Plant Magic: Wisdom from the Green World

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Witches’ Gowan

The term gowan was a generic Scottish folk name for yellow flowers. The word is likely to have come from the Middle English gollan, meaning “yellow flower,” which possibly came from a source akin to the Old Norse gullinn, meaning “golden.” For a time in the nineteenth century, the word gowan was also used in reference to daisies. Later they were distinguished as white gowan or yellow gowan. In addition, the yellow flowers were regarded as witches’ gowan, but why?
        Only two flowers were actually called witch-gowan and witches’ gowan: dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and globeflower (Trollius europaeus), respectively. The other yellow gowans are the meadow buttercup (Ranunculus acris), and marsh marigold (Caltha palustris). In addition to their color, another property they share is sap that is poisonous or at least highly irritating to the skin. The white sap of the dandelion and globeflower was called witches’ milk.
        It seems odd that these flowers were called witches’ gowan because folklore only mentions the dandelion and marsh marigold as being used for protection against witches. Perhaps their toxic sap was enough to link these plants with witches because witches were blamed for anything harmful or inexplicably bad.
        Instead of witches, the yellow gowans were more often associated with faeries, goblins, and trolls. Marsh marigold and globeflower also had the folk name goblin flower. Another name for globeflower was troll flower. Dandelions were called fairy clocks.
        The globeflower is ball-shaped and its petals remain mostly closed making it look like a small, yellow cabbage. In Scandinavia, the plant’s poisonous qualities were attributed to trolls that were said to have meddled with the flowers. According to folklore in the Netherlands, malicious elves used them to prepare poison. Dandelions gathered on Midsummer’s Eve were said to have the power to ward off witches. According to many legends, faeries could tell time with the flowers or the seed heads. In parts of England, seeds floating on the air were called fairies and it was considered lucky to catch one, but if you made a wish and let it go your wish would come true.
        Buttercups were said to be used as basins by faeries. In Ireland, they were traditionally placed on doorsteps and windowsills on May Eve to protect against faery mischief. Unlike their buttercup cousins, the yellow petals of marsh marigold do not overlap into a cup shape. On the Isle of Man marsh marigold was called the herb of Beltane. It used as a charm against faeries and witches on Beltane and as a general protective charm throughout the month of May.
        While these flowers may not have been used by witches in the past, they live up to their old folk name through use in modern witchcraft. Magically, dandelions are an aid to divination, opening awareness and bringing clarity of purpose. They also help in contacting and communicating spirits and spirit guides. Use buttercups in spells to manifest abundance and prosperity in your life. They also enhance dream work. Marsh marigold is instrumental in healing and renewal. Also use them to stoke inspiration or to remove negativity. Globeflower is effective for removing negativity, breaking and warding off hexes, and defensive spells.

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The author of over a dozen books, Sandra is an explorer of history, myth, and magic. Her writing has been featured in SageWoman, The Magical Times, The Portal, and Circle magazines, Utne Reader and Magical Buffet websites, and various Llewellyn almanacs. Although she is a member of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, she travels a solitary Goddess-centered path through the Druidic woods. She has lived in New York City, Europe, England, and now Maine where she lives in an 1850s farmhouse surrounded by meadows and woods.  


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