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Bubble, Bubble, Toil and Trouble

All through October the town of Salem, Massachusetts is awash in witches. They are all dressed in black with pointy hats and try to look as forbidding and dangerously magical as possible.

Though the word witch has assumed the dark cloak of evil, there are white witches as well, and witches’ gardens could as easily have included healing herbs as well as herbs that are a little more problematical. Of course, as with so much in life, how a plant, or anything else, is used will determine whether it is good or evil.

The mandrake plant isn’t common is many gardens these days, but throughout history it has been considered not only an aphrodisiac, but an aid to fertility. Another important use was as a soporific and to deaden pain on the battlefield. Legend has it that Hannibal somehow managed to get his African enemies to drink it. When they fell asleep his own army swept down and killed them all. He could have used the mandrake differently, to similar effect. He could have had his army wear it, become invisible, and then sweep down to confuse and kill.

Comfrey is another vulnerary, an herb used to treat battle wounds. Or to treat any wound, hence its common name of knitbane. Its usefullness comes from the allantoin in its leaves which can be laid on a wound or beaten till pulpy and used as a poultice. It can also be eaten, preferably when the leaves are young, which is when livestock will also appreciate it. I know my chickens do, although I feed it to them first while they are really hungry. It is rich in calcium, potassium, phosphorus as well as vitamins A and C.

Achillea, yarrow, named after the warrior Achilles is also known for its alleged ability to stop bleeding. Witches use it as well, for divination purposes, and was probably one of the herbs that Macbeth’s witches used.

Coltsfoot which grows along our roadsides looking like dandelions, long before the dandelions bloom is known as a cough dispeller. A decoction mixed with a little honey is good for coughs. And one may very well have a cough and cold in the very early spring when the flowers first appear.

Lots of herbs get used for coughs. One recipe includes several, horehound, hyssop, licorice root and marshmallow root.

If you are feeling low and not hungry, some mint will help because it is reputed to make you desire meat. I wonder how that fits in with mint sauce and mint jelly which are often served with lamb?

Garlic is an herb with so many uses and virtues that it is hard to list them all. It is antiseptic, and has been used to remedy rheumatism, intestinal worms, lost virility, and used as a diuretic and laxative. It was so useful that during the Renaissance it was called a heal-all.

There are magic trees, as well as magic herbs. The rowan tree is one of the most famous. It was often planted in cemetaries to protect the dead. From witches? And its wood is considered the best for dowsers.

Deadly nightshade, and datura are plants associated with witches on broomsticks, but it should be noted that these herbs, and certain others, are hallucinogenic. A dose or two and you might feel you were flying through the night sky.

Fortunately in this world, where there are dangers there are remedies. If we gardeners grow rue in our gardens, this Herb of Grace will keep us safe from all witches and evil.

Recently I found a website with lots of herbal and magical information, as well as scholarly links.

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