In the first book of the wildly popular Harry Potter series, Harry is confronted by the potions teacher and asked about wolfsbane. While many of the magical herbs in the series are fictionalized. The author did draw on herbs used by the Wiccan religion and the wise women healers of European history. One reference I found mentions that J.K.Rowling used the works of Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654 ce), a famous London herbalist whose works are still available today.
Some of the things mentioned in that opening potions class are probably added for effect. Snakes fangs and horned slugs have more shock value than traditional use. Wolfsbane on the other hand is well known, and as Professor Snape points out, it is known by several names. These include monkshood, blue rocket, friar’s cap, mouse bane, and fu zi. These are all the herb aconite, a particularly important and toxic herb that has been used world wide. Many herbal traditions either used this herb in very small amounts or like the Chinese figured out how to treat the herb to decrease its toxicity. This herb is very "hot" in nature and warms the body. It is used in treating edema, severe diarrhea, and some types of severe pain that gets worse with cold weather.
Professor Snape also mentions a sleeping powder made of asphodel and wormwood. Asphodel is a general term referring to many flowers of the lily family. Some of these plants are poisonous. These flowers are common in Europe and are not well described in modern herbal texts. They were in common herbal use in the past but are rarely seen today and the dynamics are not clear. Wormwood or Artemisia, known as qing hao in Chinese, is very common. It is known to cool and helps regulate the movement of energy in the body and is used for a variety of disorders. There has been a lot of recent interest in Wormwood for the treatment of malaria.
The other interesting herbs that are referred to in the passage of the book are bezoars and nettles. These herbs are very different from each other. Nettle, known more as an annoying weed that causes itching, has a long history for many conditions that were seen as related to liver toxicity and blood function. It was used to increase metabolism and increase energy by moving rather than nourishing energy in the body. Bezoars are a hard stone-like material that forms in the gastrointestinal tract of some animals. These were used for various conditions. They never became popular as a herbal remedy because they are hard to come by and are often expensive.
As with all good fiction, the world of Harry Potter has just enough true information to seem familiar, yet just not quite enough to be obviously incorrect. It is very easy to think that we could get these items and try to copy the magic potions, and yet there is just not quite enough information to know that we got it right. All of which stirs the imagination and makes the story that much more enjoyable.
— David Bock
This article was from David's LakeCountryOnline.com column, "The Practical Herbalist"
David Bock, C. Ac., Dipl. OM, FABORM
Wisconsin Certified Acupuncturist
National Board Certification in Oriental Medicine
Fellow American Board Of Oriental Reproductive Medicine
Bock Acupuncture & Herbal Medicine
888 Thackeray Trail #206
Oconomowoc, Wisconsin 53066