9 - Plant Power
The realm of plants provides everything our body needs for a balanced and integrated existence However, we are more than just a body, we also have consciousness, which brings other factors onto the stage We not only have to take our animal body into consideration but also our mind, our emotions and our spiritual nature Harmony is no longer simply a matter of right diet or even right herbs but also a matter of right feelings right thoughts lifestyle actions attunement - harmony of right relationship to our world.
(David Hoffman The Holistic Herbal)
Witches have nearly always had a sinister reputation which, on the whole, they have not deserved. In earlier times their knowledge of healing, psychological counselling, far-seeing and veterinary medicine was unrivalled in country districts. Often the Wise Woman was also the midwife and probably it was also she who laid out the dead before their burial.
So, she had knowledge of bringing forth into life, and of saying a respectful farewell to the departed. Her healing arts would have been shared certainly by the Cunning Man, who rather than dealing with childbirth in people, was probably the expert with animals, helping calves and foals and lambs into the world. His skill with cattle and horses would be similar to that skill attributed to the gypsies, even in the modern world, in that he could control wild-natured bulls or unbroken stallions just by a look, or the use of the horseman's secret word, or traditional scents which calm a savage beast.
Because of their shared knowledge of herbs, some of which heal and some of which can bring sleep or trance or death, they would have been feared. It was this fear in the common people, and sometimes a feeling of envy among the Church fathers in the Middle Ages, in whose power normally rested the skills of healing and magical techniques, that was the cause of distrust from the Church, which eventually led to persecution.
When many of the modern drugs were known only in their potent herbal forms such knowledge was power, and it might often have been the case that if a severely ill or injured person could not be helped he would receive a dose of one of the deadly extracts from a poisonous plant, and gain rest in that way. If the Wise Woman were able to assist newborn babies safely into the world, even sometimes at the cost of the mother's life, and ease the passing of the old or dying, so they held sway over both ends of human existence, but the Church saw this function as one for their God alone. However, the common folk would more readily have turned to the local bone-setter to have their dislocations or broken bones aligned and splinted, than see what the monks or nuns could do.
Much of the ancient plant lore is being re-examined as a result of fears about losses of tree cover, not only in the Amazon jungles, but in parts of Europe, America and Australia. Those people who lived in harmony with the plants would be well aware of their special properties, to heal, to bring visions, to flavour food, to provide raw materials for making rope or clothes or shelter.
They would know which would provide coloured dyestuffs; or clean septic wounds or animal bites; which would ward off flying insects or moths from clothes or freshen the atmosphere inside their homes. Some were simply nourishing for the body, others fed the spirit or awakened inner visions, some brought a swift and painless death, an easier childbirth, deep sleep or enhanced wakefulness, just as many modern drugs can do. Natural herbal preparations, however, often produce the desired result without any of the harmful side-effects so prevalent with modern pharmaceuticals.
It is not possible to look at the whole matter of traditional herbal medicine here, nor is it wise to start playing about with medicinal plants without receiving proper training first.
Certainly you can grow a few herbs for the pot, learn to make natural fruit and flower wines, and use scented oils in small doses to perfume your room or bath, or as massage oils, so long are you are careful. But beyond that you do need proper instruction, and not just a weekend class on 'Herbalism for the Town Dweller'. Do get yourself some good illustrated books on common trees, plants and herbs, and go out and learn to recognise every growing thing, in summer and in winter.
Smell the flowers, bark, leaves and sap of various culinary plants, garden flowers and weeds, so that if you take up the study of herbal medicine seriously you will quickly be able to recognise exactly which plant you are dealing with. There are many similar-looking plants to be found in the countryside; some are harmless and look decorative in the house, others can be deadly and a drop of juice in a cut, or a carelessly licked lip onto which some sap may have been splattered can have serious consequences. Please be very careful if you have young children or feckless adults with you when you go on a plant-hunting expedition, especially if you decide to collect a few nice mushrooms for the pot!
One of the simplest and safest forms of plant lore, traditional to our culture, is the use of herbal teas, which can assist with minor complaints and has the added advantage of aiding some of the psychic aspects of your life too. By awakening your perceptions you will be able to apply whatever therapies you aim to master more effectively or, when your common sense or the Goddess tells you, abstain from offering help in certain instances.
Any health food shop will have a range of teas made with properly prepared natural herbs. To begin with, start with single plants in tea bags, if you are unsure as to their effects, or as loose herbs from a herbalist, which are much cheaper. Chamomile, nettle, comfrey, lemon balm, rosehip and peppermint are good ones to start with, as each has a fairly obvious effect, and most can be used on common complaints.
It may be worth looking out for a tea infuser, which is a metal net or perforated sphere in which about a teaspoon per person of the dried herb is placed, and which is then immersed in freshly boiled water for three to five minutes. You can simply put a teaspoon of loose herbs into a china, pottery or glass mug or jug and then strain the infusion into another cup after a few minutes, if you prefer. You may find some of these herbs have unfamiliar tastes, and so the addition of a little clear honey or even a squeeze of lemon juice might make them more palatable. You will usually find that herbs need longer to steep than ordinary tea, as the essential oils which give out the flavour and effects are slower to come out than those in tea.
The sorts of complaints the above-mentioned herbs can help with include anxiety and indigestion (Chamomile and/or peppermint); tiredness, especially during a cold or after winter (rosehip or nettle). Lemon balm is useful in cases of nervous reactions, stress and upset stomach complaints, and it will ease anxiety. Comfrey tea can help with coughs or bronchitis, and it may be applied to cuts and bruises. You may well find that a cup of Chamomile tea, perhaps flavoured with lemon balm, will help you to relax and meditate, and in that state gain insight into other suitable treatments for patients or friends, or to assist your own health. Do be very careful that you know what you are doing and use only the stated dose of any herb. If in doubt, ask for time to consult your books or your inner self, or the Goddess of Healing.
There are many excellent books on basic herbal medicine, with clear descriptions of healing plants, their uses and manner of collection, so study these properly and, if you can, get some personal tuition in the recognition of plants and how to cultivate or collect them for medicine. Often there are local evening classes in the uses of plants, for healing, dyes, cooking and so on and this can be an excellent introduction to the subject.
There are also a number of schools of herbal medicine which run personal and postal courses of tuition, many leading you into contact with like-minded souls who may share your interest in other aspects of occult work, magic or witchcraft.
Because plants, in all their forms, played such an important part in the work of the Old Wise Ones, and because today people are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of using natural things as far as possible, there is a wide variety of subjects which any neo-witch or modern shaman ought to have a go at.
If you think about it, mankind has found a use for trees, shrubs, herbs, plants, fungi, mosses, bulbs and corms. We also use every part of every plant for something, if only making compost! Often we eat the seeds, fruits, berries, nuts or leaves, we may use the bark for dye, or a medicine, or to make something. Some shrubs produce scented gums, and resins are extracted for use as incense, in paint and to scent a room.
Flowers may be used simply as decorations but they may also be dried, pressed and made into cards for celebrations, or they may be blended to make pot-pourri. Some can be eaten, as can seaweeds, watercress and the 'fiddleheads' of uncurling bracken. Many tubers, like potatoes, are staple foods, and all the onion family, including garlic, have beneficial antiseptic properties. Even humble grasses can be woven into mats or twined into baskets.
Wines can be made from all fruits, some vegetables and lots of flowers, including many considered as weeds. Many wild plants, like elder or blackberries, yield wonderful wines, ideal for drinking at feasts. The basic ingredients can be collected one year, with dandelions available around Beltane at the beginning of May, for instance, which when made into wine and matured will be ready to drink the next year.
Midsummer sees vast amounts of white, sweetly-scented elder blossom on many a field hedge, and this can be turned into elder champagne, a heady, fragrant sparkling white wine, to be followed by the very dark red elderberry wine made later in the year. Parsnips, gooseberries, strawberries, apples and oranges can all be turned into delightful wines, if you happen to have a glut in the garden, or be able to lay your hands on a supply from a friendly fruit shop. Apples or pears can be made into cider or perry even if they are a bit bruised, as they have to be crushed first.
Most towns now seem to have 'brew it yourself shops or large branches of chemists which have a homemade wine and beer section where the basic equipment can be bought, along with suitable yeasts, or hops if you prefer beer or lager. There are kits which can teach you the methods without the effort of collecting or preparing the raw fruits, and this may be sufficient to get you interested.
Once you have gained confidence in the end result, you will have a cheap supply of special wines for your feasts, or for presents to your friends. Most libraries have large sections of books on home wine-making or beer-brewing, and ways of turning the most unlikely things into sweet or dry drinks. If you don't drink alcohol, and some modern pagans don't, then you can make cordials from fruits or non-alcoholic punches, crushes and syrups.
If you keep bees or know anyone who does, or can get hold of some good honey in quantity, you can make that magical and ancient sacred drink of the Celts, mead. The better and more aromatic the honey the better the mead, and if you can let it mature for a year or five, you will end up with a wonderful dry golden beverage which is fit for the gods.
Honey is also a traditional additive in many old incense blends, and again herbs and spices, like lavender, rosemary, bay, wormwood, sage, cinnamon or cloves, can be part of your own special blends. Although the Church used to use things like frankincense or myrrh in their services, and many churches still do (monasteries providing useful supplies of the required gums and resins to pagans and Christians alike) it is worth experimenting a bit with what you can collect for yourself.
Try each substance on its own on a small part of a lighted charcoal block - you can get the sort designed for burning incense from most of the occult suppliers, church shops or esoteric mail order companies. Don't try burning incense on barbeque charcoal, it won't light properly indoors. You can collect a few basic incenses from suppliers, too, but try the single gums first.
Some trees found in Britain will ooze resins if they have been cut and you can chip off small pieces, often mixed with tree bark from pine, larch and other conifers. Apple wood may be resinous but dried and burned it smells sweet, and cherry and plum trees give out gum too. Most culinary herbs will burn, but if you use the dried stems rather than the leaves you will get better results. Any good herbal book will tell you which plants can be used either for relaxation or to awaken your inner psychic powers. Most of the traditional temple incenses contained a mixture of sweet and aromatic gums and resins which had a consciousness-raising effect.
Nowadays people perfume their homes by using oil burners or vaporisers with scented oils, but some of these are made from artificial essences and so may not have the same effects as the pure rose or jasmine flowers, for example. Try to find out what the sources of such aromatics are because the fake ones will do no good to your psychic powers, and may have unpleasant side-effects. The price is a good indicator, for even common ones like rose can cost a great deal for the pure essence. You can make lavender or pine oil yourself, quite easily, by getting some light vegetable oil, sunflower or almond, and putting dried lavender heads or resinous chips of pine wood into them.
If you happen to be near a wooden boat yard when they are repairing a vessel with larch or pitchpine you may be able to collect some wonderful smelly shavings. The balsam poplar has a superb scent in about late April or early May when its small sticky buds are breaking open. To me, this is one of the most glorious scents in nature. The brown, sticky bud covers can be collected and stored in a dry jar for use in incense or pot-pourri.
Many herbs are most commonly used to flavour food, and again there are plenty of excellent books on the subject. You can grow a vast range of edible plants in Britain today, but many of these used to be picked in the wild, in the good old unpolluted days of the horse and cart!
Flowers were added to many dishes and salads, partly for decoration, and because they are known to contain valuable minerals and vitamins. If you do happen to find nasturtiums or rose petals on your plate, do eat them, they taste nice and are good for you. Learn a bit about making garlands out of twining plants, with bright seasonal flowers woven in to decorate your altar staff, if you go in for using the older method of making a place sacred.
You can wear a chaplet of flowers around your head, or a necklace of leaves and brightly coloured seed heads, to celebrate the full moon or the harvest feast. Learn to set up a bowl of special flowers or growing plants as each season changes, or to mark the moons or your own personal anniversaries, men as well as women, for this was one of the priestly tasks of the Ancient Mysteries. If you are unable to set aside a room for magic and have no garden, then a tiny indoor shrine, with sea shells, plants, dried branches or even a mini herb garden will be accepted by the Goddess of Earth as a suitable offering.
If you happen to be artistic and wish to add some of the old crafts to your repertoire, another ancient magic was that of dyeing, using natural plant colours and various chemical mordants to fix the colours. Material made from natural fibres can be dyed in that way, unless you also wish to learn to spin wool and dye that. A wide range of soft countryside colours can be produced from old plants, like blue from woad or greeny-yellow from goldenrod.
Again, many weeds have a use in dyeing, producing muted reds, greens, yellows, russets, browns and blues. You seldom get the bright artificial colours made from chemical dyes but there is a charm and naturalness found in those faded-looking hues which Nature herself provides. You might simply be able to find plant-dyed material to make a robe, or wool to knit a magical scarf or stole from, especially if you visit craft fairs.
Another application which is a bit less time- and space-consuming is the use of flowers, pressed and dried, to make talismans. It is a very old tradition, using the language of flowers, some for love, some meaning friendship, some showing distrust or longing, set out on a card in a pattern which turns the picture into a charm. Again, you will find excellent books on the meanings of various flowers, and how they may be preserved so that their colours and petals look lifelike.
In the old days much simpler charms were made by threading certain leaves or flowers onto a twig to spell out a message, which could be hidden up a tree, or placed on your beloved's doorstep at midnight, depending on what outcome was desired. Fruit, nuts and flowers were all used to send messages, not always directly to the recipient, but magically to draw their attention to what was needed.
Some mixtures would indicate a healing charm, some a spell to ward off undesired attentions or bad luck. Remember, even today we still touch wood to draw the attention of Pan, the woodland God, to our hope for success! Or we simply 'knock on wood' for luck, asking that the powers of Nature take care of us.
As you will have seen in the previous chapter, different woods could spell out messages from the future, as a very old form of divination. In the same way, dried leaves of those trees could be carefully stuck to cards and covered with transparent film, to make a kind of tree Tarot. Rubbings of the bark or thin slices of wood could be used as other forms of 'Rune sticks'.
You will soon find that there is a mass of ancient lore about the uses, meanings and values of trees, their associations with particular gods or events or times of year. Don't swallow every word on 'ancient tree calendars' you may come across as gospel (oaks?)! There is little evidence that such a system existed, but certainly different woods would have been used at specific times of year, when they were most fit for the purpose in hand.
Many of the ordinary herbs and sweet-scented flowers can be easily used to scent your bath water, and are a lot cheaper and more ecologically sound than chemical bath foams. Tie some crushed herbs or flowers in a soft cloth under the tap as the water runs into the bath and this will scent the water. Lemon balm, lavender, rose petals, mint, thyme or sage are all excellent. Some dried herbs could be steeped in boiling water, and then this liquid strained into the bath.
Herbs used in this way are relaxing and also some have a psychically cleansing property, so that the bath becomes the first stage in any ritual, when you will arise refreshed and ready to begin your working. You can make perfumed oil by pressing as many green herbs or flowers as possible into a jar of almond or sunflower oil, and leaving it for several days. Strain this liquid into a clean dark glass bottle and see if the scent has been transferred. If the scent is weak, put it back into a jar with a new supply of flowers or leaves, and repeat until you have a suitable aroma.
Many herbs have been used as cosmetics, particularly in shampoos, and washes made from rosemary for dark-haired people or chamomile for lighter hair can be used as the first rinsing water, after the shampoo has been washed away. Facial scrubs can be made with crushed oats and honey, and cooling lotions made from lemon balm, marigolds or goosegrass can help with chapped skin or mild sunburn.
Marigold (calendula) made into an ointment is excellent after gardening or when your hands have got rough and dry. Again, you will find some very helpful books on the many applications of herbs and plants in cosmetics, cookery and winemaking in the library, or a decent-sized bookshop.
Trees and plants are attributed to the various planets, and old herbalists would prescribe treatments which assisted the position of the planets in the patient's horoscope, not just to counteract the symptoms they were suffering from. This may well be the forerunner of the increasingly popular therapy, homoeopathy, where minute doses of often quite poisonous plants and minerals are given to produce a healing reaction in the patient. For example, a plant which makes a healthy person feverish might be used to bring down the fever of a sick one. It is a very delicate and complex yet increasingly successful form of treatment used, among other well-known people, by the Royal family, who are extremely healthy and long-lived!
A homoeopath asks the potential patient many strange questions and so builds up a complete picture of his or her likes and dislikes, symptoms and reactions, and then decides upon a specific homoeopathic drug, vastly diluted, which will usually clear up most conditions that person may suffer from. They do not have 'cold cures' or 'headache medicine' as such, but preparations which in a given patient will indeed shorten the effects of a cold, or ease a tension headache. Homoeopathy is especially good for migraines and all those odd illnesses and discomforts which conventional medicine has no answer to.
Learning which plants and trees and flowers are associated with which planet will help you to blend particular incenses, make flower talismans or posies to aid healing, for example, as this is a disguised way of bringing certain influences into the life of a patient who would be upset by the idea of actual 'magic'. (So long as they have asked for help in some way first!) You will also be able to add the planetary influences of trees to the list of things with which any tree is linked, when you build up your tree divination set.
Culpeper's Herbal, still in print after many centuries, gives the old associations of plants and planets, but the more informative Modern Herbal by Mrs Grieve contains the whole of Culpeper plus heaps more information on pretty well every healing or useful plant, tree, herb, grass, flower, spice or growing thing you could ever want. A well-illustrated herbal book with clear drawings or photographs, especially produced for your home country, should be on the shelves of every New Age witch or pagan healer. If you can devote a section of your garden or window box to herbs you will gain the joy of seeing them grow and flower and seed at first hand.
One of the most powerful magical acts you can experience is a unity with Nature herself. This can be tested beneath the canopy of a large individual tree which, if you allow it, can become your personal counsellor and friend, or deep inside a wood, even a small one, or if there are no woodlands in your area, out along the edges of fields or rivers. Under a tree you need to sit and perform one of the relaxation exercises, completely detaching yourself from the ordinary world. You will soon feel that the tree spreads a circle of protection about itself and you, for this is the area covered by its canopy and its roots. It is an original place of power.
You will be almost invisible if you sit still and allow your awareness to merge with that of the tree. Feel the upward flows of Earth energy, dark and slow like wild honey, filling the whole trunk, branches and leaves with solidity and endurance. Draw upon that force for yourself, becoming slow and heavy and patient. Then sense the down-falling rain of sky power, like a shower of tiny droplets of light, bringing vitality and a lightness of spirit. Breathe deeply, scenting the earthiness of the tree and the land which is its base, smell the leaves and twigs, and the aura of life energy around it. If you reach out with your speedy human senses you will soon detect those emanations from any tree.
This same exercise can be tried within a wood, for there you will also sense the shared tree spirit, or dryad, of the whole wood, a vast, lofty, almost invisible yet sentient being, which can offer healing for the body, mind and spirit. Such dryads will occasionally give you a small token to take home.
It may only seem to be a twig which stuck into you as you sat down among the roots, or an acorn or seed pod, or just a leaf you found in your hair, but it is a key to that aspect of Nature's living family with which you need to attune yourself to make the best use of her wide variety of powers and information systems, gleaned with the heart rather than the head.
By a river you will sense two flows, one with the current, washing outwards like the human lungs exhaling stale air, and with that flow you can cast away care and the burdens of illness, worry or pain. The other is an inner sense of power connecting all waters around the earth. Pick a stem of grass or the leaf from a water plant, and holding it flat on your palms, mentally beam into it all your woes and bad feelings. Fill it with them until you can detect the weight of them pressing your hands down into your lap. Then stand up and throw the leaf into the water and watch what happens.
If it swiftly drifts away with the current, vanishing from your sight, so will your worries vanish within a very short time. If it whirls around in an eddy you will need to do more work on understanding the reasons for your unhappiness, seeking, through meditation or ordinary thought, the real root cause and dealing with that yourself, with your divine powers. If the leaf sinks, then you are worrying needlessly, even if you feel something is your fault; as the wise Chinese oracle of the I Ching often says, 'There is no blame!' so you must cease fretting.
If the leaf drifts back towards you, then the problem is yours and it is bigger than you imagined. Again there is an underlying cause to be found by hard work, real effort and perhaps consultation with other people who may be part of the problem. It is karmically up to you to sort it out.
A field hedge can offer similar lines of oracular information, by the movements of animals or insects towards or away from you, or the whispering voice of the wind in the leaves and grasses, the hum of bees. All these simple aspects of Nature are her voices, but we have forgotten how to listen in silence, and seek the simplicity to heal us or teach us.
We expect magic to be complicated, ritualistic and intellectual, when really it is so simple, so trivial and a matter of allowing the untaught heart to speak in silence, and the unfocused attention to show us answers which have been there under our feet all the time. We won't look at these unwritten, ancient sources of wisdom because we will not acknowledge they even exist. Learn to be quiet, be still. Listen, listen, there is the voice of the Old Ones!
As this chapter is mainly concerned with the use of plants it will be obvious that one aspect of your work as a trainee witch will be to grow and understand the uses of as many plants and herbs as you can. If, however, you do not have control of a garden or even a window box, then you will have to look at the other magical applications of herbs, trees, gums and plant products within the occult sphere, and try them instead.
Do look through this chapter of ideas for your ninth moon of practical work and see what you can manage, perhaps borrowing space in a friend's garden, or cultivating an area not previously considered suitable for plants. Even a tiny plot or collection of containers and tubs can grow dozens of herbs, fruit trees, vines, scented flowers and colourful foliage.
In your Book of Illumination discover suitable seasonal plants which can be used at each of the festivals, within the house, or as garlands for your staff. You could choose vegetarian dishes or salads as ways of celebrating the change of seasons, which could be shared with pagan and orthodox friends alike.
Go to a herbalist and discover which dried plants can solve some non-medicinal problem; for example, tansy helps to keep away flies, and horsetail can be used to polish pewter plates.
Have a go at making some drinks, even if it is from a wine-making kit, or just special blends of fresh fruit juices.
Sniff through the culinary herbs and spices and see which might be useful in incenses. Mrs Grieve's Herbal tells which planet each is attributed to, and so can be used for blessing a talisman. Cinnamon sticks, cloves, ginger and rosemary can be added to more conventional incense resin mixes for interesting scents.
Make a list of all the common poisonous plants which are to be found in gardens and hedgerows, near water or in woods. You may be surprised how many there are.
Dry and press some flowers or leaves to make a collage in honour of the Goddess of Nature or the Green Man.
Go at least to a 'pick your own' fruit farm and gather soft fruit or berries, or better still, walk in the country and gather some of the wild plants, flowers and fruits if possible. (Be aware that many plants are protected by law and may not be dug up or harmed.)
Find some pine or other resinous trees and collect the gum to try in incenses.
Go and try the tree meditation several times with different trees, and look for dryads and the aura which surrounds every living tree.
Try the banishing spell, to get rid of a worry into running water. Spend as much time as you can watching the sunshine on gardens, and moonlight on woods. Get to feel at home there; perhaps discover a small totem animal which can bring you messages from the Otherworld.
Look out for these books, and any others about uses of plant materials, the stories of trees and their uses.
Mrs Grieve, A Modern Herbal (Dover or Penguin) (This is a must!)
David Hoffman, The Holistic Herbal (Element Books)
Edmund Launert, Edible and Medicinal Plants (Illustrated) (Hamilton Books)
Do go out there and get to know some trees. They have ways of instructing us in the Old Ways, their presence is amazingly calming and energising, and knowledge of them was at the roots of much Old Wisdom.