And so it begins, 2015: Seed Starting

Aconitum_anthoraI started a whole flat of wolfsbane seeds this week. This is Aconitum anthora, a dwarf wolfsbane often known as “healing wolfsbane” because it is used medicinally (!) where it is native. You can see that the flowers are yellow, like regular wolfsbane, but the helmets are much fatter and stubby, not elongated. The plants are shorter than regular wolfsbane also. I decided to give them a try because I could get prepped seeds of this species. I hope it does well in my garden. If so, I will have some wolfsbane foliage for sale. The leaves are beautifully dissected. These were the first seeds I started this year.

candytuftI prepped two flats of Jiffy pellets to ready them for planting wild white petunia, pokeweed, radicchio, candytuft, and stocks. Yep, this year I am growing a bunch of fragrant, old-fashioned flowers to grow in pots on my patio. I love to sit out there in good weather, and I have so enjoyed having that area full of flowers in pots. Last year I had mostly zinnias and some of the white marigolds, which have a wonderful scent, unlike regular marigolds. Zinnias are pretty, and I will grow some again this year–red, scarlet, and wine-colored. I’ve always loved them, so easy to grow and so cheerful, but I wanted to grow a lot more good smellers both for me and for the bees. I’ll be growing a couple squash plants and cukes and would to see more pollination, and I hope more fragrant and more violet flowers (violet seems to be bees’ favorite color) will attract more bees. Both the stocks and candytuft are open-pollinated, so there should be a lot of variety with them. As for the radicchio, I love that stuff but can hardly ever find it organic. For a couple of years I’ve intended to grow it and haven’t gotten around to it. This year I will give it a try.

white henbane in pot2Remember the white henbane plants I found putting on tiny leaves in some dried-up pots in my basement? Here’s what one of them looks like now. I forgot how well henbane does under lights. I really love white henbane. The fuzz is very cute, and it prevents aphids. I think that might be one of the reasons why it was traditionally grown for medicinal purposes instead of black henbane. I have sure noticed that black henbane is a bug magnet. I can hardly imagine how they managed to grow fields of it in the old days. But white henbane I can see thriving in that type of situation. White henbane is not as strong as black in terms of alkaloids. Most health practitioners recommended against using black henbane on account of its greater strength. I think that might be precisely why it was relegated to witchcraft. I  never feel completely sure that when we are told by historical sources that a plant was used in witchcraft that it actually was. And as for oral tradition, anyone who has ever played telephone knows how dependable that kind of transmission can be. I think the best thing is the witch’s informed practice.

Today I’ll also start soaking belladonna seeds so I can get them started in two weeks. I’m intending to grow many more this year in pots, where they have done so much better than in the ground. I should have a bunch of foliage and roots in the fall.

With regard to that plant, I wanted to mention something I noticed last fall, when I was handling the plant a lot. Even though I was touching the plant only briefly, for instance, quickly turning over some foliage in the dehydrator, or even packing dried plant material into glassine baggies or handling roots that were completely dried, I noticed profound effects. In terms of physical effects, I noticed my face got red, which is a side-effect of its alkaloids. I was surprised that even such brief touches (and I would wash my hands afterwards) would have such an effect. But there was more.

I noticed that after a day or two when I handled the plant materials that beings that normally I have not seen, at least, not in that form, became visible to me. I posted on FB, for instance, about seeing a shadow figure run across the sidewalk in front of me when I was going for a walk one evening. This figure did turn to look at me. It was a transparent grey. I noticed similar figures after handling the plant on other occasions. It is not that I have not ever seen spirits before, but generally those have been in dreams and visions, not when I am just going about my business in the mundane world. So that is something to consider if you are working with belladonna. I am not sure if this would happen with anyone. I have been growing this plant for years, always fascinated by it, and in that way I have opened myself to contact with its spirit. But I have always been very very wary of it, since it is highly tricksy, much more so than any of the other traditional European nighthades. Simply touching the plant and washing one’s hands afterwards seems like a pretty innocuous way to experiment with this plant, IMO. It does seem to be a powerful door-opener. Something to consider.

Adulteration in Herbs and Herbal Powders

Last week, the attorney general of the state of NY (whom I voted for) sent cease-and-desist letters out to Walmart, Walgreen’s, GNC, and Target because their herbal supplements mostly don’t contain the herb(s) listed on the bottle. Instead, those little gelcaps are full of stuff like flour, rice, and weeds. Not the good kind of weeds either.

isaac hollandus handI’ve always felt oogy about herbs in gelcaps for a number of reasons. For one thing, I don’t think it’s good to approach herbs the same way we do allopathic medicines. For me, the very idea of something being in a pill, something that was once alive and the size of an herb, just reeks of destruction of the herb’s medicinal properties through grinding and drying and sifting and storing. I think of what Isaak Hollandus, a medieval alchemist who wrote more about the Plant Stone than most, had to say about processing plants alchemically. He said the more you ground the herb, the more you killed it. That if it releases its smell while grinding, that’s its soul going out. You can imagine what he would have to say about how herbs are dried, ground, and sifted in the supplement industry.

Then there’s the question of adulteration. One of the reasons why I have avoided offering powdered herbs for sale in my shop is because of the propensity of herbal suppliers to adulterate their products. Why would they do this? Because for one, it’s not against the law. Having no regulation of herbs has its good side–we are able to purchase a wide variety of herbs in the US, many of which are regulated in other countries (and it’s true, in some states of the US).  Selling belladonna or monkshood is not illegal or even regulated. That’s good, because we get to use those herbs in magic without having to grow them ourselves.

But the down side is that it is perfectly legal for a supplier to sell anything at all as an herb, regardless of what it is. I had this experience up close and personal when I first moved up to upstate NY about 10 years ago.

henbane in dryer

Henbane in my herb dryer

At that time I stumbled upon a supplier of Ayurvedic herbs that catered to practitioners.  They sold henbane, and I thought it must be good quality since they were providing to healthcare. Let me tell you, this was a pretty exciting find. Henbane just is not found in commerce anymore. So I bought a pound, glad to pay the inflated price because it was something I could not get anywhere else and it was an item my customers asked for regularly. I did notice right off that they shorted me. But okay.

It was in the form of a dark brown powder. It did have a pungent smell, although I would not identify it with henbane.

Then one day someone complained about the potency of the henbane. The customer didn’t think there was any actual henbane in this powder. I thought that was a pretty off-base claim, but I wondered how I could test its potency without actually ingesting it. I decided to put some on a piece of tin foil and heat  it and see what it smelled like. Before it began to combust, it should give off the scent of dried henbane. (Most witches know that if you combust various herbs, they smell like burning garbage, but if you simply heat them, they will give off their unique smells.)

butter crook

Adulteration is an old problem. Here’s a 1906 vendor selling garbage churned up and dyed as “sweet scented farm creamery butter.”

Well, the heated henbane powder smelled just like toast. I knew that meant it was primarily made out of flour. I knew the company hadn’t broken any laws. They lied, but lying about the content of that powder was and is not illegal.  Unethical, but not against any law. And I am sure those weasels were very well aware of that.

I quit selling it then. But I thought heck, if a company is providing medical practitioners is selling flour instead of the herb, then no powder from any company will tend to be trustworthy. This is especially true after the revelations that have occurred since my experience with the powdered henbane ten years ago–things like Chinese manufacturers adding melamine to baby formula and pet food. The only alternative is to purchase herbs in at most chopped form, so that the pieces are identifiable as the herb. Since that time, that’s what I’ve done wherever possible. Not all Chinese herbal products are crap, either. I have found Plum Flower Brand to be okay, especially if you buy the whole single herbs. They have, for instance, whole ginseng, whole reishi mushrooms, etc. Expensive, but you can actually see what you are getting and know it is real.

I myself generally quit using any herbal powders in gelcaps for medicinal purposes. I’ll try to use a tincture if I have one or can buy one, or a tea made from the chopped herb instead.

Some people have seen the actions of the the NY state attorney general as an attack on herbal supplements or herbal medicine and consider that the guy is a tool of Big Pharma. I don’t think so. He attacked these sellers not on the basis that the herbs don’t work but on the basis of purity–that the herbs weren’t even there. This is traditional Muckraking and a good thing. Big Pharma has found other ways to attack herbal medicine–by, for instance, “patenting” plants used for medicinal purposes. Right now, they are focusing on patenting various marijuana strains.

Anyway, just thought I’d weigh in on this issue with a different perspective. If you want to use herbs medicinally–and I do–try to grow them yourself. Most people don’t need access to a large variety of herbs for medicinal purposes. Research which herbs would help whatever conditions you have and focus on say five of them. This is good work from the perspective of witchcraft as well. There is nothing like growing a plant to get to know its spirit.

Hunkering Down for Winter

Winter decided to come early for us in upstate NY this year–probably in a lot of other places too. Part of me is still not ready to accept it. I haven’t even turned on the furnace yet, just been using space heaters. But today I will finally fire up on the old gas monster; there’s just no way around it anymore.

henbane flower 113014 smallEvery year, I actually look forward to winter. I like snow; it changes the way we see our surroundings and it usually makes things quieter. I like winter activities–no, not skiing or sledding, but reading and watching old movies and my favorite, planning out the garden for the following season. People have told me they don’t like winter because things are dead, but most things aren’t dead–they’re just waiting: seeds deeply asleep in the soil, roots of perennials resting from the work of storing food all summer, little critters hibernating in their burrows, all waiting for the return of the Sun. When I look out at a “dead” landscape, this is what I see: life abiding. It makes me feel hopeful.

This winter I’ve got a bunch of mandrakes growing under lights in the basement. I’ve done this a few times in the past but never have had this many. I like going down there every morning wth my cat Blackie. I check on the plants, clean and groom their leaves, water, fertilize, adjust the lights. There’s a silence around them while Blackie does his own work, checking his perimeter to ensure that no other cats have managed to slither through the tiny hole in the door, sniffing around for field mice invading from the yard, and then rolling in the dust on the concrete floor for the sheer pleasure of it. I’ve got three large plants that I hope will flower in spring if they do well over the winter. For the past several years, I’ve focused on harvesting the roots of these plants instead of encouraging them to flower and perhaps produce fruit. Now I want to do both.

henbane Moon this one smallMeanwhile, I’ve already purchased all the seeds I will need for next season’s garden. One of the most pleasant things for me in the winter is plotting out the garden. I use GIMP, an open-source image manipulation program (free but hard to learn, IMO), to make a grid of my yard and have labeled squares for all the different sized plants. I like doing this at the end of December best, when there is a kind of lull after Yule and you can almost feel the Earth tipping towards the Sun again. I’ve been having such success growing plants in large pots in my yard that I will greatly expand this way of growing next year. I love my yard full of trees and shade, but the soil here, already problematic because it is so full of rocks it does not even qualify as topsoil according to the Cooperative Extension, is absolutely full of tree roots. Even my belladonnas were losing the battle with them, especially compared to the belladonnas I grew in pots. This year I dug them up and will grow belladonna in pots from now on.

As my own personal winter approaches (or I guess I have already entered it at 61), I prepare for a different way of working, one that will allow a lot more leeway for creaky joints and the health issues of getting old. I’m going to be focusing more on providing baneful herbs, especially to shops. This is a good niche for me, I think. I love growing belladonna, henbane, and mandrake anyhow, and growing them to harvest and dry for sale should allow me a small income to supplement Social Security down the line. It also encourages me to get off my butt and get outside in the garden. I’m not going to be closing Alchemy Works any time soon, so don’t be concerned about that. I’ll keep it open for at least several more years. I hope I will be writing a bit more, stuff that is less challenging than the herb book I am trying to finish now–books composed of the recipes I have developed over the years for oils, incense, and other witchy stuff. But I would like a bit more focus on things I grow myself instead of items I must purchase from far away, for one, and for another, these plants give me strength. They build in me the sense of wonder and amazement at the natural world. I think we all need those senses to have a good and happy life.

And the other thing that gives me strength? My art. I haven’t been blogging, but I have been painting, as you can see. These are for the book–henbane flower and henbane pods in moonlight.

Wild Lettuce Binding

I had a dream this week about wild lettuce. I do not normally dream about plants. In fact, I rarely do. Even when I have had visions about plant spirits (as opposed to the individual plants themselves), it has been when I napped, a time that I am apparently especially open to spirit contact, and the plant spirit is not identical to the plant form. This was just plain sleeping, and I saw the rosette of wild lettuce repeatedly, as if I were in my own garden looking at the material plant.

But there were other aspects of this dream that were unusual. For one, it was a series of dreams. I’d dream about wild lettuce, I’d wake up, and then I would fall back to sleep to have another dream about wild lettuce. This happened about five times, so I knew it must be important. All the dreams had the same message–that wild lettuce in the rosette stage was stupefying. All I can say is I’m glad I’m a witch, because otherwise, I might be deemed nutz. :)

wild lettuce stampede 2013Wild lettuce is a biennial (takes two years to come to fruition–to produce seeds). In the first year of its growth, it forms a rosette, as it is called. This means that the leaves grow out from a central crown and do not form a stalk or flowers (see photo of wild lettuce rosettes in my garden a couple years ago). Other plants form rosettes too. Some people, like the anthroposophists, have said that the rosette form of plants has a Sun aspect to it on account of the shape. Makes sense to me. I think of the rosette as a period in which the plant forms a sort of solar collector that will funnel energy down into the roots so that the plant has enough oomph to make it through the winter.

Some plant information on medicinal herbs is refined enough to note the differences in the power of alkaloids between first-year and second-year growth, like with belladonna. But not so with this plant.

In the past, wild lettuce was in the British Formulary and was a part of American botanical medicine before the domination of chemical medicine in the 1930s. In the old days, the stems of wild lettuce plants that were in the flowering stage (second-year plants) were slit and the milky juice, bitter with alkaloids, was gathered and turned into lactucarium, a sort of poor-man’s opium. The highest alkaloids were gathered right as the plant was first blooming in the second year. The alkaloid in question is hyoscyamine, which linguistically inclined folk might recognize as being an alkaloid present in henbane (Hyoscyamus species). Kind of interesting connections between wild lettuce and henbane, the quintessential witching plant (IMO).

But there is no mention of gathering the sap in the previous, first year of growth. However, from what I know about plants’ use of alkaloids, they specifically concentrate alkaloids in parts of the plant that are most precious to the plant’s survival at any point in time. So for instance in the fall, there will be a high concentration of alkaloids in roots in order that the plant be protected from predation (because bitter = yucky to most animals, including most bugs) just prior to it falling under the spell of winter. Likewise, in the spring, when the plant is putting on new growth, the highest alkaloids will be found in the new leaves, and in the seed-forming stage, in the unripe seeds. So the rosette stage of wild lettuce should not have especially large amounts of alkaloids in it, certainly not enough to stupefy anyone. For that matter, we can hardly use “stupefaction” and “wild lettuce” in the same sentence. This is a mildly sedating herb, even when gathered at the most appropriate time (of highest alkaloid content). In fact, some sources question whether there is any alkaloid in the dried sap harvested from flowering stalks. This might be evidence of simply adulterated product, however.

I think these dreams are in fact a message from the spirit of the plant of wild lettuce, a plant that I have grown in the past in order to gather seeds, as they are quite expensive in commerce and because the plant produces jillions of seeds. They are a PIA to gether on account of the sticky sap, but their numbers and expense makes it wortwhile. In fact, I still have wild lettuce “volunteers,” as they are called, appearing in my garden from plants I grew a couple years ago. The seeds have parachutes and so go everywhere; once you grow this plant from seed, you will never have to plant it again. Right now I have several rosettes of wild lettuce in its first year in my garden, and this is after I religiously weeded them out in spring in order to prepare the ground for planting foxglove, clary sage, wild daisy, and hollyhock.

As I got this message–repeatedly–about wild lettuce being useful for stupefaction, I also got the image of a Haitian sort of zombification: that is, not the perhaps entertaining movie-type zombie that is the result of some creepy virus and that is actually dead, but the Haitian Ton Ton Macoute version of the individual drugged and made into a spiritless slave who will do the bidding of its master. Talk about a metaphor for a subdued populace, eh? So wild lettuce is calling out to be used to shut people up, to make them pliable, malleable. But only in its rosette stage. It was very specific about that. You can bet that I am going to be harvesting some–about half–of the leaves of the wild lettuce plants in my garden this fall. Because you never know when you might need to stupefy someone. :)

However, I also saw an image together with this information from the dream. It showed people walking along a midnight dirt road outside a town. The head of each individual–and they had lost much of their distinction as individuals–was swaddled in bandages represnting the stupefaction of wild lettuce in the rosette stage. They were zombies of the old school–biddable slaves, stupid and not on the level of “dumb” animals.

Anyway, a word to the wise. If you have need of such a powerful type of binding, grow some wild lettuce and harvest the leaves in the first year. Dry them carefully and save them for the day when they are needed.

Because of this dream, I’ve decided to swap out wild tobacco for wild lettuce in my book, which I hope and pray will be done by the end of October, with the help of the gods.

I forgot to say–wild lettuce is a Saturnian herb, and if Saturnian herbs are not good for binding, I do not know what is.

Stuff of a Saturnian Nature: Rant Ahead

A bit ago I began a project to put a fence up on the east side of my back yard because my neighbor’s dog(s) kept getting out and smashing my plants. That side of my yard has a lot of old, dead lilacs that come out like rotten teeth, with a bit of wrenching, leaving a satisfying hole. But the rotten lilacs have been further kicked to the curb by Norway maple saplings. I don’t know if you have Norway maples where you are, but here they are basically the plant world’s version of young punks with their underpants hanging out listening to obnoxious music real loud (and what music is NOT obnoxious if it is loud enough?). One of these trees is trying to remove the power line from my house, for instance. I enjoy lopping them. But they are not the issue. The issue is that Saturnian place–the border–and Saturnian values like definitions and limits.

Bones of the Dead

Bones of the Dead

Lately, I’ve been feeling like my borders with some of the rest of occulture are getting schmutzed up with the grime of Drama Poisoning. I’m talking about out-of-control wackos putting death curses on some twerp for stealing their content, loons attacking the death curse person and seeing conspiracies everywhere, buffoons who set fire to chickens on one side, just plain lying, cheating frauds on the other, and this latest where some eyeliner-wearing jackanapes told someone she should get raped and call his name in the process. Feh.

There will always be nasty, self-dramatizing jackasses, or so I have been telling myself, but lately I have felt very much like I do not want to participate in the world of occulture on account of them. It feels like a pool of piss posing as a bowl of chicken soup. These people have their shops, their lessons, their schools, their titles like Doctor Bullshit Bone or Mambo Insert-Bogus-Name-Here or Whorelock Darker-Than-Thou or the High Grand Mage of Malarkey and Spin. I am starting to feel like I am seeing occulture from the perspective of the Bunko Squad, ya know? These are not honest people. They are, at best, loons, at worst, lying cheats and bullies.

Every single log had someone's name on it

Every single log had someone’s name on it

So what to do? Today I got out in the garden and ripped out dead lilacs. It helped. I try to ignore these people, but sometimes I am pulled in by my own anger at what they do and sometimes they drag me into their stupid, overheated world. It’s just getting tiresome. Real tiresome.

So you say, well, go live in a Kaczynski cabin off the grid and have done with it. But I enjoy the internet. Without it, my life would be diminished. I’ve met interesting people here for the past 20 years, had a couple of very enjoyable businesses, learned about all kinds of things, laughed a lot at the innocent antics of humans and, of course, cats. But it also is an opportunity for bullies and frauds to ply their trade, and the occult world is no exception. Maybe it’s just the times. I had to quit reading a large gardening forum a few years ago because every single thread would be hijacked by some cranky teabagger with a gun. The last straw was when we were talking happily about compost and some loose cannon started yapping about how he was going to shoot the census taker if s/he dared to come onto his property. I had been a subscriber to that forum for 11 years and spent plenty of ad money on it, but that was it for me. No more. Life is too short to be rolled around in someone else’s murderous dogshit. CONSTANTLY.

saturnian stuff loppage


I’m starting to feel the same way about occulture. I made the decision a while ago not to participate in any occult forums or lists because there were just too many ignorant donkeys out there. You know: the Kabbalah was invented in Atlantis, Elijah saw a flying saucer, you can change lead into gold in a pipe bomb, “now that I’m an Ipssissimus, I am looking for new challenges,” “my family trad goes back to the Druids” and other such halfwitlessness. It was a good choice for me. I did not feel so much disdain for my fellow occultist because I was not exposed to so much stupidity. But it seems to be almost inescapable now. And the stupidity is more like the rabid teabagger shit from the gardening forum than the stupid plainly uninformed boasts–death curses for trivial offenses, telling someone to their internet face they should be raped, and so forth. Oh, and the ever popular Jewish reptilian meme.

I don’t know what to do about it. So I’ve been wrenching out rotted logs and lopping Norway maple limbs to redefine and re-emphasize my borders, my beyond which no one has my permission to go. That’s in my yard. On the internet, I have been trying something new for me–what I call Happy Posts. These are things about my garden, cooking, my experiences in magic, just stuff that I hope show another aspect of life, a non-grimey, non-skeevy, non-fraudulent side–a real side of a real person, not someone who is wearing eye makeup or putting death curses on twerps or giving myself a bogus title. Just stuff: the innocent antics of a fellow human. I will try my best to stick to that, although I do slip and say mean and nasty things sometimes. Yep. I sure do. I’m no saint. Not spiritually elevated in any way. Not a mage or a high priest or a grand sorcerer or anything. Just a person and a plain witch doing the best I can, but someone who has limits and who is taking the time now to redefine those limits, to redelineate my borders.

Because I really am a Saturn kind of guy.

Saturnian Maters :)

Indigo tomatoes on the vineI was quite taken by the pictures I’ve seen for the past couple years of Indigo tomatoes, a new variety that was marketed as being a very dark purplish blue. I wanted to try them for myself and to save seeds to sell on Alchemy Works if they were worth saving. Here they are on the vine. They are indeed a very beautiful (and very Saturnian) indigo color. They kind of remind me of the color of those purple tomatillos. Indigo does seem to be a Nightshade family kind of color–think of eggplants, black and deadly nightshade berries, etc. It suits their association with Saturn.

White Queen Tomato almost ripe

White Queen Tomato almost ripe

The plants I’ve grown are very vigorous–more so than the other tomatoes I grew this year, with the exception of White Queen. The Indigo plants have made tons of tomatoes so far, but there has been a bit of a problem with them falling off before they are ripe. I’m not sure if this is something about the variety or if it’s because of the very cool summer we’ve been having. I’ve lived here ten years now, and this is the coolest summer ever–only 2 days so far of 90F/32C, none higher, and most days in the low 80sF/26C or even mid 70sF/21C. Last night it was like a night in September. Very unusual, but apparently predicted by something to do with El Nino that I don’t pretend to understand. I am very much enjoying the temperatures, and if I had my druthers, I’d rather summer remain this way, but it is good to have a sense of whether this kind of summer is now going to be normal for us here in upstate NY. Then us witches can plant accordingly.

indigo ripeThe weather might also contribute to the Indigo tomatoes’ lack of taste. You really need plenty of good hot weather for tasty tomatoes. These are pretty mediocre. Better than the ones you buy in the store, and softer. You can see that when they are ripe, they are quite beautiful. They make me think of vampires. :) Probably if I were growing tomatoes just for taste, I would not grow these. But I love the way they look, so I might well grow them for that and have them in salads. They are not that big, so they’re handy for that. Still, they are the first to ripen so far. My Wapsipnicon Peach tomatoes, a fuzzy one that is a favorite of mine, is nowhere near ripening. One White Queen is ripening (these are beefsteak type and so will tend to ripen later, IME). Generally, the tomato plants are way smaller than normal by this time. A number of my tomato plants bit the dust early on because of the cool temperatures and my cruel negligence.

I will probably grow the Indigo tomatoes again next year. They do make me want to grow matching purple peppers. Oddly enough, the pepper plants are doing okay, despite the coolness. I did choose hybrid varieties this year, with the exception of Bullnose, which didn’t make it. I just wanted to have a lot of peppers. And here we get such a cool summer than I won’t get lots. So far, Pimiento Elite is the biggest plant and has the most peppers on it by far.

Potting up

I’ve been really a laggard this year when it comes to potting up plants I started. Even though my garden is nowhere near as big as it was, say, ten years ago, it does get overwhelming sometimes. And since I have been working pretty hard on writing and painting lately, I kind of blew off the chore (one I usually enjoy) of potting up plants–moving small plants to larger pots, where they can grow larger yet. I started way too many plants, as usual, and that made the task all the more daunting. But I knew that I wanted to finally get them done this weekend, so this morning I went out and spent three hours potting up plants and got MOST of them done. Not all by any means. I think that shows just how much I bit off that I could not chew.

Caucasus belladonnasI potted up 6 Caucasus belladonnas (Atropa caucausica) that I hope to get seeds off next year, although I might get a few this year if I’m lucky. This belladonna is supposed to have larger berries than the regular and to have purple stems. I’m not sure how different it is from Atropa belladonna, since it is a subspecies, not a separate species (kind of like the pallid henbane turned out to be a subspecies of black henbane). But it sure is a vigorous little sucker.

White henbanesI also potted up 6 henbanes, mostly white henbane. I’d really like to carry seed from this variety. The plants are much more compact and way fuzzier than black henbane. The cream-colored flowers are smaller (but those white flowers you see there are wild white petunias I am growing for seed and just because I love them). The white henbane flowers also lack the fly-wing netting of the typical black henbane. I’ve read conflicting info, but this henbane seems to have been the one that was once cultivated for medicinal purposes. One of them in this pic is a black henbane–the one that is “lax,” as they say in garden argot. You can see the leaves are much more pointy than those of the white henbanes next to it. The black henbane seems to be much more anxious to form seedpods than the white also.

I potted up two mixed pots of woodland tobacco (Nicotiana sylvestris), Western wild tobacco (Nicotiana quadrivalvis–I’ve already harvested some seeds from this), and wild white and purple petunias. The Western wild tobacco is much more delicate looking than its Eastern cousin (Nicotiana rustica). The leaves are long, thin, and pointed, and the flowers are long white trumpets that are much daintier than those of the woodland tobacco. I haven’t noticed a scent. An interesting plant I will grow again.

Pimiento EliteIt was a day for the nightshade family, as I also potted up six peppers. My peppers started off great and then sank into despondency as we have not had a warm summer. One, for some reason, has become quite large. This is a somewhat industrial hybrid called Pimiento Elite, which I believe was developed specifically to make olive stuffings from. I love pimiento peppers, though. They are thick and very sweet, excellent for pickling or frying or just eating out of hand. And they are beautiful. I have grown this variety almost since I first began gardening in the eighties. This year, though, I got a good batch of seeds or something, because this plant is LARGE, as you can see. The other varieties that seemed to do okay despite the unusually cool summer have been Lipstick and Carmen, both of which are also hybrids and which form a longer sweet pepper. In upstate NY, not exactly the pepper capital of the world, hybrid peppers can help in terms of getting any pepper harvest at all. Unfortunately, my very favorite pepper, Bull Nose, did not make it. So I hope for great things from these others.

White Queen tomatoe getting bigI didn’t grow any peppers or tomatoes last year for the first time in ages, but this year I have not only peppers but some tomatoes as well. I wanted to grow Indigo out to get seeds, and although it has been growing okay, the fruits have a tendency to drop off before they are anywhere near ripe, so I’m not sure what’s going to happen with them. On the other hand, a favorite of mine, White Queen, a Victorian variety used as a fruit in the past and which I love for its creamy texture, is doing quite well. I should get a few sandwiches out them! I decided to keep it simple and not only grow the maters in pots but just to tie them to bamboo stakes instead of how I usually support them with cords. I have only a few plants kind of in a nook next to the furnace stack. Next year I think I will grow more again, though. Even the best store-bought tomato just doesn’t cut it in comparison to maters grown in one’s own garden. And sliced on a piece of toasted, buttered German pumpernickel–you don’t get much better than that.

Three hours of potting up included dragging 3 cubic feet of peat moss up from the basement and mixing up wheelbarrows-full of peat moss, compost, and perlite. I think I overdid it a bit. :) But what’s gardening without overdoing it?

Clary sage and columbine

Aquilegia vulgaris podsIt’s been so long since I posted, but I want to get back into the swing of things. I’m going to be writing shorter posts for a while, just stuff I’m doing day to day. This morning I harvested a bunch of columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris) seeds from my garden. I love the way the seedpods look – they remind me of the hands of Thai temple dancers. Here they are leaning over a self-seeded patch of Chinese lanterns (Physalis alkakengi v. gigantea) and a little lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) here and there. This year I’m going to try the berries inside the Chinese lantern pods for taste. They are edible, related to the ground cherry, but many members of that family produce berries that are either insipid or kind of funky. I hope I will be adding seeds for Aunt Molly groundcherry this fall. That variety tastes pretty darn good, like pina colada.

Clary sage tinctureI also strained a clary sage (Salvia sclarea) tincture I made for a friend. I used 95% alcohol on this, because it works so quickly and really extracts almost everything from the plant material. I love the color of a clary sage tincture. It’s interesting how different herb tinctures turn out to be different colors. I just made a bunch of mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) tincture also, and in contrast, it is a dark green, almost the color of old-fashioned fatigues. And the henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) tincture I made is a greyish green, the color of forest gloom. Clary sage leaves are quite beautiful. I think I like them more than even the showy bracts (“flowers”). This is a plant that deserves a place in any witch’s garden. Just finished what I hope are the final edits on the clary sage chapter in my book. I took the opportunity to discuss tincturing in that chapter and covered a number of menstrua that are not usually discussed or even mentioned in witchcraft writings – wine and vinegar – and some other tips. A little more advanced than the Witchcraft 101 approach.

Campanula or Adenophora who knowsI’m so enjoying my garden this year. I’ve got lots more in pots, including several different species of belladonna and henbane, and the perennials came back full blast, especially the valerian. Now that is turning to seed and the ladybells are blooming.  I have no idea where I got the ladybells–they might be from an old pack of rampion I tossed. Some people really hate them because of the way they spread, but they don’t seem too evil in my garden, and the bees love them–and so do I. I have always been fond of bell-shaped flowers. The queen of the meadow (Eupatorium purpureum) and the wild sunflowers (Helianthus maximillianii) are getting really tall. I am looking forward to their blooms. Hope your summer garden is making you happy!

Spring finally here?

Some of the smaller mandrakes potted up

It’s been a long and hard winter most places in North America, I think. Certainly a much tougher winter up here in upstate NY than I have experienced since moving here ten plus years ago. It was long, cold, and had lots of snow, but perhaps it is over. I am going for it, anyhow.

Tomatoes and peppers potted up 4/12/14

After not growing any food plants last year because I needed soul healing, not food, me and my healed soul started the usual suspects–tomatoes and peppers–a month or so ago. I loved White Queen tomato when I grew it a couple years ago. It’s a Victorian beefsteak variety that is more like a fruit than a veggie, very creamy in texture and mild in taste. Now, when some variety descriptions say “mild,” they really mean it has no taste whatsoever. But White Queen does have a taste–a somewhat fruity one. I know it will make good preserves, and that is what it is destined for. Today I potted up those seedlings, along with a neat new variety with purple skin called Indigoand a hybrid (yes, a regular hybrid, not a GMO, totally natural) called Aria Yellow Pear. This is a small pear-shaped mater that is supposed to be better tasting than the usual yellow pear tomato, which tastes like nothing. We shall see.

Bullnose pepper 2012

I also potted up some peppers. I do love peppers, especially the pimento types. These are a very old-fashioned type of pepper, usually heart-shaped, with thick walls and sweet flesh. They aren’t that common a pepper type, but to me, they are the best, especially if you are going to stirfry or pickled your peppers. I also like old-fashioned so-called “bull’s horn” peppers, the traditional Italian type, and so I planted Carmen, which is a hybrid version. I’ve been wanting to grow that variety for quite a while. It has good reviews from home growers. Thinking it was Bullnose, I bought a hybrid variety of bell pepper called Red Bull Hybrid, and those babies are up. Bullnose is my absolute favorite pepper variety. It is a small bell with very thick flesh. YUM. The pic is of Bullnose peppers I grew in pots on my driveway a couple years ago. This very old variety was grown in Thomas Jefferson’s garden. You can actually get the seeds from the Monticello garden shop.

Nicotiana quadrivalvis, rustica, and sylvestris

Still left in the pepper/mater tray are a bunch of Nicotianas, including N. rustica (wild tobacco), N. quadrivalvis (wild tobacco used by Western tribes in North America), and N. sylvestris (woodland tobacco). These have a little way to go before I pot them up, but I also potted up 40 foxgloves this morning. These are the foxgloves I grew from pelleted seeds. Almost all of them came up. Very handy. I hope to get flowers the first year from these, which I will dry and sell on Alchemy Works. And of course I also potted up 12 of the smallest mandrakes.

Forty foxgloves!

The mandrakes are actually two-year-old plants, although you’d never know it from their size, especially compared to their siblings. But they seem to be quite happy to be in much bigger pots and in full shade outside. These probably won’t be ready to sell for roots in the fall, but the others should be, and I have about 30 of those, half of which I will sell in October/November, depending on when our hard frost hits.

Illustrations and Planting

Today I got to work on the illustrations for my herbal witchcraft book. Does it ever feel great! The first chapter is on poppy, so I started there. I did sketches of a bud, a pod, a seedling, and a flower. I’m going to start the paintings based on them tomorrow and do some more sketches in the meanwhile. For reference, I used photos I took of my own Elka poppies that I grew year before last. I have to say that I like working on this smaller scale. The images are no larger than 8″ and will be reproduced no larger than 6″ x 9″–more like 3″ x 4.5″–so they are quick to do and easy to maneuver around in terms of space. I like to turn the paper all around while I am drawing or painting, and that is easy with something this size.

On an art forum I’m a member of, trolls asserted that the reason why artists paint abstract art is because they can’t draw–and pretty much the same goes for people who even just LIKE abstract art, which I do. I can say with confidence that I know how to draw. It’s funny how many things as you age get kind of rusty or even lost. I know I couldn’t do calculus today if you held a gun to my head, even though I did well with Advanced Calculus in college back in the seventies. And I can’t believe I used to knit European style with two different colored yarns in hand to make Fair Isle sweaters. My hands just won’t work that way nowadays; I can hardly knit even plain. But I can still draw, and it is so so heartening to dip down in that well and find that yep, there’s plenty of water down there. Still, I won’t be posting most of these. They’re reserved for the book.

Today I ordered this book on fantasy illustration in watercolor. Reviews say it’s a bit of a beginner’s book, but that’s fine; I was very inspired by the images inside. I like the composition. That’s something I’d like to work on. One thing about straight art vs. illustration is that often the illustrators seem to have a better sense of how to approach an image, how to display it. Especially people who do comics often have a really creative and dynamic way of showing whatever it is they are illustrating. Yes, sometimes they get carried away using point of view from the ceiling or something, but I like how creative they are with that. It’s easy to get in a rut with straight painting and just show whatever it is dead on, end of story. I have also been impressed with how knowledgeable some comics folks are about pens. I was looking all over for information about whether I could use Dr. Martin’s Bombay India Ink in a Rotring Artpen and found a discussion amongst comic artists where someone knew exactly which inks could be used in which pens (and yes, you can use Bombay India ink in that pen without ruining the pen, which is cool because I have a ton of that ink and five of those pens).

The other thing I am appreciating about doing these illustrations is that I do not feel the slightest compunction about manipulating them digitally, whereas I don’t feel comfortable doing that with the paintings I am turning into prints. The most I have done with those is to intensify the color so that they print better, because giclee printing seems to wash out the colors a good deal. I’ve resisted even doing any cleaning up of blips and blobs on those digitally. But I don’t feel that way at all about the illustrations. Whatever makes them look the best when they are printed on paper seems fine to me. And I feel perfectly okay about using, say, ink or colored pencil on top of a painted illustration, because the goal is just to get the best image, not to stay within the boundaries of a technique. Also, if I wanted to I could use colors that are not lightfast in the illustrations. It widens my choices a LOT. It is so exciting for me, so freeing. I am loving that I can combine writing and art as well. This whole project is finally coming together, turning into something I am loving doing instead of a chore.

In other news, I started 50 foxgloves yesterday, and that means the 2014 planting season has officially begun for me (“Ladies and gentlemen, start your seeds!”). These varieties are not as tall as the regular foxgloves, but they’re supposed to flower the first year: Camelot and Dalmatian. I got pelleted seeds, which I rarely use because I am normally okay with planting small seeds, but that was the only way they were available. It sure made it a lot easier. The seeds are just basically rolled in thin layer of white clay that hardens and makes them easier to handle. It’s much simpler to plant just one per peat pellet. They stand out well against the dark soil so you don’t end up overplanting (which I normally do with foxgloves because the seed is so fine). The clay disintegrates pretty much on contact with the moist soil. Today I’ve got tomatoes, peppers, wild white petunias, and white and lavender toloache to start. I want to harvest both seeds and some foliage from the toloaches this year.

Woodland tobacco volunteer with mandrakes under lightsPotted up four mandrakes yesterday, and they had the most wonderfully twisted roots! I also have two volunteers in the mandrake pots–a henbane in one and a woodland tobacco that has really taken off. Since I was moving plants around, I thought I’d pull the woodland tobacco out and give the mandrake in that pot more room. When I slid the pot out from under the lights, where the tobacco had twisted itself up in between the fixtures, I found that the tobacco had flowered! I thought this meant I should leave it in the pot. Last night when me and Blackie went down there so I could shut the plant lights off and he could check the perimeter for marauding cats and have a roll on the cement floor, the tobacco flowers were shedding scent. If you have not grown this plant, it’s worth doing. It is not the most beautiful in terms of its foliage, and it will snare mosquitoes in its sticky fuzz (and in the basement it has trapped and killed a few fungus gnats the same way, sort of the plant equivalent to putting someone’s head on a pike), but the scent of the flowers, wow! I just love them. Last year I had a woodland tobacco volunteer in a crack in the driveway right near the back door. It got huge, five feet tall.

It’s going to get cold again here, but I feel spring is on the way now.