Once upon a time, there was an event called the Pacific Northwest Flower Show. It took place once a year in a large building that was usually filled with business conventions. But during the Flower Show, the building was transformed into a series of display spaces. The most famous gardeners and garden centers in the Pacific Northwest would create displays: Japanese gardens, shade gardens, white gardens, bouquets of roses on stands.
One year, a friend of mine who is also a gardener urged me to go, so I went. It was wonderful, walking through those gardens, although I knew the plants must have been forced. Outside, it was a wet Oregon spring, and only the forsythia was blooming. But in the Flower Show, it was as though summer had already arrived. I walked through arbors, between stalls selling pots and seeds, looking at the displays. They were beautiful, but I could never imagine having a garden so elaborate, so perfectly designed. And then, I saw a display that was different from the others. At the back of the display space was a small cottage, and growing all around it were herbs and medicinal plants, the sorts of plants you would find in medieval herbals like John Gerard’s Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes (1597) and Nicholas Culpeper’s Complete Herbal (1653). As soon as you approached it, you could smell the sharpness of mint, the sweetness of lavender. It was labeled A Witch’s Garden.
That was the garden I wanted. I could see myself living in the cottage, smelling mint and lavender every morning when a breeze blew in the window. All of us, if we have space in our gardens, can include plants that were once believed to have magical properties. Some of these plants still have medicinal value, although many of the healing powers associated with them were a matter of folklore rather than fact. (Rosa canina will not, in fact, cure rabies.)
If you want to plant a magical garden of your own, here are some plants that have mythic associations or were considered magical in the past. But be warned: some of them are poisonous and should not be planted where they could accidentally be eaten by children or pets. I have included them simply for those who appreciate the myth and folklore of plants.
I. Magical Plants
Angelica (Angelica archangelica): A tall plant with umbels of greenish white flowers, Angelica was believed to have been named after an angel who appeared during a plague, announcing that it could be used to cure that dreaded medieval disease. Perhaps the angel was St. Michael the Archangel, since the plant was said to flower on his day. It was also traditionally used to cure colds and relieve coughs. Nowadays, its seeds are used to make chartreuse, and its candied stalks are used to decorate cakes and puddings.
Balm (Melissa officinalis): As its name suggests, balm was considered a plant with significant medicinal powers. Dioscorides, a Greek doctor who served in Nero’s army and wrote De Materia Medica, the first important pharmacopeia, mentioned that it was useful in healing wounds. Taken in wine, it was supposed to cure the bites of snakes and rabid animals. According to an old story, one night the Wandering Jew came to the house of a sick man. Given beer to drink, he told his host, “In the morning put three balm leaves in a pot of thy beer and drink as often as you will. On every fourth day put fresh leaves into the cup, and in twelve days you shall be whole.” Sure enough, on the twelfth day, the man was healed.
Basil (Ocinum basilicum): If you’ve eaten Italian food, you’ve certainly tasted basil, which has a sweet flavor and powerful aroma. However, in the medieval era, basil was associated with scorpions and believed to be able to transform itself into a scorpion. Eating too much basil could breed scorpions in the brain. Its name may come from the basilisk, king of the serpents, whose gaze was lethal. However, in India basil was considered a sacred herb. Hindus were buried with a basil leaf on their breasts, which they showed at the gates of heaven to be admitted.
Belladonna (Atropa belladonna): The Deadly Nightshade was consecrated to Circe by the Greeks. The Romans used it as both an anesthetic and a poison. In the medieval era, it became associated with the Devil, and its fruit was called “devil’s berries.” On Walpurgis Night, you could gather the herb and make the Devil do your bidding. It was also an ingredient in the flying ointment used by witches. Gerard says about it, “If you will follow my counsel, deal not with the same in any case, and banish it from your gardens and the use of it also, being a plant so furious and deadly, for it bringeth such as have eaten thereof with a dead sleep wherein many have died.”
Bluebell (Hyacinthus nonscriptus): There are few things lovelier than an open woodland covered with bluebells in the spring. In Greek myth, Hyacinthus was a youth loved by both Apollo and Zephyrus, the west wind. One day, Hyacinthus was playing quoits with Apollo. Zephyrus, jealous, blew a quoit thrown by Apollo astray. The heavy metal disk struck Hyacinthus and killed him. In grief, Apollo changed Hyacinthus to the hyacinth or bluebell. Bluebells are also known as fairy flowers. If you venture into the woods to pick bluebells, you may never come out again.
Butterbur (Petasites vulgaris): Butterbur, also known as coltsfoot, bears low flowers on short spikes. If a maiden wanted to see the form of her future husband, she took the seeds of the butterbur and sowed them half an hour before sunrise on a Friday morning in a secret place. As she scattered the seeds, she repeated this rhyme:
I sow, I sow! Then my own dear, Come here, come here And mow, and mow!
Once the seed was scattered, she would see the form of her future husband in the distance.
Cornflower (Centaurea Cyanus): Vivid blue cornflowers grow wild in the fields in late summer. According to Greek myth, the youth Cyanus loved Chloris, the goddess of flowers, and would gather flowers to decorate her alter. One day, Chloris found him lying dead in a cornfield and turned his body into a cornflower. The cornflower was believed to heal wounds: in a battle between Hercules and the centaurs, the centaur Chiron was wounded by an arrow poisoned with the blood of the hydra. He covered the wound with cornflowers and was healed.
Crocus (Crocus species): Crocuses are a large family of bulbs that bloom in the spring, before most other flowers. According to Greek myth, their name comes from the youth Crocus, who was in love with the shepherdess Smilax. Unfortunately, she did not return his love. He pined way, and the gods turned him into a flower. In ancient Rome, crocuses were used to make a tonic for the heart as well as love potions. Perhaps that is why they were strewn on marriage beds. But one crocus, in particular, was more useful: the stigma of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus) was used to make a yellow dye and is still used as a spice. King Henry I of England was so fond of the spice that he forbade the women of his court from using it as a hair dye, lest they should use up the entire supply of saffron.
Daisy (Bellis perennis): The daisy’s name comes from the Anglo-Saxon daeges eage, day’s eye, probably because the flower closes its small white petals at night. Its Latin name come from the nymph Belides. While dancing in a field one day, Belides attracted the attention of Vertumnus, the god of the orchards. He pursued her, and in order to escape, she transformed herself into a daisy. The daisy is used in one of the simplest and most common love charms: when a woman wants to know if her beloved returns her love, she plucks the petals and says “He love me, he loves me not” until the last petal is plucked and she has her answer.
Elder (Sambucus nigra): Elderberries and flowers are still used to make cordials and jellies, and elder has been used medicinally for hundreds of years; however, parts of the plant are poisonous. According to folklore, elders are witches and bleed when they are cut, or alternatively, witches live in elders. If the branches are woven into a cradle, the child put in that cradle will have his legs pulled and suffer torment by evil spirits. A child switched with an elder branch will stop growing, and if a man falls asleep under an elder, he will have nightmares. But elders can also protect against fairies and evil spirits. If you stood under an elder at midnight on Midsummer’s Eve, you could see the fairies ride by.
Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea): Foxgloves were known as fairy flowers. The spots on foxgloves mark where fairies were believed to have placed their fingers. It was considered unlucky to pick foxgloves or bring them into the house, but the juice of ten foxgloves could cure a child struck by fairy magic. The foxglove was also important in medical history. Foxglove tea had long been used to treat dropsy or heart failure, and an analysis of the tea revealed the effectiveness of digitalin, which is still the basis for some heart medications. However, foxglove itself should never be ingested, because all parts of the plant are poisonous.
Hawthorn (Crataegus oxyacantha): The hawthorn is one of the most magical trees. It marks the fairies’ favorite dancing places, and you should not cut or uproot a hawthorn unless you wish to incur their wrath. In ancient Greece, it was associated with marriage. The altar of Hymen, the god of marriage, was lighted with torches made of hawthorn, and brides would decorate themselves and their companions with its small white flowers. The Romans used it as a charm against witchcraft, and hawthorn leaves were put into the cradles of newborns to protect them from harm.
Monkshood (Aconitum napellus): The final labor of Hercules was to capture and bring back Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guards the underworld in Greek mythology. As he was bringing the dog back, Cerberus slavered and spit venom: where those drops fell, monkshood sprang up. Since its juice is poisonous, it was used in warfare, both to make poisoned arrows and to poison wells and springs. It was also associated with the Greek goddess Hecate, and used in the ointment that witches rubbed on themselves to fly.
Narcissus (Narcissus species): Narcissus was a Greek youth who fell in love with his own reflection in the water and wasted away until he was turned into a flower by the gods. The scent of the narcissus was used by Hades to dull the senses of Persephone when he took her to the underworld, and Hades himself was crowned with narcissus. The Greek term “narke,” meaning “stupor” (the root of “narcotic”) may come from the narcissus. The Greeks wove garlands of narcissus to ward off the Furies and adorned their dead with the flower to protect against evil spirits. One of the oldest species is Narcissus poeticus, with its white petals and yellow trumpet, surrounded by an orange edge.
St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum): St. John’s Wort was once prescribed for melancholy, and is still used as a remedy for depression. It was supposed to be the most powerful protective herb, healing all illnesses caused by fairies, and protecting against witchcraft and the power of the Devil. However, on the Isle of Wight, it was believed that a man who trampled on St. John’s Wort at night would be carried away by an enchanted horse to invisible realms.
Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium): The word Artemisia comes from Artemis, Greek goddess of the hunt. Wormwood was once used medicinally to expel and kill parasites and for a variety of other purposes, including as an antiseptic and to combat stomach pains, muscle spasms, and fever. However, nowadays it is best known as in ingredient in absinthe, which has its own magical properties (and has been known as la feé verte, or the green fairy).