Witching Herbs and their Lore

By Andrea Jackson, Western Pennsylvania Unit of The Herb Society of America

When I started my herbal adventure many years ago, I was drawn to unusual herbal topics.  Oh, I made my vinegars (still do) and my wreaths. My cooking was much improved. But as my herbal interests broadened and my library grew and grew and grew, I became fascinated by the history and lore of herbs.

With fall comes the witching season. What better time to explore some of the witching herbs?  While many of the plants in our gardens can be used for charms and spells, some are truly sinister plants that every self-respecting witch needs.

Image result for Mandrake root plant freeMandrake (Mandragora officinarum) … In ancient times this plant was used as an aphrodisiac and treatment for infertility. It was mentioned in Genesis when the childless Rachel asked Leah for some of the mandrakes (likely the fruit) she has gathered. It must have worked since she subsequently gave birth to Joseph. Pieces of mandrake were found in the Egyptian tombs and it was mentioned in the Ebers papyrus.  How is came to be associated with magic may be lost in the mists of time but someone noticed the resemblance of the root to the shape of a man and a new charm was born.

Recall from Harry Potter how the plant screams when removed from the ground. This ear-piercing scream was said to be able to kill whomever tried to remove it. So, a special procedure was devised. Three circles were drawn around the plant for protection. Then, the soil was loosened around the plant and a black dog was tied to the plant.  The witch stepped out of the circle and called the dog which pulled up the plant.  In some telling of the tale, the dog would live if it stayed in the first circle but in most the dog was sacrificed to obtain the plant.

As if it wasn’t difficult enough to obtain a mandrake, a special procedure was needed to maintain it.  It must be bathed in wine, wrapped in white silk then covered with a black velvet coat. Each week it should be bathed and the bedding and silk changed.

Perhaps all of this was worthwhile since mandrake was believed to contain the red earth of paradise which was necessary to produce the philosopher’s stone. Oh, and it also made one invincible in battle.

Wolfsbane (Aconitum lycoctonum)Closely related to monkshood (Aconitum napellus),Image result for wolfsbane wolfsbane contains aconitine, a deadly poison, and was considered the most dangerous of all the magical herbs. This baleful plant was made by Hecate from the foaming mouth of Cerberus the three-headed dog who guarded the gates of the underworld.

If you have a stray lizard around, you can bind wolfsbane with the skin of your lizard and you will become invisible. Then think of all the candy you could snatch on Halloween.  If you are plagued by vampires and werewolves this is the plant for you since it is an effective deterrent.

Image result for henbaneHenbane (Hyoscyamus niger)  … The plant looks and smells of death, perhaps because its favorite home is graveyards. Legend has it that henbane seeds were smoked by the Oracle of Delphi to increase his prophetic powers. Meanwhile the Celts considered it sacred to Bel, their god of prophecy.

Henbane contains atropine, scopolamine and hyoscyamine which in large doses increase the heart rate. They also cause dry mouth, dilated pupils, weakness and agitated excitement.  The herb can produce the sensation of the soul separating from the body and flying through the skies. It can also produce a sense of body dissolution and erotic hallucinations. Then, when it wears off the person remembers nothing of what has happened.

(It is interesting to note that atropine is used in medicine to increase the heart rate and scopolamine was a component of “twilight sleep” formerly administered to women in labor so they did not remember childbirth.)

Deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) and Jimson weed (Datura stramonium) and Image result for nightshademandrake all contain atropine, scopolamine and hyoscyamine.  The plants and sometimes a bit of opium and fly agaric were included in flying ointments. This was a dangerous brew indeed.  Undoubtedly some witches got to the other side in a way they never intended.

If all this seems a bit frightening, just remember that you can keep witches away by throwing a yarrow leaf into the fire or by rubbing your floor with rue.

Happy Halloween!

Andrea Jackson, R.N.,  is a master gardener with a certificate in sustainable horticulture. She has more than 30 years’ experience studying, lecturing and loving herbs. She belongs to the Herb Society of America, American Herbalist’s Guild and Piccadilly Herb Club, and the American Botanical Council.

Calendula: Versatile Healing Herb

By Beth Schreibman-Gehring, Chairman of Education for The Western Reserve Herb Society unit of The Herb Society of America

image1My first memory of the bright calendula flower (Calendula officinalis) was the cheerful patch that my first riding teacher — a tiny, feisty Irish woman who was more fairy than folk — grew in her garden. Everything had a purpose in her tiny stable yard and she grew calendula to macerate into vegetable oil for therapeutic purposes. We used this healing oil when our ponies got scrapes, burns, or skin rashes. She explained that it prevents infection and soothes irritated skin. It definitely seemed to stop the bleeding if there was any and the affected areas would heal nicely within a few days. Since then I’ve had a soft spot for this golden plant and a place for it in my gardens.

Calendula is truly one of the most versatile of the healing herbs. It is traditionally made into a mineral rich herbalists’ infusion of the dried petals and water which is then drunk to help soothe the stomach spasms caused by inflammatory bowel disorders.  My husband who periodically suffers from canker sores will use this same tea cooled and with raw honey added as a mouth rinse to soothe his gums. I’ve used that same calendula infusion (without the honey) as a cooling splash for my sunburned skin.

Infused calendula oil can be used on its own, but blended into a creamy salve made with beeswax and coconut oil it becomes a soothing dry skin remedy.

image3Calendula has a spicy, interesting, and delicious flavor when used as a culinary herb. I love to use the fresh petals sprinkled onto deviled or scrambled eggs, steamed vegetables, and salads. It has a very important history of usage as a winter tonic. Traditional German folk medicine calls for the dried flower heads to be used in soups and stews in the colder months, because calendula has been historically used to boost immunity. I love to add dried calendula petals, dried stinging nettle, leeks, and butternut squash to a bowl of steaming chicken broth into which I’ve whisked a beaten egg. These additions turn a simple bowl of soup into a mineral rich and comforting tonic that always helps to rescue me from the wintry doldrums.

I have always found calendula easy to grow. It’s a bushy, aromatic, and upright annual with about a 28-inch spread. It really prefers a well-drained soil and a lot of sunshine, but it will grow just fine in partial shade. I’ve grown it in containers as well. It’s a voracious self-seeder, so don’t’ be surprised when you find it everywhere.  It’s not native to my northeastern climate, but I have seen it naturalized along the sunny southern California coastline. Calendula is found in the most glorious shades of yellow and orange. Please don’t confuse calendula with the common French marigold. It’s definitely the same family, but they are not interchangeable for our purposes of supporting and promoting wellness.

This is a very easy plant to harvest. Just cut off the flower heads, put them on a tray in a warm, sunny location and let them air dry. When the heads are fully dried, pull off the petals and store them in a glass jar.

image2Don’t drink the tea or use the ointments and oils on your skin during pregnancy because calendula is a known emmenagogue…in other words it can cause miscarriage; ,and don’t use calendula internally if you’re breast feeding.  If you’re allergic to ragweed, daisies, or chrysanthemum you should be extremely careful as it’s a member of the same family.

Calendula Infusion or Tea

  • 1 heaping teaspoon dried petals or 2 teaspoons fresh petals
  • 6 ounces boiling water

Place the calendula petals into a large mug or teapot and pour over the boiling water. Cover and steep for ten minutes. Strain before use.

You can use the infusion as a tea or a facial toner. Its soothing and anti-inflammatory properties make calendula wonderful to use for a sore throat, canker sore or urinary tract infection.


Calendula Oil

  • 3 ounces dried petals or 10 ounces fresh petal, finely chopped
  • 16 ounces of light vegetable oil (sunflower, almond , coconut or extra virgin olive oil. You can even use a mixture of oils).

Put half of the chopped or dried calendula into a glass or metal bowl and add enough oil to completely cover the petals. Place this bowl over a pan of boiling water, cover the bowl and heat it gently for about two hours.  You may need to add more water. Strain the oil mixture and add more plant material into the bowl of heated oil. Put it back over the boiling water and continue heating gently for one more hour. Strain the oil completely and put it into a dark and sterilized bottle. Label with the name and date. You can use this oil all by itself as a massage oil or bath oil.  Personally I love to use this oil as a base for soothing calendula salves, creams and lotions.


Calendula Salve

  • Macerated calendula oil
  • Grated beeswax, approximately one ounce per one cup of infused oil
  • Essential oils of lavender and carrot seed, 10-20 drops per cup of infused oil

Place infused oil into a double boiler and bring the water to a simmer gently heating the oil. If you do not have a double boiler you can use a pot of water and a stainless steel bowl. Add the grated beeswax, whisking occasionally until the wax has completely dissolved into the oil. Add the essential oils and continue whisking. When they are blended, pour the salve into a tin or a shallow glass container and let it cool. Once it’s cool you can use it on skin eruptions such as diaper rash and eczema.

I’ve also discovered that calendula salve makes an excellent wound dressing, especially when mashed with a little bit of garlic and raw honey.  Also, grab this salve the next time you have sunburn or dry and cracked chapped lips.  It’s healing and soothing.

Medical disclaimer Please, if you have any questions at all, please contact me in the comment section below.

Aloe Vera Soothes

Aloe Vera Soothes

By Kathleen M Hale, Western Reserve Herb Society

aloe-vera-2.jpgHerbal gardeners who dabble in (or industriously practice) using herbs to concoct home remedies are accustomed to dropping in essential oils or adding a sprig or two of something garden fresh.  Some judiciously consider the day and hour of harvest based on the phase of the moon or the alignment of the planets.  We may actually rely on our deep connection to Amazon Prime, but we cling to the alchemical romance.

Aloe vera juice or gel may be available in a multi-gallon jug from many retailers, but I cherish the aloe plant growing on my kitchen windowsill, a daughter of the mighty mother plant which has outgrown the space. But obviously, someone out there is hard core.

True aloe — aloe vera — is a species of the genus, aloe, in the Liliaceaed family. Originally a native of the Arab peninsula, aloe vera was introduced widely and now it grows freely in warm climates throughout the world. Aloe will also grow happily as a houseplant in colder regions as long as you don’t give it too much attention.  It has a long history as a friend to mankind, the most beneficial of medicinal plants. The Egyptians called it “The Plant of Immortality”.

Aloe VeraBecause aloe vera is a succulent, each long serrated leaf is plump with gooey, liquid-filled flesh.  I learned as a child to break off a leaf and squeeze out the juice to ease the pain of a burn, which is why a plant in the kitchen window is an heirloom custom.

Aloe vera juice is made by crushing the entire leaf of the plant. Thus is contains both the clear interior gel and the yellow latex that is situated just under the skin of the plant.  The juice is then filtered, and sold as a health supplement. Consumed as is or added to other beverages, it is a source of various nutrients, including zinc and B-12, which can be helpful to vegetarians and vegans.  Proponents feel that it aids the digestion, relieving heartburn and constipation. However, the laxative effect of too much aloe vera can lead to dehydration.

Interesting the gel component may aid healing by increasing blood flow, acting as a mild disinfectant and protecting cells from damage. Meanwhile the latex part may act to aid digestive health and as a laxative.

Like my first aloe vera, which my children have named “Cthulu,” a mother plant will, when content with its surroundings, produce many smaller plants around its base. These are called “pups.”  The pot will quickly become crowded, and the younger plants should be moved into their own pots and given away to unwary students, newlyweds and others who are not actively trying to escape one’s largess. They will thank you later.

Medical disclaimer



All-Heal: Splendor In The Grass

By Kathleen M.  Hale, Western Reserve Herb Society

All HealThis plant’s Latin name has given me my chosen nom-de-Hogwarts:  Prunella vulgaris. It suits me.

Prunella’s common names also speak volumes:  woundwart, self-heal and heart-of-the-earth. This is one potent little herb, widespread in Zones 3-9, but particularly common in Ireland. It is a low-growing plant, and spreads both by seeds and by side shoots. In this, it resembles its cousin, the mint, but it lacks mint’s distinctive taste and scent.

In North America, prunella flowers in July and August.  The flowers are small, but deserve a closer look: above a single stem the flowers emerge from a squarish club-shaped cluster.  Each tiny, violet-colored flower is elegantly hooded and lipped, a little like a tiny snapdragon. Because few flowers open at a time from a distance the cluster may appear brown or reddish.  But take a closer look. Pollinators do. It is a favorite host for the clouded sulphur butterfly Colias philodice.

All heal 2If you haven’t seen prunella, chances are that you haven’t been looking.  It’s everywhere.  Where it grows in the grass, it adapts to mowing by keeping its head down, and it flowers at the level of the surrounding turf. Prunella prefers moist partial shade, but it isn’t picky. However, cultivate around it and it is gone.

The uses and benefits of prunella are many.  Every part of the plant is edible. It is antiseptic, diuretic, anti-pyretic and styptic. It is said to lower blood pressure and to be anti-viral. Research is pursuing the suggestion that it might be helpful in the treatment of diabetes, herpes, Ebola and HIV. In the European Middle Ages, prunella was held to be a holy herb, and was credited with being able to repel the devil himself.

Because the open, lipped flowers might look to some like an open mouth and throat, prunella’s most traditional use has been to soothe ailments of the mouth and throat.

Medical disclaimerSome of its legendary powers are truly remarkable. Prunella has been known as a remedy for the injury of animal bites. And, if you’ve ever been bitten by an animal in your dreams it heals the dream wound. I don’t ever recall having been bitten by an animal in my dreams, but it sounds quite alarming.  It’s good to know that the remedy is so close at hand.

HSA Blog Ranks in Top 25

Feedspot badge herbal medicineThe Herb Society of America’s Blog ranked among the top 25 medicinal herb blogs in the world, according to FeedSpot.

FeedSpot is a content-reader or digest. It helps readers track top information sources in a category, thus saving the time it takes to check each individual site.

FeedSpot’s Anuj Agarwal says, “ Subscribe to these Herbal Medicine websites because they are actively working to educate, inspire, and empower their readers with frequent updates and high-quality information.”

HSA has been publishing a blog since 2013. Blogmaster Paris Wolfe took over in July 2015 to bring consistency and twice-weekly frequency to the blog. To date the blog has published nearly 300 posts by a variety of experts, reaching thousands of readers each month.

Check out the entire list of 25 Top Herbal Medicine Blogs.

Bath Bombs Spread Herbal Delight

Bath Bombs Spread Herbal Delight

By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America


When my partner’s four-year-old granddaughter was visiting in June, she protested bath time. It interrupted her play time. So, I offered her one of my $2 lavender-scented bath bombs … those compressed powdery cakes that fizz while perfuming the air and softening bathwater.  She couldn’t resist the purple sphere and the light shade it made the water. And, I was proud of my problem-solving skills.

A few minutes later – when her mom told me how easy it is to make bath bombs – I was feeling a silly for spending $2 per “bomb.” So, I hopped online, researched various bath bomb recipes and tweaked a formula.

Within the week I was addicted and used every herbal essential oil in my craft closet … lemon grass, peppermint, lavender, rose geranium, among others. Over the summer I’ve enjoyed the aromatherapy and shared them with house guests.

20180501_152326I couldn’t master the round metal molds. So instead I purchased heart-shaped silicon molds for my version. I might need the beach creature or bug molds for the children in my life. While most ingredients can be found in grocery, drug or craft stores, I purchased my essential oils and more online.  You can find a broad array of essential oils at Mountain Rose Herbs.

Bath Bomb Recipe

  • 8 ounce baking soda (about one cup)
  • 4 ounces Epsom salts (1/2 cup)
  • 4 ounces citric acid (1/2 cup)
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • 3 tablespoon oil (olive, almond, grapeseed, avocado, hempseed)
  • 20-30 drops essential oils
  • 3-5 drops food coloring (optional)

Bath bomb mold or silicon molds.

Thoroughly whisk dry ingredients in metal or glass bowl. Add wet ingredients and mix. Pack into molds and allow to set for 24 hours. Remove gently and store in dry container.

Chat with Author and HSA Honorary Pres Susan Belsinger

Chat with Author and HSA Honorary Pres Susan Belsinger

sb self portrait moors of ireland (1)We recently introduced you to Susan Belsinger, honorary president of the Herb Society of America (LINK TO POST). In this Q&A we learn more about her depth and breadth of herbal experiences.

QUESTION:  What are your earliest memories of herbal interest?

ANSWER:  I first became enamored with herbs and spices when I went to visit North Africa back in the early 70s. I was intrigued and intoxicated by the sacks of exotic and aromatic herbs and spices piled high in the souk; so I pursued the local women in the Turkish baths and got them to take me home to their kitchens and show me how they cooked their Moroccan dishes. That is when I started writing down recipes.

From there I went to Italy and fell in love with the fresh herbs in their local habitat—rosemary, sage, bay, thyme, lavender and savory—and tasted my first pesto while dining al fresco in the hills of Tuscany. Growing and savoring the Mediterranean herbs was life-changing and magical for me and opened my eyes and palate to a whole new world. I met Carolyn Dille in Tuscany—where we explored cooking with seasonal ingredients and herbs together–and decided that when we returned to the U.S, we wanted to educate Americans about cooking with fresh herbs (which I am still doing today!).

Q. How have you built your herbal knowledge?

susan & rosemaryA.  I learned from hands-on experience. I took some master classes back in the 70s and 80s from Madeleine Kamman, Jacques Pepin, Giuliano Bugialli and Marcella Hazan. I taught a huge variety of classes from growing your own herbs to making your own pasta and pizza to  Southwestern cooking at  L’Academie de Cuisine, an accredited cooking school in Bethesda, Maryland. I also belonged to Les Dames d’Escoffier, a group of women food professionals, for nearly 20 years and through both of those venues I was able to work alongside many amazing and well known chefs and members of the food industry. Although, I learned a lot about cooking during that period of my life, herbs were my passion, and so I moved on. I did a year-long apprenticeship with Rosemary Gladstar, taking her Art & Science of Herbalism course, which was an extraordinary experience. I have had many herbal mentors in the Herb Society of America and the International Herb Association.

Q. How did you start writing cookbooks?

carolyn susanWhen I moved back to the states after living in Italy for two years, my friend and cooking colleague Carolyn Dille, also returned stateside. I went to live in California, where Carolyn was from, so we could collaborate and we decided to try our hands at growing and cooking with herbs, and writing about our experiences. It was truly beginners’ luck, as well as some good recipes.  We approached Gourmet Magazine about writing articles on cooking with fresh herbs—and they went for it! We spent 1979 testing and writing 12 articles, each on a different herb, which was published as the series “A Calendar of Herbs” in 1980. Those original twelve culinary herbs, along with eight more, became 20 chapters in our first book, Cooking with Herbs published by Van Nostrand Reinhold in 1984. Our next collaboration was New Southwestern Cooking printed by Macmillan in 1986. Carolyn moved to Maryland, where we researched and wrote The Chesapeake Cookbook published by Clarkson N. Potter in 1990. From there we co-authored five more books together for Interweave Press and wrote numerous articles for the Herb Companion.

Q. What’s your latest book?

A. The Culinary Herbal: Growing & Preserving 97 Flavorful Herbs co-authored with Arthur Tucker was published by Timber Press in 2016. Art and I just finished a new book with Timber Press titled Grow Your Own Herbs: The 40 Best Culinary Varieties for Home Gardens; it is geared towards beginning herbies who like to grow their own and cook with them and it is due out in Spring 2019.

Q. What does it mean to you to be chosen HSA honorary president?

A.  Well, first of all, I was surprised and a bit taken aback, wondering why me? There are so many worthy individuals in our organization. I am honored and humbled to have been selected as honorary president and take the position seriously. I do hope that I can help to make positive changes for the membership and I look forward to attending board meetings and getting to know the members of the board and how they work. I thank HSA President Rie Sluder for choosing me as honorary president and the board, for supporting her decision. I do not want to just have a title—I would like to make a difference and help move the HSA forward into the future.

Q. What’s your favorite herb?

A. I enjoy so many herbs, it is hard to choose just one. I could not live without garlic or chile peppers. As far as green leaves go, ‘Genoa Green’ basil has extraordinary flavor. Pesto is truly one of my favorite foods, however any salsa verde (green herb sauce) makes my taste buds tap dance. What is so thrilling is that no two green sauces are alike—and they change seasonally—early spring we have chickweed, wild sorrel, violets, field cresses and dandelion; then the nettles pop up and later spring greens like arugula, mustards, lambs’ quarters, green garlic, wild onions, and chives; and in the height of summer of course there is basil, the oreganos and nasturtium leaves. Who can resist a green sauce to slather on sandwiches, tomatoes, grilled vegetables, steamed vegetables, pizza, pasta and more?!

Q. What’s your favorite workshop to present?

tumblr_inline_n7szn7P2U61r09mjvA.  I love to give students or an audience a sensory experience with herbs, the more hands-on, the better. That said, there is no one particular favorite workshop. What I like best is doing research and learning new things—that is why I so enjoy having an herb of the year, or an herb of the month—because I can immerse myself in new knowledge, which I find so exciting and inspiring. And then I can pass this wealth of information along to others. The sharing of gardening, herb plants and everything about them with like-minded people is one of the most rewarding things I know.

Q. How would you advise someone who wants to learn more about herbs?

A. I’d have to say just immerse yourself in the plants. Go to an herb garden, nursery or herb sale and start with rubbing the leaves and sniffing them; then have a nibble in order to get the flavor. Go with a gardener or herbie-type so it will be more fun as well as educational. Choose herbs because you like their flavor or their appearance or because they call out to you. Join an herb group or organization like the Herb Society of America where members share plants as well as information from how to grow the herbs to recipes, health benefits and craft projects. Go to the library and check out herb books and guidebooks, then buy the ones you like best. It is important to have a selection of good herbal resources, especially if you are making products or using herbs medicinally.  I get so excited when I meet newbies, folks who are just getting interested in herbs, because they have a whole new world of herbal horizons before them!

Follow Susan on her blog.