Black Henbane – Herb Lore
The penultimate plant in this Midsummer collection! I asked my fans on Facebook which plant they would like to see next and most said Foxglove but quite honestly I haven’t figured out how I’m gonna make that yet so I’m going for this one. Lovely, deadly stinking Black Henbane.
This one gets me excited. It is reputedly so poisonous, the smell alone can cause giddiness.
It is not considered truly indigenous to Great Britain, but occurs fairly frequently in parts of Scotland, England and Wales, and also in Ireland, and has been found wild in sixty British counties, chiefly in waste, sandy places, by road-sides, on rubbish heaps and near old buildings, having probably first escaped from the old herb gardens. It is frequently found on chalky ground and particularly near the sea. It appears to have been more common in Gerard’s time (Queen Elizabeth’s reign) than it is now.
It is poisonous in all its parts, and neither drying nor boiling destroys the toxic principle (like Belladonna the plant and seeds contain hyoscine, hyoscyamine, atropine, and scopolamine (tropane alkaloids). The leaves are the most powerful portion. Accidental cases of poisoning by Henbane are, however, not very common as the plant has too unpleasant a taste and smell to be readily mistaken for any vegetable, but its roots, which are thick and somewhat like those of salsify, have sometimes been gathered and eaten. The effects are varied but in general cause hallucinations, drowsiness, stupefaction and disorientation. In sufficient doses the plant can be very dangerous causing unconsciousness, mania, violence, seizures, trembling of limbs and in extreme cases death.
The seed heads look like a piece of jawbone complete with a row of teeth. This plant was, therefore, used in dentistry from ancient times. The hallucinogenic, soporific effects of the plant would have made people forget the toothache.
In the 13th and 14th centuries, witches reputedly narcotised themselves by a special salve containing extracts of belladonna and henbane. If it was spread onto the skin, it caused vivid hallucinations of flying in the air, wild dancing and abundant feasts – the famous ‘flying ointment’.
In mythology, we read that the dead in Hades were crowned with it as they wandered hopelessly beside the Styx. I love this idea.
From Cunningham’s Magical Herbs: ‘To bring love, a man should gather henbane naked, early in the morning, while standing, on one foot. Worn, it will bring love. Burned out of doors it attracts rain, but the fumes would be poisonous.’
Presumably when worn it attracts ‘love’ because anyone going near you would swoon in your arms?
Crabapple – Herb Lore
So I chose the Crab Apple tree for the next one.
In actual fact much (if not all) of the folklore for ordinary apples apply here – which is a lot – but I specify Crabapple as it is the original and only indigenous ancient apple tree of Britain, the wild ancestor from which all cultivated apple species come from. So that seems appropriate to my type o’ thang.
Also other cool things about Crabapple is that it is a thorn bearing tree unlike modern apples, and produces beautiful blossoms that smell like honeysuckle. It doesn’t grow very big – no more than 25 feet and although can grow in orchards it can also grow wild on the edges of woodland and in hedgerows. It’s bark is gnarly and angular, its leaves are glossy and heart shaped and its fruit is small and sour – more like a berry than an apple we know today, only about an inch in diameter. The fruit is called a pome.
The Greeks and Romans planted apple trees throughout their respective empires. The healing properties of apples were recognised by traditional healers wherever the tree appeared. The Earth Goddess, Gaia, gave Hera, the Queen of Heaven, an apple tree when she married the Chief God, Zeus. That tree was kept in the Garden of the Hesperides, guarded by the dragon, Ladon. One of Hercules’ tasks was to fetch an apple from that tree.
In Norse tradition, the Apple is the tree of immortality. The Goddess Idunn was the keeper of the apples, which she fed the Norse Gods and Goddesses to keep them forever young. Apple wands were also used in Norse love rituals. To the Norse, apples represented long life, wisdom and love.
In Celtic tradition, the Otherwordly Avalon was also known as the Avallach, the Isle of Apples, ruled by Fairy Queen, Morgan le Fay. This is the land of fairies and the dead, where King Arthur was taken to be healed by his sister, Morgan. Like their cousins to the North, the Celts attributed the power of healing and youth, or rebirth, to apples. Apples are one of the magical trees part of the Celtic Ogham tree alphabet.
Apples have a star inside them which leads to the origin of a lot of witchcraft associated lore, due to the natural pentagram. Petriﬁed remains of apple slices on saucers have been found in tombs dating back over 5,000 years. The Medieval church believed enchanted apples could be given to a victim to cause demonic possession. Before eating an apple you should rub it to remove any demons or evil spirits hiding inside.
In a Medieval Irish story Connla the Fair, an Irish prince, fell in love with a beautiful Faerie woman, who arrived on the Irish shore in a crystal boat. She offered him an apple from the world of Faerie; he took the fatal bite, and was hers forever. They set sail for her magical island where the trees bore both fruit and blossom, and winter never came. There, they ate an ever replenishing stock of apples, which kept them young forever.
The deliberate felling of an apple tree was punishable by death in ancient Irish law.
The sacred Druid plant, an t-uil-oc (Mistletoe), is often found on Apple trees, making it an especially holy tree to the Druids, along with the Oak. In the Irish Druid tradition, the Silver Bough is cut from a magical Apple tree, where silver apple shaped bells played a mystical tune, which could lull people into a trance state. Druids could make contact with the Otherworld during a trance enhanced by this silver apple bough.
Apples are customarily a part of the ‘Dumb Supper’, a silent Feast of the Dead given on Samhain Eve. Participants set a place, with broken crockery, at the head of the dining table for the ancestors, and not a word is spoken during the Dumb Supper. After the feast is over, the leftover food and broken crockery is ceremonially taken outside, into the woods, for the spirits to consume on this wild Halloween night. This is a powerful ceremony of communion with the dead. Any apples on the tree unharvested after Samhain are left for the spirits.
In Great Britain it is customary to wassail the oldest apple tree in the orchard on Twelfth Night (either January 6th or old Twelfth Night on January 17th) to ward off evil spirits and beseech the trees to produce a fine harvest of apples the following spring. The oldest tree is named Apple Tree Man, and is the guardian of all the trees in the orchard. There are many traditions connected with this rite, including shooting through the branches to ward off evil spirits, and pouring apple cider through the roots.
Toast soaked in apple cider is placed in the branches for the Robins, who embody the spirit of the apple trees. Celebrants drink warm cider and sing traditional Wassail songs. Wassail probably comes from the Anglo Saxon words, wes hal, meaning good health. The last apple is often left on the tree at harvest time, for the Apple Tree Man, to ensure a good harvest the next year.
Finally, Unicorns live beneath apple orchards. On a misty day you may see one eating sweet magical apples.
Resources: Wikipedia, Druidry.org, Botanical.com, Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical herbs
Willow – Herb Lore
And so to Willow. A very magical tree indeed. I’m mainly concerned with White willow – Salix alba, AKA Pussy Willow, Saille, Tree of Enchantment, The Witch’s Tree. Willow is also one of the “nine sacred trees” mentioned in Wicca and witchcraft, with several magical uses. In the Celtic calendar the Willow Moon corresponds to April. I was born in April, and this is why I have a tattoo of a willow branch on my foot.
Willows are all about water, so they’re all about the moon and the feminine too. For example, Hecate the powerful Greek goddess of the moon and of willow, also taught sorcery and witchcraft, and was ‘a mighty and formidable divinity of the Underworld’. Helice was also associated with water, and her priestesses used willow in their water magic and witchcraft. The willow muse, called Heliconian after Helice, was sacred to poets, and the Greek poet Orpheus carried willow branches on his adventures in the Underworld. He was also given a lyre by Apollo, and it is interesting to note that the sound boxes of harps used to be carved from solid willow wood.
Willows also have a lot of association with death. Ancient Celts believed willow planted on the grave would suck up the spirit of the dead person and their spirit would live in the tree. In the Wiccan Rede, it is described as growing by water, guiding the dead to “The Summerland”.
Willow’s ability to quickly regrow from coppiced or pollarded trees, growing several feet in one season, or the ease with which a new tree can be grown merely by pushing a healthy branch cutting into the soil (even upside down!), has come to symbolise renewal, growth, vitality and immortality in other parts of the world such as China. The willow is a famous subject in many East Asian nations’ cultures, particularly in pen and ink paintings from China and Japan.
In China, some people carry willow branches with them on the day of their Tomb Sweeping or Qingming Festival. Willow branches are also put up on gates and/or front doors, which they believe help ward off the evil spirits that wander on Qingming. Legend states that on Qingming Festival, the ruler of Hades allows the spirits of the dead to return to earth (Is it me or does it seem unlikely that HADES would feature in Chinese legend?). Since their presence may not always be welcome, willow branches keep them away. Taoist witches (TAOIST witches?) also use a small carving made from willow wood for communicating with the spirits of the dead. The image is sent to the nether world, where the disembodied spirit is deemed to enter it, and give the desired information to surviving relatives on its return. In Japanese tradition, the willow is associated with ghosts. It is popularly supposed that a ghost will appear where a willow grows.
In English folklore, a willow tree is believed to be quite sinister, capable of uprooting itself and stalking travellers.
If you wish to conjure spirits mix crushed willow with sandalwood and burn at a waning moon outdoors.
In European folklore the willow has been believed to be “planted by the devil to lure people to suicide by the restful swinging of it’s branches”.
Willow smoke is believed to sooth and guide the souls of the dead.
Witches give the tree special importance and use it as a meeting place.
All parts of the willow guard against evil and can be carried or placed in the home for this purpose. Knock on a willow tree (knock on wood) to avert evil.
It has been said that the willow produces snakes, while it’s ashes will drive them away.
There is a European legend about the origin of Alder and Willow. April 21st was the festival day for the Goddess Pales, Roman goddess of shepherds and herdsmen. Two men decided to spend the day fishing instead of participating in the required ceremonies. As a punishment the Goddess turned them into these trees so they would forever have to haunt the banks and streams leaning over watching for fish.
Sources – Wikipedia, Trees for Life, The Herbalist’s path, Cunnigham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs
Birch – Herb Lore
The Birch tree is a truly beautiful and very magical tree indeed. One of it’s folk names is ‘Lady of the Woods’, and it’s not much of a struggle to see that being silvery in appearance, it has lunar, and therefore feminine associations. In Tarot Birch corresponds to the Star, and also to Venus in planetary realms.
Birch is a tree of strong Druidic Ogham associations and indeed it represents beginnings, and is the first Moon of the Celtic year (24th December – January 21st). It is one of the nine sacred woods of the beltane fire, and one of the three pillars of wisdom (Birch, Oak, Yew – also corresponding to the three ages of man).
“Birch trees often have tree spirits attached to them and the “Lieschi” or “Genii of the Forest” are said to dwell in their tree tops. The Ghillie Dhu (pronounced “Gillee Doo or Yoo”) are guardian tree spirits who are disguised as foliage and dislike human beings. They prefer birch trees to all others, and jealously guard them from humans. If the spirit of the Birch tree touches a head it leaves a white mark and the person turns insane. If it touches a heart, the person will die.” – dutchie.org
Birch twigs have been used to exorcise spirits by gently striking possessed people or animals, since the birch has purification abilities. The tree is also used for protection, particularly against lightening (it is sacred to Thor). The traditional witches broom is made of birch twigs, ash staff and willow binding and these were particularly powerful in magic.
Images from Wikipedia, sources Cunningham Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs, Dutchie.org, Druidry.org