November: Starting seeds for the witch’s garden

Helleborus foetidus

Helleborus foetidus

Helleborus orientalis Blue Metallic Lady

Today I received a bunch of seeds I bought from a UK place I’ve mentioned before, Plant World. I’ve ordered from them a couple times in the past and have had varying success. I like their selection of variegated this and that, like variegated borage, which I keep not having luck with.:) This time I got something different–hellebores: “Rita’s Black” (really a very dark purple), “Black Beauty” hellebore (both of these are probably Helleborus orientalis), Miss Jekyll’s Scented (Helleborus foetidus shown in pic, a candidate for the “black hellebore” of the old apothecaries), and Helleborus niger (the traditional black hellebore, whose flowers are white or perhaps touched with pink). I decided this year I will try growing some various hellebores partly to harvest and sell the roots (people are always asking me for them) and partly because I have always liked the flowers, especially of the black or gray ones.  I think it would be hard to find another flower so goth as hellebore. I can’t remember ever trying to grow them, though. They are very tough to grow from seeds, and I never bought any live plants because they are pricey. But this year, I am starting a lot of plants for sale, and decided to take a chance on this. The seeds are not too expensive, and I will start them as soon as I get my peat pellets, which might be here today but definitely by Monday. For years I’ve been hankering after Jelitto’s Blue Metallic Lady hellebore, and I think this year I might finally buy the seeds, which are damned expensive at 9,00 Euros (down from 12,00, down from 15,00). But take a look at these beauties!

At the end of October, I started 120 black and white mandrake seeds soaking to put into  the aforementioned peat pellets at the beginning of this month. I also ordered some very sturdy (and expensive) flat trays that I have always wanted. Yeah, I have plenty of the flimsy black plastic flat trays and the “daisy” things to hold them, but I have always coveted the sturdy pistachio green ones, so screw it (they do sell them as singles, btw, as well as of by the dozen). They look much better for growing inside, which is my excuse. Don’t want to wreck the floors, ya know! I hope I will end up with some mandrakes to sell as live plants this spring, but what I’m really aiming for is a good bunch of plants to grown on through the season, winter over, and then harvest as roots in the fall of 2013. I so love growing mandrakes, so why the heck not. I’ll start another bunch of them right after winter solstice, to take advantage of that time as well.

Of course, starting all these mandrakes got me wanting to start other plants too, thus the hellebores. But I also decided to cave to public demand and grow not only some monkshood but wolfsbane. I can get monkshood root to sell, but I have never once seen wolfsbane herb or root or even the live plants for sale anywhere, only monkshood. I’ve never really wanted to screw around with this plant, because it is very poisonous, but I asked it for its permission and that it not give me a hard time in terms of poison as long as I am careful. I have not worked with it, so I have no idea how tricksy it is. I will find out, hopefully not by ending up in the ER. I hate when that happens.


Aconites (both monkshood and wolfsbane are in that genus, Aconitum) are actually tougher to germinate than mandrakes, in my experience. They require sharper cold than mandrakes, that’s for sure. So I’m going to experiment with the germination. The one time I have gotten monkshood to germinate (they were some weird subspecies) was when I did Norm Deno’s Outdoor Treatment on them, planting them in an aluminum loaf tin, putting that in a loose plastic bag, and leaving that on the north side of my house through the winter. They germinated in the spring, but the seedlings were destroyed by a heavy rain. This time I will be more careful. I’m not sure we will get a cold enough winter, but I will try that. I will also try using my deep freeze (regular freezer does not get cold enough).

Now I will say I have never had much luck with the so-called refrigerator method where you put the seeds in a wet paper towel that has been wrung out, sprinkle the seeds in there, fold up and press together, put that in a loose baggie, and put that in the fridge for cold stratification. The seeds just seem to know this is bogus and they don’t germinate. I found that the seeds of perennials like temperature fluctuation. So when I began using Outdoor Treatment, I went from having (maybe if I was lucky) 20% of my seeds germinating to 98% of them germinating. That said, I am going to put these seeds in the deep freeze every night and then take them out every morning to leave them out of the freezer during the day. This is in my cold basement, which runs about 50F/10C in the winter. I think this kind of temp fluctuation, if it doesn’t outright kill the seeds, will work better than just putting them in the deep freeze (which I tried in the past with aconites and it didn’t work).

Dwarf wolfsbane

The other thing I’m going to try with the aconites is the same thing I do with belladonna and mandrakes with improved germination, and that is to soak the seeds for 2 weeks in cold water that is changed for fresh daily. I might mess around with the length of time I soak them; not sure. All this is experimental, because honestly, most sellers never germinate these seeds. They just use cuttings from live plants. They are simply too hard to germinate. But there are plants like wolfsbane that we will never find as live plants, so learning about germinating these seeds is mandatory–and the knowledge would help my customers and other witches out there too.

I’m going to start this experiment with the seed I have on hand right now, although I am about ready to buy fresh. I’ll try it with both fresh and 6-month-old seed, see if there is any difference.

I’m going to try the regular wolfsbane, Aconitum lycoctonum ssp. vulparia, but I’m also going to try Aconitum anthora, dwarf wolfsbane, which is in the wolfsbane subgroup of the Aconite family. The leaves are more shredded and the stalks are shorter, but it has the same alkaloids and the same flowers as regular wolfsbane.

Yep, it’s going to be an interesting year!

4 comments to November: Starting seeds for the witch’s garden

  • jonquil

    Considering your dreams & the way dogs have been reacting to you, Wolfsbane & yourself should have an interesting year, indeed!

  • Alchemist in Charge

    You know, I didn’t think of the dogs/wolfsbane/werewolf thing. Maybe that’s why I quit being so scared of it? I’ve always felt nervous about growing it. I am so absent-minded that I could imagine myself cutting some and then scratching my eye or something stupid. But lately I just thought no, I will be appropriately wary, and it won’t hurt me. Maybe a stupid idea?

    Oddly enough, I found recently that I am no longer afraid of heights, which I have been my entire life, even when I was a window-washer and regularly worked outside on 40-story buildings and such. I was always scared. But it is gone. I noticed when I went to clean out the gutters before the storm. I also decided that I was no longer afraid to fly. Haven’t flown since 9/11. I feel like this is something good that perhaps goes back to the dreams I’ve had about protective entities (despite the attacking black dog).

  • Sounds like you are going to have a fabulously gothic garden. I wanted to say thankyou for putting Mandrake germination tips on your site. I followed them and in the first month had 3 mandrakes come up so yay! I’m looking at growing some Belladonna but do you know I cannot for the life of me get White Sage or Mugwort to grow! I’d love to try the outdoor method but I think our winters here are definitely not as cold as yours (plus we’re nearly hitting the stride of early summer weather, yuck.)

  • jonquil

    Lovely to read of your newly grown self confidence. Perhaps the attacking black dog has now integrated with you.

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