You know how sometimes little things happen that suddenly trigger a new realization, or a line of research that leads to something fruitful or unexpected? Here’s the story of just such a one, with a little herb-lore along the way.
A month or two ago my friend Lady of Bones shared with me this snippet of text from Daniel Schulke’s Ars Philtron:
“The Fetish of the Verdant Cain is a Perfum’d Skull stain’d and scented with the accumulated juices of precious blossoms, leaves, essential oils, and resins. Cain Al’ Shajarat may be envisioned as a tall male figure with prominent horns; a severe countenance composed of wood, leaves, thorns, seeds, and mosses, and bearing all the rampant and fecund growth of the wilderness. His sinistral hand bears a sickle, emblematic of the powers of Green Sorcery; his dextral hand grasps his fetish, the skull of Abel transformed by Green Arte into an oracle of gnosis, the bony jaws sprouting the saggitate-leav’d Vines of Woodbine, their blossoms fragrant horns uttering forbidden knowledge.”
She said this passage reminded her of me (aw, thanks!) , but she imagined me making a fetish of green sorcery out of the skull of an antlered stag. I have to admit its an evocative idea, albeit one I’d never even faintly considered before. If the opportunity ever arises and I feel it’s appropriate for me to do so… I might have to get over my dislike of bones (especially the ones that stare back when looked at)!
When I read the phrase “…bony jaws sprouting the saggitate-leav’d Vines of Woodbine…” a tingle of energy shuddered along my spine, and I clearly envisioned a great stag-skull, bones grown verdigris with age and herbal unguents rubbed lovingly into the surface, hollow eyes stern and piercing, it’s antlers and jaws wreathed in vines from which depended violet-purple blooms with bright yellow centers… Woody Nightshade to wreath the Fetish of the Green Sorcerer…
Except as Lady of Bones pointed out, Woodbine is a common name for European Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum), not Woody Nightshade at all! Honeysuckle blossoms have a wonderful heady fragrance, so it’s a fitting herb to represent the intoxication one has at the “rampant and fecund growth of the Wilderness.” But why did my mind immediately and powerfully jump to Woody Nightshade? I hadn’t given much thought to the plant, though I’d always thought it looked kind of “witchy.” It’s a common enough weed, in fact a big patch grows not a half a block from my house, at the corner where I wait for the bus every morning. I was beginning to get the idea that this business was meant to be Of Sorcerous Importance.
Then I remembered a dream or vision that I’d had which involved Woody Nightshade, years and years ago.
I saw this so long ago that I don’t remember if it was a dream or a meditation. In any case, I was picturing in my mind’s eye the Gate card from the Dreampower Tarot, which I had at the time recently acquired. (I still use the Trumps to this day, but I threw away the pip cards years ago).
I was standing in front of the Gate, and very much wanted to go through, but had no means of opening it. How to proceed? I soon realized I could just climb over the wall next to the gate itself – it was covered in vines, and the bricks provided good hand holds. So I climbed over and found myself clinging to a cliff face, which I carefully descended, still gaining purchase among fissures of rock and ropy vines. Lower down, the stone of the cliff face became more crystalline, transitioning from limestone to a milky, pale pink quartzite.
At last I reached the bottom of the cliff. I was standing in a lowland wood that stretched far into the distance. A path through the woods lay before me, but I was reluctant to go farther – I felt that it would be wrong to do so, or that I didn’t quite belong here.
From the base of the cliff issued a trickle of water into a small dark pool half hidden beneath the wall of stone. Suddenly I remembered I was carrying some flowers in my pocket, so I pulled them out and sprinkled them onto the water, saying some words as I did so. The flowers were small and violet-purple with a yellow center. I think I was asking permission from the spirit of the place, or from the pool itself, to enter the woodland?
The dream/vision faded soon after, but left an impression with me of having been Important, and I knew that I had seen and experienced things that I didn’t yet understand. Among other things, at the time I had no knowledge of spirit contact, nor was I familiar with making offerings – yet I did these things in the dream. I was reluctant to enter the forest as I knew I wasn’t ready, but I felt that I would be one day. And I sensed that the flowers were important; they had something to do with the acquisition of knowledge, with the Underworld, with the power of dreams.
I later recognized the flowers from my dream/vision in life as the blooms of Woody Nightshade (Solanum dulcamara), sometimes called Bittersweet (though here in the Midwest the unrelated vine Celustus scandens is most often called Bittersweet).
After the old memory of my descent down the cliff-wall had been pricked, I knew that I needed to gather some Woody Nightshade flowers. In pondering their possible symbolism and use, some suggestions came to me readily whispered that made sense in the context of my long-ago vision. Dreams and keys and permissions and Passage…
The next day after all this came together for me, I was walking home from my bus stop, when I saw this across the sidewalk, blocking my progress: A vine of Woody Nightshade in bloom, wrapped around an Elder branch. Alright already, I get it, This Is Important Even though I’m not sure Why!
I went back a few days later and gathered flowers from along the shaded sidewalk, and from the corner where I wait for the bus. I offered Charged water to the plants in exchange for their blooms, pouring it nonchalantly from a sports bottle as traffic rolled by. I laid the flower clusters out on waxed paper to dry. I have only a handful or two, but since this plant blooms and produces fruit throughout the summer, I can always gather more.
My half-coalesced herbal UPG aside, what has Woody Nightshade been used for in the past, if anything?
Woody Nightshade is a fairly common weed of hedgerows and overgrown places in both Europe and North America. All parts of the plant are poisonous, and should not be ingested, burned as incense, or used medicinally by the layperson! In the U.K. and Europe, dried young twigs were used as a remedy to treat bruising, eczema, and the skin infection called a whitlow or felon; in fact one of the plant’s common names is Felonwort or Felonwood. In general it was regarded as a plant to be avoided; there are a few accounts of children being poisoned after eating the shiny red berries.
There is no record of the flowers themselves being used in herbal medicine.
Overall it seems that this herb doesn’t have a history of great medical or occult value; nonetheless I have been given to understand that it has importance to me with regards to dreams and otherworldly travel.
What next? I certainly want to meditate on the spirit of Woody Nightshade itself to see what further knowledge I may find. Perhaps I’ll make a Spirit Bottle in the plant’s honor. The dried flowers I’ll give as offerings, and use in spell work involving Dreaming or passing astral doors. I’m inspired to draw a plate for my grimoire showing a stag’s skull wreathed in Woody Nightshade, with appropriate sigils surrounding it…
If Wortcunning and Green Sorcery are your thing, keep your inner eyes and ears open for just the kinds of things I’ve described here. Don’t discount those subtle nudges – the tingle when you read an unexpected passage in a book, or the symbolism that comes through from a dream or meditation. You never know when those little hints and nudges will begin to coalesce, or what kind of herb, tree, or vine could be important for your personally, even if it is ascribed little meaning in common lore.