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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Mallow: From Aphrodisiac to Love Cure

Often seen dotting the waysides, in the past common or wood mallow (Malva sylvestris) and musk mallow (M. moschata), pictured, were grown as culinary and medicinal herbs and as a vegetable. The round, lobed fruit looks like a little wheel of cheese and was the source of the folk names cheese plant and fairy cheese.
        Mallow was used medicinally by the ancient Chinese, Greeks, and Romans and later by the Anglo-Saxons. Roman poet Marcus Valerius Martialis noted that mallow was a cure for post-orgy hangovers. Pliny the Elder recommended its use to aid in achieving orgasm and for centuries mallow was regarded as an aphrodisiac. By the late Middle Ages, the opposite was believed and it was prescribed to put a damper on passions. In North America, the Iroquois used the low-growing dwarf mallow (M. neglecta) to cause vomiting as cure to counteract love medicine.
        According to Irish legend, mallow was one of seven herbs that nothing natural or supernatural could harm. However, to be effective against evil it had to be gathered at noon on a sunny day around the time of the full moon. It was also believed that lightly striking a person with the stem of a mallow plant on May Eve would provide protection from disease and faeries.
        In Germany, mallow was used to cure someone effected by witchcraft. In England, mallow was included in May Day garlands. The fruits were regarded as faery food; however, human children playing in the fields enjoyed eating them, too.
        As you might expect, musk mallow was named for its musky fragrance. Essential oil from the seeds is used in perfumery as an alternative to traditional musk from deer (and a lot easier to gather).
        Of course, mallow has magical uses, but is it an aphrodisiac or love cure? A bit of both. To attract love, infuse oil with the flowers or use the flower essence and dab a little behind your ears. Burn a handful of dried flowers as part of a banish spell to send someone packing.
        For other magical uses, scatter a few dried leaves or flowers on your altar to increase your ability to communicate with spirits. Looking like little moons, place a few of the fruit on your altar for esbat rituals to boost lunar energy. Place a few in a special outdoor area to invite the faeries to your property.


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The Holy and Sacred Chocolate

Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus was certainly right when he gave the cacao tree the genus name Theobroma, which means “food of the gods.” Those of us in the throes of winter take comfort in wrapping our cold hands around a steaming mug of hot chocolate.
        The Maya, Aztec, and Olmec regarded cacao as a sacred plant. In Mayan and Aztec mythology, the plant was a gift from the feathered serpent god. The seeds were used as offerings to deities, often sprinkled with blood from priests who ceremonially cut themselves and was given to victims prior to sacrifice. A cup of chocolate would provide more solace and a last cigarette.
        The Aztec belief that cacao was an aphrodisiac lingered in Europe after it was introduced in the sixteenth century. In Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebrations, cacao is placed on home altars and at gravesites to share with loved ones who have passed and ancestors.
        Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as white chocolate. After cacao seeds are shelled, they are ground into a liquid from which the fat (cocoa butter) is separated from the cocoa powder. Later in the chocolate making process the two ingredients are reunited. Cocoa butter is the basis of white chocolate along with milk, sugar, and a few other ingredients. BTW, you’re not seeing typos, the spelling cacao refers to the raw beans and cocoa, a product made from the beans.
        Magically cacao is associated with happiness (that’s no surprise), love, prosperity, and sex, which is why it makes perfect sense to give your lover a box of chocolates for Valentine’s Day or any occasion. As part of a spell to attract prosperity and wealth, wrap a cacao bean in the highest denomination bank note you have in your wallet. When celebrating an esbat, place a piece of round white chocolate on your altar. And there’s nothing better to ground and center your energy after magic and ritual than eating a piece of chocolate. Blessed be.


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Mistletoe: What’s Love Got to do With It?

Our holiday decorations often include a sprig of mistletoe hung in a doorway or in the middle of a room. We may put it in place and think of the elaborate cutting ceremonies of the Druids as noted by Pliny or associate it with the Norse god Balder who was slain with it but later resurrected. Today, kissing under the mistletoe is a token of love, a wish for peace, and a bid for good luck.
        In the past in England, it was believed that sweethearts who kissed under a sprig of it were destined to marry but only if the mistletoe was burned on Twelfth Night (January 6th). A woman who was single and not kissed under it would forever be a spinster. But where did the smooching come from?
        It harkens back to the Roman Saturnalia, which generally took place from December 17th to the 23rd. Held in honor of the god Saturn, it was a celebration of the end of agricultural work for the year and the winter solstice. It was a time to kick back and enjoy revelries and excesses. There was a suspension of rules and anything goes promiscuity. Mistletoe was a prominent part of the decorations and an import symbol.
        Mistletoe was revered because of its liminal nature but even more so when it grew on an oak tree, an uncommon occurrence. Oak trees were associated with the most powerful gods in many cultures and mistletoe berries were believed to confer the power of fertility because they held the male/life force essence of the god. More than love and happiness, mistletoe symbolized the desire for fertility and not just for husband and wife. Sprigs were hung in cattle sheds, too, although I doubt that Elsie the cow received a smooch.
        As with other things, Roman customs were taken to Britain. Christmas in England was close enough to coincide with Saturnalia. The Christmas revelries went on for twelve days and was a celebration of the end of the annual agricultural work. The medieval Church put a damper on Pagan associations but people still decorated their homes with the traditional greenery, which of course, included mistletoe. Eventually, they all found their way into churches, too.
        By the eighteenth century, kissing boughs were adorning kitchens. In the nineteenth century there was a rule that a man could kiss any number of women under the mistletoe but he had to pick a berry from the bough for each kiss until there are no more left and the kissing was supposed to end.
        While we may not have mistletoe rules and the beliefs and reasons for hanging it may have changed, I think it’s nice to know that we are carrying on a very ancient Yuletide tradition. And that’s what love’s got to do with it. We’re using an ancient symbol that has been associated with love for centuries to mark our own celebrations and revelries. So, raise a glass under the kissing bough and give a toast to Yule past, present, and future.


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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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