Updated: Jul 22, 2021
Before I dive in, I'd like to have a brief word about learning and memory....One of the greatest obstacles for new practitioners of Witchcraft has always been the learning curve. You know, the vast amount of information needed to practice. Information on stones and crystals, herbs, oils, astrology, numerology...the list goes on. We put tremendous pressure on ourselves to be instant experts with all this information from the very beginning of our practice.
Gaining a comprehensive understanding of these topics takes a long time - in most cases years. After all, this study isn't your basic school work or job training, so it is done AFTER those things are finished. It is a part time process, and thus takes a really long time. This is one reason the the Crone is a sign of wisdom! It isn't just because she's old, it's because she's been at this a long while!
Whenever I meet young witches, or witches who are young to the craft, one of the most common questions is, how do you learn all this? There's SO much information. How do you keep it all in your head?Well first of all, you don't keep it all in your head. You have books; the Book of Shadows, books by authors who resonate for you, notebooks, note cards, lots of notes. You don't have to commit every piece of information to memory. You do have to know where to find it.Secondly, if you wanted to learn the piano, and you bought a piano, and signed up for lessons or got a book, and began to practice, you wouldn't expect to be a concert pianist in a week. Right?
This the same. It's going to take time. And while it is true that some people are blessed with being a "quick study" and memorize well, while others have say, a nice singing voice, that is just a talent, like any other. If you struggle with memorization, that doesn't mean there aren't hints and ways to accomplish it. Above all, you need to remember this has virtually nothing to do with intelligence. Don't apply impossible standards to yourself! You'll learn as you go, as we all do.
One of the best memory techniques I know is to associate a piece of information with something else that is super familiar. If you are reading this article, and into Witchcraft, there is a good chance you are already familiar with at least one area of the Occult. Let's say your thing is Astrology. You know all about that, but herbs are a total mystery.
Well part of the association of herbs is...you guessed it - astrological! Plants have a planet association too! It makes sense, right? We have planetary associations, and we are living beings on this little blue rock spinning through the universe. Plants are too. So it is possible you can learn the planetary association, and use that to help you remember other information that is less familiar.
Another form of association is through sensory input like vision. I am a very visual person. I started out as a painter and artist. I also have the world's most overactive imagination (ask my husband about me pointing out faces in the trees and bushes when we sit on our deck). When I look at things like herbs and plants, I often do something called "patterning" or "personifying". I imagine I see something else based on the shape, the way the leaves grow or the formation of flowers or roots. The thing I picture helps me remember the plant. And if the thing I picture matches with the actual properties of the plant, well bonus!
This has another name among herbalists: the Doctrine of Signatures. Yikes you say, what is THAT!? Not as scary as it sounds. The Doctrine of Signatures just refers to the look and growth habit of a plant being related to what it's good for.
So, Mullein - a common "weed" - has lots of little hairs on the leaves, kind of like the little hairs on the inside of the human lung. And it tends to grow very close to houses where humans live. And believe it or not, if you knocked on the doors of the houses with mullein in the yard, you'd find in many cases that at least one of those people have allergies and/or asthma. Seriously. It grows in my yard year after year! Plants gown near the people who need them. Is that not the coolest and most magical thing you've heard all day?!
Now I admit, it is easier to see the Doctrine if you have an inkling of the magical and herbal properties of the plant in the first place. Once you do see it though, it really helps you memorize.
Let look at another example. This one is from an 18th century medical book plate...
If you Google eyebright and look at the plant in images, you can see why doctors in the early 1700's thought Eye Bright would help to treat problems with eye sight in their patients. In older images you'll see drawings of the human eye with drawings of the flowers above it. Artists at the time felt the flower resembled the human eye, with the center as the iris and pupil, and the petals as the white of the eye. Some also show a side view of the flower and the eye to show how similar the shapes are. This one feels like kind of a stretch, but you can see a good illustration of how the doctrine can work and was used through history.
So, perhaps you are saying, "interesting Alison, but I don't want to be an herbalist, I want to practice magic! What about magical properties of plants?!" Well, surprisingly, it works in a very similar way once you get used to it.
Think of Bay (Laurel) leaves. Yes, the same ones you use when you make a pot roast. These are the leaves you see in history books in the crowns of the Roman emperors. There's your first hint. Used to crown emperors...so, think opulence, fame, victory, money, accolades... and sure enough, Bay leaves can be used in rituals for attracting money and wealth and to help create fame. So the basics for Bay leaf are there. As time passes and you continue to study, you'll also learn that Bay leaf can also be used to sharpen psychic awareness and increase protection. Those are the broader pieces of information that you learn over time. There will be no substitute for patience when it comes to mastery.
To start your learning, and make your own life MUCH easier, get a notebook or note cards, and start keeping notes on plants and other ingredients as they come into your consciousness. Add the information you find, planetary correspondence, doctrine of signatures as it applies, uses, preparation methods and add a sketch or photo if possible, of the plant growing. The act of physically writing it down will help you remember this information. And, your notebook or card file will be a reference for you as you move forward on your journey.
Over time, you will begin to see a pattern. The first time you use an herb or plant you will create the initial page or card. You will add several facts, and use the item in your spell or ritual. If the experience is a positive one, go back and add notes to the card! If you learned something you'd rather not repeat, add that - e.g. if you found that burning certain herbs made a smoky mess and you had to air the house out for 3 hours in February, well then don't do THAT again! (Yep, personal experience.)
Some plants are better used as essential oil. Some plants are better as root powder or course herb. Some I put into the offering bowl on my altar, some I include in charm bags, some I mix with oils to anoint candles and tools. As I learn new things, I go back and add to my notebook. Then, once I have a fairly strong foundation of information, I begin to design the page for my Grimoire/Book of Shadows. I will write an article about keeping a Book soon.
If you want to find information that is already compiled about the correspondence for herbs and oils, there are many good books by reputable authors.
Scott Cunningham wrote The Complete Book of Incense, Oils and Brews (Llewellyn's Practical Magick) many years ago, but it still holds as a valuable reference material for many pagans to this day.
I recently bought a new book that I am enjoying tremendously that speaks about using 13 master plants to teach a method for learning about all plants. The author walks you through the Doctrine of Signature and speaks about growth habits, color, smell, and many other elements that help guide you to the proper use of any given plant in magic. That book is The Witching Herbs: 13 Essential Plants and Herbs for Your Magical Garden by Harold Roth.