Plant Magic: Wisdom from the Green World

Whether you live in a city or the countryside, the magic of plants can be found everywhere and sometimes where you least expect it. Be open and explore the magic that surrounds you.

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Sandra Kynes

Sandra Kynes

The author of over a dozen books, Sandra is an explorer of history, myth, and magic. Her writing has been featured in SageWoman, The Magical Times, The Portal, and Circle magazines, Utne Reader and Magical Buffet websites, and various Llewellyn almanacs. Although she is a member of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, she travels a solitary Goddess-centered path through the Druidic woods. She has lived in New York City, Europe, England, and now Maine where she lives in an 1850s farmhouse surrounded by meadows and woods.  

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Vikings, Runes, and a Fern

The Interrupted Fern (Osmunda claytoniana) is a bit unusual as most ferns go. The first time I saw a row of them at the edge of the meadow, from a distance I thought they looked like a line of aliens coming out of the woods. On closer inspection, I saw that they were very weird, indeed.
      As it matures, this fern develops into a vase shape that reaches three to four feet tall and has fertile and sterile fronds. In the early spring, the upright fertile fronds appear first with a section near the top of the plant with brown spore-producing leaflets. After releasing the spores, these leaflets fall away leaving a gap along the stem. The sterile fronds sprout up around the fertile fronds and create the plant’s graceful shape.
      As usual, I wanted to find out more about this plant I’d never seen before. The species name honors Virginia botanist John Clayton (1694 – 1773) — standard stuff — but the genus proved to be far more interesting and a little obscure. Osmunda is in the Osmundaceae botanical family, which is also known as the Royal Fern family. It was so named because the fertile leaflets, which usually appear at the top of the fronds gives the plant the appearance of wearing a crown. Except for the species in my field, which is interrupted and not crowned.
      The origin of the genus name is not certain, but it is said to honor someone called Osmund, Osmundus, or Asmund. One story associated with it comes from Saxon mythology and is about Osmund the Waterman of Loch Fyne on the west coast of Scotland. According to the legend, he hid his wife and daughter on a small island covered with these ferns to keep them safe during a Viking raid. His daughter is said to have named the fern after him.
      Although Saint Osmund of Salisbury and the Swedish archbishop of Skara, Osmundus, are often cited as potential name sources, so too is Åsmund Kåresson. The names Osmund, Osmundus, Asmund or Åsmund have a Norse/Germanic/Icelandic origin and are composed of the word Os or Ás meaning “god” and mund, “protection.” In terms of the runes, these meanings are found in the Younger Futhark symbol As, and the Anglo-Saxon Os, which are versions of the Elder Futhark Ansuz. This brings us full circle back to Åsmund Kåresson who was the earliest known rune carver in the province of Uppland, Sweden. The eleventh-century Ängby Stone is attributed to him.
      Magically, like most ferns the Interrupted Fern is associated with protection, defense, and security. Allied with the runic interpretation of Osmund, it may suggest special protection from deities. This plant’s energy is an aid for runic study and readings. In spending some time with this fern, I concluded that its interrupted feature carries a message. Life will always throw curveballs that knock us off course and there are times when we need to put things on hold. Life interrupted. However, sometimes they can provide a meaningful break, an interlude and chance to reassess things. Don’t be frustrated by an interruption, instead, find out what it means.

 

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Solstice Fire and Seeing the Unseen

Occurring only days apart, the Summer Solstice and Midsummer’s Eve have become intertwined with overlapping traditions and customs. In addition to celebrating long warm days, protection charms were high on the to-do list at this time of year and often incorporated into bonfire rituals.
      In the British Isles and Germany, the magical plant mugwort was especially useful. Long stems were tied together and worn around the waist, and then thrown into the bonfire, which would protect the wearer from ghosts and magic. The burning mugwort would also carry away bad luck. In Germany, gazing at the bonfire through a wreath of mugwort was believed to ensure good eyesight for a year. In France, both these customs were followed using St. John’s wort instead of mugwort. Wearing sprigs of St. John’s wort and tossing them into the fire was also common in parts of Britain.
      As part of a Midsummer protection spell in Germany, vervain and larkspur were thrown into the bonfire through a wreath of mugwort to give them extra power. For protection on the Isle of Man, people wore chaplets of mugwort during the celebrations and attached leafy stems to the horns of their cattle.
      The faeries were said to be particularly active at this time of year and many customs involved protection from them or were aimed at keeping them from meddling with livestock. There were also many beliefs about methods to make the usually invisible magical beings visible. In Denmark, standing beneath an alder tree at midnight on Midsummer’s Eve was said to enabl a person to see the faery king and his entourage on their way to revels. According to Danish folklore, the fae often lived under alders or in alder thickets.
      Elder shrubs were also a faery habitat and in England adding elderflowers to the Midsummer’s Eve bonfire was believed to allow people to see the fae. A mainstay of medieval gardens, lavender was also said to attract elves with its delightful fragrance and silvery leaves. After all, one of its folk names is elf leaf. Wearing a circlet of lavender flowers and tossing a few sprigs into the Midsummer’s Eve bonfire was said to also aid in seeing elves and faeries.
      What might you see this Solstice? Will you have a Midsummer night’s dream?

 

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A Chance Encounter with Mythology in the Garden

Magic that takes place in the garden doesn’t always have to do with plants and you never know what you might find. While weeding around some lilies in my garden the other morning, I did a double take for what I thought at first was a spent flower that had dropped and landed on a leaf. On closer inspection, I saw that it was a moth. Its markings were less than remarkable until he moved one of his wings revealing a splotch of red color and a hind wing eye spot that was very owl like. Unfortunately, I wasn’t quick enough to snap a picture of that.
        Curious about my garden visitor, I did some research and found that it is an io moth (Automeris io) also known as the peacock moth. An earlier name for it was Hyperchiria lilith, which had been based on a series of female moths with reddish-brown forewings. The only link between the moth and Lilith is that in many stories she was said to have had red hair. Even though I liked the little male moth I found, I was liking his species even more.
        The current species name comes from Greek mythology. Io was the first priestess of the goddess Hera. Io is also known as the cow goddess because Zeus turned her into a heifer in an attempt to hide her from the wrath of his wife. Of course, Hera knew everything that was going on in Olympus and elsewhere. Fleeing from the mighty goddess, Io eventually ended up in Egypt where she regained her human form. The Greeks identified Io with Isis. Interestingly, because corn is an occasional host plant for io moth larvae, early twentieth-century naturalist Gene Stratton-Porter called it “Hera of the Corn.”
        At any rate, since moths are mostly nocturnal and elusive, they may go unnoticed for magic. However, because they are active at night they are especially helpful for dream work and contacting spirits. As for symbolism: attracted to a candle flame, the moth represents the soul seeking truth as well as transcendence. It is also regarded as a symbol of knowledge. Associated with the moon, the moth is a perfect symbol for an esbat altar and lunar magic.
       Invite the energy of the moth for spell work, especially for defense. It can aid in understanding omens and messages received through divination. In addition to being considered an oracle, the moth was often regarded as a witch in European folklore. With the symmetry in its patterns and shape, the moth represents balance and can help restore equilibrium when life gets out of whack.


 

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Witches’ Gowan

The term gowan was a generic Scottish folk name for yellow flowers. The word is likely to have come from the Middle English gollan, meaning “yellow flower,” which possibly came from a source akin to the Old Norse gullinn, meaning “golden.” For a time in the nineteenth century, the word gowan was also used in reference to daisies. Later they were distinguished as white gowan or yellow gowan. In addition, the yellow flowers were regarded as witches’ gowan, but why?
        Only two flowers were actually called witch-gowan and witches’ gowan: dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and globeflower (Trollius europaeus), respectively. The other yellow gowans are the meadow buttercup (Ranunculus acris), and marsh marigold (Caltha palustris). In addition to their color, another property they share is sap that is poisonous or at least highly irritating to the skin. The white sap of the dandelion and globeflower was called witches’ milk.
        It seems odd that these flowers were called witches’ gowan because folklore only mentions the dandelion and marsh marigold as being used for protection against witches. Perhaps their toxic sap was enough to link these plants with witches because witches were blamed for anything harmful or inexplicably bad.
        Instead of witches, the yellow gowans were more often associated with faeries, goblins, and trolls. Marsh marigold and globeflower also had the folk name goblin flower. Another name for globeflower was troll flower. Dandelions were called fairy clocks.
        The globeflower is ball-shaped and its petals remain mostly closed making it look like a small, yellow cabbage. In Scandinavia, the plant’s poisonous qualities were attributed to trolls that were said to have meddled with the flowers. According to folklore in the Netherlands, malicious elves used them to prepare poison. Dandelions gathered on Midsummer’s Eve were said to have the power to ward off witches. According to many legends, faeries could tell time with the flowers or the seed heads. In parts of England, seeds floating on the air were called fairies and it was considered lucky to catch one, but if you made a wish and let it go your wish would come true.
        Buttercups were said to be used as basins by faeries. In Ireland, they were traditionally placed on doorsteps and windowsills on May Eve to protect against faery mischief. Unlike their buttercup cousins, the yellow petals of marsh marigold do not overlap into a cup shape. On the Isle of Man marsh marigold was called the herb of Beltane. It used as a charm against faeries and witches on Beltane and as a general protective charm throughout the month of May.
        While these flowers may not have been used by witches in the past, they live up to their old folk name through use in modern witchcraft. Magically, dandelions are an aid to divination, opening awareness and bringing clarity of purpose. They also help in contacting and communicating spirits and spirit guides. Use buttercups in spells to manifest abundance and prosperity in your life. They also enhance dream work. Marsh marigold is instrumental in healing and renewal. Also use them to stoke inspiration or to remove negativity. Globeflower is effective for removing negativity, breaking and warding off hexes, and defensive spells.

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The Fragrance and Taste of Yule

The scent of evergreens marks the Yule season like no other, except perhaps cinnamon. We bake it into cakes and cookies, sprinkle it on toast, and add a wee dash to a cup of coffee, coco, or a rum hot toddy. A Yuletide potpourri wouldn’t be quite right without cinnamon’s warm spicy scent. Even the rolled sticks of cinnamon fit in with holiday decorations.
        The genus and common names of this spice were derived from the Greek kinnamon or kinnamomon, meaning “sweet wood,” which in turn is thought to have come from the Malayan and Indonesian kayamanis, that has the same meaning. Cinnamon is believed to have been first cultivated in Sri Lanka. One of the world’s oldest and most important spices, cinnamon has been used for culinary and medicinal purposes in China and India for over 4,000 years.
        There are two types of cinnamon: Ceylon cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum syn. C. verum); also known as true cinnamon, and cassia Cinnamon (C. cassia syn. C. aromaticum); also known as bastard cinnamon, Chinese cinnamon. Cassia has a stronger taste and fragrance; Ceylon cinnamon is a little sweeter. Consuming excessive amounts of either type of cinnamon can be toxic.
        Cinnamon was a highly prized commodity for the Phoenicians and Arabs in trade with the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. According to Greek legend, the phoenix constructed its nest with cinnamon twigs. On the island of Rhodes, cinnamon oil was used during wedding ceremonies to anoint the bride’s hands. The Hebrews valued both cinnamon and cassia. Cassia was regarded as a sacred in China where, according to legend, eating the spice from a gigantic cassia tree bestowed immortality. During the Middle Ages in Europe, it became especially popular for spicing wine. It still is.
        Cinnamon is helpful for aroma therapy at this time year when we often get frazzled. The scent helps alleviate depression and nervous exhaustion, and it provides emotional. support. When you need clarity to focus on gift lists and everything else, combine cinnamon essential oil with mandarin and rosemary. Use it in the melted wax of a pillar candle for meditation and spiritual support.
        Use cinnamon to spark awareness, stimulate psychic abilities, and support astral travel. Also use it to increase the power and success of spells, and to support clairvoyance. It enhances divination and dream work. Cinnamon is also effective for consecrating amulets and magic tools as well as raising energy for ritual. Put a little powdered cinnamon in the palm of your hand and blow it away as you make a wish for the coming year.

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Spice is Nice but Magic is Better

Whether carved for Samhain or made into a pie for Thanksgiving, this is the season of that American icon, the pumpkin. Here in Maine, the town of Damariscotta has an annual pumpkin festival where all things pumpkin is celebrated. However, it’s not enough to just grow and display a giant pumpkin. You have to carve it out, put an outboard motor on it, and join the giant pumpkin boat race on the river. Yes, really.

The pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo) is a variety of the plant that also produces yellow crookneck squash, zucchini, acorn squash, and others. The plant is a creeping vine with winding tendrils and coarse, prickly stems. The rounded leaves are lobed and have serrated edges. Large, bright-yellow or orange, trumpet-shaped flowers precede the fruit (by definition it’s a fruit), which can be a range of colors, sizes, and shapes.

Originating in Mexico and Central America thousands of years ago, the pumpkin was a source of food and medicine for indigenous people throughout the region. The Aztec and Inca cultivated them. By the time Europeans arrived in the New World, the Cherokee of the Southeast, Ojibwas along the Great Lakes, and the Pueblo people of the Southwest and many others were growing them. European settlers adopted the pumpkin along with other indigenous crops and transported it to Europe in the sixteenth century. By the time the Pilgrims set foot in Plymouth, they were already familiar with pumpkins. English settlers in New England removed the seeds, filled them with honey, milk, and spices, and then baked them. Colonists also made soup and beer from pumpkins.

Originating as a carved turnip in Ireland, the jack-o-lantern became more impressive with a pumpkin. Hollowed out and lit from within by a candle, jack-o-lanterns were placed in windows during the dark of the year to keep wandering spirits at bay. In Central Europe, eating pumpkin was believed to increase male virility. Dreaming about pumpkins has a number of interpretations. In Europe it was interpreted as a bad omen or that witchcraft was being used against you. In the Middle East, it was an indication of good health.

Overall, the pumpkin has come to symbolize abundance and as such, it can aid in drawing it into your home. Place three small pumpkins on a kitchen windowsill or table during the autumn season. As you do this say three times, “May wealth, health, and love abound; in this house and all around.”

Like reading tea leaves, a handful of pumpkin seeds can be used for divination. First, hold them between your hands as you visualize your question or whatever you seek guidance for. Toss them into the air, and then look for patterns or symbols that they may form on the floor. Make a circle with seeds on your altar for an esbat ritual or when working with moon magic to draw the power of Luna. When blowing out the candle inside a pumpkin, place an index finger in front of your mouth as you blow, and make a wish.

Of course, you can always enjoy a pumpkin spice latte before, after, or maybe even as part of your magic work.

 

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Rosehips – For Tea and For Magic

Now that autumn is almost here, many types of rose bushes are producing fruit known as rosehips and rose haws. The dog rose or wild briar (Rosa canina) and the sweet briar rose (Rosa rubiginosa syn. R. eglanteria) produce some of the best rosehips. These roses have simple flowers with five petals. The flowers of the dog rose are white to pale pink; the sweet briar flowers are pink with white centers. Sweet briar’s leaves have an apple-like scent. Both plants are thicket-forming shrubs with arching stems studded with thorns.
        If you want rosehips to develop, the flowers must stay on the bush after they fade. Wait for cool weather before collecting rosehips. At the time of harvest, hips should be firm but have a little give. Sing or chant as you gather the rosehips, to put magical energy into them. They can be used for magical practices as well as a healing tea.
         Faeries are said to enjoy cavorting in dog rose thickets; the rosehip from a dog rose is also known as a pixy pear. In Scandinavia and Germany, roses were believed to be under the protection of elves and dwarves. During the Middle Ages in parts of Europe, a dried rosehip was carried as a charm against certain diseases as well as for protection against enchantment and sorcery. The rose was known as Frigg’s thorn to Germanic people.
        For drying rosehips, you will need a heavy-duty needle and thick thread to string the rosehips together into a circlet. Hang it in a cool, dry place until the rosehips are hard. Make a circlet large enough so when you lay it on your altar you can place things within the circle. Rosehips are especially supportive for clairvoyance. Consider making a smaller circlet to wear as a bracelet for divination, or psychic work. It can also be hung on your bedpost to enhance dream work. Use dried and crumbled rosehips to break hexes and in spells to banish unwanted things from your life. Carry a whole, dried rosehip to attract luck or provide protection.
        Rosehips are full of vitamin C and make a wonderful healing tea to have on hand for the winter. Gathering and preparing your own rosehips gives you the opportunity to infuse them with magical, healing energy. Give them a thorough rinse with cool water, let them dry, and then cut off the ends. If you are drying a circlet of rosehips, don’t cut off the ends.
        For use as tea or magical powder, cut the larger rosehips in half so they will dry faster. Lay them out in a single layer on a cookie sheet and place them on low heat in the oven with the door ajar. They will be hard and brittle when dry. Use a food processor to chop them into small pieces. Place the pieces in a sieve and gently shake them. This gets rid of the little hairs that grow on the rosehips. Store them in a jar with a tight-fitting lid out of direct light.
        When you’re ready for tea, put one to two teaspoons of rose hips in a mug and pour in a cup of boiling water. Cover and let it steep for about fifteen minutes, and then strain. Rosehip tea is a little tart, so you may want to add a spoonful of honey. While it can help ease a cold, a cup of steaming rosehip tea brings cozy comfort on chilly nights.
 

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