In honor of Professor Sprout’s birthday, I’ve made this post in order to explore the role of plants in the wizarding world, and to look at some of their origins in folk legends.
Through the Harry Potter series, JK Rowling created a vast array of plants, animals, and bacteria that are unique to the wizarding world. On Pottermore, she said, “I decided that, broadly speaking, wizards would have the power to correct or override ‘mundane’ nature but not ‘magical’ nature. Therefore, a wizard could catch anything a muggle might catch, but he could cure all of it; he would also comfortably survive a scorpion sting that might kill a Muggle, whereas he might die if bitten by a Venomous Tentacula” (Illness and Disability, Pottermore). This principle plays out in Harry’s Herbology class, through the various magical plants he encounters. Although we can presume that wizards have ways of dealing with the negative properties of Muggle plants like poison ivy, hemlock, nightshade, or wolfsbane, this seems to come at the expense of dealing with a whole host of plants whose entire purpose appears to be vicious forms of attack. Evolutionarily speaking, this would make sense: the plants have evolved to protect themselves from aggression even from highly powerful magical creatures and people. Throughout Harry’s seven years, he encounters such fatally dangerous plants as Devil’s Snare, the Whomping Willow, and Mandrakes. In fact, every single one of the plants Harry encounters seems to have threatening defensive mechanisms, which would explain why, unlike for Muggles, Herbology might be a class that is vitally important for survival in the wizarding world. Harry, Ron, and Hermione learn how to handle attacking stumps called Snargaluffs, boil-causing bubotuber pus, stink sap shooting Mimbulus Mimbletonia, and biting Fanged Geraniums. Despite the danger in these plants, many of them do provide unusual remedies. Bubotuber pus can be used to clear acne, and mandrakes can be used to help those who have been petrified. Thus, it seems that there are some benefits to having a magical garden.
Although most of the magical plants in the Harry Potter series appear to be original creations of JK Rowling, the Mandrake is actually a real plant that has been involved in lots of magical folklore. Mandrake is part of the nightshade family, and its roots contain chemicals that work as hallucinogens and hypnotics. It is said that the roots often resemble human figures, and legend has it that when dug up they scream and kill whoever hears them. In ancient practices it was advised to tie a dog to the mandrake and have the dog run away and pull up the plant. Then, the dog would die but the human would be safe. It seems that the idea that mandrakes can help people who have been cursed or transfigured is unique to the Harry Potter series, although mandrakes were used as amulets to protect against evil.