On Working with Plants

Plant magic is more than just remembering basic uses of herbs and tossing them together like the ingredients of a cake. Like all things in witchcraft, there exists animating forces and energies behind them, and developing familiarity and working partnerships with Plant Spirits is a smart thing for a witch to do.

I began by using dried herbs from a rather disrespectful and unappreciative point of view, but have learned much from growing plants these past few years; things about both the specific plants grown and plants as a whole that have changed and shaped my wortcunning over time. I will mention a few tips and ideas for enhancing your own herb craft in this post.

My Journey

A large passion of mine is working with plants. My grandmother grew a wide variety of herbs when I was younger, but I was never able to grow anything myself despite how hard I tried. Still, I learned a lot about their uses from my grandmother’s books as well as from my mother, who studied herbal medicine during my early teen years. 

For medicine and magic alike, however, I had always bought bulk dried herbs since I was so bad at growing them and didn’t understand the point of it when I could just get them in a bag so easily. While it is perfectly okay to buy herbs, you should have a connection with or at least some respect for the plant that you are using.

Later, when I bought a field guide and realized just how many useful plants I could find in my own woods and back yard, I began wildcrafting and became more sure of myself when it came to identifying and using plants. It quickly became preferable and I gained a new respect for the plants I was using. I was then able to make sure I harvested with care and at the correct time, if needed.

The real game changer was first time I went to my grandmother’s house and explored her gardens after she passed away. I found epic amounts of Mugwort and harvested it. The dried plants had such a strong aroma, color, and potency that I had never noticed in the bags of it that I had ordered online. Smell is a huge factor in magic, and when you finally find out what Mugwort smells like after having been using it for years, it is an eye opener. I was sold… or rather would probably never allow myself to be sold bulk herbs again, no matter how convenient they may be.

Her patch of Mugwort was huge! I dried a massive amount of it and started a few plants around my yard so that I would always have it after her property sold.

When I then wanted to get ahold of harder to find plants, such as Mandrakes and other Solanaceous herbs, I knew from wildcrafting and the lesson of my grandmother’s Mugwort that growing them myself was my only option. There was no going back now. Especially for Mandrake which is, more often than not, never actually true Mandrake when bought on the internet. I wanted fresh and I wanted to know what I was getting.

There was only one problem… I didn’t know shit about gardening. I killed even the simplest of plants, and now I was going to jump right in and try to grow ones that were famous for being so challenging? Oh well. I ordered several types of seed seeds, bought dirt, and most of them actually just grew and grew. Apparently I was either much more ready to grow things now, or perhaps the environment these persnickety plants were used to happened to be as shitty as the care that I provided. Either way, it worked and I learned a lot about them from growing them. When you’re constantly watching your plants for aphids or flea beatles, magnesium or calcium deficiencies, hydration, leaf tone, etc, you’re actively listening to that plant and opening yourself up to communication with it.

Tips to Begin or Deepen Plant Work

Join a Group

It doesn’t sound very magical, and indeed I have never seen magic or any other uses discussed in groups designed for plant identification, but such a group can be a good way of seeing new plants and learning what they are, as well as sharing photos of plants you do not recognize or wish to verify the identity of. Similarly you may be able to find a group that specifically deals with the uses of plants in which you may find new ideas, techniques, and people to discuss the subject with.

Read, Read, Read

Read everything on individual plants, magical and mundane alike. Read books on working with plants, the history of their use, and beliefs surrounding them. When you think you’ve read enough, read more. Find mentions in mythology too. Invest in harder to come by books from occult publishers.  You may find that you know a lot already, but there are always new tidbits, approaches, outlooks to be gained no matter how much you already think you know about a subject.

Here are a few of the books that may be helpful. The Complete Book of Herbs was one my grandmother had that I constantly devoured. The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive plants is an endless well of information on every aspect of a plant from cultural uses, to history, to chemical compounds, etc and is loaded with photos and useful information. Witchcraft Medicine is a brilliant look at the use of herbs by witches for flight, healing, and midwifery. The Witches Ointment more is specifically on the history and lore around plants and ointments used for flight. A Reference Guide to Essential Oils can be helpful in determining how essential oils may affect you when using them in an oil or incense as well as a section to find oils based on specific concerns. The Witching Herbs is a new, but long awaited title that I’ve not had a lot of time to read much of yet, but I would definitely recommend it as the author has been one of the most significant and helpful sources of witchy seeds and growing advice around.

Meeting and Observation

Get a field guide. Go outside and look at plants. Hike in new places and at different times of the year. Find one that calls to you and get to know it. If it is one found in magic, find out its uses. If not, try to figure them out. Study its history, native beliefs on the plant, as well as its magic and medicinal uses. Read about and watch how it grows and where. Notice its smells, colors, shapes, medicinal uses or toxicity, what time of day its flowers open, how it overtakes or benefits the plants around it, every detail. When you start to notice a plant in these ways, you get to know the Plant Spirit’s personality and how it might be used. How a plant appears and expresses itself is also an easy way to determine the plants planetary influences.

This field guide is excellent. I rarely enter the woods without it, just in case I want to identify something.  Also, Squawroot, Bloodroot, Peppermint and Mugwort

Plant magic is not simply memorizing hundreds of plants and their basic listed uses. Periwinkle one local plant which makes her presence quite known around here. Periwinkle is often associated with love magic, however, she is not native and creeps through the woodland floor, hogging the light and killing off many of the other plants in the process. Depending on what you’re looking for, Periwinkle’s personality may very wrong for your love spell. I, personally, would opt for a different plant in love work because of her somewhat suffocating nature. A key in working with plants is to realize you are not just working with the dried plant material, but the Plant Spirit that gives it its energy, and that Plant Spirit has a will of its own. You want to observe and know a plant to make sure your will is aligned for the task at hand.

Growing for Knowing

If you can grow things yourself, this will amplify your herb craft even further. Seeing the plant grow from seed gives an even wider window of observation for getting to know the plant, and as I mentioned above, the constant checking for insects and deficiencies inadvertantly opens you up to the plant and communication with it. Tending the plant is a showing of respect for it too, a constant offering consisting of ones time and resources such as fertilizers, which can be magical too.

Hopi Tobacco, Belladonna, Snapdragon, and Apple of Peru.

I mentioned above getting to know the plant from wildcrafting and observing them outside, but by growing the plant you are making room for that plant spirit in your life and allowing it to get to know you as well. It allows for the building of a relationship, that the Plant Spirit may become a Plant Ally. If you cannot grow the plant, maybe that spirit does not wish to work with you at this time, and another plant would be a more willing and potent ally. Try different things, you might be surprised. If you’re curious about a plant getting to know you, The Secret Life of Plants is a book that may be of interest.

Dittany of Crete, Belladonna, Bloodroot, and Mandragora.  Also a view of my deck and my dog, Theia, beside a potted Belladonna plant. A lot of people worry about growing toxic plants with pets. My bedroom, yard, and deck is filled with poisonous plants and more animals than I know what to do with and I’ve had no issues. There are many toxic plants, both cultivated and wild, that pets are often exposed to and they are usually just fine.  They tend to instinctionally know what to ignore and most carnivorous animals really do not find plants all that fascinating to begin with. Children on the other hand will touch and eat anything, just to tick you off. Do NOT have poisonous plants within reach of small human-spawn.

Gardens, Potted Plants, and Miniaturizing

If you don’t have room for a garden, grow things in pots outside on your porch or find out what will grow inside. Windows may be enough light for many plants and florescent tubes or compact fluorescents will also help plants grow inside. I found 300 watt-equivalent CFL bulbs (the spiral ones) to be very helpful when growing plants indoors. Nowadays I have a 300W LED grow light that gives off an insane pink light for keeping my mandrakes inside during winter and for starting seeds for spring.

Two Black Mandrakes and two containers starting more Black and White Mandrake seeds under the ridiculous pink grow light.

I find that many of the plants I grow for witchcraft tend to grow quite large if allowed to, meaning you generally do not need many plants. They need large pots and plenty of root room to reach their full potential, and small pots dry out fast and require more frequent watering. As I found by mistake one summer when too busy to transplant seedlings out of their tiny pots, some of these otherwise huge plants can be adapted to smaller pots and still bloom, allowing them to be kept inside quite easily. I have had a 7 inch woodland tobacco blooming beside my bed at the same time my 4 foot woodland tobacco bloomed outside.

My tiny indoor Woodland Tobacco compared to the flowering tops of one of the four foot ones grown outside.

Plants which smell horrendous outside, might not even have a smell inside because of the decrease in light, insect attacks, and etc, as I have found with Black Henbane. Still I grow my Black Henbane inside in 12″ pots with occasional sun on the deck just to avoid flea beatles. Literally try everything, some may not grow, but you might be surprised what you find.

Unexpected Surprises

You might find your plants change with you, as I found out with my Black Henbane in its second year when every plant started from the previous years seeds lost the signature black veins and became all yellow instead.

Although there is an all-yellow variety of Black Henbane, as well as there being White Henbane, I’m still not entirely sure how my Henbane just randomly lost the Black in its flowers veins and organs, especially with no local varieties that could have possibly cross-pollinated it. Still, it is a beautiful plant that has grown with my practice.

On Fertilizers and Plant Offerings

While you will no doubt use commercial fertilizers, organic or chemical, to get the most out of your plants, your fertilizers can be an act of magical offering as well. Perhaps a small amount of milk or honey in the watering. The sugars can help feed the microorganisms in the soil that benefit your plant, and what more traditional offering? Blood is something often used as a sacrifice or offering and blood meal happens to be a commonly used fertilizer for some plants. Foods can be composted, egg shells can release calcium, potassium from ashes or bananas, etc. Research is required to find out what is safe for plants, what nutrients are provided, and how much.

Another question you could ask is other than nutrients, what specific energies are you feeding your plants through these fertilizers like blood or egg shell or specific foods? How might you utilize this? 

Cigar smoke might be blown at plants as an offering as well, and in some seeds smoke or fire can even be beneficial to germination.

Reach Out

Meditate with the live plant. Meditate with the incense or with a fragrant flower or leaf of the plant. Talk to it while caring for it. Tell it your thoughts of it, your desires for working with it. Read it a poem or sing it a song. Touch it. Get a small bottle or other hollow pendant and carry parts of a personally signficant plant with you. Find ways to connect with it and make it a part of your life. Treat it like a living being and a friend. You may also find spirits or deities associated with plants to be helpful in your work.

Experience It

If it’s safe to taste, what kind of taste does it have? Sweet, bitter or sour? If it’s safe to burn as an incense, do so. How does it smell, what thoughts or subtle changes do you notice? How does the tea make you feel? If you find a recipe for a salve, try it. Try making tinctures or an alchemical sphagyric. Try both different preparations and parts of the plant, if safe.

Make and try everything in every way. Try new recipes. Read recipes, even if you don’t want to make them! Consider why those plants were used any why they were used in those ratios. Learn how herbs interact, which boosts the effects of other plants, as well as which plants counteract each other. Write recipes of your own and play around with them. It will help provide a better sense of the herbs effects, potencies, uses, and how to combine them. But remember: safety, research, and doctor before consuming or burning any plant.

The more ways you experience and work with a specific herb and indeed herbs in general, the more you will know about them and the more comfortable you will be using them in new ways. The obvious keys and disclaimers here being to research thoroughly, ensure safety and that the plant is not toxic, to always obtain a doctor’s diagnosis and treatment when needed, and to only try things at your own risk and responsibility.

Record It

As you get more of an understanding of plants’ uses and personalities from their care and practice, it may be a good idea to start a book and write about your experiences with them and what you have learned. Press leaves and flowers for it or draw them if you are artistically inclined and would prefer to do so. A small book of pressed flowers can carry both a lot of written information as well as actual parts of the plants to keep with you. Record batches of seeds, germination methods,  and success rates. Their uses and observed traits, growth patterns, personalities, everything you can possibly notice.

Pressed Belladonna, Black Henbane, Lobelia, and Heliotrope, as well as one of the many books and notebooks that I am constantly making notes and lists in.

Become an Oversharer

Take pictures. Take more pictures. Take them at every stage. Different angles. Share and tag them on instagram. Share them on Tumblr. Facebook. Share what you learn, the things you make, writings about the plants, etc. In addition to being a great way to further observe and collect your thoughts on these plants, by sharing you will undoubtedly encounter other plant growing witches who can be additional teachers on growing and using those plants in new ways. Share the seeds from your plants too, and you will have more people to talk about them with!

Conclusion

When you work with plants, you’re not just sprinkling dead leaves into a mixing bowl and calling it magic. When you work with plants, it is a partnership that you call forth. Will you try to use the finely cut leaves of a plant you have never even seen, an unidentifiable representation of what they once were? Or would you rather work with a plant that you are deeply familiar with so that when you call upon it, its energy, appearance, personality, will, and the connections you have built with it are all readily available and willing to help? Ingredient or Ally?

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