Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

REVIEW: Witch’s Garden

Sandra Lawrence, Witch’s Garden: Plants in Folklore, Magic and Traditional Medicine, London: Welbeck, 2020.

Potential readers might be discouraged by the title Witch’s’Garden, and its rather eerie cover.  Little space is devoted to the uses witches made or make of plants – there are no blood-curdling incantations, or elaborate spells – instead its author takes us on a jolly romp through Plants in Folklore, Magic and Traditional Medicine.

The ten chapters which range from ‘Plants of the Ancient World’ to ‘Plants of Hope’ are interspersed with a series of approximately 40 one-page monographs, usually with an illustration on the opposite page, of various species, including hemlock, Conium maculatum, marigold, Calendula officinalis, and St John’s wort, Hypericum perforatum.  Since these attempt to cover each plant’s place in human cultures since the earliest records, and around the world, some are inevitably rather sketchy.  As is often the case with compilations of this kind, greater attention should have been given to the historic distribution of plants.  For example we are told that young Greek athletes massaged their muscles with oil of nasturtium seed (Tropaeolum) after exercising.  One assumes that the author means athletes in ancient, rather than modern, Greece; if so it is exceedingly unlikely that they used naturtium seed oil, since Tropaeolum spp. are native to the New World, and  are thought not to have been introduced to Europe until the second half of the seventeenth century.

The book’s illustrations selected from the archives and herbarium of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew,  and range from fifteenth-century manuscripts to recent herbarium specimens, are outstanding.

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