One of my earliest memories is playing out in the street, barely 6 years old, asking Mum for a jar of water. I would take the jar and spend ages gathering leaves and petals from up and down the street, adding them to the jar and stirring them to make “potions” which I would pour over the steps leading to our front door or anoint myself with as if it were some expensive perfume. I don’t remember why I did it, I don’t think it was something I did that consciously.
My parents have never been gardeners, but I spent every school holiday with an Aunt who lived out in the sticks. She had land and she was a gardener. We would go on outings to garden centres and plant nurseries and it was during this time that I learned the ‘basics’. She taught me what to look for when buying plants, how to spot a ‘good’ plant or an unhealthy plant, she taught me how to dig the holes, plant and water, what dead heading and pruning was, how to sow seeds and propagate from cuttings. Eventually, after much begging and grovelling, my parents let me have a small corner of the back garden at home to tend and grow plants. Every time I came back from my Aunt’s, I came back with a one or two new plants and eventually my own little slice of Eden grew. I would watch ‘Gardener’s World’ every Friday night, Geoff Hamilton was the presenter then and to this day I still consider him a massive influence.
It was during my holidays with my Aunt that I also learned how to cook meals, bake cakes and preserve fruits. One of my most treasured possessions is a recipe book my Aunt gave me which once belonged to my Grandmother with a note from my Great Grandparent’s inside the front cover, it was obviously a gift. However, what makes this even more special is the little scrap of paper I found tucked in the middle, a recipe for Strawberry Jam in my Grandmother’s handwriting (a Grandmother I never knew, she died many years before I was born). I still use that recipe to this day and I still feel the same sense of childlike excitement every time I cook and eat something I’ve grown in the garden or foraged from the land…better than any drug!
As I grew older my holiday’s to the country reduced and eventually stopped all together but what remained was my interest and fascination with plants and, more importantly, an appreciation for them. We all eat fruit and vegetables but seldom acknowledge the journey from field to plate and the work and sacrifice involved. Supermarkets, whilst convenient, have robbed us of a vital link between the land and our sustenance, health and well-being. But that’s a rant for another time.
When I was around 18-19 I developed Glandular Fever (I believe they call it Mono in the states?!) For well over a year I was in and out of bed for weeks at a time, exhausted and in pain from what seemed like eternal tonsillitis. I was visiting the doctor almost monthly and each and every time the outcome was the same “painkillers and antibiotics”. Although the pain killers provided temporary respite and allowed me to eat, sleep and build my strength up nothing was breaking the cycle and within a few weeks I’d be back in bed, in pain and in tears. A close friend of mine suggested I tried Echinacea, she worked at a health food store and got me a bottle of Echinacea tincture. To this day the taste, but more so the small of Echinacea tincture transports me back to that time. Within weeks I had made a full recovery, my immune system was back to normal and I have never had tonsillitis since. This was when I experienced first-hand the power of herbs…plants didn’t just grow and look pretty in the garden, plants didn’t just feed us and our animals, they can also heal us…amazing! Medicine right under our noses…!
I was already a practising Witch by this point, but my love and burgeoning passion for plants began to change my practise completely and is in large part what drove me towards Traditional Witchcraft, and away from the more widely known paths of the day. It didn’t happen overnight, plants work their magic at their own pace, the seed germinates, grows, flowers and fruits at the right and proper time. I suppose I lived under the misapprehension that at some point I would choose a specific discipline to specialise in, if any. It seemed to be what most people did, be they astrologers or healers. I’ve been practising The Craft in one form or another for over 20 years, and not once did it occur to me that plant lore and herb craft might be my soul’s home. I use oracles and I have degree of empathy which can help with certain insights but I am by no means a seer, no matter how much I admire and sometimes envy the skills of those who clearly are. Accepting and owning the gifts we’ve been given and letting go of the ones we have not is a tough, yet really crucial step towards progress. A part of me resisted the call of the green and I thought “Oh…Herbs? Really? But everyone does that!” I saw my interest as being nothing more than a hobby, I was just a gardener. As a Witch I wanted to learn it all and be great at everything. Ha! Foolish boy!
Now at the age of 36 I’ve fully embraced the fact that plant lore is my vocation…I bleed green, there is probably more chlorophyll in my veins than haemoglobin, and I talk to plants with a rambling familiarity that people either find endearing or just plain crazy. I’ve been brought to this from a very early age, everything up to this point had formed and shaped my interests, desires and passions. It’s a useful exercise to reflect on the patterns in one’s life, the unique weave of threads which have formed the fabric of who we are as people today, it’s something we probably don’t allow enough time for, it sometimes feels like reflection is actively discouraged nowadays “don’t dwell on the past” they say…but anyway…
Plant lore, like trance work, healing, divination, soul flight, spirit contact, spell work, ritual etc etc is part of most people’s everyday Craft. In my opinion, every Witch should be developing at least a basic competency in key areas. I could sit here and advise people on how to develop skill and knowledge in plant lore. Get one or two good Herbals (‘A Modern Herbal’ by Mrs Grieve is one of my favourites) plus a pocket field guide to help identify plants. That’s a good start for someone looking to improve their basic every day working knowledge.
However, this blog isn’t intended to be a ‘How To’ so much. Instead, there is a cause close to my heart, something I feel deeply passionate about, which I want to share and hopefully pass on. Whether you are a Witch who is dedicated to the verdant path or one who is simply looking to increase their basic knowledge there is an important aspect of working with plants which is Oh too often underestimated, even ignored…the land…where you live…place!
A plant is rooted in a landscape, in soil, fed by nutrients, water and is constantly at the mercy of a climate which is all highly unique to your area. Knowledge of the plants that grow in your area is something every Witch should know…period! It doesn’t matter whether plant lore and herb craft is your dedicated path in life or not, even if you can only identify ten, the lessons are invaluable. For example, if you need to make a space purifying incense, the best thing is to observe what grows in your area, research a few at a time then harvest, dry and craft an incense from those plants. It’s perfectly acceptable, in my opinion, to wing it and go with your gut sometimes, many great discoveries have been made through trial and error and fortunate accidents. It’s also acceptable to buy herbs online that are from further afield but it should be the secondary option, not the first port of call just because it’s easier or because a recipe in a book tells you to use certain ingredients, use a published recipe as inspiration and guidance but it’s not holy writ. I couldn’t be without some of my mail order suppliers, especially for essential oils and such like, but they should supplement your local pantry supplies, not be the primary and definitely not the only source. (Of course I’m talking magical herbalism here, not medicinal, if you are a complete novice I don’t recommend substitutions in these circumstances!)
OK, so you live in a big town or city, maybe there’s an ingredient you find you use a lot of which you can’t find growing locally. So why not try growing it in a pot, better yet grow it from seed, even if it’s the only plant you grow and it has to be on a windowsill. You will learn a thousand times more from observing the plant as it grows than any book can teach or bag of pre prepared mail order herb can. The same is true of wild plants but here you have the opportunity to learn about your landscape as a whole. Find the plant, look at it, study it…how does that plant fit in with the other species around it? What does it grow with? What conditions does it grow in? What season is the plant at its prime? What eats it? What’s living on it? What does it smell like, look like, feel like…? Answers to these questions and others will give you a huge amount of knowledge about the plant and its uses, you form a direct relationship with the species, and a direct relationship with the land as a result.
I think it’s widely accepted that most occult practitioners make use of herbs or plants somewhere…whether it’s the tree that gave them their wand or staff, the herbs that gave them their favourite incense or oil, or even the grapes and flour used to make the wine and bread of their sacraments, plants play their part in everyone’s practise. I’m not here to try and convince people that just aren’t into plant lore that they should be! There’d be no point… if plants simply aren’t your thing then it will never be a practise which provides much benefit or fulfilment. I hate crystals and all the sparkly things that some people seem to love and get a great deal out of… its horses for courses right!? But if I can encourage folks to try one thing it would be to make one batch of wine from local fruits, or try grinding your own flour from wheat you have cut yourself, or make a simple infused oil from a single wild herb, or cut your own wand or staff from the tree growing in your back yard… you don’t need to be devoted to plant lore or even that knowledgeable to try any of these things and more but your Craft will be transformed!