rue was also among the primary Midsummer’s Eve herbs.


Saint John’s Wort

(Hypericum perforatum)

Saint John’s wort is a plant with powerful solar affiliations. If mugwort is the plant of the moon, then Saint John’s wort belongs to the sun. According to the ancient Greeks, while mugwort was Artemis’ sacred plant, Saint John’s wort epitomized the power of her brother, the solar spirit Apollo. Saint John’s wort is understood metaphysically as mugwort’s brother.

Saint John’s wort derived its English folk name from the feast day of John the Baptist, which coincides with Midsummer’s Eve and the Summer Solstice. It is when the sun is at its maximum height and it is when Hypericum perforatum is at its peak, too. (So is mugwort—a folk name for that plant is Saint John’s Girdle.)

Saint John’s wort is a sunny plant; it brings light and cheer and clarity where previously there was darkness and despair. It is probably the plant in this section most familiar to the average reader because Saint John’s wort’s magical uses have been found by modern science to be true: Saint John’s wort is a modern remedy against depression. Although the concept of standardized medication is new, Saint John’s wort’s reputation for providing light in the darkness is ancient.

Image In medieval France, it was traditionally used as a remedy against interference from the fairies, especially when that interference is experienced as depression and malaise.

Image In Greek tradition, sprigs of Saint John’s wort were hung over portraits of the dead so that whatever ills the deceased had suffered, whether physical, emotional or psychic, would be relieved. Their afflictions, pain, and suffering would be terminated so as not to infect the living with these emanations.

Mugwort and Saint John’s wort may be understood as complementary powers or as oppositional forces, depending upon your perspective. If mugwort epitomized witchcraft, then witch-hunters’ believed that Saint John’s wort would oppose and eradicate it. If mugwort is maximum yin—an emphatically female plant—then Saint John’s wort is maximum yang, the epitome of masculinity. If mugwort is the evil sister, then Saint John’s wort is the heroic brother.

The use of Saint John’s wort by witch-hunters may be understood as cultural or magical appropriation. That Saint John’s wort was also popular amongst witches is indicated by its German folk-name, Walpurgis Herb. However, in French Saint John’s wort is called “chasse-diable” or “devil-chaser.”

Witch-hunters fed Saint John’s wort tea to accused witches in the belief that it negated the devil’s compact. Negating the compact didn’t mean that now everything was all right and the ex-witch could go home free. She was doomed anyway; “negating the compact” merely ensured that it would be safe to execute her. She would lack the power to execute vengeance on her judges and executioners.

San Pedro

(Trichocereus pachanoi)

San Pedro is a ribbed night-blooming cactus also known as achuma, huachuma, and giganton. It grows from sea level up to altitudes of 3000 meters in South America from Ecuador to Bolivia.

San Pedro is Spanish for St Peter, the saint who holds the keys to the kingdom. San Pedro contains the potent alkaloid mescaline. It possesses a psychotropic, consciousness-altering effect and has historically been used to enter or view the spirit world. It is used as a diagnostic tool for curanderos (Latin American shamanic healers) to enable the diagnosis of illness and determination of the needed cure. Under the influence of San Pedro the shaman may battle ferocious animals, communicate with spirits or travel between realms.

Based on representations on pre-Columbian pottery, San Pedro has probably been used for at least one thousand years and possibly for three thousand years or even longer. The first written descriptions appeared shortly after the arrival of the Spanish within the context of the Inquisition. Seventeenth-century priests wished to eliminate pagan practices of which San Pedro was seen as being integral. To persist in San Pedro’s use was to defy the new order and the new religion and thus to be branded as a witch. Because San Pedro is not administered without strict rituals and expert supervision, it was understood as a witch’s tool. Eliminating the plant eliminates the presiding practitioner’s role, stripping her of function and respect.

Its use was never eradicated however. Social scientists, ethnobotanists, and chemists now find San Pedro fascinating and it has been intensely studied for over 50 years. It is still used by Peruvian curanderos. It is most frequently administered as part of a psychotropic infusion, meaning that there may be a lot of other stuff in the brew, too. These are sophisticated rituals that require both spiritual knowledge and botanical expertise; San Pedro is not a toy for laypeople to play with. Both benevolent and malevolently oriented practitioners create these potions, although obviously with different motivation.

Infusions are ingested as a component of spiritual and magical ritual. In other words, consumption of the beverage isn’t believed sufficient. It’s only part of a process, broken down into steps that must be completed properly. Plants must be gathered and prepared ritually. The brew is ritually prepared, too, with spiritual ritual incorporated at every stage.

This is not a mechanical process. Rituals are required to enable the spirit of San Pedro to interact with human spirits. This is reminiscent of other indigenous American rituals featuring ayahuasca and peyote, leading one to wonder whether once upon a time there weren’t similar rituals, similar complex brews for Amanita muscaria or henbane.

San Pedro is also consumed within supervised ritual. It is traditionally believed that if the consumer is not prepared by the ritual leader (curandera, shaman, witch) who opens and closes portals as needed, then the person under the influence of San Pedro is left vulnerable to magical attack, because these are not oneway portals…


Among the most ancient forms of religion is devotion to sacred trees. In modern usage “tree worship” sounds flat and simplistic; language doesn’t do justice to the concept. Today trees are primarily understood as sources of lumber or as something to be moved out of the way so that the Earth below can be utilized for profit or practicality. In that context “tree worship” may sound primitive and silly.

In order to even begin to understand this concept, one must look at Earth with the wonder-struck eyes of magical perspective. First of all, lose the concept of “one way” directionals. If trees can be perceived as growing out of the ground, they may also be understood to penetrate the ground, as if they were moving downward, not up.

Now imagine: if Earth is a fertile female, what could those big, strong, hard trees possibly be? Genital imagery permeates ancient religion: trees often serve as huge, symbolic male generative organs.

Ritual processionals all over the world, from Japan throughout Asia and Europe, feature trees carried to represent generative energy. Sometimes they’re carved explicitly and very realistically into gigantic phalluses; sometimes tree trunks are left au naturel, no enhancement necessary. On-lookers may reach to touch the passing tree to gain a little of that energy for themselves: for reproductive fertility, for material prosperity, for sexual prowess, and for the magical prevention of erectile dysfunction. That tree serves a lot of people’s diverse magical needs. This phallic tree trunk may be pounded on doors to announce the arrival of the creative, generative spirit.

The most famous surviving phallic tree is the Maypole. A tall, hard, straight tree (often an elm) is ritually prepared, then set up within a dance ground—a magic circle. Young girls dance around it, wrapping it in silk ribbons. (Makes you wonder about that other lavishly ornamented tree, the Christmas Tree, doesn’t it?)

Not all trees were masculine. Smaller, curvaceous trees like the elder or rowan are usually perceived as feminine. Fruit-bearing trees, like figs, date palms or apples, are considered female as well, although nut trees are resolutely male. The Latin classification for walnuts describes them as “Jupiter’s balls” and we’re not talking about baseballs, golf balls or any other round object used in sports.

Some of the oldest religious rites took place in sacred groves. These groves were sacred ground and places of oracular wisdom. Various deities maintained sacred groves of trees that shared their essence. Zeus presided over the oak grove at Dodona. The oracle was interpreted by listening to the wind whispering through the trees. Eventually “whispering” would become the domain of witches.

There is an ancient, ancient, primordial tradition of holy trees. One especially sacred motif was the snake in a tree. The snake curling its body around a tree trunk was sometimes under-stood as the unification of the sexes. Some have suggested that the biblical story of the snake and the tree in the Garden of Eden may be interpreted to mean that the era of that kind of religion was ending. The story is not told without regret; it is accompanied by expulsion from Paradise and foretells enmity between the sexes and between species.

Even after expulsion from Eden, however, tree worship doesn’t end in the Bible. Lady Asherah of the Sea, pre-eminent mother goddess of the Western Semitic people, presided over sacred groves where women went to dance, sing and commune with nature. Trees were carved into the sacred poles named after Asherah and set up in high places as well as within the Jerusalem Temple.

For centuries, the Kings of Judea repeatedly installed, then removed and destroyed these pillars, only to have them installed once again. Although Asherah is frequently painted as a Canaanite goddess, one of the foreign deities the prophets accused the Children of Israel of whoring after, archeological evidence suggests otherwise. Lady Asherah was also an indigenous Hebrew goddess. Her image spent more time in the Jewish temple than outside; every time she was removed, someone eventually replaced her until the destruction of the First Temple. Obviously she was a controversial figure but there’s no way for us to truly understand the controversy because the only surviving writings derive from those opposed to Asherah and devotion to trees. No explanation survives from those who loved her, or at least none has yet been unearthed.

Descriptions of tree-centered spirituality around the world could fill a thousand pages. Norse cosmology describes the World Tree upon which the entire world and all its realms are centered. In Uppsala, Sweden, the city dedicated to Freyr the Elven King, Lord of Generative Fertility, there was an ancient sacred grove where every single individual tree was held sacred. The Druids held their rituals within sacred oak groves. A grove is a sacred perimeter of trees, the space within is demarcated as holy, ritual, magical space. However, much of Earth was once covered with trees.

The forest is the realm of trees and their spirits. It is a place of wild, free, bountiful energy. Cutting down forests may be understood as acts of spiritual warfare against spirits in general (a denial of their existence), against those spirits who preside over forests in particular, and against their devotees. Destruction of rain forests worldwide (as well as other forests) is now attributed to needs of business or “civilization” rather than official religion but may still be understood in the same manner.

This isn’t conjecture: when the missionaries Boniface and Willibrord came to convert the Frisians and Germans in the early eighth century they deliberately destroyed sacred trees. Cutting down groves was understood as a religious act; clearing wilderness makes way for “civilization” and easier administration of authority.

In Europe, forests, the realm of the trees, became refuges for outlaws, witches, pagan hold-outs, and all those who found themselves persecuted by the New Order. When forests became perceived as solely dark and dangerous, witches maintained the forest’s beneficial wisdom and secrets.

The sacredness inherent in a single tree is sometimes sufficient, however.

Image Witches were described as dancing around a tree at their sabbats.

Image A walnut tree in Benevento, Italy is legendary as a witches’ meeting place.

Image According to a Northern legend, when missionaries chopped down a huge holy oak, a small pine arose from its roots. This became the first Christmas tree.

Judaism was never able to suppress devotion to trees: Lady Asherah’s sacred tree survives in the Kabalah’s Tree of Life. Likewise the Christian Church was never able to suppress devotion to trees. Tree traditions survived in the Yule log, Maypoles, Easter egg trees and, most especially, in beautifully garlanded and bedecked Christmas Trees.

Witches became guardians and preservers of tree magic. Trees supply the materials for various magical tools, not least magic wands. The magic wand places the power of the tree directly into the practitioner’s hands, enabling her to focus it as desired. Different types of wood are believed most beneficial for different purposes and styles of magic.

See PLACES: Forest; TOOLS: Brooms, Wands.


(Verbena spp.)

Vervain is associated with the positive power of magic, witchcraft, and women’s wisdom. Unlike other witchcraft plants whose temperaments are volatile and dangerous, vervain is friendly. No other plant is believed to have as much affection for people as does vervain. Vervain’s magical uses include providing love, luck, health, and protection, changing bad luck into the best luck and transforming enemies into friends. All one has to do is touch vervain—no elaborate brews are required—to begin to receive its gifts. Vervain, however, is not a “goody-two-shoes” plant; it is a powerful and vigilant protector that may be used to smash hexes and reverse malevolent charms.

Vervain is sacred to Isis; it is believed to have sprung from her tears. Isis was once dependent upon human mercy and learned to love people deeply. Vervain shares her essence and so reflects her feelings.

In Northern Europe, vervain was associated with smithcraft and ironworkers. (Many of the spirits presiding over metal-working are female.) Allegedly vervain was incorporated into the ancient formula for hardening steel. Because of these associations with iron, vervain is also believed to magically encourage the male member to remain as hard and firm as that metal. The Druids harvested vervain with an iron sickle.

Some believe that vervain’s name derives from two Celtic words: fer “to take away” and faen “stone” or “weight.” According to Druid tradition, vervain was gathered at night, during the Dark Moon. The Druids of Cornwall and Devon incorporated vervain into divinatory rituals, inhaling its fumes.

European colonists brought vervain seeds to the Western Hemisphere, where naturalized it now grows wild. At its peak, at Midsummer’s Eve, vervain can reach heights of about five feet. It is used in love potions and aphrodisiacs.


(Salix spp.)

Why does that willow weep? Why, indeed? Willows are identified with some of the most powerful goddesses of all including Artemis, Circe, Hecate, Hera, and Persephone. Although they are extremely beautiful trees, many planted purely for ornamental value, willows tend to possess somewhat of a doleful, ominous reputation. They have long been considered witch’s trees and witch’s tools.

Weeping willows are a specific type of willow (Salix babylonica). They were indigenous to China but spread westward and are now widely distributed. There are many species of willow; as a whole they are also extremely well distributed—miniature willows, only inches tall, survive in the Arctic Circle, while other species may be found in deserts and tropical areas.

Willows are graceful trees with lithe boughs and an affinity for water. Like alder, willows are often found near rivers, streams, swamps, and marshes. The willow is believed to love and crave moisture (hence the weeping willow’s affinity for tears) and so is under the dominion of the moon, the planetary body that rules water, women, and fertility.

Snakes are the creatures believed to most closely share the essence of the willow tree. The willow’s branches and leaves are believed to resemble the motion of a snake. In ancient Greece, willow branches placed under the beds of infertile women were believed to transmit fertility-generating snake power. (No doubt a more peaceful night’s sleep was to be had with willow branches beneath the bed rather than living, slithering snakes!)

Willows are also used to magically ward off snakes and prevent snakebite. Among willow’s other magical uses are for wish fulfillment and healing and love spells.

Perhaps because willows were associated with such powerful lunar goddesses, the trees came to be associated with witches in ancient Greece. “Willow” has long been a popular magical or craft name among witches—as exemplified by “Dark Witch Willow,” the character on the television series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Willows are associated with fertility and birth, but also with death. In Celtic areas, willows were planted in graveyards because it was believed that they encouraged the dead to rest peacefully and to refrain from roaming.

Image Thin, flexible young willow branches are a traditional binding to hold handmade witches’ brooms together.

Image Magic wands crafted from willow are believed especially beneficial for divination.

Wolf ’s Claw or Club Moss

(Lycopodium clavatum)

Common club moss has an amazing number of evocative folk names. In English it’s known as devil’s claw, wolf’s claw, snake moss, witch’s dust, witch’s dance, or Earth Sulfur. In German, it’s called Hexenkraut, “witch’s herb.” Long considered a sacred plant according to the Roman Pliny, its harvest first required a sacrifice of bread and mead. Wolf’s claw was then gathered with the left hand, while adorned in white robes standing barefoot beneath a New Moon.

Although the plant has various other magical uses, the dust from its spores made wolf’s claw an important shamanic tool. This yellow spore dust is known as witches’ flour, druids’ flour, elven flour and perhaps most accurately as lightning powder. It’s oily and if tossed onto flames explodes with a burst similar to thunder and lightning. Today it’s perceived as only a special effect; magical illusionists remain enamored with it, but once upon a time it was considered magical and used to great effect by shamans. (The spore powder also has medicinal use.)


(Aconite napellus, Aconite vulparia)

Also known as aconite, blue rocket, friar’s cap, monkshood and Venus’ chariot, wolfsbane is among the deadliest of plants and very closely identified with witchcraft. It is indigenous to Eastern Europe, but was eventually grown in ancient Greece, from whence it spread to Italy and is now found as far afield as the British Isles.

Its active alkaloid is aconitum, a very potent poison. One fifth of a grain of aconitum is sufficient to produce a fatal dose. Controversy exists about whether it produces a psychotropic effect. It’s impossible to determine for sure because at present, with existing knowledge, wolfsbane is basically impossible to use. Whether it was ever genuinely used or whether those formulas calling for it are just full of bravado is equally impossible to tell. Many spells suggest brewing it, although just because a spell is “traditional” doesn’t mean anyone actually ever cast it (or at least not successfully!).

Image Wolfsbane is so poisonous that even handling the plant causes skin irritation and is potentially dangerous.

Image Wolfsbane is so poisonous that having ritually bathed the plant, it’s no longer safe to even put your hands in the water, let alone ingest it.

That said, few plants are as identified with witchcraft as wolfsbane.

Its natural habitat is mountains, however it can be cultivated and it will wander. It blooms in the summer. Wolfsbane is a very beautiful plant with lush flowers and is thus a favorite of traditional poison gardens. It was used to represent the dangerously alluring witch, the femme fatale, whose beauty masked her innately poisonous nature.

Every part of the plant is deadly, most especially the root. The name wolfsbane derives from attempts at wolf eradication. Gaulish Celts and Chinese used it as arrow poison, and the ancients concurred that aconite was the deadliest of their known poisons.

Wolfsbane is sacred to Hecate. Its origin is sometimes attributed to Cerberus, the threeheaded guard dog of Hades, who may or may not be Hecate the dog goddess in disguise. Wolfsbane allegedly sprang up where Cerberus’ drool touched Earth.