Wortcunning – Understanding the Healing Properties of Plants


Wortcunning is the knowledge and use of the healing and magickal properties found in plants, especially herbs. The word is rarely used in the modern era (in fact many consider it obsolete.)  Today it’s used by a select group of folk healers, witches, and wiccans as a descriptive word for the practice of herbalism.  Wortcunning is derived from the old English “wort” which refers to any useful plant and “cunning” which means practical knowledge or cleverness.

Herbalism and the understanding of how plants and herbs can be used to treat illness, used as an offering, or as part of a spell or potion, is a mainstay for most witches.  Many people are familiar with the basics when it comes to herbs; use lavender to make someone relax or use mugwort to treat bruising.  But, most of those same people have learned what they know from articles on-line or from word-of-mouth.  They truly haven’t taken the steps to fully immerse themselves in understanding the vibrations and energies of the plants around them.  They are seeing, but not always listening to what those same plants are telling them or not telling them.  Without an intimate relationship with the plant world, many people who call themselves herbalists, are actually just going through the motions.  They may perform admirably, but are only getting a portion of the picture.

Wortcunning is a hands-on activity and requires hours upon hours of study.  It’s like going to college to become a botanist and then furthering your education to get a masters and doctorate and then starting field and garden studies which last for the rest of your life.  Those who take the time to fill their heads with everything useful or dangerous about numerous plants and herbs will reap the rewards.  Making natural medicines and treatments that actually help people can be extremely rewarding.   Modern medicine is expensive, invasive, and often times comes with more side-effects than it seems worth.  Doctors prescribe synthetic drugs which are often rejected by our bodies and often times they only treat symptoms instead of providing an actual cure.  Herbal medicine on the other hand, is heavier to the preventative approach, but when something does arise, takes an all-natural approach.  This leads to few, if any, side effects and minor or no cost.

Tenants of Wortcunning

  1. When you prepare to gather, harvest, or otherwise cut into a living plant, it’s imperative that you ask for permission first.  It’s just as important that you are certain that you’ve been granted permission before any actions.  Plants are alive; they have a spirit which holds their magick and should be treated with the utmost level of respect.  Many herb growers take time to reach out to the spirits of their herbs through meditation or through dream work to learn about their personalities and tendencies.  This type of relationship allows for an in-depth understanding and a conduit to tap into the secret powers hidden in the depths of the plant fibers.
  2. Be prepared to give as you receive.  When you take a part of a plant, you take energy.  You can gather ambient energy from the earth or the air and offer it to the plant as gratitude and replenishment or you can offer something physical.  The physical offering most commonly used is tobacco, but you can also use fresh water (especially when you are gathering wild herbs in the heat of the summer,) organic fertilizer (such as bone meal) or mulch from your compost.
  3. In the case where nature has already done some of your work; such as with fruit that has fallen from a tree or vine or broken stems, stalks, or separated leaves, asking permission isn’t necessary, but it’s likely to be seen as favorable by the plant and others within the same realm.
  4. When you are gathering roots, you must be absolutely certain of permission, since this action will kill the plant.  If the plant is harvested during a period where it has produced seeds, replant them before leaving the site.  A situation where there is an abundance of seeds is optimal.  Scatter them throughout the area as you walk home; you’ll be leaving something of far greater value than you can imagine.
  5. Make certain that you know what you are gathering.  Many plants look similar such as motherwort and mugwort or lambs quarter and black nightshade.  Making the motherwort mistake will only mess up your herbal concoction, while adding black nightshade to a mixture instead of lambs quarter could be deadly.
  6. Before you start or attempt to gather any plants, it’s important to have the proper tools.

Gathering Tools for the Modern Wortcunningist

  1. A boline or sharp pruning tool – some people use heavy shears/scissors.
  2. Bowls or baskets for gathering purposes – round wicker baskets with raised edges work great for gathering as they can also be employed as part of the drying process
  3. Twine for bundling or bunching herbs
  4. Cheesecloth or linen cut into large squares – these are great for wrapping up larger pieces, small branches, or batches of loose leaves.  Alternately if you can find larger muslin bags with drawstrings, go with them.
  5. When gathering in the wild, a large spacious carrying bag is critical; preferably one with a high breathability factor to keep excessive moisture from building up.
  6. A field guide or other visual aid can be very useful if you’re not too experienced.  Some mistakes can be fatal.
  7. For gathering roots, a small digging tool is imperative.  My favorite tool is what’s commonly known as a weeding hoe – it has a two-sided head.  One side has a narrow pointed hoe and the other a three-bladed weeder/cultivator.  I prefer the heavier weighted ones as they won’t break and will give you real earth-penetrating power on relatively few swings.

Of course, once you’ve gathered these wonderful plants and herbs, you’ll often need to process them and store them for use later.  Learning the proper techniques for drying, crushing, and storing fresh herbs is another major investment in time, but also one worth investing in, but also one that we won’t be covering in this piece.  If you find yourself in a situation where you can learn, then take advantage of it and put it to memory.  Wortcunning is not for everyone, but has amazing value.  You never know when having herbalist skills will be the difference maker in someone else’s life; remember that luck favors the prepared.

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