Baneful herbs are herbs that can cause death or severe illness in the hands of one with malicious intentions, and also simply by accident. Some of these are so dangerous that they should be handled with gloves as the toxin can enter your system through your skin while others require you to ingest an often horrible tasting herb and still others are only dangerous if certain parts are ingested under certain conditions. Yet despite all of this, these herbs have a rich history in witchcraft.
Many of these herbs are beautiful or useful in magic and healing or even have delicious edible parts and these have earned them a place in our gardens and homes. Some embrace the baneful herb and keep a Baneful Herb garden out of interest or simply to keep all of the dangerous plants together to make it easier to protect them from children or pets. However you feel about baneful herbs, it’s a good idea to make sure you know what they are, just in case they’re in your yard, so you can protect your family and also best enjoy these fascinating plants.
The information provided here should not be taken as a substitute for medical guidance. If you suspect poisoning or have questions about poisonous plants, call the Poison Control Helpline at 1-800-222-1222. It is free, it is confidential, it is always available and they are experts. (I am not an expert.)
Baneful Plants in the Traditional Witches Garden
The herbs in this list have historical or folkloric mention and traditional use somewhere. Many modern witches grow these herbs merely for historical interest, and many still put them to use.
Hellebore, Helleborus spp
Hellebore is a beautiful flower in the buttercup family that blooms in early spring in the shade. It was used by the ancients to heal a variety of ills, including insanity. But Hellebore is toxic causing symptoms including vertigo, ringing in the ears, excessive thirst, stupor, panic, a feeling of suffocation, swelling of the tongue and throat, vomiting, slowing of the heart rate, collapse and death. Luckily, hellebore tastes horrible and burns going down, so poisoning events are rare. Some believe that Alexander the Great died of Hellebore poisoning. Hellebore is used in invisibility spells and preparing talismans.
Hemlock is the common name given to a number of plants in the carrot family including the aptly named Poison Hemlock Conium maculatum, the water hemlocks Cicuta spp and the water dropworts Oenanthe spp. They are mentioned in folklore, but aren’t very useful beyond poisoning and are really unattractive plants, so I actually hesitate to suggest that many witches purposefully grew them historically. They’re easy enough to wildcraft if you really need them. Poison hemlock is best known for being the instrument of execution of Socrates. Water hemlock is notable for its quick action, often producing symptoms within 15 minutes including severe seizures. Accidental poisonings occur because these plants strongly resemble edible species within the carrot family, like parsnip, celery and carrots.
Belladonna Atropa belladonna
Also known as Deadly Nightshade or simply Nightshade, this plant has a lot of very interesting history which we will continue to explore on its dedicated page. Belladonna has many medical and folkloric uses, but it is a highly toxic plant. It is especially dangerous because the berries are attractive and sweet and yet just five could kill and adult. Symptoms include dilated pupils, sensitivity to light, blurred vision, very fast heart rate, difficulty walking, loss of balance, headache, flushing of skin and the appearance of a rash or hives, dry mouth, slurred speech, inability to urinate or defecate, confusion, hallucinations, delirium, convulsions and general disruption of the parasympathetic nervous system. Recovery is possible if medical treatment is received in time. Traditionally, Belladonna is said to be another ingredient in flying ointment and is used in magick to enhance beauty.
Datura, Datura spp
Daturas are striking garden flowers with some species (Moonflower) blooming only at night, making them a popular addition to the a Moon Garden. All species of Datura are very poisonous. The seeds and flowers are the most toxic parts of the plant. However, they have been used for centuries as medicine and are, unfortunately, occasionally purposely ingested to experience their hallucinogenic effects. Symptoms of datura poisoning include delirium, elevated body temperature, increased heart rate, abnormal behavior, dilated pupils, painful sensitivity to light. Those who survive often report amnesia of the event, or that it was a horrible experience. Datura is said to allow one to see spirits and to induce psychic dreams as well as to aid in hex-breaking work. It is also mentioned in recipes for flying ointment.
Foxglove Digitalis spp
Foxglove is a staple of cottage and witches gardens, a star in shady places and is also used to create medicine for heart disease and an appetite suppressant. The poison in foxglove is a cardiotoxin, which is why it’s so popular as a murder weapon in TV shows for making it look like a heart attack. But that is fiction. Foxglove poisoning causes visual disturbances including halos and abnormal color vision (seeing yellow), wild hallucinations, delirium, drooling, weakness, dilated pupils, tremors, severe abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea, and seizures as well as heart arrhythmia and abnormal heart rate. It’s very unpleasant. The poison remains potent in the plant regardless of heat or drying. People have been poisoned by mistaking foxglove for Comfrey. Foxglove is a popular faerie plant.
Although every single part of henbane is toxic, it does have some healing properties and is an ingredient in some of your more classic magickal brews so it is a staple in many a witch’s garden. It is used to communicate with the dead and other spirits and for binding spells. Henbane is said to be another favorite of the faeries. Symptoms of henbane toxicity include hallucinations (particularly the sensation of flight), restlessness, dilated pupils and a flushed appearance.
Aconite Aconitum spp
Also related to the buttercups family, monkshood and wolfsbane have a fast-acting poison that can have you puking in the morning and dead by lunchtime. The really scary thing about this plant is that you don’t have to eat it. It can be absorbed through the skin, and, according to the lore, was used in flying ointment. Witches gathering monkshood are encouraged to wear gloves and know the signs of toxicity. It begins with nausea and diarrhea and progresses to a tingling sensation and numbness in the mouth and throat and a burning sensation of the abdomen. The numbness and tingling would then spread through the body accompanied by weakness of the limbs. This may all be accompanied by sweating, dizziness, headache, confusion and difficulty breathing. Finally, the cardiac symptoms kick in, arrhythmia, a drop in blood pressure and finally paralysis of the heart and respiratory system. Survival is possible with supportive care, particularly if charcoal is administered within the first hour.
Elder Sambucus spp sp
Elders give us medicine and tasty berries for wine and jelly, but the entire plant is poisonous, though not usually deadly. The unripe berries are toxic and in some species, the ripe berries are only slightly less so. Cooking the berries renders them edible, but the leaves, wood, and seeds of the elder remain toxic. Elder twigs should never be used to make cooking stakes or touch food. The plant can cause a build-up of cyanide in the body over time, even if it doesn’t make you sick right away. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, muscle weakness, abdominal pain, dizziness, numbness, and stupor. One incident isn’t likely to kill an otherwise healthy adult, but children and animals are especially at risk.
Mandrake is an herb heavy with lore that has earned its place in the witch’s garden or herb chest. It is used in an impressive variety of spells, from love spells to the treatment and prevention of demonic possession. It also has an impressive number of toxic alkaloids that result in a number of unpleasant symptoms if ingested including hallucinations, hyperactivity, dilated pupils, blurred vision, dry mouth, difficulty urinating, flushed appearance, dizziness, nausea, and rapid heart rate.
Only eight of the 43 species of mistletoe are toxic, including the two most commonly seen Phoradendoron flavescens and Viscum album. All parts of these mistletoes are toxic with the leaves carrying the highest concentration of toxins. You have to eat quite a bit of it to get sick, but children and pets will get sicker sooner. The most severe sickness occurs among women attempting to use mistletoe tea to bring on an abortion. Symptoms include abdominal distress, severe vomiting and diarrhea, blurred vision, weakness, and drowsiness. It is important that the patient receive supportive medical care if recovery is to occur.
Wormwood is the notorious thujone-containing herb blamed for the purported narcotic effects of absinthe. In small quantities, wormwood is said to stimulate the appetite and the mind, but in larger quantities, which vary by individual tolerance, wormwood can cause anything from headaches and nervousness to insomnia, to convulsions. Wormwood is used primarily for banishing and protection spells.
Yew Taxus baccata
Yews are popular landscaping plants and witches love them too as they link us to the Underworld and are considered sacred to several traditions. But yews are highly toxic with the interesting exception of the juicy red aril that surrounds the (highly toxic) seed. I am told it is delicious. The leaves/needles are also toxic and actually increase in potency when dried. Symptoms of yew poisoning may appear mild or not present until it is very advanced. Symptoms include accelerated heart rate, muscle tremors, difficulty breathing, poor circulation, (blue lips, cold limbs) fainting and heart failure.
More Baneful Garden Plants
These herbs don’t have as common mention in the folkloric record of witchcraft as others, but they are oft seen in gardens. Many do have some magickal or healing use and so are of interest to modern witches and cunning folk. Many of these plants are simply not native to Europe and so, while they were likely used in their native lands, witches didn’t start using them until more recently. Some are simply more popular for their ornamental value than they are for their magickal and healing ones. They are also toxic.
Larkspur, Consolida spp.
Larkspur is a member of the buttercup family and, like the rest of them, it contains highly toxic compounds. It is also palatable when in flower. The danger is greatest to grazing livestock. Symptoms include nervousness, weakness, staggering, rapid pulse and bloat. It is important to keep the victim calm to avoid exacerbating symptoms and to keep the head raised, lay an animal facing uphill.
Delphinium Delphinium spp.
Delphinium is also called Larkspur and they are very similar plants with similar toxic effects. The poison in Delphinium is most potent in the young plant where the flowers are not yet visible and so the plant has not been identified. It causes muscular issues and affects the heart. Again, most poisonings affect livestock, particularly cattle. The plants also cause significant skin irritation.
Jessamine Gelsemium sempervirens
Also called woodbine and evening trumpet, Jessamine is not to be confused with Jasmine, which is generally considered harmless. Every part of this plant contains neurotoxins which cause weakness, paralysis, difficultly swallowing, slowed respiration and vision issues. There are reports that Jessamine is even toxic to bees.
Oleander Nerium Oleander
The toxicity of oleander has inspired song. It is considered one of the most toxic of commonly grown garden plants. However, cases of poisoning are rare as it does us the favor of having irritating sap, although the leaves are sweet. Death in these cases is also rare as symptoms present quickly allowing for quick treatment. Signs of Oleander poisoning include abdominal pain, salivation, vomiting, diarrhea that may contain blood, irregular heartbeat, pale, cold limbs, drowsiness, tremors, seizures, collapse and coma. Treatments includes inducing vomiting and swallowing charcoal to prevent the further absorption of toxins and close medical supervision is required to treat any cardiac symptoms that may come up. All parts of the plant are toxic and retain toxic effects after heating and drying. Sticks used to spear food can transfer toxins to the food.
Castor Bean Ricinus communis
Some of what you learned on Breaking Bad is true. Castor bean, a plant that makes an impressive impact in a tropical garden, is very toxic. According to the 2007 Guinness Book of World Records, it is the most poisonous plant in the world. The entire plant is toxic, but the seeds hold the most concentrated poison, ricin. Ricin is water-soluble, so castor oil can be produced from castor beans with the ricin completely absent. But ricin’s water solubility allows it to absorb readily into the digestive system. Symptoms appear anywhere from 2 to 24 hours later and include loss of appetite, abdominal pain, diarrhea, excessive thirst, weakness, burning of the mouth and throat, muscle twitching, vision disturbances, decreased reflexes, convulsions, paralysis, and coma. Symptoms can carry on for up to a week before death finally occurs due to the paralysis of the respiratory system. A full recovery can sometimes be made with supportive care.
Gloriosa, Gloriosa superba
This impressive-looking garden plant is also called Flame Lily. It has been used for medicine in many cultures and has naturalized worldwide where conditions are suitable. The entire plant is poisonous and their tubers have been mistaken for edible species, like sweet potatoes. The symptoms of Gloriosa poisoning are pretty impressive and begin within a few hours. It begins with nausea and vomiting, numbness and tingling around the mouth and throat, abdominal pain and bloody diarrhea, muscle pain, confusion, respiratory depression, kidney failure, lowered blood pressure, abnormal bleeding, blood in the urine, hair loss, neuropathy and peeling skin. While mild poisonings are survivable with treatment, when death occurs it’s likely to be due to multiple organ failure.
Angel’s Trumpet, Brugmansia spp
Angel’s trumpet is a really impressive plant. The flowers are beautiful and they smell amazing. They’re closely related to Datura and equally deadly poison. The entire plant is poisonous, but the seeds and the leaves are the most toxic. Symptoms of Angel’s Trumpet poisoning include migraine-like headaches, visual and auditory hallucinations, dry mouth, diarrhea, confusion, dilated pupils and paralysis of the smooth muscles. Many poisonings occur when people consume the plant on purpose to experience its hallucinatory effects, though survivors often report either complete amnesia of the event or that it was horrific.
Mayapple, also called American Mandrake is one of my favorite spring plants. Although the entire plant is toxic, the ripe fruit’s toxicity is so low as to not be an issue unless you’re gorging yourself on them. Eating any part of the rest of the plant, however, can cause abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, low blood pressure, confusion, dizziness, hallucination, lowered reflexes, weakness, seizures, stupor, numbness, and tingling of the extremities, rapid pulse, respiratory issues, organ damage, and coma. Just allowing some of the sap to get onto open skin can produce symptoms.
Nicotiana, aka Tobacco
Nicotiana species contain nicotine and other toxins in their leaves as a defense against predators, particularly caterpillars and insects that chew on leaves. The most popular garden versions release amazing fragrance at night, attracting their moth pollinators and so are used in moon gardens. The Nicotiana species of interest to a witch do not tend to be as attractive, but have higher levels of toxins. Humans and animals who have ingested nicotiana species may present with drooling, sweating, dizziness, nausea, loss of coordination, confusion, racing heart, constricted pupils, loss of consciousness and paralysis. Death can result. These symptoms can be caused by eating nicotiana species and by inhaling a large concentration of the toxins.
Pokeweed Phytolacca americana
Pokeweed is a lovely plant that grows wild throughout the US. The entire plant is toxic though the ripe berries are slightly less toxic than the rest of the plant. Very young shoots are gathered by some brave souls and specially prepared and eaten under the name poke salet. Symptoms of poisoning include burning sensation in the mouth, excessive salivation, abdominal pain, vomiting and bloody diarrhea, anemia, changes in heart rate, respiratory distress and convulsions. A full recovery can be made with medical support, assuming you were healthy to begin with.
Maybe Not Baneful but Worth Mentioning
Narcissus, Narcissus spp
Daffodils are hugely popular spring garden flowers with a bit of lore behind them. They are often chosen to brighten up a spot where other plants have been browsed by deer or woodchucks since they are not attractive to them. Human poisonings are rare and usually occur when daffodil bulbs are confused with onions or Jerusalem artichokes. Cats also tend to chew on the leaves. Narcissus poisoning is usually mild, but unpleasant with the usual vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, excessive salivation, changes to heart rate and breathing. A full recovery can be expected with proper supportive care. Yea, not exactly baneful, just don’t plant them in your vegetable patch.
Lily of the Valley Convallaria majalis
Lily of the Valley is a popular woodland garden plant for its hardy nature, it’s dainty appearance and it’s sweet fragrance. It is a plant steeped in lore and popular in wedding bouquets. It is also another plant whose toxins can easily be absorbed through the skin and I know of several gardeners who have done this. Symptoms include dizziness, confusion, lethargy, nausea and headaches, visual disturbances and dilated pupils, flushing of the skin and the appearance of hives or a rash, hot flashes, excessive urination, cardiac arrhythmia, collapse, coma and death. Of course, eating Lily of the Valley is even more dangerous as is drinking the water the plants have been in. Survival by otherwise healthy adults is very likely with good supportive care.
Less Magical, but Toxic
False Hellebore Veratrum viride
False hellebore is not likely to be in your garden except as a weed. I mention it only because it shares the name hellebore so it’s of some interest. Although it has some historic Native American use, it’s not used for much by anyone today. And it’s pretty unattractive too. This is an American native plant that is detested by farmers as a livestock killer. It can also cause pregnant livestock to bear deformed offspring. This highly toxic plant causes nausea and vomiting, vertigo, cold sweats, lowered blood pressure, cardiac arrhythmia and slowed respiration.
Autumn Crocus Colchicum autumnale
Autumn crocus is not a true crocus although it resembles one. Eating a true crocus will make you sick, but once you’ve had a good purge, you’ll be fine. Eating an autumn crocus can lead to gastrointestinal bleeding, liver and kidney damage, respiratory distress, and seizures. Autumn crocus does have therapeutic uses. Most poisonings occur when autumn crocus is mistaken for wild garlic by foragers. Survival does not seem to be likely with this one.
If you suspect poisoning or have any questions about poisoning prevention, call the National Poison Control Center immediately at 1-800-222-1222. This is free, confidential and available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It is a non-emergency number. Do not wait for symptoms or attempt home care without calling them first. If symptoms have appeared, call 911 or transport the victim to the nearest emergency room immediately.
Note to add calamus, broom, deer tongue, High John the Conqueror, pennyroyal, tonka.