Saturday, December 17, 2016

A Challenging Correspondence: Wisteria

Every Spring in the American South, when the weather begins to warm, but just before most of the trees produce the majority of their leaves, wisteria blooms. The air gets a scent that is nearly indescribable - something like a cross between the most scrumptious elements of lilac and grape jelly. It is a smell that heralds the Spring; its a smell that makes me feel both at peace and sexually charged. It is an odor so captivating and infectious that it seems to make my brain feel alarmed. I feel a similar alarm when my intuition thinks that spellwork is being done within my field. I become so shocked by my own reaction to the smell of wisteria that I crave possessing it for use in glamour workings. It's attractive power is that blatant to me.

The first time I notice the odor for the year, I realize that I have a very short time to collect wisteria blossoms. They last only about 2-3 weeks, especially if the springtime comes on quickly and warmly. Like many flowers, once they are gone, you have lost them for another 11 months. If you smell something like grape jelly long after the trees have their leaves, you are most likely smelling kudzu, which has a similar odor, but is not as captivating.

Once one has wisteria blossoms in one's collection, how are they used? For what kinds of spells are they best? What magickal correspondence fits? For years I have been waffling over which correspondence list is appropriate. I have been leveraging the Doctrine of Signatures as best I could. One year I was convinced that is was an herb of Saturn, because it is a poisonous plant. The next year, I was more convinced that it better fit with Venus because it was a flower with such a powerful beauty to its fragrance. But this year, I feel like I have a more solid correspondence than every before. Here's how I came to my conclusions.

Wisteria in the USA could be any one of three plants from the Pea family. The native American wisteria is Wisteria frutescens and produces no scent that humans can detect. It is a smaller bloom than the other two more invasive species that actually produce a detectable odor. Japanese wisteria is Wisteria floribunda and Chinese wisteria is Wisteria sinensis, both of which are aggressive invasive species capable of wreaking havoc to forests and southern porches alike. The Chinese wisteria produces the strongest smell, so when we capture or copy the odor of wisteria, we are most likely referencing that species.

Historical use of wisteria cannot be discounted in our investigation for a correspondence. A magickal egregore has been established, though not as solidly as with some other flowering herbs. Unfortunately, writings about wisteria are scarce and brief in Neo-Pagan works. This of course excludes the internet, which is rife with the same plagiarized blurbs, mindlessly reproduced over and over, with no references or solid explanations. I was able to find a few writings in which I could place some confidence.

Cat Yronwode, in her extensive hoodoo writings, notes that the scent was more popular in the 1920's and lists some hoodoo-based recipes for simulating the fragrance with perfumer's chemicals. Interestingly, the recipes were to create a Yula Perfume Oil, which was a "death oil." Personally, I find the idea that a death oil could be attractive like a love oil to be terribly ingenious, but that's a topic for sitting in a bar with a good bottle of wine.

In 1989, Wylundt's Book of Incense, by Stephen Smith, revealed that the correspondence for "Wisteria Chinesis" was Venus and Air. There is no indication from which of the book's references Smith got his correspondence for this herb. Many later writers seem to be continuing with that correspondence. I can't help but wonder if the association was made simply because of the pretty odor. This seems to be the most popular plagiarized association on the internet.

Scott Cunningham says nothing about the plant parts of wisteria, but states in his Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs (1985) that "wisteria oil" has the power of protection. Nothing more is specified in the book, such as what this oil actually is, or how one might call upon that power of protection. He also makes a wisteria reference in his Magical Herbalism (1982) where he writes, in the list of the magical powers of scented oils, "Wisteria is used to contact other planes of consciousness and existence, and to bring illumination." That information is a bit more helpful.

In Wicca: the Complete Craft (2001), D. J. Conway echoes the uses given by Cunningham, but instead writes that wisteria is an "oil of Saturn."

Gerina Dunwich states in her book, Herbal Magick (2002), that wisteria is an herb used for Candlemas (Imbolc) and the Summer Solstice Sabbats. Though nice to know, this doesn't point us to a useful correspondence. The bloom time of wisteria is most often in March or April, which is after Candlemas and way before the Solstice, depending on one's location. Wisteria isn't native to northern Europe, where the sabbats were observed, and was not brought to Britain until as late as 1816. Use at Ostara seems more likely to me.

In 2006, Lady Rhea and Eve LeFay published The Enchanted Formulary, which listed wisteria as an ingredient in "Venus," a love oil. It was also present in an oil recipe called "Voodoo Nights." Neither of these recipes necessarily point to any particular correspondence.

Despite the commonplace use of Venus, sources do not agree on the correspondence of wisteria. Cunningham's idea of communication seems to put the herb under the rulership of Mercury. This made the most sense to me since mercurial plants tend to be vines or "travelers" of a sort. Yet I was not convinced until I rechecked my Doctrine of Signatures so that I could consider the plant's medicinal energetics. Chinese wisteria is known as "zi teng" in Traditional Chinese Medicine, where it is used to treat intestinal worms. Wisteria is also used in a Japanese medicinal formula called "WTTC" (wisteria, trapa, terminalia, coix). This formula was developed about 60 years ago for the treatment of gastrointestinal cancers. Interestingly, the astrological ruler of the intestines is Virgo. Virgo actually has its ancient rulership under Mercury! The energetics of the plant seems to me to point to the correspondence of wisteria being Virgo, by virtue of Mercury, an Air sign. I have more confidence in this correspondence than any other I have associated before.

As with most flowers, wisteria blossoms are too delicate to produce an essential oil. In these cases, organic solvents are used to extract the essence, producing what are called "absolutes." To date, wisteria flower essential oil is impossible and no one is producing a wisteria absolute. I have seen most dealers selling either a "fragrance oil," which is likely synthetic perfume chemicals, or a wisteria "essential oil blend" that is designed to simulate the fragrance of wisteria. There are some excellent products available.

One company claims to actually produce wisteria essential oil, which is not impossible if one uses non-flower plant parts. This would mean that the EO wouldn't smell at all like wisteria flowers. The label of this product does not reveal what plants parts were used in its making, or if there is any floral odor present in the final product. Unfortunately, many "kitchen witches" who are producing what they call "essential oils" are actually fragrance oils, infused oils or oil blends. Few realize that putting the words "essential oil" on a bottle, according to US labeling law, defines the process used to produce the oil. If the oil was not separated from the plant by steam distillation, it is not an essential oil.

An old perfumer's technique is to use a bellows to draw the volatile scents from a closed chamber filled with blossoms across thin plates spread with beef or pig tallow, which would then take on the odor. This process is called "enfleurage" and the resulting scented fats are called "pomades." The pomades were then used in beauty products and the odor could be later extracted back out of the pomade into a solvent. A similar technique would be to repeatedly infuse batches of the blossoms in a warm neutral smelling oil (hot or cold enfleurage). This latter method seems more accommodating to modern kitchens, requiring no specialized equipment, but may require large quantities of blooms. Fortunately, the aggressive nature of wisteria ensures that it is often plentiful.