Welcome to the Poison Garden

Atropa belladonna [credit: David Salisbury]

I have been fascinated with both magic and poison since childhood. They are both mysterious things that have long been maligned by authority, religion, and power-holders in general. Both are alluring, tempting us to taste forbidden nectar that will leave us forever changed. Both can be quite beautiful on the surface, yet hold sinister secrets within. Magic and poison alike can sicken us and offer cures, sometimes all at once. They present this mingled paradox of holiness and profanity that cannot be divided, despite our best attempts. They offer wisdom, but with a cost.

I started growing poisonous plants myself at a young age. Enamored by the pokeroot (Phytolacca americana) and deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) that grew uncontrollably in my North Carolinian back yard, I set out to work with them magically, use them in art, and defend them from the unforgiving weed-whacker and its ambivalent operators. As the years grew on and I became a more experienced witch and gardener, I began experimenting on my own with direct cultivation. Soon I would have a good deal of experience in growing other poisonous “witch plants” like mandrake (Mandragora officinarum), henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), thorn apple (Datura stramonium), and others. Most of the joy for me comes from growing them from seed to decay, sometimes using the actual plant matter for things and sometimes not. It is quite a thing to grow a plant from seed and quite another thing altogether to grow a poisonous plant from seed. Both involve a general appreciation for the unpredictability of nature and the awe of being a part of the growth and decay cycle. But growing a poison, in particular, is like being a steward of knowledge that’s been ignored at the best of times and outlawed at the worst of times.

Datura stramonium [credit: David Salisbury]

The liminality of growing and using poisons as a witch is a key to the Otherworld. The witch is often said to be a “walker between the worlds” of night and day. We can hex as well as heal and the decision to do either is never certain when you meet one of us. Even our names and titles show our natural affinity with this world. Veneficus is a word that can describe both poison and sorcery1. Veneficum is the act of preparing a potion or set of ingredients for a magical operation, which is assumed in the literary texts to include a poison or two2. In the late Middle Ages, accusations of poisoning and sorcery went hand in hand where witchcraft and heresy were concerned. For the history geeks among us, I suggest looking at the persecution of lepers and witches and how the legal proceedings of these alleged poisoners in the Middle Ages influenced one another3.

Obviously, I will discuss poisons in this column. But I intend to do so while pointing out the healing things and poisonous things within us. This may involve confronting our shadow selves, challenging oppressive forces, and taking a “dose of our own medicine” to see how our choices impact our own lives and the lives of those around us. I am not an expert in these things. But I believe that the ingredients of a true Venefica are simple; integrity, a sense of curiosity, a desire to grow, and just a touch of madness thrown in for good measure. With these things in hand you might be given access to the hidden tree of faery, the place ‘between’ where things normally hidden from our gaze make themselves known in great abundance. At the very least, you’ll get to see some pretty photos of plants. Welcome.

“There are poisons that blind you, and poisons that open your eyes.”
― August Strindberg

Schulke, Veneficium: Magic, Witchcraft and the Poison Path (Three Hands Press, 2017)

2Mirecki/‎Meyer, Magic and Ritual in the Ancient World (Brill, 2002)
3Russell, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages (Cornell University Press; 1st edition, 1984)

About the Author

David Salisbury is a queer vegan witch and author of several books on witchcraft and the mystic arts. He lives in Washington DC where he works to co-facilitate The Firefly House, an open pagan organization for the area. He enjoys growing poisonous plants and eating cake (though usually not at the same time).

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