Plants mean potions, potions mean magic and magic means witches. How can you tell a witch apart? By the deadly plants in their garden.
If you’re following our singular brand of logic back to its root, you’ll understand that you may well be able to spy a potential witch or warlock from the trees, herbs and shrubs growing in their garden. Certain plants have been seen to have healing properties while others have been feared for their harmful intent. And of course, the important ones are the most delicious (hail garlic!).
Pondering future culinary ingredients aside, some plants have cropped up again and again in mythology and have come to be associated with witches in particular. A few of the most prominent include:
Belladonna (Atropa Belladonna)
Belladonna, also known as deadly nightshade, is a bushy herb made up of green leaves that grows to about 5 ft tall. It grows violet flowers and produces shiny black berries similar in size and texture to cherries. It is also terribly and horribly poisonous hence the ‘deadly’ in its name.
The whole of this deadly plant is extremely poisonous and can have a range of negative effects on the body. It can increase heart rate and blood pressure, affect the consumer’s saliva, sweat and urine and have a negative influence on the digestion and nervous system. More serious side effects include breathing difficulties and seizures.
Naturally, this poisonous nature has given the plant a nefarious reputation throughout history. It is recorded that as far back as Roman times it was being used to poison the enemies of the Republic. Such a poisonous plant naturally found itself associated with supposed practitioners of dark magics. Nevertheless, the plant found other uses, particularly cosmetic ones.
The juice of the berries in particular could be used to dilute the pupils, something that was perceived to heighten attractiveness for women in the Renaissance. It was this trend that led Carl Linnaeus to give the plant the name “Atropa Belladonna” when he created the classification that it would forever be known scientifically as. Belladonna means “Beautiful Woman” in Italian.
The chemicals in the plant have made it ripe for cultivation for pharmaceutical use. However, as a direct plant, the poisonous nature of the plant means no medical body approves its use and strongly advised against the use of alternative medications that make use of the plant.
Hemlock (Conium Maculatum)
In our list of deadly plants, perhaps this one is most associated with Witchcraft in the UK, Hemlock grows all over the country. A green tall plant growing up to 10ft in particular specimens, though usually being half that, it has white flowers in summer. It is also entirely poisonous, and quite capable of causing death if ingested. Even worse, the plant itself is toxic to the touch meaning care needs to be taken when removing it as the toxins in the roots can remain potent for up to three years.
Unfortunately, the plant looks similar to the more benign wild parsnip plant, a perfectly edible plant that foragers have enjoyed for centuries. It was also responsible for poisoning many children in past centuries up until the 1920s when knowledge about the plant became more widespread. Young people would try to make whistles out of the hollow stems, only to poison themselves in the use of their new instruments.
The toxic qualities of Hemlock have long led the plant to be associated with Witches, though there is relatively little lore on why this is. It may simply be the case that being a poisonous thing made it bad and that bad meant only witches could have any use for it. However, despite the harmful nature of the plant, it is largely devoid of obvious side effects that would have been of interest to genuine witches and wise women of the past. It does not grant hallucinations or similar side effects that might have been interpreted as spiritual experiences and thus there was no reason to risk the poisoning.
Hemlock’s poisonous nature was known as far back as the ancient Greeks. Many philosophers whose ideas caused outrage in the Hellenic states were condemned to death by poison, which in many cases was made of Hemlock. Most famously was Socrates, condemned by the elders of Athens for his alleged corruption of the youth of that ancient city. He elected to take poison as punishment.
Blackthorn (Prunus Spinosa)
Next on our list of deadly plants is the Blackthorn. Recognized by its dark brown trunk and spiny, shrubby leaves, Blackthorn grows white flowers in spring which grow into dull purple berries by summer. Blackthorn has historically had an association with witchcraft. It was claimed that witches in particular favoured walking sticks made of lumber from the tree. Mythologically Blackthorn was claimed to be associated with warfare, wounds, and death.
In particular, it was said that Witches would make rods of blackthorn that they could use to prick and curse those whom their eyes fell upon. They would prick the fingers of their victims and thus bring them under their power.
The Blackthorn tree is even more prominent in Irish folklore and tradition. In the past, it was the material of choice for the traditional club or “shillelaghs”, a type of fighting stick that boys and young men would train to use. However, care had to be taken in the gathering of the wood for the plant was inhabited by fairies who were hostile to people and would curse those who disturbed it. Thus, the safest time to cut it for sticks or firewood was during the full moon, when the resident fae would be off worshipping the moon goddess.
It was even believed that if one were to meditate under the tree one could pass into the realm of the fairies. This, of course, was an extremely risky act to undertake and without the right amulet, one might never return.
Humans have lived alongside both harmful and helpful plants for thousands of years. As we develop Botany and plant science, we unfold some of the mysteries behind the deadly plants of eras gone by.