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Maybe Professor Snape had it right.

The Hogwarts potions master's constant, malicious lingering over bubbling, belching caldrons and his cutting, cruel remarks may just be his way of making sure Harry Potter and his fellow students don't accidentally blow themselves up.

At least, that's one real-world chemist's justification for the events in the best-selling books.

"We have a reputation being in the hard sciences," said Ronald Ragsdale, a University of Utah chemistry professor. "There has to be discipline. You have to be careful. So, in a sense, when teachers crack the whip, I agree with it."

While they may not take Snape's sadistic pleasure in torturing students, real-world teachers know they have to critique carefully.

If students in a chemistry lab add the wrong ingredients or apply heat for too long, they could end up making TNT instead of an inert substance, Ragsdale said.

"It's a lot like cooking," he said. "There's no question about it. When you go beyond having a simple compound, the amounts become very important."

Of course, young wizards and witches at Hogwarts have access to a much more potent - if imagined - ingredients cupboard than most chemists.

But that doesn't prevent others from dipping into many of the plant and animal ingredients J.K. Rowling references in her novels.

While the Rev. Gretchen Faulk, a Wiccan priestess, loves the books, she sees no connection between the fantastical potion making in Harry Potter and real witchcraft. But she acknowledges that Rowling did her research into folklore and witchcraft when mentioning potion ingredients.

And in referencing people.

Nicolas Flamel, the famed maker of the Sorcerer's Stone in the first Harry Potter novel, really did exist and was made famous for his work in alchemy.

Animals and plants such as bubotubers and devil's snare don't exist anywhere outside the pages of Harry Potter, but many of the ingredients mentioned in the stories do. The medicinal, magical and seasonal use of herbs and plants has been around for hundreds of years and continues today.

Wiccans often use herbs such as St. John's wort, which falls into all three categories. It is used to treat depression, it acts as a protective herb that is often woven into garlands to ward off negativity, and its yellow flower, which blooms near the summer solstice, associates it with the sun.

Faulk is struck by how often Utahns use natural remedies and herbs in their day-to-day lives. "People here have a lot of respect for herbs," she said. "Pioneer knowledge here is preserved and respected."

But she strongly cautions people to check with doctors and herbal reference guides before putting anything new and unusual in their bodies.

David Card, owner of Dave's Health and Nutrition, sees many Wiccans at his stores buying herbs for medicinal and magical uses.

Card is a nutritionist, master herbalist and homeopath (titles that even Madam Pomfrey would appreciate). He uses many of the ingredients Rowling mentions, such as mandrake, which Hogwarts healers use to revive people who have been petrified? In large doses, mandrake can be toxic and used as a hallucinogenic. But in small doses, it's used to calm people and to settle digestive complaints.

One of the first questions Snape asks Harry in the first Potter novel is in reference to wormwood, a fittingly bitter substance.

Card uses it as an antiparasitic and to calm the stomach.

"I wouldn't use it in small children or pregnant women, but it really does work like magic," he said.

Card knows that no amount of plant and animal compounds will transform you into another person, grow pustules on your face or make you fall in love, and so do his customers.

"People understand it's a fantasy, and we don't get any requests for mandrake or any of those," he said.

But that doesn't stop him from cringing at Snape's piercing gaze and cruel comments alongside Harry, Ron and Hermione.

"I love the Harry Potter books," he said. "They're great fun."


* SHEENA McFARLAND can be contacted at smcfarland@ or 801-257-8619. Send comments about this story to

Reference guide for real-world use of herbs and plants

* Magical uses:

Cunningham's Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs, by Scott Cunningham

* Medicinal uses:

The Healing Herbs: The Ultimate Guide to the Curative Power of Nature's Medicines, by Michael Castleman

Healing Wise, by Susun Weed

Real ingredients

Ginger root

Wolfsbane (Aconite)

Boomslang skin

Scarab beetle


Fake ingredients


Doxy eggs

Acromantula venom

Unicorn hair

Essence of murtlap