Devilís snare, fanged geranium, bubotuber, snargaluff and puffapod are just a few of the fanciful plants readers encounter in author J.K. Rowling's imaginative fictional world. However, many of the plants mentioned in the series are quite real and have a long and storied history. Some can even be found in modern-day gardens.
In the Harry Potter books, nothing can prevent a person from turning into a werewolf if he has been bitten by one, but wolfsbane potion can be used as a guard against its worst effects.
Aconitum has been in cultivation for centuries and gets its common name (and its reputation as a guard again werewolves) from its medieval use as a wolf poison. All parts of the plant are highly toxic, but its properties as an anesthetic made it important in medicine before morphine was invented. It is valued in gardens for its imposing spires of deep blue flowers.
In their second year, Hogwarts students learn how to repot mandrakes in Herbology class. This task requires earmuffs, because as Professor Sprout warns them, the cry of the mandrake is fatal. The students watch in amazement as the purple-green plant comes out of its soil not with roots, but a small, muddy and ugly baby screaming at the top of its lungs. The students learn that the mandrake can be used to return victims of transfiguration or petrification to their original state.
Medieval drawings often depicted the root with a bushy beard or hair, making it look even more human. It was believed that the mandrake shrieked when pulled from the ground, causing anyone who listened to perish. Since it was considered dangerous to pull the mandrake, the solution was to tie one end of a rope to the plant and the other end to a dog’s neck, so that one could wait at a safe distance for the dog to return with the root.
In reality, mandrake or Mandragora is a member of the nightshade family and does indeed have a long, forked root that resembles the human form. Mandrake roots contain poisonous alkaloids which act as a hallucinogen and a narcotic. In ancient times the root was used as painkiller and sleeping aid; Roman physicians had patients chew it as anesthetic before surgery.
We learn in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire that Harry carries belladonna in his potion-making kit. In reality, Atropa belladonna, commonly called belladonna or deadly nightshade, is one of most toxic plants found in the western hemisphere. It was used by ancient man in making poisonous arrows, and was thought to be a witches’ herb, supposedly used in an ointment that gave the user the ability to fly. This belief may have come about because belladonna is a powerful hallucinogen. The name stems from the practice of Renaissance Italian women who would use it in eyedrops to make their eyes look bigger, thus “bella” (beautiful) “donna” (woman).
Belladonna is the source of atropine, a drug used in modern medicine in eye operations as a method of dilating the pupil. It is also used as a cardiac drug and in treating Parkinson’s disease. Rarely grown in gardens, belladonna is regarded as a weed in many parts of the world.
In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Hogwarts students prepare syrup of hellebore in Professor Snape’s Potions class as an ingredient in the Draught of Peace, a potion used to calm anxiety.
Today we know hellebore primarily as the Lenten Rose, the beautiful early-blooming hybrids of Helleborus orientalis which are valuable for bringing long-lasting color to shady areas of the garden. According to folklore, the hellebore was used by witches to summon demons. The plant was traditionally used as a cure for gout, but many species are toxic; some historians believe that an overdose of hellebore may have caused Alexander the Great’s death.
In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Hogwarts school nurse Madam Pomfrey gives Ron essence of rue as an antidote when he drinks poisoned mead. This is in fact how the herb was used by the ancient Greeks. In mythology, rue was the only plant which could withstand the poisonous breath of the basilisk, a horrible serpent. It was regarded by medieval people as a protection against witches and witchcraft. Rue (Ruta) is a bitter herb which today is grown primarily for its grey-green leaves; it also serves as a host plant for the Black Swallowtail butterfly.
In Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, Hermione uses Essence of Dittany to save Ron when he is splinched (in the magic world of Harry Potter, “splinching” is a result of incomplete apparition, a very difficult spell for which the user must be licensed).
In reality, Dittany of Crete (Origanum dictamnus) is an aromatic member of the mint family and has long had a reputation as a magical plant; in legend it grew at the birthplace of Zeus. It is native only to mountainsides on the island of Crete, Greece, and its rarity sent collectors on dangerous, sometimes fatal, missions. Its strong aroma comes from an essential oil which becomes volatile in high temperatures. The flower is actually flammable on a hot, still night, which probably accounts for its association with enchantment.
Mandrake illustration from 7th century manuscript: Public Domain
Daves's Garden photo credits:
Aconitum by mjolner88; Belladona by bonehead; Hellebore by kniphofia; Rue and Dittany by Happenstance
About Gwen Bruno
After spending 28 years as a teacher and librarian, Gwen Bruno is now a full-time freelance writer residing in suburban Chicago. As a preschooler, she lovingly tended a small patch of weeds in her backyard. Luckily, her parents supported her budding horticultural endeavors, and she's been gardening ever since.