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Posts tagged ‘plants’

If your conjure woman stocks Belladonna, run like hell

Wikipedia photo.

Belladonna (nightshade) and the potato you eat with your steak are related. Solanaceae, plants that prefer shade or dappled sunlight, is a large family! However, if your conjure practitioner keeps belladonna in stock, its primary use–other than as a curiosity or an ornamental–in folk magic is to poison people. In 1915, plant researcher Henry Walters said nightshade was a plant filled with hatred.

Several berries might do the trick. Touching it will badly inflame your skin. In areas where belladonna grows wild, medical students were (and perhaps still are) taught to recognize the symptoms of belladonna poisoning by memorizing this phrase: “Hot as a hare, blind as a bat, dry as a bone, red as a beat, and mad as a hatter.”

It’s use now in cosmetics is rare, though it once was fairly common. It was once used by women to accentuate their eyes, hence bella donna (beautiful woman). It still has some medical uses, though the dangers it presents are outside the skill set of most herbalists and root doctors.

It can be used in the treatment of whooping cough, Parkinson’s disease, motion sickness, psychiatric conditions, and as a painkiller. (See WebMD for more information.)

How apt that the active agent in belladonna, atropine, is named after Atropos, the Greek fate who snipped an individual’s threat of life. Or, as Milton said, “Comes the blind Fury with the abhorred shears/And skits the thin-spun life.

The plant often appears in myths and fairy lore. Purportedly, it put Snow White to sleep when it was injected into the apple she was given. Like Henbane and Thornapple (aka Devil’s Apple), Belladonna is associated with the goddess of night and death, Hecate.

According to Amy Stewart (in a handy and fun little guidebook called Wicked Plants) says that nightshade “causes rapid heartbeat, confusion, hallucinations, and seizures. The symptoms are so unpleasant that atropine is sometimes added to potentially addictive painkillers to keep patients from getting hooked.”

The plant’s names, nightshade and belladonna sound like magic, mystery and enchantment. Yet, it’s not the kind of mystery I want my friendly neighborhood herbalist or conjure woman playing around with.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of Conjure Woman’s Cat and its sequel Eulalie and Washerwoman.


Glacier’s Plants – Western Serviceberry

Serviceberry - Wikipedia photo

This rosaceous shrub is often divided into several poorly defined varieties, but the delicate white flowers make it easy to recognizee. The apple-like fruits are 3/8 t0 1/2 inch in diameter, becoming dark purple at maturity. — “Plants of Waterton-Glacier National Parks” by Richard J. Shaw and Danny On.

Like many Glacier Park hikers, I snagged hundreds of the more widely known huckleberries, ending up with purple fingers, and usually missed out on this highly versatile and widespread berry.

As Shaw and On suggest, you’ll find it called by multiple names throughout the country, including sarvis berry, sarviceberry, wild pear, chuckley pear, wild-plum, Saskatoon, Juneberry and shadbush. In Canada, Saskatoon, after an old Cree word, is the preferred name. In fact, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan is named after the berry. The variety in the park is Amelanchier alnifolia.

The berries were one of the traditional foods of the Blackfeet. They were mixed into pemmican with dried meat and eaten raw. You’ll find them referenced in the works of George Bird Grinnell (How the Blackfoot Lived), Walter McClintock (The Old North Trail), James Willard Schultz (My Life as an Indian) and other western writers.

In my old, dog-eared copy of The Old North Trail, I enjoy reading McClintock’s detailed accounts of Blackfeet stories and customs, including the sarvis berry information in chapter XXXXVI:

DURING my visit at Brings-down-the-Sun’s camp, the women were gathering their
winter supply of sarvis berries. The bushes, which the old chief so carefully
guarded, were loaded down with ripe fruit. Their method was to strike the bushes
with sticks, catching the berries in blankets, and then spreading them in the
sun to dry. Berry-bags for carrying them were made of small skins from deer
legs, wolf-pups or unborn calves of large animals such as the elk, or deer, or,
most often, of the buffalo. I saw a beautiful berry-bag made of a spotted fawn
skin and ornamented with coloured porcupine quills. Sarvis berries are a
favourite article of diet with all the plains-tribes. They are eaten raw or
cooked in soups and stews. My Indian friends warned me that the berries
sometimes make people very ill, who are not accustomed to eating them.

The berries work well in jams, pies, beer, cider and wine, though some people supplement them with huckleberries for color and taste. When you’re gathering them, you may have to fight off a few bears, squirrels and chipmunks. Moose and elk like the foliage.

In my contemporary fantasy, Sarabande, the native healer stirs flour, sugar and dried meat into a pot of boiled berries for a soup that can be eaten hot or cold. If you want to try the berries in pie, you’ll find two recipes here.  Here’s a pie recipe that includes rhubarb. For wine, check this site.

Since the serviceberry—under one name or another—can be found throughout Canda and the United States (except Hawaii), chances are you might enjoy a few tasty berries on your next summer hike.


contemporary fantasy set in Glacier Park

Kinnikinnik: Plants of Glacier Park

In the woods and along the lower slopes in Glacier National Park, it’s easy to walk past a low, trailing shrub called Kinnikinnik (also Kinnickinnik). It’s rather unobtrusive when the white and pinkish flowers aren’t blooming in June and when the bright red berries haven’t shown up yet in the fall.

from FancyLady on Flickr

The plant is better known as the Common Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), dwarf manzanita and other local names. You’ll find it in the northern hemisphere from Scottish heaths to California gardens to the mountains of the Rocky Mountain Front.

In folk medicine, the bark and leathery evergreen leaves have been used for teas and infusions, typically for their diuretic properties. The name Kinnikinnik refers specifically to smoking mixtures used by Native Americans that, in addition to tobacco, red willow bark, etc.) included the bearberry’s leaves and purplish-red bark. The name kinnikinnik rather stuck to the bearberry.

According to the Kinnickinnick Native Plant Society, “It is pronounced KINNY-kin-ICK, or Kinn-ICK-innick, and comes from the aboriginal – most scholars say the Alonquin – meaning “smoking mixture.” Although the plant was native here, it seems to have been the fur traders’ employees who brought the name west with them. Its other common name, Bear Berry, comes from its genus ARCTOSTAPHYLOS, from the Greek word for bear – Arktos and staphylos – a bunch of grapes, which its berries resemble. The species name of “uva-ursi” is apparently from the Latin “uva” (grape) and “ursus” (bear).”

In Glacier, the shrub often grows in large mats along park roads. You can see it along the lake level trails near Many Glacier Hotel.

In my novel “The Sun Singer,” Robert Adams was told he could always remember the name of this plant because it was spelled the same way from both directions.