by Theodora Goss
Once upon a time, there was an event called the New England 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 New England 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 New England spring, and only the forsythia were 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. The New England Flower Show no longer exists (it was one more casualty of the economic recession), and few of us would want the sorts of elaborate Japanese gardens or collections of roses I saw that day. But 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 belladona): The Deadly Nightshade was consecrated to Circe by the Greeks. The Romans used it as both an anaesthetic and a poison. In the medieval era, it became associated with the Devil, and its fruit were 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 causes 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).
II. The Rose and the Mandrake
Two of the plants most commonly assigned magical properties are the rose and the mandrake. We have all seen bouquets of roses in grocery stores around Valentine’s Day. But the most beautiful roses are the species roses or heirloom varieties that were bred before the first hybrid tea rose, La France, appeared in 1867. Those old roses have the true rose scent, and are still used in the making of perfumes and oils.
There are more myths associated with the rose (Rosaceae species) than with any other flower. One concerns how the rose was created. A Corinthian maiden named Rodanthe was so beautiful that she had many suitors. But she had dedicated herself to Artermis, the goddess of the hunt, and vowed to remain unmarried in honor of the goddess. One day, as she was walking outside, she was surrounded by her suitors, each asking her to choose him. They began clutching at her, tearing her dress. Rodanthe fled into the nearby temple of Artermis. Her suitors followed, breaking into the temple. Artermis was furious. Wanting to avenge the desecration of her temple and protect Rodanthe, she turned the maiden into a rose. The blush on her cheeks became the color of the rose’s petals. Then, Artermis turned her suitors into the rose’s thorns, so they could guard her forever.
Another myth concerns how the rose originally became red. The goddess Aphrodite fell in love with the mortal youth Adonis. Unlike Artermis, who was a goddess of the hunt, Aphrodite did not relish hunting, and would rather have spent her time bathing and adorning herself. But Adonis was a hunter, so she even went on the hunt with him. The god Ares was jealous and vowed to revenge himself on Adonis. One day, Aphrodite left to visit her shrine in Paphos, taking her chariot drawn by swans. Adonis went out hunting in her absence. Seeing his opportunity, Ares disguised himself as a wild boar. He led Adonis’ hounds on a long chase through the forest, then circled back and charged straight at Adonis, goring him in the side. Adonis was badly wounded, and Ares left him to die. But Aphrodite heard his cries and turned her chariot, flying back through the sky to Adonis. When the chariot touched down in the forest, she ran to her beloved. Her feet were torn by the tangled briars that covered the ground, and her blood fell on the white roses, turning them red.
As these myths demonstrate, the rose has always been associated with both love and death. After the battle of Roncesvalles, where the knights of Charlemagne fell, the battlefield is said to have bloomed with roses, and twined roses grew out of the grave of the lovers Tristan and Isolde. Roses were often planted on graves, and modern rosarians have resurrected a number of old varieties after finding them in graveyards. It was once believed that if a maiden scattered rose petals over a tombstone on Midsummer’s Eve, she would have a vision of her future husband; if she kept a posy of roses sprinkled with pigeon’s blood under her pillow, his identity would be revealed in a dream. Roses also made for an effective love charm. If a maiden took three roses, white, pink, and red, and kept them next to her heart for three days, then steeped them in wine for three more days and gave the wine to the man she loved, he would be hers forever. More prosaically, a red rose was considered to be a charm against nose-bleed.
Roses have always been used medicinally. Because the Romans believed roses protected against drunkenness, they put rose petals in wine and scattered them over the floors of banquet rooms. Rose teas have been used to sooth sore throats, and to fight colds and chest infections. Dried rose leaves were used for sore eyes, as in this eighteenth-century recipe:
Take half a pint of Alum Curd, and mix it with a sufficient quantity of Red Rose Leaves powdered, to give it a proper consistency. This is an excellent application for sore moist eyes, and admirably cools and represses defluxions.
Roses were also used for cosmetic purposes. Dew gathered from a rose could be used to bathe the face, creating a beautiful complexion. A gall that grows on roses could be mixed with bear grease and massaged into the scalp to cure baldness. The Roman naturalist Pliny lists more than thirty cures prepared with roses, and by the eighteenth century about a third of all medicines contained some part of the rose.
You may be familiar with the mandrake (Mandragora officinarum) from the Harry Potter books or films, in which mandrake roots look like particularly unattractive infants and have an intolerable scream. Mandrakes were so important, magically and medicinally, that twenty-two treatises on them were published between 1510 and 1850. The Egyptians were familiar with the mandrake, which was associated with the goddess Hathor. Egyptian families would keep a mandrake plant in a corner of the house, with a lamp burning before it, and make offerings to it daily as the guardian of the household. It was also known to the Assyrians, who mentioned it on clay tablets as a cure for toothache. The mandrake was even mentioned in the Song of Solomon:
Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the field; let us lodge in the villages.
Let us get up early to the vineyards; let us see if the vine flourishes, whether the tender grape appear, and the pomegranate bud forth: there will I give thee my loves.
The mandrakes give a smell, and at our gates are all manner of pleasant fruits, new and old, which I have laid up for thee, O my beloved.
It may have been mentioned in the Song of Songs because the mandrake was believed to be an aphrodisiac. The ancient Greeks called the fruit of the mandrake “apples of love,” and dried mandrake roots were carried as a charm to promote fertility.
Perhaps the most famous lore about the mandrake concerns how it must be gathered. The Greek philosopher Theophrastus, who is often thought of as the first botanist because of his treatises Enquiry into Plants and On the Causes of Plants, says that the person gathering a mandrake should draw three circles around the plant with a sword and cut it facing west. When cutting it, the gatherer should dance around the plant and talk about the mysteries of love. Perhaps all that talk of love has to do with the mandrake’s use in love potions; like the rose, it was also associated with Aphrodite, who was called the Lady of the Mandrake. The Herbarium of Apuleius Platonicus, written between 1000 and 1050, provides more specific instructions on gathering the mandrake:
When first thou seest its head, then inscribe it thou instantly with iron lest it fly from thee; its virtue is so mickle and so famous, that it will immediately flee from an unclean man when he cometh to it not with the iron but thou shalt earnestly with an ivory staff delve the earth.
And when thou seest its hands and its feet, then tie thou it up. Then take the other end and tie it to a dog’s neck so that the hound be hungry; next cast meat before him so that he may not reach it except he jerk up the wort with him.
This is a confusing account, but the iron is probably a sword used to draw the magic circle, and the ivory is likely a staff used to loosen the earth around the roots. Why does the hound appear in this account? The Anglo-Saxon poet Philip de Thaun, in his Bestiary of 1121, makes clear that the hound is there to act as a scapegoat for the gatherer: when the plant is gathered, “Such virtue this herb has, that no one can hear it but he must die and if the man heard it he would directly die. Therefore, he must stop his ears and take care that he hear not the cry, lest he die as the dog will do which shall hear the cry.”
Mandrakes were so important because of the doctrine of signatures, the belief that plants resembling parts of the body could be used to treat those parts of the body. The root of the mandrake can look like a human being. Therefore, it was believed to cure a variety of diseases. Hippocrates thought that a dose in wine would relieve depression and anxiety, although he was aware that if given in large quantities, the mandrake was a dangerous plant, causing delirium and even death. According to Pliny, the root beaten with oil and wine cures “defluxions of the eyes and pains in these organs, and indeed the juice of this plant still forms an ingredient in many medicaments for the eyes.” The Romans commonly used mandrake as an anaesthetic and to put patients to sleep before surgery.
In the Middle Ages, since mandrake roots were difficult to come by, the roots of other plants were artificially shaped and manipulated to look like mandrakes, and sold at a high price. Andrea Mattioli, whose Commentaries on the Materia Medica of Dioscorides was published in 1544, says that a doctor he met in Rome would sell such false mandrake roots: “These false mandrakes he palmed off on childless women, some of whom gave him as much as 5, 20, or even 50 gold pieces for a single specimen, fondly expecting to become joyful mothers of children.” These false mandrake roots, often carved to resemble small men, look much more like the ones from Harry Potter than natural mandrake roots ever could. Since they resembled human children, it was believed that they would aid conception. But they were also believed to bring good fortune. As part of her trial for witchcraft, Joan of Arc was accused of carrying a mandrake root in her bosom in the hope of acquiring riches; of course, she denied the accusation.
III. Imaginary Plants
There are some plants you will never be able to grow in your garden: they exist only in the human imagination. In Greek myth, toward the west at the edge of the ocean that encircles the world, you can find the Garden of the Hesperides, in which there is a tree with golden apples that confer immortality. The tree was grown from branches given to Hera by Gaia herself as a wedding gift. Three nymphs collectively called the Hesperides tend the garden, but it is also guarded by a hundred-headed dragon named Ladon who never sleeps. In the Middle Ages, travelers returning from China told stories about the Upas Tree or Tree of Poison, supposedly located in the islands off the coast. It was so poisonous that nothing could live for miles around: it killed all the surrounding vegetation, and animals and people who fell asleep under it would die. Prisoners were executed by being tied to the tree. Nowadays, there are still trees identified as descendants of the legendary Upas whose juice is used to poison arrows.
But perhaps the strangest imaginary plant is the Barnacle Tree. In the Middle Ages, people would wonder where geese migrating from the north originated. They believed barnacle geese (Branta bernicla) came from Barnacle Trees that grew on the Orkney Islands. The trees would bear fruit that were barnacles, and when they were ripe, the barnacles would drop into the sea, releasing young barnacle geese. Gerard, who claims to have seen the birth of barnacles geese with his own eyes, describes a slightly different process, recounting how in Lancashire, on the seashore, the waves cast up tree trunks and the hulls of sunken ships, “whereon is found a certaine spume or froth, that in time breedeth unto certaine shels, in shape like thos of the muskle, but sharper pointed and of a whitish colour.” These contain “a thing in forme like a lace of silke finely woven,” with one end fastened to the shell and the other end fastened to “a rude masse or lumpe, which in time commeth to the shape and forme of a Birde.” Eventually, the bird comes to maturity and falls out of the shell into the sea, “where it gathereth feathers, and groweth to a foule, bigger than a Mallard, and lesser than a Goose.”
An entire book could be written about plants that have mythic associations or were considered to have magical properties. I have included only a few of those plants here, but I hope they appear in your own gardens, real or imaginary.
Emboden, William A. Bizarre Plants: Magical, Monstrous, Mythical. New York: Macmillan, 1974.
Hollis, Sarah. The Country Diary Herbal. New York: Henry Holt, 1990.
Lehner, Ernst and Johanna. Folklore and Symbolism of Flowers, Plants, and Trees. New York: Tudor, 1960.
Mayhew, Ann. The Rose: Myth, Folklore and Legend. London: New English Library, 1979.
Skinner, Charles M. Myths and Legends of Flowers, Trees, Fruits, and Plants in All Ages and All Climes. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1911.
Thompson, C.J.S. The Mystic Mandrake. London: Rider, 1934.
1. Sarah Hollis, The Country Diary Herbal (New York: Henry Holt, 1990), 30-1.
2. Charles M. Skinner, Myths and Legends of Flowers, Trees, Fruits, and Plants in All Ages and All Climes (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1911), 58.
3. Ibid., 59.
4. C.J.S. Thompson, The Mystic Mandrake (London: Rider, 1934), 67.
5. Ernst and Johanna Lehner, Folklore and Symbolism of Flowers, Plants, and Trees (New York: Tudor, 1960), 63.
6. William A. Emboden, Bizarre Plants: Magical, Monstrous, Mythical (New York: Macmillan, 1974), 69.
7. Lehner, 55.
8. Ibid., 56.
9. Ibid., 58.
10. Skinner, 101.
11. Emboden, 71.
12. Hollis, 50.
13. Ibid., 56-7.
14. Lehner, 59.
15. Ibid., 53.
16. Emboden, 63-5.
17. Ibid., 83.
18. Mayhew, 18-9.
19. Ibid., 22.
20. Ibid., 38-9.
21. Ibid., 42.
22. Ibid., 42.
23. Thompson, 20.
24. Ibid., 45.
25. Song of Solomon 7:11-13.
26. Thompson, 55.
27. Ibid., 108.
28. Ibid., 112.
29. Ibid., 97.
30. Ibid., 123.
31. Ibid., 146.
32. Lehner, 85.
33. Emboden, 197.
Theodora Goss was born in Hungary and spent her childhood in various European countries before her family moved to the United States. Although she grew up on the classics of English literature, her writing has been influenced by an Eastern European literary tradition in which the boundaries between realism and the fantastic are often ambiguous. Her publications include the short story collection In the Forest of Forgetting (2006); Interfictions (2007), a short story anthology coedited with Delia Sherman; and Voices from Fairyland (2008), a poetry anthology with critical essays and a selection of her own poems. She has been a finalist for the Nebula, Locus, Crawford, and Mythopoeic Awards, as well as on the Tiptree Award Honor List, and has won the World Fantasy and Rhysling Awards.