Harry Potter's Magic Plants
Flowers so deadly a single touch can be fatal, fruit that makes you believe you can fly and leaves that allow you to conquer the highest mountains. It might be hard to believe, but in real life the plants of Harry Potter are stranger than fiction itself.
We've explored the real magic of plants that inspired and informed J.K.Rowling's phenomenally popular series.
In Harry Potter
The Mandrake root is a powerful restorative. It forms an essential part of most antidotes, including one for petrification. The Mandrake Restorative Draught returns people who have been Transfigured or cursed to their original state.
“Mandrake seedlings are tufty little plants, purplish green in colour (CS6) with what look like tiny babies growing where the roots would be. These creatures grow and develop over the course of several months until they mature and can be harvested and used for potions. The cry of the Mandrake is fatal to humans, so special care must be taken when growing them. Even as a baby, the Mandrake's howls can knock a person out for a couple of hours. “
The Dugbog is particularly fond of eating Mandrakes.
Mandragora officinarum (Solanaceae), also known as Mandrake, was so named for its fancied resemblance to the human form. Western legend has it that the plant screamed when pulled by the roots from the ground. It made a noise so deafening to humans that dogs were employed for the task.
Image from MEDICINA ANTIQUA: LIBRI QUATTUOR MEDICINAE, 13TH CENTURY. Codex Vindobonensis 93. (Washington University, Becker Library)
The real-life mandrake was once believed to have almost all the properties that Harry Potter’s Mandrakes have, the main exception being that the plant only sort of looks human-shaped instead of having the unusual roots that Mandrakes have.
In the 17th century the belief of the Mandrake’s deadly scream was so common, that they were harvested by tying mad dogs to the stump and (while standing far back) waiting for the dog to yank the root out of the ground.
The fresh or dried root contains highly poisonous alkaloids and is cathartic, strongly emetic, hallucinogenic and narcotic]. In sufficient quantities it induces a state of oblivion and was used as an anaesthetic for operations in early surgery.
It was much used in the past for its pain relieving and stupor inducing properties. In the past, juice from the finely grated root was applied externally to relieve rheumatic pains, ulcers and scrofulous tumours. It was also used internally to treat melancholy, convulsions and mania]. When taken internally in large doses, however, it is said to excite delirium and madness. The root should be used with caution, and only under the supervision of a qualified practitioner.
In the 17th century they even dressed up the dried human-shaped roots as amulets to ward off evil – something like a European version of a voodoo doll. I am calling Kew now to see if they will let me borrow a few of their original museum examples of these.
In Harry Potter
Guards against the dementia that would normally follow the transformation from human to were wolf
Was used to bait (poison) wolves in the Middle Ages, mixed with honey and powdered glass. Actually responsible for the deaths of most of Europe’s wolves. For this reason it was thought to protect from werewolves.
Used in traditional medicine as an anaesthetic. Before morphine was invented, it was extremely important in western medicine. Still widely used in homeopathy and traditional Chinese medicine.
Was used to create the first chemical weapons in 5th century China (mixed with gunpowder bombs, the smoke acted like a nerve gas)
3) Belladonna (Deadly Nightshade)
In Harry Potter
The essence of this plant is a standard part of a Hogwart’s students potion making kit. It appears repeatedly throughout the series.
Mixed with Wolfsbane, this was applied in a ‘flying ointment’ used by witches of the middle ages. It’s powerful hallucinogenic properties, very much akin to those of LSD, made them believe they could fly.
In the past Italian renaissance women used to put the drops in their eyes in order to make them look larger and thus 'more beautiful', hence the name Bella Donna (Italian for Beautiful Woman)
Although it is poisonous, deadly nightshade has a long history of medicinal use and has a wide range of applications, in particular it is used in modern medicine to dilate the pupils in eye operations, to relieve intestinal colic and to treat peptic ulcers.
The plant can be used to treat the symptoms of Parkinson's disease, reducing tremors and rigidity whilst improving speech and mobility. It has also been used as an antidote in cases of mushroom or toadstool poisoning.
All parts of the plant are analgesic, antidote, antispasmodic, diuretic, hallucinogenic, mydriatic, narcotic and sedative.
In Harry Potter
Harry’s wand is made from Holly, the symbol of resurrection. (Note the subtle literary hinting of what will happen?)
In Reality: Ilex spThe Ancient Greeks attributed several interesting magical properties to it, among them that holly grants protection from poison, lightning, and witchcraft. Harry, of course, has had close encounters with poison on several occasions, most notably in the Chamber of Secrets, and we all know about the scar on his forehead.
To the Celts holly symbolised resurrection, and was used during the winter solstice to ‘resurrect the sun’. Hence why we still use it to decorate our homes at Christmas time.
Some species of South American holly are used by shamans as a powerful stimulant. This is the famous Mate de Coca tea you can find in trendy health food shops. It stimulates the central nervous system, helping fight fatigue and altitude sickness. It was used by some Incan tribes to “conquer the highest mountains”.
The natural source of taxol, the Pacific yew tree (Taxus brevifolia) is a threatened species, and one of the slowest growing trees in the world. Isolation of the compound, which is contained in the bark, normally involves killing the tree, and the quantities available by this method are pitifully small. It would take six 100-year old trees to provide enough taxol to treat just one patient. The new techniques developed at Delft Botanic Garden allows harmless extraction of the compound in quanitity.
More about Taxol
Yew trees are symbolic of death and resurrection - the wood is particularly resistant to rotting - and were once a traditional feature of churchyards.
In Harry Potter
Tom Riddle's wand is the only wand in the series to date known to be made of yew. Yew trees grow in the churchyard at Little Hangleton.
Yew trees grow in parts of the Forbidden Forest. In a nice bit of foreshadowing, Harry noticed them in the clearing where Hagrid first taught the fifth years about thestrals.
In Real Life Taxus sp.The Ancient Celts believed Yew to be a symbol of resurrection (as it remained green even in winter). It was planted on the graves of their dead, and was believed to be sacred – even made into wands!
When Christianity came along, churches were built on top of Celtic sites of worship, where many of these celtic yews still live today. They are amongst our oldest trees – there is one in Scotland 5,000 years old – planted when the pyramids were being built!
Taxol, a chemical extracted from yew, is vital to treating breast and ovarian cancer, and makes up an important part of chemotherapy. Bringing new meaning to the resurrecting properties of yew.
Conserving Threatened Medicinal Plant Species
BGCI is working to link plant conservation with improvements in human well-being through a new project for threatened medicinal species to help ensure on-going access to vital plant resources. You can support our project and help make a difference to community health and plant conservation.
Traditions and Medicinal Plants: A Valuable Field of Knowledge and a Great Challenge for Science
Making Your Garden Come Alive – Environmental Interpretation in Botanic Gardens
This excellent book, produced by the Southern African Botanical Diversity Network (SABONET), provides practical guidelines on how to develop an interpretation programme in a botanic garden.