Herbs have long and strangely spicy histories that make their current status seem like a greal fall. They've been used to make coarse foods delicate, and to make old, basically unpalatable food gastronomically acceptable.
Before refrigeration, this was of such importance that wars were fought over herbs and spices, and the new world was discovered during Columbus' search for a route to bring Eastern spices to Europe.
Herbs were used to heal all illnesses, and, for many centuries, were the only medicines available.
So much power was attached to herbs that they were worn as amulets, used in divinations, made into witches' flying ointments, and used to expand consciousness since at least the time of the ancient Greeks. I don't doubt, in fact, that many of the people who were executed for witchcraft were simply herbalists involved in unconventional uses of plants.
In addition, herbs were used for strewing, and perfuming the air at times when bathing was rare. They were worn by medieval physicians in hopes of repelling plague germs. Valerian was used to attract mice and rats, and catnip to repel them. The artemisias still make effective moth flakes.
Over the years, herbs have fallen from a highly respected position of power to a small supermarket shelf. But herbs are making a comeback.
I can't say what magic works and what doesn't, so I simply offer a list of some magical uses of herbs.
Many herbs have been used to attract money. It's said that basil, carried in a pocket, will attract money like a magnet. And some sources say that if a gambler washes his hands with chamomile tea before beginning, it will put magic into them, and make winning easy.
A bath scented with red clover, taken before a financial transaction, is said to bring success. And buckeyes, or horse chestnuts, are said to bring both luck and money to the person who carries them. It seems, though, that as a child I always had a pocket full of these. I might have been lucky, but I don't remember having any money at all.
The root of High John the Conquerer has long been held as a powerful charm. Legend says that, carried in a pocket, it will cure melancholy, and bring success in any situation. Against all odds.
Calendula flowers were said to bring good luck in court. In old times, it was believed that carrying or wearing this flower would tip the scales of justice in your favor.
Hazel and willow branches have both been used for divining water. A forked stick is held, one end in each hand, and the dowser walks slowly over the earth. The stick is said to bend downwards and vibrate over water. This has been used by many people, and stories about my grandfather say he never failed to find water with a dowsing rod.
The leaves of great mullein were used by Quaker girls to rouge their checks by gently irritating them. It's also said to have been used by American Indians to stun fish: Tales say they powdered it and cast it upon the waters, and it would cause the fish to rise, stunned, to the surface.
Carrying bay leaves was said to improve memory, but cutting hawthorn was said to result in a memory loss. Oil of lavender, rubbed on the temples, is supposed to make a lost memory return.
Now, it may very well be that these herbal charms never worked at all, but that people tried them with the same hopefulness that bald men still buy magical preparations for hair growth; or it may be that herbs have powers that we're only beginning to discover. Who of us knows how much of their power herbs keep hidden? All we can do is play hide-and-seek with them, and it can be a lot of fun.
If you'd like to have some of this magic around your house, this might be the ideal time to get a start on a herb garden, inside, where these spicy plants will offer fresh snippings throughout the season. And, when spring comes, they can go outside, to stretch and grow without fear of winter killing.
Some herbs don't need any special care to make it through the cold -- thyme, for instance; winter can't usually stop it. The same is true of yarrow, sage, woodruff, winter savory and most herbs that can be found growing wild. Mints rarely have a problem to compare with that of the gardener who plants them, unbound, in a garden plot. The mints are so hardy, they always come back, and take more space each year. Parsley, a biennial, always returns to ripen and sow its seeds in spring.
Others, however, need to be inside for their own protection -- even rosemary, which can make it through a mild winter; this pretty little bush will lose the battle if the season gets tough. The same goes for tarragon. And, since true tarragon is grown from cuttings and often difficult to find, it makes sense to save it. Marjoram and oregano may also make it through mild winters, especially if they're well mulched, but a hard winter will do these tender Mediterranean herbs in; so it makes sense to start them inside now.
It's now necessary to start with whole plants: You can take cuttings of herbs and root them in sand. But it's not difficult, either, to grow the whole plants inside. Just get some large pots, and put a layer of small stones or broken crockery into the bottoms. Add a layer of soil. Set the plants into the pots, Fill the pots with fertile soil to half an inch from the tops, and water well.
Give the plants a spot with plenty of light and a temperature between 50 degrees and 70 degrees F. Water them when they get dry, and try to give them a breath of fresh air every day.
Even some annuals are worth the effort. Select a small basil plant, for instance, and plant it with the same care, and it will fill your house with fragrance.
Ornamental pepper plants can be raised inside, too. The peppers are edible, but the plants are classified as ornamental because they're so small and pretty. Don't take cuttings from these, but carefully pot whole plants.
Hardy chives can certainly survive cold winters, but it won't hurt to have a clump to grace your windowsill. They'll grow and thrive, giving you fresh chives for dressings, salads and omelets, and they'll be happy to go outside in the spring.
It's easy to have a little garden inside, to serve as a reminder of green, bright summer days throughout the winter. And it makes the yearly death of living things, which is inevitable in much of the country, just a little easier to bear.
The Druids believed that it was absolutely necessary to bring some of green nature inside for winter -- to provide a shelter for the nature spirits, who would otherwise have nowhere to go. And who knows? It's just possible that if you sneak up on your transplanted herbs in the middle of a winter night, you'll see tiny sprites and fairies dancing. At least you'll smell the fragrance that's released when they brush against the leaves.