Blog Post 223 – Magic in the Time of Plague

A look at the uses of folk magic and folklore in times of plague and epidemic.

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It’s hard to be in crisis mode all the time. For many of us right now, just making it through the day can be overwhelming, and accomplishing our daily tasks is a daunting proposition. I’m not sure if it is cold comfort to say that we are not the first and likely not the last to experience such “interesting times” as these, but we are not alone in this. While the burgeoning COVID-19 viral pandemic makes its way through our world, a number of us are developing rituals to help us cope with the stresses of getting by, whether those are digital social circles with glasses of wine cyber-clinked through webcams or making sure we get outside (at six feet of distance from other people) to just be around physical, natural things.

Folklore responds to crisis. People come together and create, believe, act, think, do without any other impetus than their drive to connect and share with one another. They can also do some truly terrible things, too, and not all folklore and folk culture are positive things. There’s a great article that we often read in folklore studies called “Baseball Magic,” by George Gmelch, which talks about how the relationship between folk magic and belief has to do with risk and reward. Gmelch parallels baseball players with island fishermen, and points out that the higher risk a particular “job”–whether that is going out in a canoe on the open ocean or playing shortstop–the more likely one is to develop rituals and belief around those risks. High risk means magic, because magic is a way to mitigate or control risk.

Today I want to talk about times of great risk–plague times–and the magical responses they spark. Please note that absolutely NOTHING here should be taken as medical advice, and that you should continue to take any and all precautions recommended by physicians and epidemiologists to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and any other potential diseases.

Great plague of london-1665
Print of Plague in 1665, via Wikimedia

Plague times are not new. We know of a number of ancient plagues, including the absolutely decimating Antonine Plague of Ancient Rome. Little wildfire-like plagues pop up throughout the historical records like this, devastating regions and nations. Then you get to the big grandaddy of pandemics, the Black Death, which wiped out something like a third of the European population when it hit in the mid-fourteenth century. (I will also note that this was hardly a “European” plague, as it had dramatic impacts on Asia as well). The bubonic bacteria that caused the plague continued to hound the world for centuries to come, including during the mid-1600s in London, where it wiped out a hundred thousand people. Well-known diarist Samuel Pepys described life during the London Plague thusly:

“This day, much against my Will, I did in Drury-lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and “Lord have mercy upon us” writ there – which was a sad sight to me, being the first of that kind that to my remembrance I ever saw. It put me into an ill conception of myself and my smell, so that I was forced to buy some roll tobacco to smell to and chaw – which took away the apprehension.”

The red cross on the door was a requirement made of all houses infected by plague to alert anyone nearby to maintain safe distance. Pepys mentions tobacco not just because he wants a nicotine fix to soothe his pandemic-jangled nerves (although I’m sure that’s part of it), but because the tobacco had value as a medicinal smoke that many believed helped fumigate or stymie the “bad air” of the plague.

The Black Death also inspired the folklore surrounding the formula known as “Four Thieves’ Vinegar,” which was thought to be a topical preparation that repelled the Plague. The story goes that a group of four thieves each contributed an ingredient–garlic, peppercorns, mustard seeds, and vinegar–to make a solution that kept them safe when they raided the houses of plague victims to steal from the corpses. When they were caught, they were offered the chance at clemency if they revealed their formula, which of course they did. The story is likely apocryphal (much like the folklore surrounding the rhyme about “Ring Around the Rosie,” which is not definitively about the plague but is often referenced as such). 

Four Theives Vinegar makes another plague appearance during an outbreak of smallpox in Philadelphia during the 1790s, when a number of refugees fleeing the revolution in Santo Domingo (now Haiti) came through the city. It is possible these refugees brought in a similar recipe to Four Thieves’ Vinegar, or that European American residents of the city were already well-aware of the mixture, but it appears to have been deployed as a preventative measure against catching smallpox by some.

Other outbreaks of disease in North America prompted folk medical and magical responses, as well. Martha Ballard, a midwife in the region of Hallowell, Maine, kept a diary from 1785 to 1812 in which she recorded many of the daily activities of the era (making it an immensely valuable and fascinating read), but she also witnessed instances of contagion, too. One series of entries from August of 1787 describes what historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich believes to be an instance of scarlet fever, for which Ballard offered treatments including “cold water tincture” made from what was likely either purple aster root or marsh rosemary (also known as sea lavender) (p. 45). Ulrich also notes that in administering to her patients and going from sick bed to sick bed (all the while also delivering babies), Martha Ballard may have been a vector for transmitting the disease, although she also notes that the mortality rate for Hallowell was relatively low. 

Knowing who was responsible for an epidemic became a central concern for many communities, and some turned to magical or supernatural explanations. Yvonne Chireau describes an outbreak of smallpox in an African American community on St. Helena Island off the coast of Georgia and notes that for many people there, treating the illness was viewed as “going against God,” since the disease’s virulence seemed to be almost a biblical plague executing some form of divine justice or retribution (p. 99-100). A similar mindset is seen in one of my favorite passages in all of literature, from Toni Morrison’s Sula, in which the return of an accursed member of the community brings about a “plague” of dead robins: 

“[E]vil must be avoided, they felt, and precautions must naturally be taken to protect themselves from it. But they let it run its course, fulfill itself, and never invented ways to either alter it, to annihilate it or to prevent its happening again. So also were they with people.

What was taken by outsiders to be a slackness, slovenliness or even generosity was in fact a full recognition of the legitimacy of forces other than good ones. They did not believe doctors could heal—for them, none ever had done so. They did not believe death was accidental—life might be, but death was deliberate. They did not believe Nature was ever askew—only inconvenient. Plague and drought were as ‘natural’ as springtime. If milk could curdle, God knows that robins could fall” (pp. 89-90).

Divine intervention was one thing, however. In some cases, a plague’s presence could be ascribed to a single individual. That person, unlike the wrath of God, could be dealt with. We see stories of such persecutions all the time among outbreaks of diseases like tuberculosis, which likely sparked the New England Vampire panic in the nineteenth century. 

A similar outbreak of disease and subsequent blame targeted an individual woman–Moll Dyer–as its cause, with deadly results:

“Once settled outside Leonardtown [Maryland], she lived very much to herself in a remote cottage, and her reputation as a witch began to take hold when she was seen out gathering herbs and simples. Soon tales began to be told about the spells she was able to cast on animals and people alike, and it wasn’t long before any misfortune in the region was set on her head. Finally when an epidemic swept through the county, the residents had had enough. One winter night they gathered themselves some torches and set fire to Moll Dyer’s cottage hoping to catch her inside. But the poor woman learned beforehand of their intentions and fled into the woods. There she knelt on a stone and issued a curse upon the land and her persecutors. Several days later a child found Moll frozen to death on the rock, still in that supplicant position…to this day the rock where Moll reportedly knelt still shows the imprint of her knees.” (Carey 50-51)

The story continues that the curse left behind by Dyer left the land around her cabin completely barren, and several of the people who had set fire to her house later suffered their own conflagrations (with a few of them dying in their burning homes just as they had intended for Dyer). The spell she cast, then, was a sort of epidemic of its own, but one that targeted only the guilty rather than the indiscriminate plagues of smallpox or scarlet fever were wont to do. A similar case appears in the American Southwest, where a supposed witch named Zuni Nick was believed to be behind a double-whammy combo of smallpox and drought winds that threatened the food supply. He was convicted of witchcraft by the locals (who already were not fond of him, as he was the adopted son of a white trader who didn’t believe in the traditions of his community) and hung in the church by his thumbs from a rafter. He would have died there, but his agonized cries stirred pity in one man’s heart. He freed Zuni Nick, pistol in hand, and the two ran off to the local U.S. Army fort. (Simmons, p. 119-20). These accusations have an eerie similarity to some of the racially-motivated attacks that have targeted people of Asian descent and background in the current viral outbreak (the sorts of hate crimes for which curses like Dyer’s seem especially apt). 

Combatting plague was also a role for the magician, one that they sometimes shared with the local medicos. Tony Kail outlines a yellow fever outbreak in the Memphis, Tennessee region in 1878 that killed over five thousand people and sent thousands more fleeing the city (NOTE: Do NOT flee to the countryside during an epidemic, as that will only spread the infection). Remarkably, both the local rootworkers and more “professional” medical doctors were called upon to cure the fever, and they did so using a shared local flora pharmacopoeia: 

“Many of the remedies used by white doctors used many of the same herbs and roots used by African American rootworkers. One remedy used by a Dr. Alexander from Clinton, Mississippi, included herbs such as bayberry, catnip and African ginger. Mandrake root was used to help bowel movements in those suffering with the fever. Snakeroot, a common hoodoo root, was recommended to be used in a tea.” (p. 61).

This rather echoes other examples in which local, often indigenous, knowledge provides solutions to difficult problems, particularly when it comes to disease. One of the best examples is in the case of malaria, a disease carried by mosquitoes but which stymied and frustrated European medical doctors for years. In Peru, however, local natives had used a bark from the quina-quina tree (the “bark of barks,” now better known as the cinchona tree) to brew a tonic that seemed to help with the disease. Eventually, of course, this became the basis for the drug quinine, which was used to treat malaria more effectively than previous drugs (although better treatments are available now that we have a better understanding of the disease). Historian Elaine Breslaw points out that this pattern in the era of pre-modern medicine was essentially normal, and that for most of Colonial America, folk healers were actually less deadly than physicians, and that most folk healers were as effective and knowledgeable, but lacked formal education (p. 4). 

None of which is to say that you shouldn’t be checking in with your doctor if you exhibit symptoms of illness. You should. Modern medicine does amazing things, and folklore and folk magic should not be thought to take its place. 

So where does that leave us in light of the COVID-19 outbreak? Are there magical responses we can see, or other forms of epidemic folklore? There are, of course, and probably more than we can count, so I will just highlight two here and invite you to share any folk magical responses you have seen (especially ones that complement actual medical advice rather than replace it, as I think folklore can be a powerful tool to augment our experiences, but as I have said often, it does not replace actual doctors’ advice).

Higo Amabie
Image of Amabie yokai from Edo Newspaper (1846) via Wikimedia

First, I have to say I have been utterly charmed by the response coming out of Japanese social media, which has seen a resurgence of the yokai (local spirit) known as “Amabie,” who resembles a beaked mermaid with a number of fins and who is associated with healing epidemics and plagues. The beak resembles a hospital mask and many people have taken to sharing their drawings and images of Amabie on social media as a way to help tamp down the coronavirus outbreak. You can find hundreds of these pictures on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

Second, I have very much appreciated the community bonding and support spurred on by this epidemic, even as bad news seems to pour in from all sides. I know that times are incredibly hard for so many of us, but we also seem to be pulling together to make it through these difficult days. In terms of magic, I see that embodied in the sigil artwork of people like Laura Tempest Zakroff, who has been sharing several of her works online much as the Amabie pictures are being shared. The hope is that by sharing and spreading sigils for Boosting Immunity, Meeting Individual/Collective Needs, Managing Panic, and Feeding Body and Soul. Sharing these images and building their collective steampower feels like a solid folk magical response that can help add to the practical steps of hand-washing, social distancing, and regular exercise.

managingpanic-color
Sigil for Managing Panic, designed by Laura Tempest Zakroff (2020)

These are truly strange and interesting times, awful and aweful in turn for many of us. Whatever spells you are casting or stories you are turning to in these times, I wish you health and safety.

Thank you for reading.

Be well,

-Cory

Podcast 29 – An American Shaman

-SHOWNOTES FOR EPISODE 29-

Summary
Today we talk with author and American folk magician/shaman Jack Montgomery.  Then we have some listener feedback and a few announcements.

Play:

Download:  New World Witchery – Episode 29

-Sources-
American Shamans, by Jack Montgomery
Strange Experience: The Autobiography of a Hexenmeister, by Lee Gandee
Fifty Years as a Low Country Witch Doctor, by Sheriff J. E. McTeer
High Sheriff of the Low Country, by Sheriff J. E. McTeer

If you would like to donate to the Japanese relief effort, here is the Peter Dybing page we mentioned in the show.
Please also consider donating to the Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund, which is currently helping victims of the Alabama Tornado.

Promos & Music
Title music:  “Homebound,” by Jag, from Cypress Grove Blues.  From Magnatune.
Promo 1 – Irish & Celtic Music Podcast
Promo 2 – Dr. E’s Conjure Doctor Products
Promo 3 – Magick & Mundane
Promo 4 – Forest Grove Botanica

Quick Post – Hoodoo in the Wall Street Journal

Hi all!

Not a major post today, just something I found that I thought might be interesting to you:

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703989004575653102537901956.html

It’s an article about hoodoo in the Wall Street Journal!  Take a look and let me know what you think!

-Cory

Blog Post 87 – Podcast Recommendation

Hi everyone!

I promise I will eventually get the rest of the cartomancy thread and look at how to do an actual reading, but I’ve not had time to take the photos I want to use for that yet.  So today, I wanted to recommend something I only found last week.  It’s a podcast called “5-Star Spells” and it’s found on BlogTalk Radio.  For those who don’t know about BlogTalk, it’s a phone-in format open radio site that lets people broadcast their shows without having podcasting equipment.  The radio shows go out live at specific times, then get recorded and transferred to a podcast feed for posterity (and for those of us who just prefer podcasts).

5-Star Spells is a show with a group of some of the most talented and knowledgeable root workers and readers around.  I’ll get into them individually in a moment, but as a whole they represent some of the best minds, hearts, and hands in the conjure business today.  What’s even better, they all interact like family, with a tremendous amount of positivity towards each other, even when it’s clear they aren’t exactly alike.  They pass on lots of useful information, a good bit of personal philosophy (anecdotally, which is my favorite way to get philosophy), and a lot of laughter, which is pretty refreshing, actually.  Oraia Sphinx actually tipped me off to them at almost the exact same time I had downloaded their first episode, so that was serendipitious, I thought.  The show’s most frequent callers are:

Rev. Mother Susan Asselin – The show’s primary host, she operates out of a Little Italy-style neighborhood in Providence, RI.  She and Sindy Todo refer to each other as “cousins” as they recently discovered they share some branches on their family trees.  I’ll be honest and say I probably know the least about Mother Asselin, but from what I hear on the show, she’s knowledgeable, spirit-filled, and wise.  Her website is called MotherMystic.

Dara Anzlowar – The owner of HoodooRoots.com, and the owner and manufacturer of Hoodoo Roots and Folk-Magic Traditional Spiritual Supplies.  She also runs two Yahoo groups, Hyatt Spells and Conjure.  I’ve followed Dara’s posts in those groups for a while now, and having a voice to put with the brilliant insights is very nice.  She works in a very traditional style, and provides a strong traditionalist viewpoint in the discussions that come up on the show, though she is also immensely cordial and kind in conversation.

Susan Diamond – She owns the Serpents Kiss occult shop and co-owns the 2Hoodoos site with Orion Foxwood.  She has a very sweet disposition on the show, but also provides a lot of interesting information (listen for her contributions in the Family Folklore episode).  She and Orion provide the most “pagan” voices on the program, but they also have some very traditional leanings as well.  She offers a wide variety of services and products, so check her out.  She’s also a member of the Association of Independent Readers and Rootworkers (AIRR).

Orion Foxwood – I know many folks already know who Orion is, but there are probably a number of people who don’t.  The sole regular male voice on the show, Orion grew up in the southern Appalachian Mountains surrounded by the magical and mystical traditions of the area.  He says he was born with a caul (also called a “veil” sometimes) which is commonly associated with having second sight or visions.  He’s published several books on his Faery Seership tradition, and has a bevy of websites including the aforementioned 2Hoodoos, the House of Brigh, and the Foxwood Temple of the Old Religion.

“Auntie” Sindy Todo – One of my favorite voices on the show, Sindy Todo provides sass, humor, warmth, and a heckuva lot of good information on 5-Star Spells.  She always has something nice to say, blessings to pass out, and good news to share.  She is based in Seattle, and has a website called Todo Mojo which offers her magical services.  She’s also a member of AIRR, and seems like one of the most genuinely likeable people I’ve ever heard.

Starr – A Texas based conjure woman working in the old-style tradition, Starr is another favorite voice of mine (they’re all wonderful in their own ways, of course!  I just have a thing for sassy women with southern accents).  She specializes in spiritual cleansings and also is one of the foremost experts on working with the Native American spirit Black Hawk.  She doesn’t appear on every show, but when she’s on, she’s a great participant and a wonderful resource for good, solid hoodoo information.  She’s a member of AIRR, too, and operates a website called Old Style Conjure.

One of the most amazing things about this group of folks is that they all get on so well.  Well enough, in fact, that they’re all getting together in November for a weekend of conjure classes and socializing!  I’m hoping to provide more info about this sometimes oon, but for now you can read all about it at the Traditional Folk Magic Festival website.   And you can hear all about it on 5-Star Spells, which, again, I highly recommend.

Okay, that’s it for my recommendation today!  I hope you can forgive the delay in the cartomancy finale, but I’ll have that soon.  Until then, thanks for reading!

-Cory

Podcast 14 – An Interview with Cat Yronwode

-SHOWNOTES FOR EPISODE 14-


Summary
Today we are truly blessed to have an interview with renowned rootworker and teacher Catherine Yronwode of the Lucky Mojo Co.  Then we briefly discuss Christianity in hoodoo.  Laine tells us about Magical Soap in WitchCraft, and Cory talks about Spiritual Cleansing Baths in Spelled Out.

Play:

Download:  New World Witchery – Episode 14

-Sources-
Some of Cat’s many wonderful sites:
Lucky Mojo – Her main site and online store
Lucky W Amulet Archive – A repository of info on lucky charms
Southern Spirits – Her site on Southern folklore and history
Arcane Archive – An archive of magical lore and practice from around the net
YIPPIE – The Yronwode Institute for the Preservation and Popularization of Indigenous Ethnomagicology
Herb Magic – A site on magical plants and roots
Missionary Independent Spiritual Church – The world’s smallest church, and part of the long tradition of Spiritual Churches in the United States
Association of Independent Readers and Rootworkers (AIRR) – A body of trained, professional rootworkers with experience and accountability
Hoodoo and Rootwork Course – One of the definitive training programs in traditional hoodoo
And, of course, her book Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic is often referenced on the blog and in the show.

Cory also reference’s Draja Mickaharic’s Spiritual Cleansing, a definitive guide on the topic.

Promos & Music
Title music:  “Homebound,” by Jag, from Cypress Grove Blues.  From Magnatune.
Promo 1- Inciting a Riot
Promo 2- Pagan in the Threshold

Blog Post 78 – More Mojos for Success

Back in Blog Post 76, I mentioned that I’d be following up with some other types of success mojos.  Academic success is fantastic, but if you’re not in school it’s probably not going to help you much.  So today I thought I’d take that scholastic success mojo hand and rework it for a few other needs.  I hope it helps!

Building upon the basic Crown of Success mojo, which would generally include a John the Conqueror root in a red flannel sack anointed with Crown of Success oil, you could vary your specific ingredients for particular results:

Better Business – Add herbs like sassafras, five-finger grass, or cinnamon, plus a lodestone and magnetic sand.  Try to use an odd number of ingredients.  Pray Psalm 8 or a similar prayer.

Gentle Judge – A court-case success hand.  Use gravel root, little John to chew/galangal, cascara sagrada  bark, sugar, and tobacco.  Pray Psalm 36 or a similar prayer.

High Rollers – This is a gambling success mojo.  Use Job’s tears, a gator paw, a badger or gator tooth, a raccoon penis bone, a rabbit’s foot, and/or a four-leaf clover charm (primarily use curios for this one).  Pray Psalm 41 or Psalm 62 or a similar prayer.

Lucky in Love – With this success hand, it’s less about attracting a new love and more about strengthening one that exists (say, for example, during the process of courtship and marriage).  Add angelica root, violets, and roses (if trying to court a woman) or vanilla, tobacco, and dragon’s blood resin (for courting a man).  You can use lavender if you’re courting someone of the same sex, as well.  Pray Psalm 139 or a similar prayer.

Make It Rain Money – Add cinnamon, collard seeds, beans or peas, lucky hand root, rice, and/or rose of Jericho (things like seeds, beans, peas, and rice all signify abundance).  Add a lucky penny or a silver dime if you like, or a silver charm like a four-leaf clover.  Pray Psalm 126 or a similar prayer.

There are so many variations on these types of mojos, so please try them out and experiment.  I’ve had a lot of success (and the irony of that is not lost on me) working with these types of hands, so I encourage everyone to give them a try.

I’d like to close this post by sharing something one of our wonderful readers mentioned to me.  Odom of the Evil Eye recently wrote me about an academic success hand he’s working on, and he included an ingredient that struck me as just perfect for that kind of work:  coffee.  He made an excellent point that as a stimulant coffee can help keep one awake and alert, and that the university coffee house is such a ubiquitous piece of the college landscape it almost serves as a shrine to this kind of work.  So good eye for that connection, Odom!

Thanks for reading,
-Cory

Blog Post 70 – Elder

I’ve been noticing a lot of the elder trees blooming in my neck of the woods lately, so I thought I might take a stab at sharing some information on that particular plant.

Elder is a tree that has a long history with humanity.  Its uses are broad, including medicinal, culinary, and magical aspects.  Generally speaking, elder comprises anything in the genus Sambucus, with species names like nigra, canadensis, peruviana, etc. depending on region and appearance.  Elders can be very shrubby, or full-grown trees reaching up to 25 feet tall.  They have white flowers which bloom in the summer in bunches called corymbs (these are very prominent, so much so in fact that I felt compelled to write a blog post on them).  The blue-black berries, which appear in late summer and early fall, are a foodstuff used in everything from jams to vinegars.  The shoots of the elder have even been used as toys.  According to Botanical.com:

“The popular pop-gun of small boys in the country has often been made of Elder stems from which the pith has been removed, which moved Culpepper to declare: ‘It is needless to write any description of this (Elder), since every boy that plays with a pop-gun will not mistake another tree for the Elder.’ Pliny’s writings also testify that pop-guns and whistles are manufactures many centuries old!”

Medicinally, elders different parts have different uses (a quick note:  I am not a medical professional.  Please seek professional medical advice before using any plant medicinally).  The flowers have been used in tisanes to help alleviate all manner of ailments: sore throats, swollen tonsils, flu symptoms, etc.  The cooled elder tea could also be used topically on sunburns or to alleviate sore eyes.  The leaves of the elder can be used as a poultice or turned into an unguent to treat bruises, cuts, and abrasions.  The bark can be used as a potent purgative, though the inner bark is better for this than the outer.

As food, elder berries are most commonly consumed as elderberry jam.  They can also be turned into a syrup, and made into a delicious cordial for the adults in the crowd.  A sweet and slightly spicy wine can also be made from the berries, which seems to be very popular among the brew-it-yourself crowd.  I remember an old herbal book of mine which also contained a recipe for drinks like elderberry fizz and elderberry flip, which are essentially cocktails made from either the wine or the cordial.

Magically, elder has appeared in many cultures with many different purposes.  Some of the Old World magical associations with elder include:

  • Driving away evil spirits (Russian)
  • Magically removing fever (Czech)
  • Protection against witchcraft (English)
  • Good luck at weddings (Serbian)
  • Preventing theft (Sicilian)
  • Bad luck if burned (Romany)

The Danes believe that furniture made from elder wood is haunted by a spirit called Hylde-Moer (or “Elder Mother”), who may bear a connection to Mother Holle in Teutonic mythology.

On this side of the Atlantic, elder shows up in several systems.  John George Hohman’s Long Lost Friend recommends frying elder leaves with tobacco leaves in butter to make a healing salve.  In hoodoo, elder is used primarily for protection.  Hung in a bag near the entrance to the home, elder wood and flowers prevents intruders from coming in.  When mixed with the potent devil’s shoestring herb, it can prevent any unwanted guest from getting close to your home.  Catherine Yronwode’s Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic recommends elder as part of a Law-Keep-Away spell:

“Determine how many ways there are to enter the place where you conduct your business, and for each way, cut an elder stick five inches long, and get a small piece of John the Conqueror root.  On each elder stick carve five notches, one-half inch apart, then cut a sharpened point on each stick.  About fifty feet down each path leading to the place, drive a hole into the ground.  Put a piece of John the Conqueror root at the bottom of the hole, followed by an elder stick, pointed end down, with all the notches facing North.  It is said that no law officer will walk or drive over those elder pegs”  (HHRM p.90).

Yronwode also recommends drawing a circle around oneself with an elder branch and making a wish.  If you try this out, I’d love to hear your results!

There are probably dozens of other things I’m missing about elder, but hopefully this is a good start.  If you have uses of elder or experiences with the plant you’d like to share, please feel free to do so!

Thanks for reading,

-Cory