We all know about Magical Herbs to some extent, of course. They are a mainstay of the witches trade, whether given as offering, used in a charm bag, or stuffed into a dream pillow. Lavender = purification, Cedar = protection, and so on. And that’s where it often ends – with a list of names on a correspondence chart and a couple of jars filled with nondescript dried leaves.
To be more proficient at basic Wortcunning, that vast and varied study that encompasses the magic of plants and their esoteric uses, one will need to go beyond the standard index of basic correspondences; ideally, out into the green world itself where the plant powers dwell. To that end, here are some tips and suggestions that will be useful should you choose to work with herbal plants.
Plants are living, enspirited beings, and as such should be treated with politeness and respect. Get to know their properties and uses, but also their personalities and proclivities, for much can be learned from the spirit of the plants themselves.
Let me clarify that by ‘spirit of the plants themselves,’ I mean the actual animating force of the specific plant you are growing or seeking out in the wild – Your pot of Mugwort, that spreading Elder bush that grows by the bridge in the park. Contact them in spirit by whatever methods you use for such things (trancework, dreaming, meditation), and learn from them as individuals.
There are plant wights, of course; a spirit that protects and is linked to a certain stand of trees, or a being that is associated with the archetypal qualities of a certain herb. (The Spirit of Yarrow, as opposed to the spirit of that yarrow plant growing in the community garden down the road). Such beings can be approached as teachers or givers of knowledge too, just be sure to use the same level of caution and common sense you would when making direct contact with any potentially powerful, other-than-human entity.
When talking about ‘Plant Wights’ or ‘Nature Spirits’ it helps to remember how vague and all-encompassing these labels are, so the wise Witch does her own research and careful spirit contact, and figures out exactly who she is talking to in any given situation.
Let me quickly share with you a pet peeve I have with many written works about Paganism or Witchcraft or Folklore; and it applies to writings on magical herbs as well. How many times have you read the phrases ‘…may have been used for…’ or ‘…was likely employed as a…?’
I don’t want to hear about someones speculations unless they appear in the context of a greater body of research that is attempting to reach some conclusion bolstered by solid scholarship and facts. I want to hear about how the practitioner actually uses the herb, or how they remember their aunt using it, or how their research has shown that it was likely used by their ancestors, with specific examples. Bonus points if the author admits that folkloric historical research is unlikely to reach a rock-solid conclusion, so while he’s pretty sure this is the way the Old-Time Witches did it, we can’t know for certain-sure.
Any book can claim, for example, that “In medieval times, The witches of Central Germany may have used Chamomile as an aid in dreaming flight,” but unless that statement is backed up by actual research, I’m going to have to assume it’s mostly wishful thinking on the part of the author.
Now, on to practical matters.
When you prepare to gather herbs or parts of other plants, always ask permission first, and be sure you’ve got it before cutting away.
Cultivated plants are most likely to have no problem being gathered (it’s what we’ve grown them for, after all), but ask permission anyway out of politeness and respect. Once you’ve taken what parts you need, draw up some energy (from the earth beneath you or from within passing clouds or out of yourself as you feel comfortable doing and as the situation warrants), and give it to the plant to aid in re- growing what you’ve taken.
Always ask permission and wait till it’s been granted when gathering bits of wild plants as well, especially since you’re dealing with plants that might not have as intimate a relationship with humans as the ones we grow ourselves, (although with some species, like the Oak, the relationship between our kinds is long and storied). I usually tell the plant what I’m planning on doing, something like “I ask a handful of leaves of thee to be used in Witching work” or “I ask some flowers from thee, that I may offer them on the Midsummer fires.” (I do this with cultivated herbs, too, and yeah, I use old timey language).
Do not be offended if the answer is No. You can always try another meadow or ask another oak tree somewhere else.
If I’m gathering a part of a plant that has fallen from it or been blown from it by a storm, I still let the plant know who I am and what I’m doing, but requesting permission is more on a case by case basis. Apples fallen to the ground? You can likely gather them with impunity. Apples fallen to the ground from that old twisted Crabapple on the edge of town, the one that no other tree grows near? Ask.
For wild plants, I leave a physical offering like water, tobacco, or bone meal fertilizer, as the situation merits; as well as giving the plant a bit of energy to boost its re-growth. If taking a limb from a living tree, I also offer a few drops of my own blood.
Likewise, if you must dig up a whole plant, say to harvest the root, make sure you have its permission to kill it, that it understands what you are asking. Give a few drops of your own blood and other appropriate offerings, and if possible (if the plant is a native wild species especially) scatter or plant seeds of its kind (even better if they can be gathered from the pant you’ve slain).
Consider your existing relationships with plants. If you’ve spent several years making unrelenting war on the Dandelions in your yard, as I have, You probably won’t want to harvest one to make into a trusted Alraun, no matter how powerful you think it would be.
Finally, and most importantly: Learn your botany.
Learn the Latin nomenclature of the plants you interact with, and label their containers with their genus and species. This is especially important as common or folk names can vary so widely. For example, I have heard of Eyebright as a common name for Euphrasia officinalis, (which is used in teas) and I have also heard it used as a folk name for Atropa belladona (which is a famous and deadly poison).
Learn the basic medical properties (if any), for the plants you use and gather, for these often (but not always) echo their magical usefulness as well. Learn the ecological habitats and origins of the plants you cultivate, for most of them grow wild somewhere on Earth and knowing in what lands they originated may give you an insight into the nature of the herb. Learn what herbal plants are native to your area, and which were introduced from afar only to escape cultivation and run wild. Know the conservation status of plants you plan on gathering from the wild, as well as local laws regarding wild-crafting in general.
I will not lie: this is all a great deal of work, and is going to take a long time, and in your gathering of knowledge like herbs from a hedgerow, you may be pulled in directions you would not expect. But, as with other things which require an investment of effort, you will likely be rewarded in unexpected ways as well.