Hemlock (Conium maculatum)
Let me back into this one and talk about Queen Anne’s Lace first, which everyone has probably seen. It’s also known as Wild Carrot, and is the original carrot from which modern cultivars were developed. It’s edible with a light carrot flavor, and is great in salads.
The problem is, it is closely related to, and looks almost exactly like Poison Hemlock. Hemlock flourishes in ditches and pastures across the country. There have been about a hundred cases of hemlock fatalities in the United States, although experts believe the actual number is probably much higher. The victims usually don’t survive to report what they ate. It also poses a threat to pets and livestock. A single root is toxic enough to kill a sixteen-hundred-pound cow.
So, if you’re tempted to pick some Queen Anne’s Lace for a wildflower bouquet, or throw some wild carrot into your salad, here’s how to tell the difference (if you dare): Queen Anne’s Lace has a hairy stem, while the stems of Hemlock are smooth, hairless, and hollow with purple spots.
Magically, Hemlock is last of the poison world’s “Three Sisters” used in witch’s flying ointment. It’s said to have the power to conjure up demons.
If you’re interested in a plant that looks like a person, has visible sex organs, is an aphrodisiac of the first order, has mind-altering alkaloids such as hyoscyamine, and has been known to cure depression and insomnia, then Atropa mandragora is the plant for you. But be careful.
Mandrake may not be the worst thug in the nightshade family, but it has a reputation. Above-ground it’s an unimposing little plant with a foot-tall rosette of leaves, pale green, white or purplish flowers, and mildly poisonous fruits that resemble unripe tomatoes. While the fruit is attractive and good-tasting, the subterranean part of the plant is where the magic occurs.
It’s medicinal because the root contains an alkaloid that belongs to the atropine group. It’s a powerful narcotic and analgesic, and, in larger doses, an anesthetic.
It’s magical because of the bizarre shape of the root, which looks like a human being, sometimes male, sometimes female. It’s both an aphrodisiac and a strong hallucinogen. Put those two things together to create the most mind-bending sex you’ve ever had. In the book of Genesis, the barren Rachel eats the root and becomes pregnant with Joseph.
Folks love to experiment with the mandrake. The problem, of course, is it’s poisonous in the wrong doses, and people often end up sick or worse. They forget that the mandrake is in the family Solanaceae, same as the deadly nightshade.
Mandrake’s long pointed root can grow three to four feel long, and forked. The Romans believed mandrake could cure demonic possessions, and the Greeks, thinking it resembled a male sex organ, used it in love potions. It was also widely believed that the mandrake shrieked when it was pulled from the ground—remember Harry Potter? In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s friar gives Juliet a mandrake-laced sleeping potion, making Romeo think she is dead.
Some consider mandrake to be the personification of Aphrodite because of its use as an aphrodisiac. Often depicted holding an apple, Aphrodite may actually have been holding a mandrake fruit, especially in images where she is holding a poppy in one hand and a small fruit in the other (since both the flower and the fruit bring sleep).
It’s also common to ascribe the mandrake to Hecate, perhaps because a black dog, another of her symbols, was often sacrificed in the harvesting of mandrakes.
I haven’t decided whether to grow mandrake in my garden, it’s really difficult and takes more patience than most mortals possess. But if you buy a root and would like to preserve it, read Harold Roth’s book, Witching Herbs. His chapter 15 gives extremely detailed instructions on how to preserve your root for magical uses.
This is the primary plant of the Goddess Hecate and the God Apollo. It was also one of the most sacred plants of the Germans and Vikings, who used it ritually for divination, in weather magic, and in finding treasure. They also used it as a mead spice. And the Germans used it for toothache by applying a poultice of crushed seeds to their pillow before going to sleep.
Hercules is sometimes depicted wearing a crown of henbane. It’s said he discovered henbane while in Hades capturing Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog of the Underworld. Henbane’s association with the that journey, as well as the herb’s medicinal affinity for bone issues like toothache, tied it to witchcraft, which often had need of working with the Underworld and with bones.
The dead who wandered the Underworld in Greek mythology also wore crowns of henbane. The function of their crowns was to cause them to forget their lives so they would not try to return and haunt the living. Loved ones who remained behind decorated the tombs of the dead with the plant, also to symbolically help them forget.
Henbane in the Garden
Some black henbane seeds produce an annual plant that flowers the first year and then dies; other produce a biennial that forms a rosette of leaves the first year and flowers the second. There’s no way to tell which one a seed will produce.
Germinate by putting the seeds in a small jar and filling it with cold water. Keep it in the refrigerator for 2 weeks, changing the water every day. The plant in a seed medium. They will germinate in 2 weeks at room temperature. Transplant once they plant has true leaves. Henbane likes a dry soil and on the alkaline side. A full-sun area next to a concrete wall is perfect. It can also grow in pots. With henbane, belladonna and mandrake, top-dressing plants in pots with some chick grit (finely crushed granite) helps produce bigger, healthier plants.
Be prepared for your henbane to grow to 2-3’ tall, and space them 3’ apart. The purple-veined flowers appear in summer and the flowers and pods will continue until hard frost. Watch for Colorado potato beetles, yellow and black striped beetles, and smash them with your fingers. Also look for their babies, small dark grubs that hang on to the underside of leaves in a row, they will eat the leaves down to nothing. For them, treat with spinosad immediately.
We have now completed the Weird Sister Tour of the Witches’ Flying Ointment plants: Datura, Belladonna, Hemlock, Mandrake and Henbane. Full poisonous circle. I am planting most of them in my poison garden next month, but don’t take this as a recommendation to follow suit—and certainly not without reading more about each, taking every precaution, and wearing gloves at all times.
Look for photos throughout the summer!
In the meantime, let’s delve into one of my favorite sabbats next week – BELTANE!
Happy gardening, and Blessed Be.