The Witching Herbs by Harold Roth – Book Excerpt

April 1st, 2017



Plant Spirits

Hammers and pens can be well made or faulty, beautiful or ugly. They require skill from the user, as well as a certain amount of intrinsic capabili­ties as tools, but they are not capable of independent thought or of deliberately hindering or helping our work. When you work with an herb, rather than with its plant spirit, the herb is a tool. When you work with a plant spirit, the herb is a sacred text that you can read to learn about the spirit. And that spirit has its own will and its own desires that may not match what you want to achieve.

When you are silent, you have more of a chance of hearing what someone else has to tell you, and I think that this is especially true in the garden. In some ways, ordinary gardeners are closer to magic than most people, because of the opportunity gardening gives them to listen to other spirits and to relate to lives that are fundamentally different from their own. We can anthropomorphize animals to the point where it becomes difficult to perceive their “themness,”that doesn’t usually happen with plants, because they are physically so different from us. To understand a life so alien from your own requires a real opening of the soul. I believe that anyone is capable of doing this, but it does take patience, work, and will.



If you are not cultivating a plant, or at least working with it in the wild, it is very difficult to come to know the spirit of that plant. If you want to work with henbane, but the only henbane you possess is in powdered form, you may have difficulty contact­ing the plant spirit, because powdered henbane seems always to be adulterated with flour, which can get in your way. This is not to say that magic work can’t utilize herbs that you have bought rather than grown or harvested. Far from it. I sell herbs myself and often buy herbs that I cannot grow myself, as they derive from tropical trees. However, it is more difficult to contact a plant spirit using store-bought herbs.

When you grow an herb yourself, especially if it is one you grow on a regular basis, it is almost certain that, sooner or later, the spirit of that plant will contact you if you make yourself open to it. For one thing, when you grow the plant yourself, especially from seed, you are able to see it at various stages in its life, under many different weather conditions, in various seasons (sun phases), and through all the moon phases. I also see this activity—growing a plant—as being devotional to the plant spirit.

Yes, there are plants that grow without any human assistance, but many that are associated with magic actually seem to prefer to grow around people. They appear to get something from that prox­imity besides the benefits of cultivation. In fact, my sense is that they receive something spiritual or nonmaterial as well—something we lack the words to define at this time in our development.

I also view cultivating a plant as being akin to the kabbalistic concept of tzimtzum, the Lurianic concept of how the divine con­tracted to make room for the universe as an independent existence. Tending a plant can be a very caring and selfless activity. Moreover, many of the plants used in magic have aromatic foliage that, when brushed against, releases its signature scent. This may not always be a pleasant smell, but it is always an identifying characteristic. Scent is among the primary ways that plants communicate with animals. This is certainly true with moths and butterflies, but even fruits begin to release a fragrant odor when they are ripe and ready for animals to eat them. If a plant can send out requests through scent for certain parts of it to be visited or even consumed, then it most likely can and will communicate other things about itself. However, we must be open to this communication and recognize that communication does not always have to occur in the form of words or even images.

Scent can be narrative, can tell a story. It can be a way for us to communicate with the plant spirit itself. Since scent is one of the least understood senses—and in our society, perhaps the least necessary and thus most mysterious—it is often accorded magical or spiritual properties. The Zohar, for instance, considers scent as the one food for the soul that is available on this plane and that can feed angels and other spirits as well as gods—which goes a long way toward explaining the importance of incense in magic.


(Mother & Child Mandrake Root)

It is certainly true that scent can affect the mind on the physical plane by being psychoactive. Examples include the perfume of brug­mansiaswhich, if slept under, provides the sleeper with terrifying visions—or the uplifting scent of frankincense, or jasmine’s ability to raise the seizure threshold. So one important means of commu­nication between plants and people has to be scent—not only when plants send their scent to us but also when we, in turn, use that scent to evoke the plant spirit through magic oils or scented candles.

in my experience, being around and tending a growing plant every day—basically in a posture of helping and attentively listening—is a way to let the plant spirit know that you want to make contact and that you are ready to learn. Years ago, a rabbi told me that one way to indicate to the divine that you want to make contact is to study holy books; by doing so, you indicate that you are open to contact with the sacred. I see tending plants in the same way. A plant is a sacred text—the description and plan, the story of the plant’s spirit—and when you tend that plant and cultivate and groom it, you indicate to its spirit that you are open and ready and receptive to its contact. I see this posture as completely different from consuming plant parts.

Often, plants offer a particular part to animals for consump­tion—fruits, for instance—as an element in a bargain wherein they distribute their seeds. Even when we eat the leaves of a plant, I have sensed that these plants know that their siblings and their children will have more opportunities to propagate than if they were growing alone in the woods somewhere and no one ate their leaves. And, as with animals, propagation seems to be one of a plant’s primary aims in life. so when we tend plants to help them grow or propagate, we let their spirits know that we are well disposed toward them and that, while we may kill masses of them during the harvest process, we intend to further their progeny more than would have been possible for them on their own.

We provide an important service to the community of that plant; the god of that plant, its spirit, must take heed of that service. I am certain that plant spirits notice our attentions to their avatars. If any­thing is equal to prayer in the relationship between people and plant spirits, it is our tending and helping to propagate their material man­ifestations as plants. I think it is also a good example of how prayer, in order to work, must be in the form of action.


(Mugwort Patch)

It’s also true that the plants we cultivate tend to be far less fero­cious in their effects than those that grow in the wild. I have seen a lot of advice that claims that plants intended for use in magic should be harvested from the wild, rather than grown in the garden, because wild plants are considered to be more powerful. But plants grown in the optimal conditions of a garden tend to be far more relaxed and friendly. They don’t produce the high amounts of alkaloids that wild plants do, because they don’t have as much need for them, as they are not being gnawed on by every passing critter. A garden-raised baneful will likely have fewer alkaloids, because it is not as afraid of being eaten. A plant that is less afraid is a happier plant and one that may be more open to interaction with us, because it is not constantly in fear for its life or worrying that its babies will be destroyed. My advice to people wanting to contact plant spirits: Choose a plant toward which you feel simpatico or one whose shape you just like (often the same thing) and grow it. Grow it in your yard or in a pot, on your windowsill or in your home—anywhere that provides the conditions for cultivation. Tend it and wait with an open heart.

We cannot demand that a plant spirit show itself. But my expe­rience has been that, eventually, the spirit will reveal itself, and in a most unmistakable way—through dreams or visions, for instance. It is a mighty impressive and awe-inspiring experience, one that lets us know that our allies are extraordinarily powerful and also fundamen­tally different from us.

Permissions Line:

Adapted, and reprinted with permission from Weiser an imprint of Red Wheel/Weiser, THE WITCHING HERBS  by Harold Roth is available wherever books and ebooks are sold or directly from the publisher at or 800-423-7087.

*All photos are courtesy of Harold Roth


About the Author:

Harold Roth is among the foremost authorities on plants within the modern occult community. For the past 15 years, he has owned and operated Alchemy Works, an online store focused on herb magic, where he crafts and sells incense, potions, and magical oils. The Witching Herbs has been in the works for a decade and is eagerly anticipated. Visit him at





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