Venific Herbs

Find here tips for sowing and growing the “venific herbs” that came with your seed box:

Aconitum napellus

Blue Monkshood (Aconitum napellus)

Monkshood is a perennial, hardy plant, native to mountain regions and uplands of Western and Central Europe. It grows up to 1,50 m tall and is characterized by a strong stem, dark green, deeply indented foliage and most prominently, deep-blue, helmet-shaped flowers. Monkshood blooms from August to September. The shape of the flowers is adopted to bumblebees, which are strong enough and possess long enough probosces to reach the bottom of the flower.

Propagation by seed: cold germinator – stratify seeds in the fridge or sow outdoors during winter. The seeds are dormant and require the change of temperature from cold to warm. This is their signal to germinate. In nature this happens stimulated by the warming rays of the sun and snow melt. I sow the seeds in trays or pots, using a soil mix consisting of sowing compost from the garden center and normal garden soil, which contains some loam. In late spring the young plants can be transplanted to the ground. Monkshood favors a mildly calciferous and humus-rich soil and a place in half shade. Best is beneath trees, where the sun light permeates.

Aconitum napellus is the blue Monkshood of medieval monastery gardens. Legends have been woven around this poisonous plant, which may have been used as an arrow poison and has a history in poison murder. According to Greek legend the plant sprung from the spittle of three- headed hell hound Cerberus. It is sacred to Hekate and Wotan. Due to its toxicity is has also been referred to as “plant arsenic” and in antiquity it was known as scorpio and thelyphonon. Another common name is Wolfsbane, because of its use in wolf baits. The same name also applies to the yellow flowering Aconitum lycoctonum.

Warning: Aconite is considered the most poisonous plant of Europe. All parts of the plant contain toxic alkaloids. Ingesting only small amounts can lead to death through respiratory paralysis and cardiac arrest. Do not ingest! Wear gloves when handling!

Aconitum lycoctonum

Wolfsbane (Aconitum lycoctonum)

This member in the Ranunculaceae family is native to Eurasia. It is also known as Northern Wolfsbane. There are two subspecies of this plant, one with yellow flowers (subsp. vulparia) and the subspecies that is shown here, which has pale white flowers (subsp. lycoctonum). It grows 70 -120 cm tall. The stems are not as strong as those of its blue flowering relative and tend to bend or crawl. The foliage is a brighter green and not as strongly indented. The species contains the poisonous alkaloid lycoctonine, which is as poisonous as aconitine.

Fading flowers of Colchicum autumnale. Wild Colchicums are said to contain more poison than cultivated forms.

Autumn Crocus (Colchicum autumnale)

The autumn crocus is also known as meadow saffron. It is found growing wild on moist meadows. It likes a moist but well-drained ground and plenty of sun. The soil should be rich in nutrients and can be mildly acidic, but should be low in nitrogen. Use a mix of equal amounts of mulch, loam and sand.

Propagation by seed: cold germinator. Sow in summer, when the seeds are ripe (remember, the flowers occur in autumn, then fade, while the fruits ripen and appear in spring the following year along with the foliage). Store the seeds between layers of moist sand and keep in cool shade. Germination may take up 1 year or longer.

Warning: Colchicum has been mistaken for bear’s garlic (Allium ursinum) by foragers. It contains deadly poisonous colchicine. There is no known antidote. Wear gloves when handling and do not ingest!

Atropa belladonna fruit and flower

Belladonna, Deadly Nightshade (Atropa belladonna)

Deadly Nightshade is a perennial, hardy sub-shrub, native to Europe and grows about 1,50 m tall. The brown-purple flowers occur from June to late autumn and attract bees and bumblebees. The black, cherry-like fruits ripen from August until the end of autumn and contain each about 100-150 seeds. Belladonna develops a strong root, which is traditionally harvested in the third year.

Propagation by seed: allegedly a cold germinator, though fresh seeds have also germinated without being exposed to cold. Sow flat, press on and cover barely. Keep moist but not soppy. The seeds can be primed in tepid fresh water for 24 h prior to sowing.

->germination temperature: 10-15°C, germination time: 2-8 weeks

Separate young plants early and plant to the ground or in large containers. Belladonna favors a spot in half shade with diffuse sun light and humic, mildly calciferous soil. In nature it grows in forest glades and edges or cutover land. Protect the fresh shoots from slugs. If planted to the ground, fertilize in spring with compost soil. Belladonna grown in pots is given long-term fertilizer.

Warning: All parts of the plant contain poisonous tropane alkaloids, especially atropine. An over-dose can lead to coma and death. Do not ingest!

Bryony (Bryonia dioica)

Arum maculatum plants with root

Cuckoo-pint (Arum maculatum)

Cold germinator. The seeds are best sown fresh, in autumn. Or cold-stratify in the fridge and sow any time of the year. Priming the seeds in water helps soften the seed coat and speed up seed germination. Processes that help dissolve the seed coat, such as grinding it carefully or exposing it to rot, help speed up germination. Sow about 1 cm deep. Be patient. You can also place the seeds between layers of moist sand and store them outdoors in cool shade. Germination can take up to 1 year or longer, depending on conditions and age of seed. Arum maculatum thrives in shade. It is a typical plant in beech woodlands. The soil should be loose, humus rich, well drained and limy. Imagine the soft layer of rotting leaves that fall from the trees every autumn, providing a continuous supply of fresh humus. Arum maculatum gets its name from dark purple spots on its spade-shaped leaves. However, the dots do not always show and may develop depending on surrounding conditions. The roots of Arum maculatum can be roasted and eaten, as they are rich in starch. The rest of the plant is poisonous.

Aquilegia vulgaris garden varieties ‘Petticoat’ and ‘Bordeaux Barlow’

Common Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris)

Cold germinator. Sow in autumn or spring, when the temperatures are low. Or cold-stratify the seeds in the fridge, by keeping them in a plastic bag at 5-10°C (40-50°F) for four weeks. Then sow the seeds flat, on normal soil, press on and do not cover, so that they receive light. Sow in trays or directly in the flower bed. Keep moist but not soppy! You can also place your sowing containers outdoors in February. In nature the seeds will germinate stimulated by sun, warmth and snow melt. Plant to the ground in spring, in full sun or half shade. The soil can be normal or rich and loamy.

Hardy perennial, native to the Northern hemisphere, grows up to 50 – 70 cm and needs no winter protection. The color of the flowers can vary from white to pink to a bright blue or purple. Some garden cultivars have filled flowers that resemble petticoats. A rarer, wild species is the dark columbine (Aquilegia atrata), which bears dark purple to nearly black flowers. Columbine flowers from May to June and is pollinated by bumblebees. The seed pods contain shiny black seeds, which are spread by wind and when shaking the flower.

Columbine was popular in medieval times, where it held ambiguous meanings. In Christian doctrine it stood for humility, the Holy Trinity and was sacred to the Holy Mother. On the other hand, the flower was associated with forbidden love and lust, which is reflected in the Italian name amor nascosto, ‘hidden love’. It has also been named Herba leonis, “herb of the lion”. Columbine’s magical uses aim at love, fertility and virility. It was also common to plant on graves.

Warning: Columbine is a member in the poisonous Ranunculaceae plant family. All parts of the plant contain a carcinogenic prussic acid glycoside. Avoid skin contact and do not ingest!

Digitalis purpurea varieties ‘Alba’ and ‘Pam’s Choice’

Common Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)

Sow outdoors from May to July or pre-culture from March to May. Sow flat, press on gently and do not cover. The seeds germinate quickly within 1-2 weeks. Hardy biennial to perennial, erect, up to 150 cm or taller. Plant 60 cm apart. In the first year occurs a basal leaf rosette and the energy is invested into the roots. In the second year occurs a single long stem with bell-shaped flowers in deep pink. Cut during flowering may provoke a second bloom. Once established foxgloves readily sow out themselves. Cut back after flowering to avoid uncontrolled seeding. Foxgloves are mainly pollinated by bumblebees, which are large and strong enough to climb and into the flowers and reach their bottom. Garden varieties of the purple foxglove include the tall, white-flowering foxglove (Digitalis purpurea var. ‘Alba’) and the cultivar ‘Pam’s Choice‘.

Warning: Foxglove contains the cardiac glycosides Digoxin and Digitoxin, which are cardio tonics. Do not ingest!

Fritillaria (Fritillaria meleagris)

Cold germinator. Sow outdoors in autumn (September -October) or early spring (until March) so that they can still receive a natural cold period. Otherwise you should cold-treat the seeds at about 5°C, e.g. put them in a baggie with moist sand and store it in the vegetable drawer of your fridge for 4-6 weeks. Then take out the seeds and sow them on normal seeding compost (which is low in nutrients). Cover the seeds with just a thin layer of soil and keep moist. Chose a well-lit spot, but away from direct sun. The seeds germinate at temperatures around 18-20°C. Prick out when about 10 cm tall. Plant in low-nutrient substrate. Later you can add some nutrient-rich compost or fertilize, during the time of flowering (from March to May). Fritillaria prefers a moist spot by the pond or on a moist meadow and full sun. It tolerates a fluctuating water supply, but overall should not be left to fall dry completely for longer periods. Likewise it does not withstand waterlogging (most plants don’t). If you grow Fritillaria in a pot or container, then you must supply good drainage (large enough hole and a layer of gravel at the bottom) and water it frequently. The soil should be evenly moist, nutrient-rich, humic and lime-deficient. The soil’s pH can be slightly acidic. Fritillaria is completely hardy, but reacts sensitive on cold paired with drought (think of long frost periods without snow). Then it is advised to water with very cold (shortly melted) water. An additional winter covering with brush-wood and leaves helps to keep the ground underneath warm and moist. (see also gartenlexikon.de)

Fritillaria is an endangered plant species in Germany, where it is also called Kiebitzei (perhaps a reference to its pattern). The flowers appear from March to May and sport a fascinating chess-like pattern from dark purple-brown to green-yellow, which is why they are also known as chess flower (Schachbrettblume in German). Another evocative name is snake’s head.

Fritillaria is a perennial and belongs to the lily family. It contains poisonous alkaloids such as Imperialin, which are stored foremost in the bulb and can cause spasms, vomiting, hypotension and finally cardiac arrest.

Helleborus niger

Black Hellebore (Helleborus niger)

Black hellebore flowers during the winter time (e.i. in December), hence it is also called Christmas rose. The black root has important meanings in astrological magic and is connected to the fixed star Algol. It is used in ritual to exorcise demons and is one of the key ingredients in Dr. Johannes Faust’s incense for conjuring the demons of hell. Its attributed stone is the diamond.

Propagation by seed: cold germinator. Needs two cold periods in order to germinate. Put the seeds in moist paper towels and inside a plastic bag. Place them in the fridge and keep at 0-4°C for 1-2 months. Take them out and keep at room temperature for 2 weeks (don’t let seeds fall dry). Move back to the fridge for another 2 weeks. Sow the stratified seeds on fresh seeding compost that has been mixed with 50% loam, press seeds on the soil and cover barely. Or sow during winter and place the containers outdoors and let germinate under natural conditions. In nature the seeds will germinate stimulated by sun, warmth and snow melt. Separate young plants, plant outdoors when strong enough. Choose a place in sun or half shade. The ground should be loamy and rich in humus. Patience is in order. The young plants will need 2-3 years until they start flowering. Hellebore is a perennial plant and completely hardy.

Warning: Hellebore contains cardio-toxins and poisonous protoanemonin. Avoid skin contact and do not ingest!

Helleborus x orientalis garden hybrid

Oriental Hellebore hybrids (Helleborus x orientalis):

The oriental hellebore is a hardy, perennial plant in the Ranuncalaceae family and very poisonous. It is related to the black hellebore (Helleborus niger). Oriental hellebores are also known as Lenten roses, because they flower during the Lenten season. They come in all shapes and colors and easily sow out themselves, if allowed to. The seedlings will flower by the second or third year. Oriental hellebores can grow bushy and get up to 40 cm tall.

Propagation by seed: the seeds are best sown fresh. I.e. in nature they fall to the ground, when the pods open (typically in May) and will germinate right away or after the following winter. Hellebore is a cold germinator and the seeds may need two cold periods in order to germinate.

Option 1: sow directly. Place seed containers outdoors and let germinate under natural conditions. This may take until the winter is over. In nature the seeds germinate stimulated by sun, warmth and snow melt.

Option 2: you can simulate this process by cold stratifying the seeds in the fridge. Put the seeds in moist paper towels and inside a plastic bag. Place them in the fridge and keep at 0-4°C for 1-2 months. Take them out and keep at room temperature for 2 weeks (don’t let seeds fall dry). If they do not germinate yet, move back to the fridge for another 2 weeks.

Gibberellic acid (GA3) helps speed up seed germination.

Use fresh seeding compost that has been mixed with 50% loam, press seeds on the soil and cover barely. Separate young plants and plant to the ground. The soil should be loamy, moist, rich in humus and slightly calciferous. Choose a place in full sun or half shade. It’s important the plants have enough light during the growth season, which spans from late winter to early summer. At the end of winter they will like some compost manure. Else the plants don’t need any fertilizer and are easy-care.

Warning: Hellebores contain cardio-toxins and poisonous protoanemonin. Avoid skin contact and do not ingest!

Helleborus feotidus pollinated by bumblebee

Stinking Hellebore (Helleborus feotidus)

Perennial, evergreen, 30-80 cm tall. Native to central and Southern Europe, Greece and Asia minor. The flowers appear in early spring. They are green and bell-shaped with a thin dark red or purple edge and carry numerous stamens as well as up to ten nectaries, making them attractive to bees and other pollinators. In addition it has been found that they are colonized by yeasts, which raise the temperature around the flower and may increase the evaporation of fragrant volatile compounds, which may also attract pollinators or even communicate the ripeness of the flower(?). The dark green leaves are supposed to have an unpleasant smell when crushed. Besides this they resemble palm leaves in shape, hence the plant is also known as “palmblättrige Nieswurz” in German. The seeds posses elaiosomes and are spread by ants, as with other hellebores.

The stinking hellebore grows in woodlands, in half shade or sun. It likes a calciferous, humus and nutrient rich, loamy, well drained soil. It tolerates drought and heat better than other hellebores. Still it should be watered during longer dry periods. Manure with compost soil after the flowering season.

Propagation by seed: cold germinator. Sow in summer, when the seeds are ripe. Store the seeds between layers of moist sand and keep in cool shade. Germination may be impaired and take up 1 year or even 2 years.

Warning: Contains poisonous helleborine. Do not ingest and wear gloves when handling!

Hyoscyamus niger

Black Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger)

Black henbane is an annual to biennial plant native to Eurasia. It is the type species in the genus Hyoscyamus and belongs to the nightshade family. It is also known as stinking nightshade. It grows between 30 to 60 cm tall, sometimes also reaching growth heights over 1 m. The biennial plants will grow taller than the annual variants. Characteristic are the hairy stems and leaves, which are ovate to lanceolate and serrated. The flowers are typically yellow and covered with dark purple veins. The flower center and stamina are dark purple, exposing the bright yellow pollen. They are visited by bees and bumblebees. The stems turn branchy and continue shooting leaves and flowers at the tops, whilst seed pods ripen from the base upwards.

Henbane has been used as an analgesic for millennia and is frequently associated with cults of the dead. In ancient Greece the dead were envisioned wearing crowns made of henbane as they walked along the river Styx. It was an ingredient in the divinatory incense at Delphi. The herb was also sacred to the sun god Apollo and known as Herba Apollinaris, ‘herb of the sun’. Egyptians knew the herb or the related Hyoscyamus muticus. As a hallucinogenic, henbane was also a main ingredient in so-called flying ointments.

Henbane propagation by seed: henbane seeds need light to germinate. Scatter them loosely on the soil, press on and do not cover. Place the sowing tray at a warm and well-lit spot. Keep the soil evenly moist but not soppy. In addition the seeds may require cold stratification.

-> germination temperature: ca. 20°C, germination time: 1-2 weeks

Prick out and transfer to larger containers or plant to the ground, when strong enough. Henbane thrives in full sun and prefers a rich, sandy to clayey soil. In nature henbane grows on dumps and ruins. Protect young plants and fresh shoots from slugs. Fertilize with compost soil.

Warning: All parts of the plant contain poisonous alkaloids. An overdose can cause coma and death. Do not ingest!

Hyoscyamus albus

White Henbane (Hyoscyamus albus)

White henbane is another species in the genus Hyoscyamus. The annual or biennial plant is native to Mediterranean regions. Stems and foliage are covered with fine hair, and occur silvery. The leaves are more oval shaped than those of black henbane and less deeply serrated. The flowers are a bright yellow and sometimes dark or a darker shade of yellow-brown at the center. They lack the dark purple veins of black henbane.

White henbane is mentioned in herbals from antiquity and was considered potentially more effective than black henbane. It contains the same alkaloids, though possibly in higher concentration.

Warning: All parts of the plant contain poisonous alkaloids. An overdose can cause coma and death. Do not ingest!

Candle Larkspur (Delphinium elatum)
Cold germinator. Sow in autumn or early spring (until March), so that the seeds still undergo a cold period. Else cold-treat the seeds at about 5°C, e.g. put them in a baggie with moist sand and store it in the vegetable drawer of your fridge for 4-6 weeks. Then take out the seeds and sow them on normal seeding compost (which is low in nutrients). Later transplant to the ground or grow in containers. Provide a well drained place in full sun but with shade on the roots and nutritious humic soil. Water frequently. Candle larkspurs come in shades from plain white over pink and purple to light or deep blue. A favored garden variant is ‘Magic Fountain’ Pacific-hybrid, for which you are receiving seeds.

Warning: Larkspurs belong to the poisonous Ranunculaceae family and should be treated with equal care as e.g. hellebore and aconite.

Field Larkspur (Consolida regalis) + Rocket Larkspur (Consolida ajacis)

The annual rocket larkspur is closely related to the perennial Delphiniums, with which it shares the name (a reference to the long spur of the flower). The flowers come in hues of deep blue, white, light blue and pink. The rocket larkspur (Consolida ajacis) is often planted in cottage gardens, whereas the forking or field larkspur (Consolida regalis) was found growing wild on fields and dry meadows, alongside corn poppy, chamomile and mallow, but is now endangered. The blue flowers are beautiful in cut flower arrangements and can also be dried and added to potpourris. They are also added to tea blends.  In folk magic they are attributed protective properties. Larkspur is also planted in the witch garden as a fairy plant and to ward off hexes.

Propagation by seed: Sow in early spring or early autumn. Sow  directly in the bed and cover barely. Larkspur does not like transplanting and should be sown directly at the spot where you wish to grow it. The seeds may require a cold period before they germinate. Prefers a well-drained, calciferous, loamy, nutritious soil and a spot in full sun.

Warning: Larkspurs belong to the poisonous Ranunculaceae family and should be treated with equal care as e.g. hellebore and aconite.

Convallaria majalis flower

Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis)

Best sown fresh in autumn or winter.  Prime the seeds in cold water. Sow about 1 cm deep and cover with a mix of normal sowing soil, loam and sand. The seeds need a cold period prior to germination. Put the sowing pots outdoors over the winter or place them in a container with moist sand and let germinate under natural conditions. Or use cold-stratification: place seeds in moist paper towels inside zipper bag. First keep at 18-22°C for 2-4 weeks. Then move to the fridge and keep at –4 to 4°C for at least 1 month. After 4-6 weeks change the surrounding temperature to 5-12°C. Or simply move outdoors in spring. In nature the seeds germinate, stimulated by the rise of temperatures, sunlight and snow melt. Depending on the conditions and age of seed, they may take a couple of weeks or up to 1 year or longer. The young plants may not like to be transplanted, so make sure there is enough space between the seeds. Plant out in the first year, preferably in September. The soil should be rich, loose and well drained. Lily of the valley thrives in half shade, but the more diffuse sunlight they get the more they will flower. If planted in  full shade they will not set flower.  Use fertilizer if grown in a container.

Perennial, woodland plant, native to the Northern hemisphere, with white, sometimes pink, fragrant flowers, which occur in May (hence the German name “Maiglöckchen”). The bright red fruits ripen from June to September. Spreads mainly through rhizomes and develops large colonies, if the place is favorable. May not flower before the 3rd, sometimes only by the 5th year and flowers only once.

Warning: All parts of the plant contain cardiac glycosides. An overdose leads to cardiac arrest and death. Do not ingest!

Mandrake plant with fruits, found in a cloister garden

Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum)

Mandrake is native to Mediterranean regions and the Near-East, where it grows wild in woodland and wasteland areas, by the wayside, in olive groves, on meadows and nearby ruins, in full sun to semi-shade and dry soil. Mandrake does withstand some cold, but may require winter protection in Northern latitudes.

The Mandragora plant genus belongs to the Solanaceae family and consist of about 5 known species. The type species Mandragora officinarum includes the autumnal, or ‘black’ mandrake (Mandragora officinarum var. ‘Autumnalis‘) and the vernal, or ‘white’ mandrake (Mandragora officinarum).

The main difference between the two variants is that the autumn mandrake flowers in autumn and the seeds are smaller. They germinate easier, but the plants are not as lush in growth. The vernal variant flowers in winter or early spring and has larger seeds. They are more difficult to germinate, but the plants develop a stronger growth. My seeds for ‘white’ mandrake come from Israel, and those for ‘black’ mandrake are from Spain.

Propagation by seed: cold germinator. Stratify the seeds in wet paper towels, which are kept in the fridge for a few weeks. Check frequently if you discover any mold. Exchange the paper towels every so often. Mold is a bad sign, but this does not mean the seeds are also rotten inside. Just clean the seed and replace the paper towel. When you take them out of the fridge, you can either continue to keep the seeds in paper towels until they germinate, or you sow them into soil. The seeds germinate stimulated by the change of temperature. The soil can be a mix of seeding compost from the garden center and crushed granite or use ready cactus sowing soil. Keep moist and do not allow seeds or seedlings to fall dry, but avoid water- logging! Some people also cultivate mandrake in hydroculture.

The germination time for mandrake seeds can vary greatly, from 1 week to months or a whole year! An interesting experience I made, was that seeds, which had been left in the tray and did not germinate, germinated after a leaving the tray completely dry and starting to water again after some days.

Seedling of Mandragora officinarum
Seedling of Mandragora officinarum

Mandrake can be sown all year round, but the best time for sowing is when the seeds come fresh from the plant (in late summer). Germinate in a well-lit place, not in full shade and avoid direct sunlight, which could burn the young leaves. Sow in trays or pots, 1 at a time.

When the mandrake seed has germinated, care for the young plantlet, by keeping the soil moist (not soppy). The young plant will show only 3-4 leaves in the beginning and concentrate all its energy into root growth. The first 2 leaves soon start fading. I usually wait with transplanting, until the root starts to permeate the bottom of the tray. That’s when I move it to a larger pot. The best containers are those used for roses and other plants that develop long roots. Some also grow their mandrake in tubes! You can also plant the mandrake outdoors in the bed.

Growing mandrake in a container enables you to move them indoors during the winter-time. Another benefit is that the plant is better protected from slugs. The downside with growing mandrake in a container is that it may not grow as big and healthy. My mandrake planted outdoors in the bed has already survived 2 winters and is doing fine. The biggest problem are indeed snails, that graze the leaves as if they were salad.

Nutrients:   seeds and seedlings are nurtured by the seed itself and do not require additional nutrients! Start fertilizing only when the plants are already a few weeks old. For mandrake planted to the ground I use compost manure once a year. The mandrakes planted in pots may need to be treated with aphid control sticks, which also contain nutrients and do not need any additional fertilizer.

Hormones: Germination and root growth can be stimulated with hormones such as GA3.

Solanum dulcamara

Bittersweet Nightshade (Solanum dulcamara): Cold germinator. Sow outdoors in autumn or early spring. Or pre-culture indoors from February to March. Sow flat on soil, press on gently and do not cover. The seeds need a cold period before they germinate. Priming the seeds in tepid water helps speed up germination. Perennial climber, with purple flowers and bright red berries. Thrives in half shade on nutritious and loamy soil. Turns into a half shrub with the years. The branches can reach up to 7 m and may take over hedges. The stems are used medicinally for their cortisone like effects.

Warning: Bittersweet nightshade contains steroid alcaloides and saponines, e.g. the poisonous Solanin. Do not ingest!

Solanum nigrum

Black Nightshade (Solanum nigrum): Sow outdoors in May or pre-culture indoors from March to April. Sow flat on soil, press on gently and do not cover. The seeds germinate quickly, within 1-2 weeks. Priming them in tepid water helps speed up germination. Annual herb in the nightshade family, up to 80 cm tall, with white flowers and dark fruits. Thrives in full sun, on nutritious well drained soil. Ruderal species found world wide. Old medicinal herb, also known as “garden strychnos“. The green parts are poisonous but the ripe black fruits can be eaten (similar as with tomatoes).

Warning: The green parts of black nightshade contain poisonous solanine. Do not ingest!

Papaver somniferum, photographed in a park

Opium Poppy (Papaver somniferum)

The opium poppy is a member in the poppy family. It is annual herb, which was once native to the eastern Mediterraneans, but has since been cultivated and naturalized worldwide. It grows in temperate regions and is used to extreme temperature differences between day and night. The plant grows about 1 m tall. The silver-green stems and foliage are sparsely covered with coarse hair. The leaves claps to the stem at the base. The flowers have 4 petals, which are often dark at the base. They flower at the beginning of June, in white, purple or red hues. The seed pods ripen within 12 days and produce raw opium, which is gathered by cutting the pods in the evening and collecting the latex exudate on the next morning. Once the pods are ripe, they turn a pale brown, the plants die off and you can start collecting the seeds or allow them to spread by themselves.

Opium poppy is the only poppy grown as a crop. The blue or white seeds are an important food item, widely used in baking and the source of edible poppyseed oil. Besides this the plant is the most important root source for opiates. Poppies grown as food crop are usually variants, which contain less opiates. Lastly it is grown for ornamental purposes.

Propagation by seed: cold germinator. Sow in early spring or autumn, directly in the bed, into shallow holes or use large containers. Cover only with a thin layer of soil, water regularly until the seeds germinate. Water scarcely, once the seeds have germinated. Prick out, when the plants are about one hand tall, so you get a rough distance of 15 cm between the plants that you want to cultivate. Now start watering again. Poppies do not like transplanting. Hence you must sow them where you intend for them to grow. The seeds may require cold stratification.

Note: since some time German law requires a special permit for cultivating opium poppies, even if it is just for decorative purpose.

Conium maculatum stem and habitus

Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum)

Biennial, native to Europe and Asia, the plant develops a basal rosette of leaves and a tap-root in the first year. The erect, hollow stem with characteristic purple spots grows in the second year. It carries white flower umbels from June to July. They develop green, cumin like seeds until September. Reproduction via seed only. Poison hemlock is an invasive weed in many countries. It grows in damp semi-shady places and prefers rich moist soil, but adapts also to drier conditions. Cut the flowers before they produce seed to avoid unwanted propagation in your garden.

The deadly poisonous plant is one of two known species in the Conium genus. The name is derived from Greek konas, meaning to ‘whirl’. One of the symptoms in conium poisoning is vertigo, followed by paralysis and death through respiratory failure, setting in after 2-3 hours. Socrates is said to have been put to death with extracts of the fresh green seeds of C. maculatum and P. somniferum. It has also been used in the execution of murder convicts and other criminals.

Sacred to Hecate and Wotan, it is also believed to house a deadly naiad. Other names are Poison Parsley, Herb Bennet, Kecksies and Beaver Poison. In homeoptahy C. maculatum is used to treat depression, paralysis, physical and mental restraints and weaknesses, and problems arising from religious indoctrination.

Propagation by seed: Sow seeds on fresh seeding compost that has been mixed with sand, press on and cover barely. Sowing in early spring. the seeds will germinate within 2 weeks at around 16°C.

Warning: Poison Hemlock contains lethal alkaloids coniine and conhydrine. Do not ingest and wear gloves when handling!

Caper Spurge (Euphorbia lathyris)

This is the spurge used traditionally in witchcraft, which is also reflected in its German name ‘Hexenmilch’. It is thought to repel moles and voles, hence the English names mole plant and German Wühlmauspflanze. None of it is proven. However the plant does contain a poisonous white sap (like all plants in the spurge genus), which can be irritating to the skin and harmful if ingested.

This biennial is an attractive, up to 1 m tall garden plant, with silvery or blue green stems and foliage, with geometrically arranged leaves forming crosses around the lower stem and auspicious triangular shaped bracts around inconspicuous small green flowers. The seed capsules look like little capers, hence the English name. The seeds are rich in oleic acids and may provide fuel oil. The white milky sap contains latex and carbon, hence may also provide a fuel source. The sap was used to treat corns and warts. The seeds were consumed as a laxative but would lead to severe poisoning or even death if consumed in larger amounts.

Favors a spot in full sun on well drained, calciferous soil.

Propagation by seed: cold germinator. Sow the fresh seeds from July to August. Or pre-culture in late winter. Keep at room temperature for 2-4 weeks. Then move to the fridge and keep at 0-4°C for 4-8 weeks. The seeds need at least one cold period before they germinate. Then move outdoors. If conditions aren’t favorable they will remain dormant for another year and germinate in the following spring. In nature the seeds germinate stimulated by snow melt, warmth and sun light.

Warning: All parts of the plant, including the seeds and roots are poisonous. Handling may cause skin irritation.

Datura stramonium var. 'stramonium', fruit and flower
Datura stramonium var. ‘stramonium’, fruit and flower

Common Thornapple (Datura stramonium)

Also known as Jimson weed and mad seeds, it famously features in the writings of Carlos Castaneda. The species epithet stramonium comes from Greek strychnos, meaning “nightshade” and maniakos, meaning “mad”. There are two variants of Datura stramonium. The ‘stramonium‘ variant has green stems and plain white flowers. The variant named ‘tatula‘ has dark purple stems, the leaves are a darker green and the flowers have a purple tinge.

Datura stramonium var. 'tatula', flower and fruit
Datura stramonium var. ‘tatula’, flower and fruit

Propagation by seed: Prime seeds in a baggie with tepid fresh water for 24 hours. Sow 0,5-1 cm deep into seeding compost. Place in a warm and sunny spot. Keep moist but not soppy. The seeds will germinate within 2-6 weeks, at temperatures around 20-25°C.

Increase temperature and moistness by placing sowing pots in a humidity tent or under transparent plastic foil. Air out every day. Separate young plants when they develop the second pair of true leaves and plant into larger containers. The soil can be normal to rich. Move them outdoors after the last night frosts and give them a spot in full sun or half-shade. In my experience diffuse light under a tree is best – they’ll develop more foliage then. Direct sunlight will burn them. The roots are suspect to fungi, so make sure the containers you plant them in, have good drainage. Fertilizer is needed only, if the leaves turn yellow during growth period.

Daturas flower all summer long until late autumn. Collect their seeds when the fruits begin to open by themselves. Usually an annual plant, the roots of D. innoxia etc. can also be overwintered in a cool and shady place in the house (similar to dahlias).

Assumed to be a New World plant, thornapple has been used in ceremonies for contacting the spirit world and in rites of passage, but also as an ingredient in so-called zombie powders. Ingestion can be fatal or cause delirium and trauma for several days.

The genus name is derived from ancient Hindu dhatura, meaning a “plant”.

Warning: All parts of the plant contain poisonous tropane alkaloids. An overdose can lead to coma and death. Do not ingest!

Devil's Trumpet (Datura metel), unfolding flower and fruit
Indian Thornapple (Datura metel), unfolding flower and fruit

Indian Thornapple (Datura metel)

Native to India and warm climates. Cultivated for its ornamental white flowers and soft mellow leaves. The thorns on the fruit pod are relatively small compared to other Daturas. The seeds are of an orange-brown color and smaller than those of Datura innoxia.

Datura metel var. ‘Fastuosa’

Black Devil’s Trumpet (Datura metel var. Fastuosa)

This is a dark-purple cultivar of Datura metel, with double or triple flowers, that are white on the inside and dark purple on the outside. Also called ‘Black Current Swirl’. The flowers emit a pleasantly sweet smell. The fruits are smooth and knobby, dark-green to purple in color and contain orange-yellow seeds. Single plants can get up 1,50 m tall.

Datura wrightii, flower opening at dusk, fruit and seeds
Datura innoxia (?), flower opening at dusk, fruit and seeds

Mexican Thornapple (Datura innoxia), Sacred Datura (Datura wrightii)

Also known as downy thornapple, tolguache or toloache, toloatzin and moonflower. The flowers are white and 10-toothed. The fruits are densely covered with spines and contain the orange-yellow seeds. The plant is pilose all over, which gives it a silvery gray appearance. Aztecs used it for healing purposes and rites of passage. The sacred datura (Datura wrightii) looks similar to and is thought to be a subspecies of Datura innoxia. It has bright-purple tinged flowers, which are 5-toothed.

Nicotiana tabacum ‘Virginia’

Cultivated Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum):

Pre-culture indoors for strong plants and early harvest. Sow flat, press on and do not cover. The seeds germinate quickly, within 1-2 weeks. Annual, grows about 2 m tall, with decorative pink flowers. This is the tobacco used in cigarettes and cigars. It is forbidden to trade, but allowed to cultivate for private use. The leaves are harvested in steps, and dried under warm and humid conditions to break down chlorophyll and reduce nicotine content. Tobacco is used in ritual to exorcise and break hexes, also to send and reverse curses. It is mixed with herbs in smoking blends for achieving an altered state of mind and contacting spirits. In horti- and agriculture tobacco is used as a pesticide, which kills all insects, including bees!

Warning: Nicotine is a strong neurotoxine. Do not ingest! Do not smoke raw unfermented leaves! Wear gloves when handling.

Nicotiana rustica

Aztec Tobacco (Nicotiana rustica)

Aztec tobacco is also called Mapacho. It is an annual to biennial plant, native to Northern South America. It is characterized by its round leaves and grows up to 1 m tall. The bright yellow flowers occur from June to late autumn. The seed capsules contain 100-200 seeds each.

Mapacho is smoked together with Tagetes lucida by Mexican shamans and was famous amongst Russian soldiers in WW II. In Vietnam it is known as Thuoc Lao and used as pipe tobacco. The leaves contain up to 9 times as much nicotine than Virginia tobacco. Its commercial distribution is prohibited in Europe. In German it is known as ‘Bauern-Tabak’.

Propagation by seed: the seeds need light to germinate. Sow seeds flat on seeding compost, press on and do not cover. Keep the seed tray in a warm and sunny spot. The soil should be moist but not soppy.

-> germination temperature: 15-20°C, germination time: 1-2 weeks

Separate young plants and transfer to large pots or plant outdoors when strong enough, in sun or half shade. The soil should be normal and humus rich. Protect leaves from the noon sun. Ideal is a place, where the plants get morning and evening sun.

Yew (Taxus baccata)

Yew is an evergreen tree in the conifer family and it is the only European species in the genus Taxus. Yew is found across Europe and has spread to the North of Africa, the Caucasus, Asia Minor and North Iran. It grows in humid climates that provide mild winters and cool, rainy summers. It tolerates different soils, from acidic to alkaline and moist to dry. Yew readily adopts to different conditions, but will prefer a humus rich, loose soil, which is rich in nutrients. In addition it should contain some lime. It is one of the trees that can thrive in full shade, but it will also grow in full sun, as long as the ground does not fall dry over longer periods.

Yew does not grow into a typical tree form and is often pruned into a favorable shape. There are male and female yew trees. The latter carry red fruits in autumn. The red fruit flesh is only edible part and can be made into jelly. The rest of the tree is deadly poisonous. Birds eat the fruits and spread the seeds. I.e. I frequently find small yew trees spreading in my garden, which likely spring from bird remains.

Propagation by seed: cold germinator. The seeds require cold stratification. The easiest method would be to simply place the fruits in sand or soil and leave them outdoors over the winter. This way they are exposed to wind and weather, which will soften the hard seed husk. Germination will be triggered by the change of temperature, once the days and nights get warmer and longer. Alternatively grind or carefully cut the seed coat and try to germinate them indoors. First stratify in the fridge for a few weeks and then plant in soil. Patience is in order. Germination may take 12 months or longer.

Warning: All parts of the tree (save for the fruit flesh) contain cytostatic diterpenes (taxanes). Poisoning leads to death through respiratory failure and cardiac arrest. Do not ingest! Wear gloves when handling!

Helpful Links: Das Kräuterbuch + Templiner Kräutergarten + Saatgut-Vielfalt, Walter Wolf + Garten-Lexikon

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