Herb Use in Urban Witchcraft
Herbs play an integral role in Witchcraft and Wicca, whether it is in incense, natural healing, spellcraft or in ritual food, and they can literally be found all around us. But what about in the city? Practitioners living in the city may be forgiven for feeling out of touch with the harvesting and use of herbs, particularly if they do not have a garden or green space of their own. This is understandable, but as I myself have discovered; where there is a will there is a way! So I have developed my own methods of gathering and using herbs, some are traditional and some are adapted to suit modern life. Hopefully, this article will help others wherever they live to bring the power of herbs into their home.
First of all, there are some basic ground rules to follow when harvesting herbs:
1. Never take more than you need
2. Take care not to damage or disturb other plants and wildlife in the area
3. Do not take more than one third of an individual plant’s growth, or anything from very young plants that may not recover.
4. Be safe. If it is a secluded or out of the way place you are going to, then be sure to let someone know where you are going.
5. Always use areas that are public, or that you have permission to be in. Do not trespass on private property.
The first thing to consider is where you can find herbs. The truth is that you can find them everywhere. Many of the roadside trees have their uses (for example, the Hawthorn, crat gus oxyacantha, is a sacred tree closely associated with the Goddess, and is used in rituals as well as for protection and fertility magick) . Garden ‘weeds’ are often incredibly useful (Dandelion, taraxacum officinale, can be used for psychic and divinatory purposes. Dock, rumen obtusifolius, for protection, or Avens, geum urbanum, has a wide range of protective uses and can repel or guard against negativity) .
A wide variety of herbs can be found in natural areas of city parks, on commons, waste-ground, and of course areas of countryside. Once you have an idea of where to look, you need to have an idea of what to look for. In terms of magickal and remedial use, there are a good many books that have been written on the subject, a few of which I have included in the bibliography. These will give you an idea of what herbs can be used, what parts of the plant are needed and what they can be used for.
In practical terms it is important to be able to correctly identify the trees, plants and herbs you are looking for. I suggest first having a look through one or several of the listed books to get an idea of what you can, or think you may like to use. Once you have a rough idea in your head, purchase a good, detailed identification guide on native plants and trees. Some plants look very similar to others, and while we all may recognize a dandelion or a buttercup, eyebright or skullcap may feel more obscure. Armed with your guide and a notebook, go to your chosen area (s) and look closely at what is there. What seems like a patch of grass with a few weeds may actually turn out to be a valuable resource. Make a note of all the plants and trees that you find, perhaps making a note of where to find it if the name rings a bell from your earlier research.
If the area is large, or there are several, then it may take a few visits to get a good idea of what you can find there. Also, remember that the natural world is constantly changing, and so there may be different plants at different times of year, and whether you can harvest seeds, fruit or leaves will also be dependant on the season, so renew your research regularly. When you have done this you will be able to review your list of what you need against what is available to you. Then you are ready to harvest.
Being properly prepared before you set off will ultimately save you time in the long run. You will need some sort of container to carry the harvested herbs in. Ideally it should be made of a natural material, but don’t worry if you have to resort to a carrier bag. You will also need your notebook, identification guide, working knife or boline, and offerings to leave in payment of what you have taken (Common offerings are gemstones, a few grains of salt, a pinch of tobacco, or a hair from your head) . A key part of harvesting herbs is in the method by which you do so. The herb has within it the innate abilities for which we use it, but these can be strengthened and amplified by our own intent as we work with them, and the plant should always be harvested in a way that is respectful to the plant and the earth for the sacrifice it has given us. A generalized harvesting method is described here:
• Locate the desired plant or tree.
• Cup your hands around the herb and take a moment to clear your mind, and connect with the energy field of the plant.
• Say these or similar words aloud or in your head; it is intent not volume that matters: “Hail tree/plant/flower of [name of herb] I ask that I may harvest some of your growth/flowers/fruit/seeds in the service of the Lady and Lord, and for the benefit of others”.
• If the plant’s energy feels willing, then harvest what you need using a sharp knife, and preferably using a single stroke. If the plant does not feel willing then do not take anything from it, either try again another day or move on to a different plant.
• Place your offering within the plant/tree or buried at the foot of it in the earth and say these or similar words: “I thank you and recognize your sacrifice, and leave this offering in payment for what has been taken and in honor of the earth”.
• The harvesting ritual is done.
The easiest and one of the most practical ways of storing your herbs is by drying them. Tie each herb individually in a bundle, or spread out on sheets of greaseproof paper, making sure you label them with the name, date, and location they were harvested from. Then either hang or place them in a warm (but dry) , dark place to dry out. On average this will take around two weeks, but keep checking on them. When they feel dry and crumbly to the touch then they are ready. At this point you can either store the parts whole or grind them to a powder using a pestle and mortar; it depends entirely on your preference and in what manner you will be using the herb. For instance, ground herbs are very useful when making non-combustible incenses, and so doing this beforehand will save time later. Store the herbs in glass jars (preferably opaque) away from sunlight, labeled with its information.
Each time you work with the herb (s) you should be concentrating on the properties you wish to empower and amplify within them. There are specific empowering rituals that can be used, but these are relatively easy to find or devise yourselves, so I will not devote time to them here. Herbs gradually lose their potency after harvesting; a general rule is that flowers can be kept for one year, while leaves, bark, fruits and seeds can be kept for two years. After this time any surplus should be returned to the earth and the stock replaced.
Another way to store your herbs is by infusing them within oil which can then be used for anointing etc. This is especially effective for flowers, but can be used for any herb. To do this, fill a jar with your chosen herb and add equal parts of olive and grapeseed oil making sure the herb is covered. Press out the air bubbles and store in a cool, dark place. For two weeks open the jar every few days to press out the air bubbles. Once this period has passed, seal and leave for a further four weeks before decanting into an opaque glass bottle and labeling.
The final area I wish to address is that of adaptation. Witchcraft has at its heart an ability to change and use whatever is available to the individual. Yes it’s nice to ‘do things properly’ but in an emergency you need to be able to utilize whatever is to hand, it’s no less effective, it’s simply more urgent. And so, on a smaller scale, can we be resourceful when it comes to ingredients. When looking over any spell or recipe etc. that contains items you do not have, ask yourself whether there is something you have that will do the same job. Consider what role or properties the ingredient is embodying and then review the properties of the herbs available to you; there may be a simple substitution you can make.
Grow your own herbs and plants to widen your options, use a plot in the garden or grow them in pots on windowsills if this is more suited to your lifestyle or circumstances. Find your local pagan/new age store or market stall and see what items they have to offer, they may even be able to order things for you if you request them. If there isn’t a stockist near you then try looking online, often stores in other cities will have a mail order service that you can utilize. Finally, at a pinch, you can buy dried herbs from the local supermarket or store. There are those in the Craft that say you must never do this because they won’t be effective, and to be fair there is some truth in this as you don’t know how long they have been there, and they won’t have been harvested in a ritual way, so I stress that this should probably be kept as a last resort. If you do choose to do this then make sure you empower the herbs properly and effectively, and use them relatively quickly as you do not know the time of harvest.
I hope that this article has been useful to people, and I welcome any feedback readers may have. So go out, experiment and explore the world you live in. Above all, have fun.
In love and light, blessed be
Beyerl, P. (1998) A Compendium of Herbal Magick, Phoenix Publishing, USA
Beyerl, P. (1984) The Master Book of Herbalism, Phoenix Publishing, USA
Cunningham, S. (1982) Magical Herbalism; the Secret Craft of the Wise, Llewellyn, USA
Gregg, S. (2008) The Complete Illustrated Encyclopedia of Magical Plants, Fair Winds Press, Singapore