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A Gardener's Guide to Witchcraft

Saturday 23 October 2010, 16:54
By Sarah Darlington

Have you chopped down an elder bush during your autumn clear up? I don't suppose a branch happened to whip across your face, or perhaps your fork pierced your welly? If this happened, don't be too surprised.

Elder - It may look innocent but beware
Elder - It may look innocent but beware

Elder trees have long been associated with witches and with Hallowe'en so close, it pays to be careful. Traditionally, witches often lived in elder trees which is why you should never grow one near your house, burn the wood on your fire or, worst of all, build a cradle of elder wood. If you must remove an elder, first apologise to the witch and, with luck, you will escape a bruising.

Don't sit under a hawthorn this hallowe'en
Don't sit under a hawthorn this hallowe'en

Another tree associated with witches is the hawthorn and a twisted thorn silhouetted against a stormy sky does look pretty spooky. My advice to you is to avoid sitting under one in a lonely place this Hallowe'en, as witches do like to transform themselves into hawthorns on this night of all nights in order to entrap the unwary.

The word 'hag' shares its parentage with the words 'hedge' and haw (as in hawthorn) and although hag is still used to mean an old woman or a witch, originally it meant anything vile, wicked or ugly. Interestingly, this word is only found in the feminine form.

With Hallowe'en only a few days away and the shops full of funny witch masks and pumpkins, it's easy to forget that in the past witchcraft was taken extremely seriously. A solitary elderly woman, keen on plants and overfond of her cat, was living dangerously.

In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII proclaimed that all persons convicted of witchcraft should be put to death. Thousands were killed in Europe alone.

Suspected witches were subjected to cruel tortures and tests. One of these involved binding the suspected witch hand and foot and throwing her into a pond. If she floated then it was deemed that the holy water had rejected her so she would be burned at the stake. If she drowned, then she was innocent. What a relief.

Henbane
Henbane

What is clear is that witches had excellent plant knowledge and many of the remedies they used are a part of the armoury of modern medicine. The foxglove or Digitalis purpurea was 'discovered' as a remedy for heart trouble by Dr. William Withering, in 1785. However, he acknowledged that witches had been using it probably for centuries, traditionally gathering it with the left hand on the north side of a hedge.

Valerian and endive were popular for making love-philtres - no doubt a useful moneyspinner for the village wisewoman - and opium from poppies was used to make sleeping drafts.

Witches could use their botanical skills to produce paralysis, blindness, lethargy, miscarriage, lunacy and wasting sickness. They knew which plants were stimulants and which were narcotics.

In 'A Midsummer Night's Dream', Shakespeare refers to knotgrass which witches used to stunt the growth of children, describing Hermia as 'a minimus of hindering knotgrass made'.

Aconite, hemlock and henbane were all powerful poisons. Henbane, in the modern form of hyoscine, was used by Dr Crippen to poison his wife in the 20th century. The leaves of hellebores were seen as five-fingered hands with only a witch able to divine which was the 'wicked finger'. Periwinkle was known as the 'Sorcerer's Violet' and even the delicate harebell was a wicked plant.

How to uproot a mandrake (1474)
How to uproot a mandrake (1474)

The mandrake, with its hallucinogenic properties and forked roots resembling a human body was particularly powerful. If uprooted, the mandrake's screams would kill anyone who heard them. The only way to extract it safely was to dig all around it, tie your dog to the root, then scarper with your fingers in your ears. Your dog would follow you and pull out the root. The dog would die, of course, but perhaps that was a small price to pay.

When witches weren't picking plants by the light of the full moon - we know this is the time when plants have their fullest drug content - they were out on their broomsticks. Ragwort, another poisonous plant, was a popular substitute if a broomstick was being serviced.

Plants were also used as protection against witches. Herbalists like Parkinson and Culpeper always included mallow, betony, rosemary or angelica in a remedy if they suspected an illness was witch-induced.

A sprig of aspen thrown on a witch's grave would keep her safely in it and 'St John's Wort, trefoil (clover), with Verbena and Dill will hinder witches of their will'.

Any plant with the prefix 'Lady' is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and will keep witches away. Yellow flowers which reflect the sun which witches hate, work well and mullein or 'hag taper' will protect your cattle.

The ash tree was very powerful, providing remedies for everything from warts to ruptures and an ash staff was good protection. But if you are really worried about witches, you want a rowan tree in your garden. Carry a rowan stick this Hallowe'en, pin a sprig to your child and make a cross of it above your stable and you'll be safe from the worst the trick or treaters can throw at you.

Witch-proof your property with rowan or mountain ash
Witch-proof your property with rowan or mountain ash




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