Magical plants often have a long association with particular qualities, such as protection or help in romantic affairs. Rowan was often planted as a protection against witchcraft, and the use of roses in love magic persists in the link between roses and romance.
This time we’re looking at the folklore of poisonous plants that still possess magical properties!
Larkspur is actually an annual member of the buttercup family Ranunculaceae. Butterflies and bees love it, but the fact it’s toxic puts off most other creatures!
Thankfully, as the Poison Garden website points out, there’s not really much about the plant that would say “Hey, eat me!”. So it’s seen as more harmful to cattle than humans when ingested. Sheep are immune to its toxins.
According to Laura C. Martin, in Greek mythology, Ajax killed himself after when he didn’t receive Achilles’ armour. Larkspur sprang from his blood (1994, p. 135).
Alternatively, Sonia Nair tells a different tale; in Native American folklore, a celestial figure wanted to visit the Earth, so she used part of the evening sky to make a spike so she could climb down. When the sun dried the spike out, it broke up into small pieces, which turned into larkspur flowers (2016).
Others believe the larkspur represents the Virgin Mary’s tears.
Yet despite its toxicity, some think that larkspur may have been used by soldiers to help control body lice, meaning it may be used in protection spells. People in Transylvania kept dried larkspur in their stables to protect the animals from witchcraft.
Scott Cunningham cites larkspur as a means of keeping ghosts at bay, while the flowers also frighten off scorpions (1985, p. 152). Apparently, if you look through a bunch of larkspur while attending a Midsummer fire, “your eyes will be preserved for the next year” (1985, p. 152).
In the language of flowers, larkspur represents an open heart (though pink can show you’re fickle). It’s the birth flower for July. Its flowers were once used to make blue dye.
Periwinkle (vinca major) is also known as Sorcerer’s violet, and was once used in love potions. But too much can cause extremely low blood pressure, which is why it’s included here.
Periwinkle does actually have a range of medicinal uses – it contains vincamine which is used in modern medicine as a cerebral stimulant.
Periwinkle was traditionally grown on graves, but it also grows naturally in graveyards so many believed the plant was linked with death.
Many saw it as a protective plant, and in Welsh folklore, the person who picks a periwinkle from a grave will be haunted for a year.
These protective qualities extended to the living, and bunches or wreaths of periwinkle might be hung on front doors to protect those inside. Travellers might also carry periwinkle for protection.
People stuffed the leaves of the plant into the marital bed to promote fidelity and happiness. Growing it outside your home also helped to encourage harmony inside.
On Matthias Night (February 24), girls made two wreaths; one of straw, one of periwinkle. They headed to a running stream at midnight and danced around blindfolded side the water. A handful of ashes formed a third option. They picked one of the three. The periwinkle meant they would marry, the straw represented misfortune, and the ashes stood for death.
Wormwood (also known as artemisia absinthium) contains glucoside absinthin, which use to flavour absinthe. Drinking too much can affect the sight, making most things appear yellow.
According to folklore, it sprung up in the trail of the Devil when he left the Garden of Eden.
The Poison Garden website says that wormwood even plays a role in the Book of Revelations! “Chapter 8, verse 11 says, ‘And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter’.”
Jack Adams even notes that the drink offered to Jesus during the crucifixion was apparently wormwood and vinegar (2004, p. 16).
The Christian links don’t end there. Crusading knights carried wormwood in an attempt to stave off plague. People also used it as a flea repellant in medieval England so perhaps the knights were on to something.
Its Latin name from from Artemis, the Greek goddess of chastity. The absinthium part of its name allegedly comes from a Greek word that means ‘undrinkable’. Historically it was used to cure intestinal worms, hence ‘wormwood’.
Yet another variation on the tale says that ‘wormwood’ comes from ‘wermut’, a German word meaning ‘preserver of the mind’. According to UsesOfHerbs.com, people in days gone by thought the plant could boost mental capabilities. It’s massively hallucinogenic so probably not.
In magical use, its flowers and leaves can be used for protection against accidents. It can also be used in spells for vengeance, although an old love charm includes wormwood, along with marjoram, marigolds and thyme.
Over to you! Do you grow any of these magical plants?
Adams, Jack (2004) Hideous Absinthe: A History of the Devil in a Bottle, London: I.B.Tauris.
Cunningham, Scott (1985) Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs, Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Worldwide.
Martin, Laura C. (1994) Garden Flower Folklore, Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press.
Nair, Sonia (2016) Symbolism and Facts About the Ravishing Larkspur Flower, online.
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