Verbis Viridis

As the old adage goes; to know something's true name is to have power over it.   Determining a things true name is a subject of great debate and controversy, and then, what's in a name?  Plants are more than their names.  Can the taxonomic classification of a plant be interpreted as a true name or a language?  Is communication with plants a matter of U.P.G? Can plants only be communed with in the language of the local ethnic group or is the language of a plant merely a metaphor for scientific and spiritual understanding of an herb?  I'd guess all these options carry weight, maybe they're all true at different times for different practitioners.  

My interest is in communicating with plants on every level.  I want to be able to not just identify their form, but resonate spiritually with the nature of plants.  I want to speak their language, know their many dialects.  Theirs is a language of senses and movement, cycles and ecosystems.  It's complex beyond beauty and knowing all that you can could only ever be a fraction of their vocabulary.  

The green tongue, the voces magicae of the occult herbalist; are they divine words spoken only by plant magicians and the green world?  Are they a manifestation of plant gnosis?  Are they the language of plant lore?  I think they're a combination of all these things; material, spiritual and experiential.

"Plants can be said to have a personality- a certain air about them- and this is often reflected in their names."- Richard Bird, A Gardener's Latin

Speaking the tongue of the plant world can be manifested in a number of ways.  Most people are familiar with the Language of Flowers; which communicates the symbolism of flowers, often based on some valid history regarding its folkloric use, discovery or practical applications.  The Language of Flowers uses the symbolism of a flower to tell a simple or complex fact about its nature.

The wisteria floribunda- meaning "free-flowering", is a vine is known also under the symbolism of "welcome" in Western flower language and its language is that of welcoming to one's property or home, and typically this plant occupies fences and door arches, "inviting" people in with its calm sweet perfume and gentle movements, though in Japanese flower language, wisteria signifies poetry and youth.  

Hedera helix- meaning "twisting"; in the Language of Flowers is symbolic of dependence, fidelity and commitment- though this depends on which culture you are speaking from; the language of gort in the Irish pagan world is of constancy and steadfastness- in the Greek world, its symbolism is associated with Dionysus, concealment and victory.  This is one method of interpreting the message a plant may wish to convey on a symbolic level- as symbolism is part of the language world.  Often times flower language is contradictory, being relative to each culture, so it's important to know where your herbs are coming from in literally every regard.

Another manifestation of the green word is through the act of ritual bonding; where the plant spirit is quite literally consumed by the witch/shaman in varied doses and methods until a sense of unity with the plant has been achieved.  Some green alchemists believe that this road leads to one being able to "communicate" with the spirit of an herb, to speak the sacred words that evoke the spirit of the plant through ritual experience.  

Slowly introducing a specific plant and its matter into your system in ritual and practice is a great way to become acquainted with the personality of an herb, and depending on the herb, can be used to facilitate a flight-of-the-spirit, where perhaps you will learn the true song of the herb.  The idea is that as you absorb the quinta essentia of the plant, it will  reveal hidden wisdom to the one who imbibed the herb.  This is reflected in mythologies across the world from the Celtic hazelnut of wisdom to the Biblical apple of knowledge to the pomegranate seeds of the Greek underworld.

"The spirits of Meadows, abundant with flowers and fragrant herbs, are often best captured in a wine or other nectareous liquor; waste-lands, absent of water and plant life, best offer ocher, sand and their dry and brittle bones to be ground into Dust of Art." -Daniel A. Schulke, Viridarium Umbris: The Pleasure Garden of Shadow
Sic tua Cyrneas fugiant examina Taxos
Of course, this can't be done with every plant or every constitute of a given herb.  I would not recommend, for example, consuming the oxalate-rich  ivy berries as they have been known to upset the skin, stomach and throat; while a tincture of the leaves can be okay in low doses.  

Another herb that makes a great familiar but a bad meal is the witch known as Yew, where no part of the taxane plant should really be consumed except the red, fleshy outside of the poisonous seed.

Some roads are ghost roads and some places can only be reached by the dead.  When we imbibe psychoactive herbs which are poisons to varying degrees of severity, we "die" in a sense.  This death is the mechanism by which the journey is achieved.  When shamans chew peyote buttons, they die.  When seekers drink the crushed wood-rose and undergo the agony to reach that distant euphoria, it is through death.  The death can be a long process, the death can be a period of trance or unconsciousness.  

Poison roads aren't for everybody.  I'm one of those greenwomen whose spirit simply is not ready for the initiation into some of these poison mysteries. I get along well with shamans like kava and divinorum, coffee and cacao, wine, tea and cordials, tobacco and other vaporous herbal shamans; lazy ones, sleepy ones, long pipes and short...

In truth, before you can understand the language of any plant, you should probably be well acquainted with its gifts and maladies, or you'll wind up suffering; trust me- one hot day with digitalis taught me all I needed to know. Never seek oral communion or consumption of any herb without knowing its basic medical chemistry.  

I encourage amateur herbalism seminars, lectures, training or classes, communication with local apothecaries or naturalists, or wildcrafting courses to better understand the nature of herbs and the plant world. I've had good luck getting acquainted with my local horticulture vocational program instructors, urban agriculture gardeners, nursery workers and park volunteers.  These people as well as continuing education by taking courses in chemistry, botany and biology are a great way to stay informed on how to speak to plants in the most basic ways.  You don't need to be a master herbalist or certified botanist to be a good gardener with a green tongue.

The Root...

Start with what you know.  There's this glamorous idea of traditional witchcraft that idealizes these trees and herbs that are famous in the lore of European witchcraft, but that's not the reality for witches around the world.  Henbane is in no way part of the pharmacopoeia of my birth home in the Californian desert or my current homestead of the rainy Northwest.  Atropa belladonna and mandragora are also sparsely ever seen in my region of the world, so how could I ever really come to bond with these spirits or hold them as familiars when they don't even play in my garden?   I stick with who I know, because as romantic as the lore and legend of wolfs-bane and mandrake might be, they are not members of the Riverton herbarium.  

My birthplace was home to datura, peyote and mescal bean, and these plants were cultural acquaintances of ours growing up, along with their companion spirits; rattlesnake, monarch, black widow and coyote.  Medicine bags vary by family, clan, tribe, region- the medicine bags made for my sister and me by the elders at the Indian Center contained the plant spirit medicine of the peoples who dwell there, while the medicine bags received when we moved North to be with our Salish-descended families contained some different matter and the plant spirits within sing different songs.

Aloevera, sagebrush, echeveria, creeping buttercup, eschscholzia californica, eucalyptus, squash flower, bean pods, red bean (mescal), willow, reed; I befriended these plant spirits on an intimate spiritual level before ever leaving California, just from the amount of exposure I had to them in a variety of capacities from the kitchen to the pow-wow grounds, from tia's altar to grandma's garden.  I was nurtured on corn-silk tea and aloe juice, eucalyptus baths and cobwebbed eyes.

These days, I reside a lot further North and the medicine of the indigenous peoples here varies a good deal from Southwest customs, as do the animal and plant spirits of the Northwest.  So I stay culturally and spiritually acquainted with the well-known sacred spirits, medicine of the plant world who dwell here; among them cedar; industrious and nurturing, madrona; a tree of life.  Duwamish river reeds are builders of long-house mats and baskets for offerings.  Even stinging-nettle sings a bitter song at first but sings a different tune when put into the pot to boil and eaten in a meal.

This region has a lot of old gods; they are still kept alive by the medicine of the people who still dwell here. Raven spirit, thunderbird, salmon-people, coyote and red tail hawk are all still prominent figures in local lore and deeply loved spiritual figures in the coastal Northwest.  These aren't just stories of my childhood, these aren't just parables from my region; this medicine is my guiding green key to the doorway of nature here.  Every story reflects the animistic relationship between medicine and nature; which are essentially one and the same.

"Animism, the earliest form of spiritual belief, operated on the principle that each and every object in nature possessed both a tangible and an ethereal dimension and that the one could not be separated from the other, whether the primitive eye was viewing a mammoth, a mountain or a tree."- Michael Jordan, The Green Mantle

 Rabbit and crow spirit thrive by the Duwamish
river in massive warrens and murders.
This place is haunted by a lot of old spirits. Not too unlike the fairy, the spirits of this area dwell in deep tree roots, in pockets of tree rot, in nurse logs and green rivers and occupy both this and and other worlds as liminal beings.  As close companions to the plant spirit world are a variety of living spirits like coyotes, raccoon, blue heron, eagles and plentiful rabbits.  They all speak their own language and sing their songs.

Working with a plant spirit to learn its language is part of my animistic process.  Every plant has its own name, and I swear most plants speak their own very specific language, something that can be communicated to us through different processes.  

Practitioners utilize plant spirit medicine in a number of ways.  In most or all cases, this is done by speaking with the spirit of the plant and coaxing it forth.  They can be sung to, they can be placated with offerings.  Some plants require that the shaman speaking to them be of an altered consciousness, aided by a secondary plant shaman like marijuana, peyote or San Pedro cactus or by ecstatic dancing, or by drumming, clapping, stomping, by disciplines like yoga or dreaming techniques- some method of altering one's state of mind... most easily achieved through a mix of drugs, dance and music.   Some plants will only reveal their spirits when communed with during trance and soul-journeys.

"In their blossoms, seeds, leaves, and roots are locked the secrets of life and death, powers healing or harmful depending on how they are used. Herbs have been used from time immemorial as medicines, tonics, body beautifiers, mind stimulants; as aphrodisiacs, perfumes and smoke makers."- Paul Huson, Mastering Herbalism

Incense, oils, ointments, lotions, food, spices, perfumes, poultices, baths, wraps, muds, clays, cosmetics, unguents, liquors, etc, all of these practical applications of plants will build your understanding of plants, their virtues, limitations and maybe that manner of expression is language enough. 

Plant Spirit Teachers...

There are a plethora of deities in various cultures associated with herbalism.  In addition, many deities are identified with specific herbs and places of dwelling.  In medieval occultism, the plants are ruled by the Seven Planets which are also identified with specific places, colors, numbers, sounds, minerals and animals. This is a staple of Western herbalism and is one of the systems used to decipher the true essence or spirit of an plant.  A few Irish "green witches" I know identify their herbal practice with Airmid, a tuatha healer who is said to have knowledge of all plants and their virtues; something only she knows.  If you want some insight into the Celtic world of herbal charms, look towards Irish poetry and the Scottish charms of the Carmina Gadelica; there are charms for the green tongue within.

This theme of a the Divine Herbalist who alone even among greater gods knows the true nature of all herbs is not exclusive to Irish legend, it is paralleled in some regional indigenous American lore and in West African  and Afro-Caribbean lucumi.

In the lore of santeria, the plant world is an expression of divine wisdom.  They contain souls, holy attributes to be loved and feared.  They are the first teachers of wisdom, and guarded by a wise Orisa who holds dominion over all herbs: Osain, patron spirit of osainistas, some curranderos and yerberas- truly all plant medicine and ewe. The herbs used in ritual have their common lucumi names and then they have their secret names known only to initiates.

In the medicine of my family, tribes and region; many spirits hold wisdom over many plants and there is not a central "teacher" of all herbs in our mythology.  For example; cedar is its own spirit, it must be communicated with directly. This is true of all plants and trees; they are communicated with directly as individuals, not simply extensions of a particular god.


Plants have their own souls, their own songs.  Some weave spells just by swaying in the wind, others must have their powers conjured up from their rhizomes, while others contain all their spirit in their slender stalks.

"Sacred herb, which hast neither been sowed, nor planted, show forth the power God has given thee!"- medieval French charm, Mastering Herbalism by Paul Huson

Learn the pharmacopoeia of YOUR region.  It's romantic and all to imagine yourself as an English witch, dancing through a hillside of henbane and mandragora, but those witches don't play in every garden, nor should they.  Learn the plant-gods and plant spirits who dwell among you and seek out their virtues.

Develop a deep empathy and respect with herbs and trees, treat them as the spirits they are and learn the taboos of their cultivation.

"A magical garden can teach practitioners how to open themselves to the spirit world. As we tend our plants, we learn how to wait and silently listen, to be open to the language of the other, to make space for spirit contact not only in the material world but in our selves."-Harold Roth, Curating the Magical Garden

Create a bond with the land through ritual and daily acts; you could grow a blood garden, where every plant from seed to stem to end is fed on the words and blood of power of the witch who tends the green.  The harvest of these portions when they have completed their life cycles can be used in a number of applications; elixirs, philters, unguents, liquors.  This is doubly powerful when the life-cycle of a plant; its gardening cycle and its sexual reproduction is considered and studied.  

Consuming from the blood-fed garden is a sacred, circular act of bonding and binding the self to the green.  I've heard herbalists refer to this chlorophyll Host as a sacrament, and that it is.  In its own way, we are imbibing the divine blood of our heritage when we consume of plants.

Take up a plot of land and be its tender, its protector, its verderer.  Keep it green, deliver sacred waters to it, nurture and ally yourself with every shrub, bush and tree.  Inside every herb is a universe of chemical and spiritual mystery; for some witches, the green spirit of the plant and the spirit of the witch are cut from the same heritage.  To tend to that divine light and care for it is a great way to honor the green and endear yourself to the plants in your keeping.

Vines are excellent communicators; they speak a slow dialect of the plant languages, though the vocabulary is extensive.  The Creeping Sisters; Solanum D., Ipomoea, and Hedera H., all speak a similar language, one I can sort of hear in the distance across their many tendrils.  Their words are tight, twisted, made up of diversions and allegories.  They sound like serpents, they sing like children, their words are long and low.
Learn the names, taxonomy, general chemistry and medicinal applications of any herb. I like to take the time to commit to memory the specific portions of a plant that is used, the three most useful chemical compounds derived from the plant, the best method of delivery and any known health hazards.  I cover those bases before I work with any plant on a spiritual level these days- my youth of bare-handed root pulling and blind taste-tests are over!

Learn as much traditional or indigenous herbal lore as you can.  Learn every traditional song you can and embrace plants by the names given to them by the first people who communed with them.  I try and make a point of referring to certain plants up here by their local names when I can remember them, something I was lucky enough to learn a scant few basics from while I attended Long House.  

Western witches seem to have a predilection towards Latin, probably because we derive so much from medieval grimoires and pharmacological texts, and so many may find it natural to follow the Latin taxonomic language when communicating with plants, adding a feeling of scientific formality to their green alchemy.  If you come from a culture with an extensive folklore of plants e.g Japanese, Chinese, West African, look towards the language of your ancestors to commune with plants.  Much like with Latin taxonomy, the names of plants in different languages, their symbolism and their folklore can illustrate the virtues and identity of that plant.

Don't just learn their Indigenous names either, learn their innermost truth as well.  Let them speak to you.  Let them infect your imagination and take root in your consciousness, name them as they wish to be called.  Keep a familiar plant if the opportunity presents itself.  In other cases you may simply keep a useful plant as a housemate and care for it through the cycle of its life, forging a mutually beneficial relationship with them.  You may learn secret words and whispered things from the herbs in your keeping.

However you pick up the green tongue, whatever dialect you speak or method you use, the language of the green is the word of life itself.  The words of the gods.

  • Plants of the Gods by Christian Rätsch
  • Ewe Osain: 221 Plants, Herbs and Trees Essential to the Lucumi Tradition by Mr. William J. Irizarry Jr.
  • Curating the Magical Garden by Harold Roth
  • Mastering Herbalism by Paul Huson
  • Folklore and Symbolism of Flowers, Plants and Trees by Ernst and Johanna Lehner
  • The Green Mantle by Michael Jordan
  • A Gardener's Latin: The Language of Plants Explained by Richard Bird
  • The Lost Language of Plants: The Ecological Importance of Plant Medicine to Life on Earth by Stephen Harrod Buhner
  • Roots and Branches: The Religious Heritage of Washington State by David M. Buerge
  • Viridarium Umbris: The Pleasure Garden of Shadow by Daniel A. Schulke

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