Bill Shakespeare's Three Weird Sisters and their bubbling brew have been updated to Three Vegan Witches: eye of potato, ear of corn, head of lettuce, heart of cabbage, skin of banana--all doubtlessly to James's distaste

Bewitching Botanicals: Plants Used by Witches

By —— Bio and Archives--October 8, 2018

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Plants Used by Witches
From Shakespeare through W.S. Gilbert to Sylvia Fine and Roald Dahl, witches have been all the rage—along with the occasional warlock—and the plants they used about their professional projects.

“Double, double, toil and trouble” declaim the three witches in Macbeth. “Fire burn and cauldron bubble” they continue in the great Sottish play. King James I of England (and IV of Scotland) won the label of “the wisest fool in Christendom.” His interests extending to witches—he even wrote a treatise on them—so Shakespeare gave him witches in Macbeth.


As scene IV opens the three witches are revealed on a heath brewing their charms. One orates while casting into the cauldron:

Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog.
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble . . .

Interesting but befit of botanicals. But wait, her sister witch has more offerings to add to the loathsome concoction:

Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf . . .
Root of hemlock digg’d i’ the dark
Liver of blaspheming Jew
Gall of goat, and slips of yew . . .

Health authorities, already horrified at a lack of best-before labelling, will go ballistic at this. Hemlock (Conium) and yew (Taxus) are deadly poisons, likely to terminate the witches’ clienteles. Surely the Bard was aware of this?

In Old English, a witch was wicce, the feminine form of wicca, a wizard. The male witch was a w«£rloga, a warlock. But belief in witches goes far further back in written records. In the Book of Samuel, King Saul asked the Witch of Endor to predict the future, thus predating Macbeth by more than a few centuries. In Greek mythology, Medea, daughter of King Aeƒìtes of Colchis, seduced Jason and helped him steal the Golden Fleece. In Homer’s Odyssey there is Circe while Morgan Le Fay flaunts through King Arthur’s legends as does Grimhildr in Norse mythology.

Air transport has long been recognized as a witches’ preferred mode of travel. Interestingly, their cousins from northern Asia also did so. Tim Severin’s In Search of Ghenghis Khan (1991) notes that “literature was full of tales of shamans who could fly through the air.” Historically, Severin points out, shamans employed stimulants or deprivation to induce their trances. They ate hallucinogenic plants, inhaled smoke, exposed themselves to extreme heat and cold, starved, or took to alcohol.

Hallucinogens also appear prominently in witches’ formulations, particularly those of the Solanaceae. For example, Mandrake, Mandragora officinalis, is twice mentioned in the Bible. This is unsurprising since it is native from the Mediterranean regions through to the Himalayas. In medieval mythology it was believed that the root, vaguely shaped like a man or woman, when pulled from the ground drove the collector mad with its unearthly shrieks. To escape this fearful fate, a dog was tied by its tail to the plant, then tempted with a morsel of meat. An active hallucinogenic ingredient of many of the witches’ brews of Europe, M. officinalis contains the tropane alkaloids hyoscyamine, scopolamine and others. Regardless, in many regions it was believed to be a strong aphrodisiac. Today it continues to be used in pagan traditions such as Wicca and Odinism.


When William Schwenck Gilbert created the central character in The Sorcerer of John Wellington Wells of J. W. Wells & Co., Family Sorcerers, it allowed the lyricist to indulge in the subject much beloved by Victorians, magical potions. The warlock Wells, explains, “I’m a dealer in magic and spells/In blessings and curses/And ever-filled purses/In prophecies, witches, and knells [knell: an omen of death].” He then adds the love potion he has brewed up, this being England of 1877, to a tea pot. Alas though, despite the merry patter, we are left no wiser to its botanical composition, if any.

Another hallucinogenic Solanaceae, often included in witches’ brews and other toxic preparations of medieval Europe to cause visual hallucinations and sensations of flight, is

Henbane, Hyoscamus niger, an annual or biennial herbaceous herb native to Europe. Its principal alkaloid is hyoscyamine, but the more hallucinogenic scopolamine is also present in significant amounts Today, it is valued in medicine as a sedative and an anodyne to induce sleep.

Sylvia Fine, wife of Danny Kaye, and creator of some of his most memorable lyrics, included a witch to ‘The Mal-adjusted Jester’ (“I was not born a fool it took work to get this way”). He explains: “My friends and my family looked at me clammily” and “So they sent for a witch with a terrible twitch/To ask how my future impressed her/She took one look at me and cried hehehhehehe, he?/ What else could he be but a jester?” As funny as only Danny Kaye could have delivered it in The Court Jester (1956), it still makes for nary a name of a specific plant.

Yet another native to Europe and Asia minor is Belladonna, Atropa belladonna, the ‘beautiful lady’ capable of enlarging pupil of the eye enormously. This was considered a mark of beauty during the Renaissance, despite Belladonna being highly poisonous, capable of inducing sundry hallucinations. This did not prevent it from being favoured as one of the ingredients of the truly hallucinogenic brews and ointments concocted by the so-called witches of medieval Europe. The main active principle is the alkaloid hyoscyamine, but the more psychoactive scopolamine is also present. It was the principle ingredient of ‘Flying Ointment’ along with opium poppy and possibly monkshood and hemlock, both potentially sending their partakers of flights into permanent oblivion.

During the European religious persecution of supposed witches through 14th to 17th centuries, an estimated 700,000 to 100,000 were executed. The infamous Salem ‘witch hunt’ of 1692-93 led to the execution of 20 people while more five died in prison. James’ belief in witches had a long run in Scotland; the last execution for witchcraft there took place in 1722.

Their belief lingers in everyday language. The popular media love a ‘witch hunt’ of a political, business or social nature. An attractive woman may be described as ‘bewitching.’ ‘Slept like a log’ means a good night’s sleep—witches departing on an evening’s work would disguise their absence in bed with such a wooden substitute. And thanks to the Makers of Good Musicals (MGM), the ‘Wicked Witch of the West’ aka Margaret Hamilton continues to fly across screens.

In more enlightened times such as these, however, Bill Shakespeare’s Three Weird Sisters and their bubbling brew have been updated to Three Vegan Witches: eye of potato, ear of corn, head of lettuce, heart of cabbage, skin of banana—all doubtlessly to James’s distaste.


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Wes Porter -- Bio and Archives | Comments

Wes Porter is a horticultural consultant and writer based in Toronto. Wes has over 40 years of experience in both temperate and tropical horticulture from three continents.

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