A high school boyfriend of mine was in trouble with the law. He had been in the wrong place at the wrong time and got implicated in a break-and-entry robbery committed by a group of teenaged boys who were able to frame my friend with the crime. (Or so he told me.) When it came time for him to testify, to try and save himself from juvie or probation, he showed me the bean, a dark red bean with a shiny hard coat. His mother had consulted with her “witch” advisor and had given it to him to hold in his mouth when he testified. Because of the power of this seed, his word would be judged to be true and honest.
This was my first introduction to actual witchcraft, and to the Mountain Laurel, Sophora secundiflora, because they do not grow on the Gulf Coast plains of Texas, or in Louisiana, where my boyfriend’s mother grew up, consulting with the conjure women, I guess now, as need arose. When I was re-introduced to the species later as a student in college, I immediately recognized the bright red bean, hard, shiny, and fascinating. How could they not be magical?
According to Marshall Johnston, my native plant botany professor, the tree which produced this bewitching seed was the Mountain Laurel, also known as the Mescal Bean. He told us that before the European invasion, the Apache Indian medicine men would make a hallucinatory vision brew from these seeds. I inferred that that lead to the naming of the tree for Sophia, the goddess of truth, wisdom, and justice. Unfortunately, or probably fortunately, we had lost the recipe by which the toxic alkaloids were brewed out of the seeds leaving just the less toxic visionary alkaloids. Supposedly that was why they were called Mescal Beans, because the liquor Mescal was used to leach the compounds. I have doubts that this is the case, because alcohol distillation was unknown to the Indians. They drank alcoholic beverages brewed from the agaves, true, but nothing produced by distillation which could produce the mindbending 180 proof liquor we call Mescal.
Whatever the story of the lost recipe, the early botanist explorer who named this tree must have easily identified it as being sacred to the Gnostic goddess Sophia, perhaps because of the magical properties of a plant, I always look at the names it has been given. The early botanists, even more than today’s, were extremely well versed in Greek and Latin language since these were the scientific languages. They knew the mythology, and this mythology becomes a language itself in how scientists name their species. I believe that they knew as well as the Indians that this tree, the Mountain Laurel, is distinguished by its powers for truth wisdom and insight.
Knowing this, I took to wearing one of these seeds in my ear as decoration. (Choosing larger specimens that would not get stuck in my ear of course!) I called them my “earbeans” and pretended(?) that I could hear the voice of the Mountain Laurel by wearing them so.
When I started making handcrafted jewelry and being a bead freak in general, it was not too much of a leap that I started making these bright red, very durable seeds into beaded jewelry. It takes a high speed drill or dremel to drill them, and that takes some time, but then you have a lovely red necklace.
I wear these beautiful red beads for legal situations, personal protection, speaking truth to power, and women's protection.
I matronize only a few trees in Austin that have the most perfect red beans, and I gather and drill the beans on Wednesdays in the waxing moon. I use dark glass seed beads with blue or peacock iridescence as contrasting spacer beads. The short necklaces are about 14-15 inches long, choker length and have 28 beans for each day of the lunar cycle. The long necklaces fit over any head, are about 27-30 inches long and have about 53 beans. These seeds are TOXIC and you should not let anyone or your dog chew on them. In fact all parts of the plant are toxic, and even the flowers, sweet and pungent smelling like grape koolaid, can cause headaches and befuddlement if kept as a vase flower in an enclosed room.
Mountain Laurels are long-lived, slow-growing, evergreen and quite lovely in the landscape. In the wild they are usually overlooked understory trees and usually do not produce as many fragrant flowers or as many jewelry-grade beans as their urban counterparts. In the city and suburb, they are often focal landscaping shrubs, well-watered and tended. They become Spirit Keepers of the landscape, and they produce many flowers, and many seeds in these favored situations. Look under the trees in your neighborhood. Some have dark burgundy seeds and some are nearly orange. Some are well-shaped and some are mottled and homely. Notice how each individual tree has a different size, color, and quality of bean. I find that the fresh-out-of-the-pod beans are usually mottled, where the beans that have been on the soil surface have a more uniform and rich tone.
If you find any that are quite a bit bigger than the rest, those are the seeds that have absorbed moisture and are likely to sprout soon. Don't drill these, plant them! Mountain Laurel seeds are said to be notoriously "difficult" to sprout. You will find a lot of pain-in-the-ass techniques to increase the likelihood of getting them to germinate. Don't even bother with that. Really, this plant is very wise, so it "banks" a lot of its seeds. A few will sprout this year, a few next year, and I bet some seeds wait over 50 years to sprout under the right circumstances. This is most likely an evolutionary tactic to survive climatic changes and drought cycles. If you want to sprout Mountain Laurel seeds, just throw about three in each of about a dozen one gallon pots, water them and then forget about them. Plant the ones that come up, and let the others wait till the apocalypse is over!