deadly nightshade / belladonna
Legend has it that belladonna was one of the ingredients in the special ointment witches produced to grant themselves the ability to fly. Whether this actually meant physical or psychotropic flying has been a matter of historical and moral debate for centuries. What we now know is that belladonna contains numerous powerful phytochemical alkaloids which profoundly alter central nervous system function. Two of its tropane alkaloids, atropine and hyoscine, induce hypnotic, hallucinogenic, and narcotic effects. Thus, a person consuming pharmacologically active doses of belladonna, witch or not, would exhibit uncoordinated movements, incoherent speech, disorientation, delirium, and restlessness. The herb can even cause the user to enter a state of reduced brain function in which they dream vividly without actually entering a state of deep sleep. Imagine the tales that would arise, both from someone emerging from the grip of belladonna and as a bystander witnessing someone under its effects.
This is a powerful plant that does have numerous medicinal uses, however it ought never be used without consulting a properly experienced practitioner. It is toxic, even at very low doses, and its overuse can lead to circulatory system collapse, coma and death. And, yet, another of belladonna’s tropane alkaloids, scopolamine, was utsed by physicians in the 1940s to 1960s. The drug-like doses of this plant chemical were dispensed to “assist” laboring women through childbirth. In practice, this meant they were tied into bed, dosed with scopolamine, and left to labor alone. While the goal may have been a painless labor, scopolamine did nothing to dull the actual pain. In reality it merely erased the memory of the experience and produced women who wondered why their wrists and ankles were rubbed raw and families in waiting rooms who wondered what all that screaming had been about. Spooky indeed.
ghost pipe / corpse plant / ice plant / Indian pipe / ghost flower
Be extremely cautious if you spot this delicate ethereal beauty. While wild stands of it exist in our area, its existence is threatened and it’s quite vulnerable to overharvesting. This special herb is unique in that it is almost entirely white, owing to a lack of chlorophyll. Yes, folks, it’s a non-photosynthesizing plant with no green pigment. It’s able to survive this way because its roots maintain a close relationship with fungi, allowing it to obtain nutrients from the roots of neighboring trees. The trees don’t appear to obtain anything in return, making ghost pipe a bit of an herbal vampire, too. Each translucent stem ends in a single flower likened by some to a small deathly hand emerging from the soil. And, since they grow in clusters, the effect can unnervingly evoke a teeny tiny underground ghost army surfacing from beyond.
wolfsbane / aconite
Aconite is another plant that, while medicinal in action at miniscule or homeopathic doses, is considered a deadly serious poison. Enough early cultures coated their arrow tips with its toxic juices, that its scientific name, Aconitum, derives from “akontion,” the Ancient Greek word for dart or javelin. For being a powerful enough poison to take down a wolf in its prime it was given the common name “wolfsbane.” A mythological work of the Roman poet Ovid claims this herb originates from the saliva of Cerberus, the three-headed hound guarding the gates of the underworld. Clearly, cultures throughout humanity have acknowledged it as a powerfully dangerous herb. While you might be tempted by its stunning appearance to plant it in your garden, wolfsbane isn’t great for that purpose. It’s actually an important one to stay away from because even topical contact can create dangerous responses within the body. Despite the fact that it might send werewolves or other full moon prowlers to their graves, it could send you there, too. Beware.
This native to our area is much loved for its strange behavior. Amidst a sea of brethren whose foliage dies back each fall to concentrate energy in their roots to overwinter, Hamamelis also drops it leaves. But what it does next is unusual. It sends curling, yellow witchy finger-like flowers springing to life out of season, livening up an otherwise bleak landscape. You can find them from September through December, popping out after frosts – this plant really does require death as a catalyst for life. Its powerful beauty is a standout in the autumn woods. Beyond its unique flowering pattern, witch hazel is believed to be a choice plant for divining the location of underground water sources. It’s said that following the pull of a y-shaped section of its branches will lead to where you need to dig, a process known as “witching for water.”
marigolds & mums / las flores de los muertos
(Tagetes spp. & Chrysamthemum spp.)
The approach to All Saints Day (November 1) and All Souls Day (November 2) is viewed by many as a time where the veil thins between the living and the dead. Mexican and Mexican-American cultures commemorate this time by honoring loved ones who have passed on with vibrant “Day of the Dead” celebrations. Central to these rituals are copious quantities of vibrant golden flowers known as las flores de los muertos. The exuberant color of these “flowers of the dead” is believed to entice ancestors out of the dark spirit world so their families can honor them. We know these flowers as marigolds. These hearty flowers also adorn the deceased in Hindu cultures, but their use is believed to have originated in ancient America when an Aztec sun god reunited a pair of grieving lovers by turning one into a hummingbird and the other into a marigold powerful enough to draw the lover-bird back from the dead. Similar in appearance, but belonging to a different plant family, chrysanthemums (Asteraceae) are considered the French “flower of the dead.” A similar association with death is conferred to mums in Polish and Spanish cultures. They’re traditionally given both at funerals and during All Saints Day and All Souls Day to remember those who have passed on.