Plants and Herbs

Pansy Folklore and Magical Uses

Pansies remind me of my late grandmother. She used to grow them in her backyard garden, as little cheery-faced border plants. She also had a very gentle, relaxing aesthetic — I remember the grandfather clock in the hallway, the little embroidered pillow full of fragrant pine needles, the print of geese with cheery blue ribbons on the kitchen wall, the way the hallway always smelled like roses and the kitchen smelled like fresh coffee. I can always tell when she’s around me because of those smells.

It was nice spotting these little flowers last week, with their yellow faces turned toward the sun. I’m not positive about their exact species, but they resembled my grandmother’s pansies enough to make me curious about their uses.

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And this appears to be some yellow Viola tricolor.

It’s probably unsurprising to hear that pansies have a wealth of properties associated with them. You can heart it in their names, too — heartsease, call-me-to-you, love-lies-bleeding, love-in-idleness.

Heartsease Magical Properties and Folklore

In Roman mythology, the viola turned to love-in-idleness when Eros mistakenly struck it with one of his arrows, causing it to smile.

In Greek mythology, Zeus created the flowers as a way to repent for his treatment of his lover, Io. She was once a beautiful maiden, but Zeus’ wife, Hera, became jealous. To protect Io, Zeus transformed her into a cow. Since she was forced to be on a diet of grasses and herbs, Zeus made the earth yield flowers.

In another legend, Cupid worshipped the heartsease flowers. To stop this, Aphrodite turned them from white, to tricolored.

Pansies and violets are associated with Venus, and often used as a love ingredient. Placing some under your pillow is said to attract a new lover. Planting them in a heart shape is a bit of sympathetic magic — if they thrive, so will your relationship.

They are also associated with Pluto, and death and rebirth.

Picking the herb on a sunny day is said to cause a storm to come. Picking one that’s still dewy brings death.

Using Heartsease

I think love magic gets a bad rap. When many people think of it, they picture a desperate, lovelorn person, performing spell after spell to convince the object of their affections to want them back. That’s not really the case, though. I mean, if you think about it, everything is love.

Want more money? You really want your boss or your clients to love your work.
Want to be more successful or popular? That’s platonic love.
Love magic is attraction magic. If you draw in love, you can use those same attributes to attract whatever you desire.

Pansies come in a variety of colors, which lends them well to color magic. Each color has its own particular attributes. The little yellow ones I found could be found for mental abilities, divination, happiness, travel, or blessing a new home.

If I could, I’d plant a pot of yellow pansies near the front door of my home. Bless the space and draw in love all at the same time!

Medicinally, heartsease has been used to treat asthma, inflammatory lung conditions, and cardiac complaints. Externally, it’s used for skin problems like eczema. Considering this, and considering how many other herbs’ medical uses mirror their magical ones, it’s really not surprising that it’s an herb of love and death.

 

Pansies are demulcent, mucilaginous, and anti-inflammatory. They have been used to calm irritated skin, ease chest complaints, and soothe other matters of the heart, too. They’re also easy to grow, so, if you have the room, I definitely recommend planting some of these cheerful little flowers!

Environment, Plants and Herbs

Squill Folklore and Magical Uses

Every time I find a new plant buddy, I end up spending a few hours reading up on what they’re used for — even things like mushrooms, lichen, and moss. When I spotted these pretty little blue flowers, I was immediately curious. I’d never seen them before, and their color was so vibrant against the brown dirt and handful green leaves poking out of the chilly ground. They were so small, I almost missed them.

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Scilla siberica, wood squill.

I wasn’t able to find much about wood squill specifically, other than that it’s native to Southwestern Russia (despite its other name, Siberian squill).

When most herb lore and magical texts talk about squill, they’re really talking about red (Drimia maritima) or white squill (Scilla mischtschenkoana). All of these are in the same subfamily, Scilloideae, but aren’t otherwise really synonymous.

The word “scilla” comes from the ancient Greek “skilla,” which is of unknown meaning. (A Modern Herbal claims that it means “to excite or disturb,” the way that an emetic disturbs the stomach, but I haven’t been able to verify this.)

For some people, only the actual plant that a spell calls for will do. For others, it’s okay to use a relative, if they’re close enough. This can be especially useful if the plant you want to work with is poisonous, endangered, not native to your area, or otherwise not a super great idea.

Squill Magical Properties and Folklore

Squill root is a money herb.

In hoodoo, placing squill in a container with one coin of each denomination, is used to draw in cash. (Some practitioners say it’s particularly effective if you can get a hold of old silver currency for this spell, like Mercury dimes. Others say that silver objects, like chains or beads, are even more effective than non-silver money.)

Holding squill root in your hands, focusing your intention to be unhexed, charging it, and carrying it with you is said to break all hexes and curses.

Using Squill

Red squill is used as a rodenticide, owing to a toxin called scilliroside. In creatures without a vomiting reflex, scilliroside is deadly.

White squill, on the other hand, has historically been used as a diuretic and expectorant. Compounds called glucosamides, found in the bulbs, are sometimes used in traditional medicine to treat irregular heartbeats. Wood squill also contains cardiac glycosides. This is not intended as medical advice, just an indicator of what kind of practical, medicinal applications it’s used for. As with any herb, medicinal properties can quickly become poisonous properties, so keep them away from children and pets.

 

Considering its medicinal properties and its appearance, it’s kind of easy to understand why it’s a money herb. It’s got that lovely plump bulb full of stored energy — fat like an onion, or the way you’d want your bank account to be. Its use as an emetic and diuretic make sense here, too. Squill has the power to eject all kinds of substances from the body. You put it in a stomach, the stomach’s contents are coming out in abundance.  Metaphysically, it stands to reason that it would be placed in a container with money in the hopes that it’d spew more money into your life.

The emetic and diuretic virtues also go hand-in-hand with hex breaking. If your body needs to purge a physical ill, squill helps. If you need to purge a magical ill, squill helps that, too.

White squill seems to be abundant and easy to find on the market, but there are areas where other varieties of squill (like the wood squill pictured above, or alpine squill) have become invasive. If you’re looking to use squill in your work, I’d suggest picking up a good plant identification guide, and seeing if your area has any invasive varieties lurking around. (Various species of squill are used as ornamental plants. If you decide you want to grow some, be sure to do it in a way that will keep it from escaping into its environment.) You can get the magical ingredients you need, develop a deeper relationship with the plants themselves, and remove damaging invasive species from your environment at the same time.

 

 

 

Plants and Herbs

Marshmallow Folklore and Magical Uses

Note: This post contains affiliate links to the herbs I talk about here. These allow me to earn a small commission, at no additional cost to you. Thank you for supporting independent artisans, and this site!

I drink so much marshmallow, it borders on the absurd.

It’s not for the flavor, either — marshmallow root doesn’t really have much of one. Let me tell you, though, if you’ve got a stomach ache, bladder pain, or an annoying, dry cough? There’s nothing more soothing than a big cup of swamp root goo. No joke.

I cannot overstate the debt of gratitude I owe to marshmallow.

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(I’d also eat my weight in toasted vanilla Smash Mallows if science would let me, but that’s a subject for another time.)

Marshmallow Magical Properties and Folklore

As its name implies, marshmallow (Althea officinalis) is considered a water herb. It’s often associated with deities of love and beauty, and used in fertility and attraction spells. (Some sources say that the slippery marshmallow extract was even used as a lubricant, so using it in sex and fertility magic isn’t much of a stretch!)

Marshmallow is sometimes burned to cleanse a space, or used to make protective oils.

It’s considered to be a favorite of benevolent spirits. Spirit bottles, used to house helpful spirits, are filled with marshmallow root. Keeping a jar of it and a dish of water on your altar is said to help call helpful spirits to your aid.

Planting marshmallow on or near a grave, or decorating a grave with the flowers, is used to honor the dead.

Using Marshmallow

A big part of why marshmallow root is medicinally valuable is its mucilage content. Marshmallow mucilage is a polysaccharide with a very thick, slippery consistency. When you stand the root overnight in water, you’ll notice that the water becomes more viscous.

Marshmallow expresses its mucilage best as a cold infusion. I usually measure the dose of marshmallow root I need (depending on what I’m trying to do) into a tea strainer, fill a glass jar with clean water, plop the strainer in it, and set it in my fridge overnight.

If need be, you can brew the root the way you would any other tea, it just won’t produce quite as much mucilage. I usually do this if I have a sore throat — the mucilage and the warmth are really soothing.

Marshmallow leaf contains less mucilage than the root. It’s a diuretic and helps with expectoration, and is sometimes used as a topical poultice.

The key words here are “soothing,” “protecting,” and “comforting.” On a physical level, the mucilage in marshmallow root soothes irritated membranes, forms a protective layer, and brings comfort. This is reflected on a metaphysical level, too — as an ingredient in beauty preparations, it’s not surprising to see it used in spells for the same. As something that helps banish pain, it’s natural to use it to banish evil. As an herb that offers comfort, it makes sense to use it to comfort and placate the spirits of the dead.

You can find shredded, ready-to-use marshmallow root from retailers like Mountain Maus Remedies and Grassroots Herb Supply. If you prefer, you can also find it in a finely ground powder form.

 

Even if you don’t regularly perform spiritwork or work with the dead, marshmallow’s a helpful herbal ally to keep around. It makes a soothing tea, and its gentle, comforting nature lends it well to a variety of magical applications. Even though marshmallow is used as a food as well as medicine, consult with an experienced practitioner before use — especially if you are pregnant, nursing, or have any medical conditions.

 

A tiny nepenthes pitcher.
Plants and Herbs

Hand-Feeding a Pitcher Plant

Rule number one of keeping a Nepenthes is that you keep the fertilizer far, far away. Some horticulturists have had success with foliar feeding, but I don’t yet trust myself not to hurt mine — they’re more delicate than they seem, sometimes.

Carnivorous plants are carnivorous because their roots are not well adapted to extracting nutrients from their substrates. That’s why they eat bugs. Digestive enzymes are nature’s way of making sure they get fed, roots or no. Well… Unless they’re one of the types that evolved to digest fallen leaves or be a sleeping bag for bats, but I digress.

My N. ventrata’s pitchers are still fairly tiny (there are a bunch of them now, though), and my apartment is mercifully bug-free aside from the occasional spider or stray stinkbug, so there isn’t much hope when it comes to leaving my plant to its own devices. If it’s  hoping to catch a meal here, it’s going to be very disappointed for a very long time.

That’s okay, though. I’ve got this covered.

Pitcher plants are easier to hand feed compared to Venus fly traps. For fly traps, you have to rehydrate dried insects into a kind of bug-burger, then wiggle it around until the trap activates. Too much water, and the liquid might cause the plant to rot. Not enough, and the plant’s digestive enzymes might not be able to break it down adequately.

Pitcher plants, though? They’re a breeze:

worms
Delish!

Nepenthes pitches contain so much liquid, rehydration isn’t really an issue. They also lure insects rather than trap them, so I don’t have to put on a dead bug puppet show to get them to latch on. Take a pair of tweezers, pick up a pinch of dried bloodworms, and drop them in. You can even crush the worms to powder for particularly small pitchers. It doesn’t take many, so one container will last for ages.

Larger pitchers benefit from dried crickets or mealworms instead, but my guys are much too little for that. Pinhead crickets are often available as a special order from some pet stores, but they usually only come in large increments. I also don’t want to have to fight with fitting live crickets into those tiny pitcher mouths!

Feeding is kind of a misnomer, though — nepenthes are still photosynthetic, and depend on carbohydrates for energy. Bugs are more akin to fertilizer than actual food. As with other types of fertilizer, it’s better to err on the side of not feeding enough versus feeding too much. I don’t feed my pitchers often — once a month, if that. Regardless of what you feed them or how often, it’s important to make sure that the insects are completely submerged in the digestive fluid. If they aren’t, they’ll just end up growing mold instead of breaking down and feeding the plant.

Hopefully, I’ll have some pitchers large enough for crickets soon. Until then, I’ve got loads of bloodworms!

 

 

Plants and Herbs

New Pitcher Plant Shoots!

I love my little pitcher plant. It’s helpful (especially in summer), weirdly cute, and caring for it has been a really interesting learning experience. All told? 10/10 plantbro.

I’d wanted a Nepenthes ever since one of my exes and I spotted an enormous, stunningly beautiful N. ventricosa at this nursery we used to frequent years ago. (Old Country Gardens, in Delaware. Visiting that place was like going to weird plant zoo, and I loved it. They had a great collection of strange succulents and ornamental plants, as well as the usual fare. But anyway, I digress.) I was immediately drawn to it, but, since we lived in a place with barely any natural light to speak of, it was not to be.

When my S.O. and I saw a pretty little N. ventrata, we jumped on the opportunity. The pitchers didn’t last long after we brought it home, as they’re kind of prone to dropping off — Nepenthes are pretty sensitive to changes in light and humidity, and few homes are able to provide the kind of sun, temperatures, moisture, and tightly-controlled setting that a professional grower can.

Fortunately, N. ventrata is pretty adaptable. It’s a hybrid between N. alata and N. ventricosa (a lowland and highland species, respectively) and its needs are a bit better suited to the typical home environment. Even if the pitchers drop off, they’ll grow back once the plant acclimates as long as its basic needs are met.

This one grows like a weed. I have to cut it back regularly, and it seems like every spring brings me a fresh batch of these guys:

A nepenthes stem with new, green shoots.
New shoots!

Sometimes, Nepenthes produce basal shoots, which seem to grow out of (or very close to) the soil. They’ll also grow new shoots further along the vine. I’m no carnivorous plant expert, but, as far as I can tell, there isn’t an enormous difference between the two. They don’t develop their own root systems like aloe pups or spider plant offsets, but they can detach and eventually root. Left alone, they’re also a great way for a plant to continue on after it’s gotten a little too long. My plant tends to look scragglier as it vines. I also much prefer its lower pitchers to those that it produces on its upper portions, so I like to prune it back to maintain a more compact shape. (I also don’t really have the room to properly cultivate a vine just yet, so compact it is!)

A tiny nepenthes pitcher.
Plus the rosette has the cutest baby pitcher ever.

Fortunately for me, I’ve got a ton of new shoots to work with this year. This plant’ll be full and leafy in no time.

Plants and Herbs

4 Ways to Get Rid of Scale Insects Naturally

Scale has kind of been the bane of my existence. It came in on an aloe plant, and was a total bear to battle. We don’t have any outdoor space here, so all of my plants are somewhat in proximity to one another. As you can probably guess, this makes controlling pests a bit of a challenge.

Lately, I feel like the worst plant parent ever. See, my S.O. and I got this little Norfolk pine as a live Yule tree about two years ago. I love it, like I do all of my plants, and try my best to keep it healthy.

Unfortunately, up until recently, “my best” did not include “knowing what pests it’s susceptible to.” It’s got spikes all over, it has really aromatic sap, it never goes outside… what could possibly want to eat it?

As it turns out, in addition to being spiky and smelling piney, it is also irresistibly delicious to scale insects. I’m not going to lie, I cried a little when I found out. I felt like I failed as a caretaker.

Close up of scale insects.
Notice the dust and cat hair? As scale insects feed, they excrete a very sticky, sugary substance called “honeydew.” This can end up attracting other pests, encouraging mold growth, and, if the plant’s indoors, catching a ton of dust.

What are scale insects?

Scale insects are tormentors sent directly from Satan’s fiery butthole.

… Okay, but for real, they’re awful. They’re insects that latch onto plants and pretty much suck them dry. They’re also flattish, usually brown or beige, and the adults don’t move at all, so they blend in very well with their environment. It’s really easy to mistake them for plant tissue, especially if there aren’t many. Trouble is, their populations can grow pretty fast.

Scale insects on a Norfolk pine twig.
To give you an idea of how small and unobtrusive scale can be, even when there’s a ton of them.

Outdoors, scale insects aren’t usually a huge problem. Sure, they move in, but a healthy plant and a thriving population of predatory insects and birds will keep them from causing serious damage. So, in the wild (or the “wilds” of a garden, at least) they’re much more of an easily ignored nuisance than an actual problem.

For indoor plants, it’s more of an issue. Being otherwise healthy isn’t always enough for a potted plant to keep scale at bay, most homes don’t keep predatory lacewings or ladybugs as pets, and natural Bti pest control only works on bugs that are both in soil and susceptible to Bti bacterial toxins.

So, what do you do when one of your plants turns into a scale bug buffet?

To me, part of being a good steward is doing things that don’t have a negative ripple effect. For this reason, I try my hardest to avoid systemic pesticides, or any pesticides that could potentially harm anything other than the pests I’m trying to target. In a perfect world, I could just relocate unwanted bugs instead of killing them. That’s not this world, though, and I have more of a responsibility toward the plants I’ve taken into my care than I do to the pests attacking them. That’s why, when these critters rear their (nonexistent. Seriously, they are so flat) heads, I:

1. Prune, prune, prune.

A lot of plant tissue that’s been seriously damaged by scale won’t recover. If the bugs have heavily infested a certain branch or leaf, or have dried things out too much, it’s best to just cut it. Pruning away the areas where scale insects have latched on the most will immediately and drastically lower their numbers, making it easier for other measures to work.

Once you’ve identified and removed affected limbs, leaves, and other plant parts, then it’s time to start stage 2.

2. Rub them with alcohol.

Scale insects, like mealybugs, are protected by a waterproof waxy coating. This doesn’t just keep water out, it keeps moisture in. One way to get rid of scale insects is to disrupt this natural coating, which causes them to dehydrate.

Rubbing alcohol is a fast, cheap way to do this. Unfortunately, it can also harm plant tissue, so it has to be applied individually by hand. Fill a jar with alcohol, grab some cotton swabs, and start hunting the bugs down. When you see one, dip the swab in the alcohol, and give it a rub. Most times, the scale insect will come right off. Those that remain will dry out and die.

3. Soap them up.

Soap is another way to tackle the young, mobile stage of scale. It doesn’t take much, either — a few tablespoons in a gallon of water will do the trick.

As with rubbing alcohol, this has to come into contact with the scale to be effective, and will most likely need a couple of reapplications. Too much soap can also harm sensitive plants, so it’s best to start will a relatively low concentration and test it on a small area before going whole-hog.

To start with, I mix:

  • 2.5 T Castile soap
  • 1 gal water
  • 2 T cooking oil (usually grapeseed) — optional

If that doesn’t seem to harm the plant, I might go up to:

  • 5 T Castile soap
  • 1 gal water
  • 2 T cooking oil — optional

Once it’s mixed up, add it to a sprayer or spray bottle and thoroughly spray any areas showing signs of scale. This soap solution also has to come into contact with the insects in order to kill them, so be as thorough as you can without harming your plants. The cooking oil helps smother the bugs, but can easily be left out.

Using actual soap is important here — detergents and some surfactants aren’t great for plants, and their potential for harm may outweigh their scale-killing benefits. I like to use Dr. Bronner’s soap for this, because it’s inexpensive and readily available everywhere from the fancy organic market to the Giant down the block. If that doesn’t work for you, try your regular dish liquid, just test it on a small area to make sure your plants won’t be damaged.

As with anything else of this nature, use the lowest effective concentration of soap. If 2.5 tablespoons seems to be working alright for you, 5 tablespoons won’t necessarily be any more effective.

4. Dust them.

Diatomaceous earth is amazing stuff. I dust it under all of my appliances because, while my particular domicile doesn’t have an ongoing bug problem, we invariably get one or two trying to take refuge when pest control shows up to treat the basement or one of the other units. Such is apartment life.

Diatomaceous earth looks like a white powder. On a microscopic level, though, it is actually made up of needle-sharp splinters of the shells of tiny creatures called diatoms. These splinters are so tiny that they’re incapable of piercing skin, so diatomaceous earth is safe around people and pets. (Just don’t inhale it!) However, while they can’t injure us, they wreak absolute havoc on insects. The tiny splinters pierce and abrade their shells, which causes them to dehydrate.

To use diatomaceous earth, either dust plants with an applicator (the dust is very fine and so tends to clump together a bit, using an applicator gives a nice, light, even coating) after watering, or mix into a solution like the soap mixture given above. Shake it vigorously as you work, because the powder will settle pretty quickly.

As a warning, diatomaceous earth is not selective. Think of it like microscopic barbed wire — it’s going to injure anything that tries to cross it, not just the things you want it to get. So, if your plants spend time outdoors, drape them with a sheet while you’re letting the powder take effect. This will protect bees, ladybugs, lacewings, and other beneficial insects from injury.

 

Scale insects are an enormous pain. They can hide in tiny spaces and suck your plants dry, and getting rid of them involves vigilance and thoroughness. With these measures, you should be able to control scale on your plants without having to resort to pesticides.

Oh, and… Don’t do what I did. Read up on what pests your plants are susceptible to!

 

Plants and Herbs

Rooting Spider Plant Pups

Let me preface this by saying that I love my cat.

He’s a huge, sweet, orange doofus, albeit a surprisingly bright doofus. He’s learned a number of verbal commands, like “sit,” “up,” and “off” (even if he thinks “off” means “stop what you’re doing and run over to flop your gigantic butt on me”). There is one thing he hasn’t learned, and, at this point, I’m not sure he’s ever going to.

Don’t eat plants.

I don’t have poisonous plants. The only toxic ones I have are those that contain calcium oxalate crystals, and are more accurately described as “really irritating.” I also keep my plants well out of his way.

… Or so I thought, until I walked into the bathroom and spotted one of my lovely spider plant pups laying in the bathtub. Fortunately, they’re neither toxic nor irritating, because this pup was also very chewed.

This spider plant has a ton of offsets, so one isn’t really a great loss. Still, I managed to find it soon enough, and the roots were more or less unscathed, so I figured I’d see if I could save it. Luckily, spider plants are like goldfish plants, ghost plants, and pothos in that they’ll root with a snap of your fingers.

Close-up of spider plant pup root nodes.
These little nubs at the base of the offset will develop into roots.

Continue reading “Rooting Spider Plant Pups”