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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Flowers to Honor the Dead

Samhain, Day of the Dead, All Soul’s Day: From October 31st to November 2nd is a time to remember and honor our ancestors and loved ones who have passed. This is a time to invite their spirits to come close, as the barrier between the worlds of the seen and unseen is thin. For millennia, flowers have been used to honor the dead, perhaps because they represent the fragility of life. But also because of their beauty, often for their symbolism, and for practical reasons at funerals to mask odors.
          Lilies are an iconic funeral flower. The Greeks and Romans used them at funerals to memorialize the deceased. Lilies were depicted in Egyptian hieroglyphics and dedicated to Isis. In England, white lilies were believed to ward off evil influences and were grown in gardens to keep ghosts away. As a symbol of hope and peace, they represent the wish that the deceased continue into a good new life.
          In the Roman ceremony of Rosalia, rose petals were scattered on the graves of loved ones, symbolizing the start of a new state of being. Rosalia evolved into a springtime feast to honor departed loved ones and to offer their spirits food garnished with rose petals. The Greeks also strew petals over the graves of loved ones and made wreaths of rose canes (branches) to place on graves.
          While the ancient Romans regarded the anemone as a lucky flower, in later centuries in other parts of Europe it was regarded as the flower of the dead. A wood anemone was sometimes worn as an amulet for protection against sorcery. The wood anemone is also known as devil’s bite and evening twilight.
          Carnations were used in funeral wreaths by the Greeks and Romans. In Italy, it was associated with death well into the Middle Ages. When placed on a grave, carnations were a symbol of love for the deceased. Carnations are also known as pinks and gillyflowers.
          In France, Italy, Spain, and Germany the common chrysanthemum was a symbol of grief and used to honor loved ones. It became known as Fiori dei Morte, “flower of the dead.” Because of this association, it was sometimes considered unlucky to take chrysanthemums inside the home.  
          In addition to purple being a color for mourning, lilac flowers were often used to line coffins and placed on graves to add beauty and offer solace. Elderflowers were associated with death and funerals. They were buried with the deceased or sprinkled over the grave to aid a loved one’s passage into the otherworld.
          For a time in Italy, periwinkle was regarded as a plant of the dead and used for children’s funeral wreaths. Periwinkle’s power was used to detect witches, break spells, and heal demonic possession. It also served as an amulet against the evil eye and ghosts. Periwinkles are also known as blue stars and sorcerer’s violet.
          Considered the flower of the dead by the Aztec, marigolds are used on altars for Day of the Dead observances in present-day Mexico and represent the tenuousness of life. According to legend, the reddish-brown splotches on the flowers were from the blood of people killed by Spanish conquistadors. Aztec marigold is also known as African marigold.
          Samhain, Day of the Dead, All Soul’s Day also marks a time for introspection in preparation for the new cycle that begins at Yule, a symbolic death before renewal.

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Entering the Dark of the Year

October, Nacht-ober, Night-ober
We enter the dark of the year.
Things may go bump in the night
But there is nothing to fear.

The things that we use for decoration at this time of year bring protective energy to the home. The chrysanthemum is a traditional flower used to honor those who have passed. In Europe it became known as Fiori dei Morte, “flower of the dead.” Throughout Mexico, Central and South America, corn was regarded as sacred. Because of its protective magic, straw was placed under the deceased at funerals to keep evil spirit away. Pumpkins and squash represent abundance and are associated with lunar magic. At a time when the veil between the worlds is growing thin, these also provide comfort for ancestral spirits who may draw near.

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Autumn Magic with Hawthorn

As leaves begin to fade, hawthorn berries blaze into bright red for autumn. In Ireland and parts of Britain it was believed that ash, oak, and hawthorn growing in the same place made the invisible world of the faeries visible. It was also believed to mark a threshold into the faery realm. For centuries, hawthorn has been an important component of Britain’s hedgerows and the flowers used in Beltane celebrations.

            The name hawthorn evolved from the Old English word, haegthorn, “hedge thorn.” It is also known as haw bush, fairy thorn, Maybush, quickthorn, whitethorn, wishing tree. Usually called haws, its oval, red fruit is also known as pixie pears and has a five-pointed star on the bottom.

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Bittersweet and Sometimes Deadly

Deadly nightshade, also known as belladonna, grabs attention because of its names and dark history of use by witches and sorcerers and as a poison. Bittersweet nightshade has its own lore, although mostly related to its powers of protection. While not as deadly as its belladonna cousin, eating the berries or leaves of bittersweet nightshade is sometimes fatal.

            Bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) is also known as European bittersweet and woody nightshade. It is a woody vine with dark-green leaves that have a large, arrow-shaped center lobe with two smaller lobes at its base. The star-shaped flower has a prominent, yellow cone at the center and purple, backward-arching petals. The berries turn from green to yellow, then orange, and finally red.
            The species name dulcamara refers to the flavor of the berries that are first bitter and then sweet. It is said to be an unpleasant sweetness and certainly not worth the risk to find out. Always handle any part of this plant with care.
            Bittersweet was believed to have the power to remove a witch’s spell from a person or animal. During the Middle Ages, holly and bittersweet were attached to a horse’s collar to protect it from witchcraft. Garlands of bittersweet were hung around the necks of livestock to keep them safe from spells and harm. People sometimes wore a garland of it to cure certain ailments. Dried berries strung together as a necklace reputedly protected children from evil.
            Magically, bittersweet is instrumental for banishing or removing things from your life, including toxic emotions. Write the name of something or someone you no longer want in your life on a piece of paper. Wrap three bittersweet berries in the paper, put it in a box for three weeks, and then take the paper and berries outside to burn and bury. This method can also be used to remove spells and hexes.

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St. John’s Wort: Magical Faery Horses

St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) is also known as Penny-John, rosin rose, and hexenkraut “witches’ herb.” It’s a small, shrubby plant with bright yellow star-shaped flowers. The flowers and buds ooze a red liquid when squeezed or bruised.
        In Ireland, St. John’s wort ranked as one of the seven magical herbs that nothing natural or supernatural could injure. Throughout Europe, it was used to drive away evil spirits and demons. In Scotland, St. John’s wort was used as a charm to ward off witches, enchantment, and second sight. However, to gain second sight, the juice of St. John’s wort, dill, and vervain were combined in an ointment and applied to the eyelids for three days. Although the plant was used as an amulet against faeries, it was also believed to be a plant protected by them.
According to legend, faeries held a great feast on Midsummer’s Eve during which they danced around St. John’s wort plants and splashed them with cowslip wine. The reason for this practice is unknown.
Like ragwort, faery horses were said to use St. John’s wort as a daytime disguise. Stepping on the plant after sunset reputedly caused the horse to rear up and gallop off with the unsuspecting human on its back. At dawn a person would be left far from home with a sprig of leaves in their hands.
Grow St. John’s wort at the front of your house or hang a sprig of leaves on your front door to repel negativity and to invite abundance into your home. Of course, it will also be an invitation for faeries.


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Peonies: Powerful Protection

With large, fragrant flowers, the peony has been a garden favorite for centuries. My parents grew them, my grandmother grew them, and almost everyone seemed to have peonies in their gardens. Artists have also had a passion for these flowers, but there’s a lot more to peonies than their beauty.
         The Greeks believed peonies could glow night because they came to earth from the moon. The plant was believed to chase away evil spirits and protect the house where it grew. Wearing a necklace of peony seeds was said to ward off bewitchment. However, the roots were regarded as especially powerful and a carved one served as a protective amulet against faeries and goblins.
        According to Pliny the Elder and others, a necklace made from the roots could ward off nightmares as well as the incubus. Anglo-Saxons wore it to cure lunacy and illness caused by demonic possession. Heavily promoted by physicians in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, polished pieces of root were made into beads and worn as an amulet called an anodyne necklace. In addition to a range of ailments including teething babies, the necklace was said to cure the “secret disease” (venereal disease).
        In addition to gracing your garden, try a little modern magic with peonies. For a good luck charm, dry and polish a piece of root to carry with you. A sachet of dried petals on the bedside table invites faeries into your dreams; it will also dispel bad dreams or negative thoughts that keep you from falling asleep.


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Forget-Me-Not: Sweet But With a Dark Side

Forget-me-not is a charming little plant with soft blue flowers that the Victorians regarded as a symbol of fidelity and love. It was given as a token of remembrance, a sweet request to not be forgotten.

I had never grown forget-me-not in my garden until last year when a little plant cropped up between the iris and daisies. With property surrounded by meadows and woods, wild flora and fauna turn up in my garden on a regular basis. I decided to let the little blue-flowered visitor stay. After all, it has been considered a lucky plant.

By early autumn, I began to change my opinion. One of the folk names for forget-me-not (Myosotis scorpioides) is scorpion grass, which is also reflected in its species name. Prior to blooming, the flower stalks are tightly curled resembling a scorpion tail. This should be a warning that it wields a metaphorical sting. Forget-me-not doesn’t ask sweetly to be remembered, it clings like a vengeful lover who refuses to be set aside.

During autumn cleanup, I discovered that forget-me-not had made itself at home in the peripheral gardens. It won’t let go; the tiny seeds attach to anything (garden gloves, pant legs, sweatshirt sleeves) and stick like Velcro. This spring, it has turned up everywhere. It will not let you forget it.

Magically, the ancient Egyptians used forget-me-not to aid in receiving visions during the month of Thoth (approximately September 11 to October 10) by placing a few leaves over their eyes. As mentioned, it was considered a lucky plant and in Germany it was used as a talisman for finding hidden treasure, especially if it was guarded by the fae. Forget-me-not was often used for protection from faery mischief; however, judging by the plant’s behavior, I think it is faery mischief.

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