We’re never too old for fairy tales. Folk stories about gingerbread houses, witches cauldrons, glass slippers, and cursed frogs have shaped our imaginations and cultures since humans first gathered around the fire. To this day, they continue to delight, enchant, and terrify children and adults alike. Often, these stories feature the deep dark forest, strange potions made from forbidden herbs, or apples laced with poison. Magic plants become almost like characters themselves, shaping the adventure as it unfolds.
The best part is these sorts of magic plants aren’t only found in storybooks. There are plenty of examples of plants, trees, and shrubs in the real world that are nothing short of magical. Some capture the whimsy of well-known Disney princesses. Others might make your skin crawl like the gruesome conclusion of a Grimm Brother’s tale.
If you observe any plant species long enough, it will inspire wonder and a sense of mystery. Here are some of our favorite species of magic plants:
Living Stone – Lithops
Native Landscape: Southern Africa
In fairy tales there’s no telling where helpful hints might come from, where secret doors await, or who might be watching you. In Scandinavian folklore in particular, rocks and stones might come to life just in time to save the day, or be the evidence of a nasty troll who got caught in the sunlight. You might not expect a rock to come to life on your average hike, but as it turns out, it’s entirely possible.
Lithops or “living stones” are a type of succulent that avoids being eaten by blending in with rocks. Consisting of two leaves and an almost non-existent stem, this “rock” is very much alive. They have a sweet-smelling flower emerging from their middle fissure in autumn, or as early as the summer solstice.
Strangler Fig – Ficus altissima
Native Landscape: Southeast Asia
In many folk tales, the forest comes alive to tease or trap a person lost. The nightmare of spidery, winding roots wrapping around your limbs is enough to wake anyone from a deep sleep, gasping for air and struggling to detangle from their sheets.
Ficus altissima is that nightmare made real. Often Ficus altissima starts its life as a epiphyte (similar to the christmas cactus) collecting nutrients from the area in which it grows and wrapping around another tree in the process. By the time a strangler fig tree has rooted down into the ground and can survive independently, it has already strangled and killed its host.
Venus Flytrap – Dionaea muscipula
Native Landscape: Subtropical wetlands of the East Coast of the United States
Being trapped forever by the roots of a tree shouldn’t be your only concern, however. There are also plenty of plants with an appetite for meat. Luckily, the venus flytrap doesn’t devour people – it’s taste leans towards insects and arachnids.
The venus flytrap can be triggered into clamping shut with a touch as light as a hair. Once its prey is trapped, the frantic movement of the insect will stimulate the inner lobes of the plant, bringing them closer together until they form a sort of stomach and begin the digestion process. Digestion takes around 10 days, after which time the venus flytrap reopens for its next meal. Yummy.
Yarrow – Achillea millefolium
Native Landscape: Native to temperate regions of the Northern regions in Asia, Europe and North America.
Known to many herbalists as the “healer’s healer,” yarrow isn’t hard to find and can often be spotted growing along the side of highways, trails, meadows and coasts.
It is a perennial, flowering plant that is known (and mentioned in antiquity) for its use in stopping blood flow from both violent wounds and nosebleeds. Legends has it that Achilles always carried it with him into battle. In the Hebrides, yarrow leaves could give a person “second sight.” Meanwhile the Navajo chewed the plant to cure toothaches.
Other indigenous group in North America, such as the Cherokee and the Ojibwe, used yarrow to reduce fevers, aid sleep, and cure headaches. Whether you’re headed into the battle of Troy, or you’re a modern-day witch with spells to brew, chances are that yarrow is a magical plant that can help you along the way.
Dragon’s-blood Tree – Dracaena cinnabari
Native Landscape: Socotra archipelago
First found on an archipelago in Yemen, the dragon’s-blood tree and its dripping red sap is that of legend. Its sap has captured the imagination of the ancient world and is still used today.
The red sap has been used as dye, pottery glue, breath freshener, and lipstick. It is also used to this day as a varnish for violins.
Deadly Nightshade – Atropa Belladonna
Native Landscape: Europe, North Africa and Western Asia
Belladonna comes from the same nightshade family (same as tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplants) but it has a much more sinister and mysterious reputation.
Over time, it has been used in diverse ways: a surgery anesthetic; a poison used at the tip of arrows; there are even examples of Italian women using Belladonna as eye drops to dilate their pupils, making them appear more attractive and seductive. It was also used as a “twilight sleep” during childbirth. In certain folktales, Belladonna is said to be favored by witches when brewing their “flying ointment” which helps them fly to gatherings with their coven. Spooky stuff, especially with halloween just around the corner.
However you use it, you want to be careful with this magic plant as both the leaves and the foliage are extremely toxic when ingested. You’ll need more than a kiss from your one true love in order to recover.
Have any other favorite magic plants? Used PlantSnap to identify anything particularly strange? We’d love to hear what they are!