Fortune-telling with Wetland Plants

A long time ago, someone introduced me to Celtic divination with trees. The tree that stood for my birthday month was the ash. TheNuin, or ash tree, was considered the “Goddess tree,” and the wood was commonly used for Druid wands and the handle of a broomstick.
 A witch’s broomstick was made from ash to ‘protect the rider from drowning.’ The myth may have been derived from the tree’s tendency to live in wetlands. In Maine, for example, Black ash swamps are home to the showy lady slipper, and small enchanter’s nightshade, as well as mosses and liverworts that often carpet the floor of this forested wetland. It just so happens that swamps, along with other wetlands, have been places where fortune-tellers have sought plants for the purpose of divination, such as fig, sage and verbena.

Botanomancy is an ancient method of divination by means of the burning of leaves, herbs and tree branches. Usually vervain (Verbena officinalis), or any of a group of herbs or low woody plants with often showy heads or spikes of five-parted regular flowers, is used to predict fortunes. In addition brier, a plant with a thorny or prickly woody stem, such as any in the genus Rosa (roses), or Rubus (brambles), were used to predict omens. Omens are drawn from the smoke and ashes generated. This divination method was used for centuries by Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Arabians, among many other civilizations. It is still used today by modern fortune-tellers. Fortune-tellers carve their questions on the branches prior to burning them. Alternatively, botanomancers write words on sage or fig leaves. Fortune-tellers expose the leaves to the wind and whatever leaves remain hold the answer. Historically botanomancers also observed the growth patterns of these plants; any odd behaviors or aspects of the plants would reveal information that could be used to predict events.

One of the plants used in botanomancy is the Swamp verbena, a.k.a. Blue vervain,(Verbena hastata), which can be found in degraded wetlands as well as high quality wetlands. It is common throughout the Midwest. It has pretty blue or violet flowers. The leaves are big enough to write words on, so this would be a good choice for a botanomancer.
 Now for those who love growing hybrid iris, don’t be fooled by the common name of the Tall Bearded Iris—Fortune Teller, which is neither a naturally occurring flower nor used in fortune-telling. It was cultivated in the 1980s.

Reading tea leaves, or tasseography, is another type of ancient divination. With roots in Asia, the Middle East and Ancient Greece, the tradition has been widely practiced throughout Europe (Scotland, Ireland) and Eastern European cultures. Because of the wide practice of tea reading, any kind of whole cut tea leaves may be used. The aromatic leaves of Bog Labrador tea plant (Rhododendron groenlandicum),which grows in bogs in northern climates, make an herbal tea. Please note: even though Bog Labrador tea is known for its medicinal properties, it does contain ledol, a poisonous substance that can cause cramps and paralysis! Always take care when making teas from unknown plants. In China, bulrush tea is a common beverage and Chinese tea is often used in tea readings.

After tasseographers drink tea, the wet dark tea leaves form shapes at the bottom of a cup, or the leaves can be tossed onto the saucer; then the shapes are interpreted. Tasseographers work with whole tea leaves. It is ill-advised to simply use the tea from a broken tea bag. The symbolism involved in reading tea leaves is based on a variety of theoretical foundations ranging from Plato to Carl Jung. There are numerous books available on how to interpret tea leaves. It’s a fun activity for a Halloween party or get-together. The basic instructions can be found here:


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