A witch’s garden is a place of balance, a reflection of the witch’s soul, equal in light and shadow, in gleaming celestial heights and dark primordial depths. The garden of any occult practitioner should contain not only the beneficial herbs used for cooking, medicine and benign spells, but also the darker, baneful plants of the Old One; such poisonous flowers, leaves and berries are essential to a witch who wishes to practice hidden crafts, connect with the world beyond the veil, and enhance all of their ritual undertakings. A garden is where a witch may form bonds with plant allies and the spirits of place; be it their own cultivated plot or the thick tangle of primeval forests where beneath thorn and briar the baleful plants grow. Whether it’s the purple hoods of deadly aconite that sway in the meadow or the dusty pink blooms of deadly nightshade growing on a windowsill, wherever they reside, plants of the poison path have been connected with death and the devil since the Middle Ages, and utilised by folk of cunning long before then.
Now is the time to explore the enticing shadows of the witch’s garden; so pass by the delicate scents of rosemary and lavender, heed not the silvery sage and beneficial borage , for now they do not concern us. Instead you are invited to continue on, to follow the witch as they make their way up the poison path.
In the pale light of evening betwixt the light and dark, the witch walks on towards the ancient yews and twisted hawthorns, a liminal thicket that forms the boundary between the untamed wild and their own cultivated garden of poison delights. Tall spikes of pink and speckled Digitalis purpurea blooms are the first plants to catch the witch’s eye, who knows them as foxgloves and dead man’s bells. A favourite of the fae folk, who are enticed into any garden where foxgloves grow; when the witch hears the tinkling of the foxglove bells, they know the good folk are near.
It is beneath the large dark leaves of Digitalis that the witch leaves offerings of honey and milk, to please the faeries and the flowers themselves and in return receive good fortune and an abundance of new blooms the next year, as the foxglove is left to re-seed itself. Beneath this mantle of delicate beauty, the foxglove holds poison in her veins. She teaches us the ways of illusion and glamour, whispers of the otherworld, and warns us not to cut her down while she is in flower; so she is left to stand sentry, watching over the witch’s garden until autumn creeps in.
The witch shifts their gaze to dark glinting jewels beneath the shade of the trees; the enticing and deadly poisonous berries of Atropa belladonna are ripening. The witch knows this wild temptress of the woods as deadly nightshade, devil’s berries and dwale. A seductress and enchanter, a plant of infamous reputation, deserving of respect and reverence. The most potent of all flying ointment ingredients, the belladonna can guide you beyond the veil, take you to the secret Witches Sabbat, aid in communication with those that dwell in the underworld, and with her innate toxicity, assist in spells that hex and harm. The witch always has a few dried berries or leaves on hand, ready to enhance any hedge crossing or astral journey they might undertake; remembering to never underestimate the deadly nature of the alkaloids concentrated in her flowers, leaves, berries and roots.
Tonight the moon is full, and so from within their cloak the witch brings out a silver knife to harvest a small number of berries. It’s when the celestial goddess is fully illuminated that the magical qualities of all that grow are at their most potent. Before cutting, the witch whispers to the spirit of the plant, and with bowed head asks permission to make use of the fruits for their own spells and incense blends. With consent given, the witch buries an offering of bones and ritual ashes near to the belladonna’s roots as a form of gratitude, and moves on.
In terracotta pots painted with sigils stand the thriving silver leaved spikes of Hyoscyamus niger, known to the witch as black henbane and stinking nightshade. It was the new moon in spring when the witch sowed their henbane seeds, taken from the bursting seed capsules of last years plants and sown during the moon phase that aids in new growth . The sigil markings are of the witch’s own creation, crafted from a blend of alchemical and astrological symbols, etched onto the pots to invoke spirits and energies that encourage strong growth and abundance. Its creamy yellow and purple veined flowers are not yet present, as this particular biennial variety will bloom in its second year. The noxious scent produced by the glandular hairs of henbane drift to meet the witch’s nostrils, a conscious reminder of the medicinal alkaloids present in all parts of the plant. Of all the poisonous species in the nightshade family, henbane is milder in its effects, ideal for use in spells and ointments that soothe, calm and ease anxiety. When applied topically, an ointment of henbane can reduce joint inflammation and muscle soreness. The witch bends to harvest some leaves. They will be useful dried and added to incense blends of heather and fern to bring rain and storms, as well as in suffumigation mixtures to honour and raise the dead. This time the witch in thanks offers a libation to the potted henbane, a sprinkling of collected storm water to refresh her roots.
The shadows of late evening are drawing in fast, and by the light of the moon the witch sees the pale ghostly blooms of Datura stramonium, known to the witch as thorn apple and devil’s snare; a sly seductress, like all sacred creatures of the night, together with moths, owls, honeysuckle and jasmine, datura blooms put on their greatest performance as night draws in. Her powerful heady scent reaches far into the dusk, and beckons all to taste of her alluring charms. She is sister of the moon, and makes a powerful ally in dream magic and workings with dark faeries. The witch knows this pale goddess to be a trickster, who may lure innocents into false love, or cause nightmares to those foolish enough to ingest her without ritual precautions. Soon the spiny seed pods will burst, littering the earth with potential abundance.
The witch moves now to a patch of wayward grass, clambering wild rose and impenetrable bramble, this is The Devil’s Half Acre, a tithe of land given over to wilderness in the name of the Old One and the spirits of the land. Growing by the boundary are the towering purple blooms of Aconitum napellus, known to the witch as monkshood, wolfsbane and devil’s helmet; servant of the wild adversary. Purported to have been an ingredient in witches salves of old, the deadly aconite has been used as a poison since ancient times, and as a protective charm against the primal wolf. In their craft the witch uses smoke from the smouldering embers of dried monkshood to consecrate and empower their ritual tools, or will anoint them with an oil infused with aconite blooms. The dark reputation of the toxic aconite lends credence to her inclusion in cursing, hexing and banishing rituals.
On honourable feast days and times of liminal magic, the witch will go into their garden to make offerings; be it blood or bone, libations of ale or wine, it is important to all who walk the path less trodden to connect with the spirit of place, to bond with indigenous species, learn their stories and drink deep of the wisdom they have to offer. To establish, love, and tend a garden is magic unto itself.
The witch turns to leave, taking one last look at their garden illuminated by the moon, and treads silently away with pockets filled with baneful treasures and a feeling of oneness with the spirits of the land.
As more souls heed the call of the old ways and develop an understanding of the plants of folklore, so it becomes known that there is more to the use of these magical plants by witches being based solely on their innate connection with devilry and maleficia. It is time to reclaim our connection to all things that grow whether they heal or harm, and know that they can be both beneficial and powerful. By walking the poison path and through the practice of our own unique art, we may gain enriched lives. As the old adage goes “The dose makes the poison”, which sums up the nature of all baneful plants; it is how we use them that determines the outcome. If you feel the call of the poison path, tread with a foot that is soft, a heart that is open, and a mind that is cautious and wise; then you shall reap the rewards.