The Treadwell’s Book of Plant Magic – Book Review

I have missed my regular trips to London, which have always included a visit to Treadwell’s, one of the city’s premier occult book shops. Treadwell’s is conveniently close to King’s Cross station and my regular haunts at the BL, BM and Wellcome Collection. It is quite a special place, beautifully designed and atmospheric. From the table of new releases, to the shelves with their curated mix of old and new, magic and history, folklore and art, I’ve picked up many a treasured volume there. They also host book launches, lectures and classes, acting as a community hub for magical London.

I was delighted to order Treadwell’s first in-house publication The Treadwell’s Book of Plant Magic, by shop owner and founder, Christina Oakley Harrington. The book is essentially a magical herbal, with an alphabetic listing (by common name) of trees, wild and propagated herbs commonly found in Britain. There are no particularly exotic plants and I was delighted by the inclusion of some very common weeds that are often overlooked, such as herb robert and ragwort. This localised selection makes it ideal for British readers, however the book will still be of interest to those from North America and continental Europe due to the wide geographic range of many of these plants.

Each listing includes the scientific name, sometimes additional common names, planetary attributions (taken from Culpeper and/or Lilly), a summary of associated folklore and, finally, a few suggested uses, recipes or spells from historical sources. This last element is, I feel, the most valuable, as the suggestions serve to sensitively interpret and update the folkloric material for modern readers – without taking overly creative liberties with the source material. Most of the references are from European folklore, ranging from the medieval to the modern with the occasional bit of classical mythology. The book focuses on the use of herbs in folk magic rather than an extensive exploration of the folklore of each plant. Fairy folklore and plant associations are particularly prominent.

Dr Oakley Harrington was previously a lecturer in medieval history and this is reflected in both a familiarity with medieval and early modern sources and, blessedly, the referencing of each piece of folklore via extensive end notes. This is one of the most valuable attributes of the book, for many collections of folk magic put out by occult publishers include little in the way of referencing. That said, it is not an academic book but a practical guide and features a useful index of common problems in the introductory pages. Thus, the reader can look up ‘gambling luck’ or ‘courage’ and find the related herbs very quickly. There is also a brief appendix of ‘days and dates for magic’ – including planetary days and calendar customs, and eighteen spells and formulas that require multiple herbs.

There is little to criticise in this book as it fulfils very nicely what it sets out to do. It may have benefited from the eye of a botanist as there are a few minor errors of that nature – most likely picked up from the source material rather than introduced by the author. For example, the identification of Hyssopus officinalis with the biblical hyssop may date to the middle ages, however the plant was likely Syrian oregano (Origanum syriacum). Additionally, I would like to have seen more information on toxicity. There aren’t many poison plants listed, and henbane does include a warning, but for some reason plants like yew, bryony and daffodil do not. While we can hope that readers do their research before consuming plants, it is important to know which herbs are toxic even if you are only handling them.

Overall, The Treadwell’s Book of Plant Magic is an excellent introductory guide for those interested in working with plants and folk magic. I would recommend it also as a general or quick reference, superior to Cunningham’s, for those who want to look up the folk magic associations of a herb with the reassurance of knowing the listings are based on historical sources and can be followed up via the end notes. I would really love to see a hardcover edition at some point (maybe with illustrations?) as the lovely, sage green paperback is not likely to last long in this herbalist’s hands! I look forward to seeing what Treadwell’s in house publishing produces next and hope it won’t be too long before I am able to visit the shop in person again.

The Treadwell’s Book of Plant Magic can be purchased from their online shop.

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