So often ignored and trodden upon, the humble weed lives on following us around the world just in case we should remember its ancient applications. The weeds in your very own backyard often hold more magic and potent medicine than the imported dried herbs you would buy in a shop. The weeds didn’t necessarily follow us. Many of them were planted intentionally for food and medicine in both Europe and the New World until they were forgotten after being replaced by pills and creams from the pharmacy. Why spend all that money on simple remedies when there are so many free ones literally outside your door? Pay closer attention to weeds you pluck from your garden and yard, growing in the cracks in the sidewalks, sprouting up in parking lots, or hiding alongside fences where they are missed by the lawnmower. Learn more about them and perhaps you’ll leave hating them behind and start to see weeds as Nature’s pharmacy instead of just something to kill.
I’ve selected ten very common weeds growing in Europe and North America to demonstrate just how useful weeds can be to witches in our magic and for crafting our own herbal home remedies. I hope, by learning about these weeds, the reader is inspired to get out in nature and get their hands dirty. With luck, those weeds in your backyard will end up dried in labeled canning jars or used to make home remedies instead of tossed into the compost heap or sprayed with nasty chemicals. I’ll post one weed every Saturday, starting today with Bittersweet Nightshade.
Other Names: Bittersweet, Felonwort, Garden Nightshade, Scarlet Berry, Devil’s Tomato, Snakeberry, Staff Vine, Woody Nightshade
Where it Grows: Damp locations such as in the shade by houses and other buildings or winding inside hedges (it seems to particularly like Yew hedges). You can find it anywhere from a dense thicket in the wild wood to creeping up a chain link fence in the middle of a city. It is mainly found throughout Europe, but has also naturalized throughout all of North America.
Growing & Harvesting: It’s a weed so it’s very easy to start from seed. Just toss the seeds on the earth where you want it to grow either in late fall or very early spring. Bittersweet also grows very easily and quickly from cuttings. Just snip off a few pieces and place them in water for 1-2 weeks until roots form and then plant them. It is fairly aggressive and fast growing so be sure to plant it somewhere it won’t bother other more delicate plants. It doesn’t at all mind being put in a planter or pot. It makes a great decorative climbing vine on a porch, but just be sure to keep it away from small children who have a bad habit of eating the red berries and poisoning themselves. The leaves and vines will die back every year depending on the climate where you live. In a warm climate the leaves will die, but the stalk will survive eventually growing large and woody the older it gets (hence the name “woody nightshade”). In a colder climate the whole plant may die back, but if you leave the berries on the vines it will reseed itself and come back the following year (not always where you want it to though). To collect the seeds: harvest the berries when they are bright red and let them overripen before extracting the seeds. For medicine: harvest the leaves and stems in spring or early fall and dry for later use.
Magic: Ruled by Capricorn and the planet Saturn, but other sources say it is ruled by Mercury and the signs of Air. Deities who have an association with this plant include Hermes and Hecate — shamanic deities who easily travel through all three realms of sea, earth, and sky. It can be added to a witches’ salve used to access the World Tree and communicate with both deities and the spirits of the dead. In folk magic it is used to heal a broken heart by either placing some of the dried herb beneath your pillow or carrying it in a sachet on your person. I would recommend mixing it with Bleeding Heart flowers for this purpose. Culpepper, in his famous herbal, claims it will cure vertigo if you wear Bittersweet around your neck it. It is also traditionally used to protect from evil and also to cleanse anyone, animal, or object of evil or the evil eye. Instead of burning it, try dipping a fresh clipping of Bittersweet in springwater or rainwater and flick it onto the people or object you wish to cleanse.
Medicine: As it is mildly toxic Bittersweet is best if used externally as a poultice or salve. The parts used are the leaves, stems, and root bark. The berries are not used for medicine. When ingested it mainly acts as a purgative which translates from herbal lingo as “makes you puke”. As a poultice the leaves are good for treating herpes, boils, and gout. When used in a salve Bittersweet is better mixed with other herbs. In his massive Herb Book, John Lust recommends mixing Bittersweet with Chamomile to make a salve for treating inflammation, bruising, and sprains, but make sure not to use it on open wounds like cuts and gashes (rashes should be okay). Lust also recommends blending it with Yellow Dock (another common weed) in a salve to treat skin diseases and sores such as eczema and psoriasis. In either salve it would also be good for treating various insect bites. You can also used the dried plant as a medicinal bath to treat skin conditions and skin infections as well as aching joints by taking such a bath for a few days in a row. Do NOT use when pregnant.