Potions 101: Adding a Little Magic to Your Science (Or Science to Your Magic)

Reading Time: 6 minutes
Dragon's Blood for your next Potions Class! Remember to keep refrigerated!
There’s a box of Dragon’s Blood in the library staff refrigerator. Photo: Amy M. Weir

On July 30—because we’re closed on the 31st—our public library is hosting a “Back-to-Hogwarts Party.” The highlight, for me (not counting the Honeydukes table), is the Potions Class I’ll be teaching twice during the day. Already I may have been having a little too much fun trying out basic chemistry experiments with magical-looking results, and figuring out how to make them sound even more magical. What follows is the text of the handout “textbook” I have written to give to attendees, which gives a rundown of my planned presentation along with Muggle adaptations for trying this at home. I thought you and yours might enjoy it in the meanwhile, and I’ll tell you all about how everything goes at the real program afterward. And if you happen to be in the area of Canonsburg, Pennsylvania on July 30, stop by and join us!

Potions 101: A Handbook for Creating Magical Mixtures

Part I: Liquid Transmutation

The Revelatory Properties of Dragon’s Blood:
Dragon’s Blood reacts with other substances. More acidic substances, such as essences of Wolfsbane and Dittany, will turn dragon’s blood pink. Alkaline substances like bezoar will turn it blue or even green.

Dragon’s blood can be used to reveal secret messages written in essence of wolfsbane by simply brushing the blood over the page on which the message may be.

The Restorative Properties of Dittany and Bezoar:
Both Dittany and Bezoar are used to restore. Take a cup of doxie-tainted wash. Ew. Who wants to wash with that? But if you add enough Essence of Dittany you will restore the wash to a nice clear state. A Doxie, on the other hand, will not see improvement. Add ground bezoar, though, and the wash will return to its contaminated state.

Part II: Controlling Temperature

Creating Snow
Need an instant pile of snow? Better yet, one that won’t melt? Mix two tablespoons yeti tears with half a teaspoon of ground iceworm larvae. Watch the snow bloom!

Hot Ice
In volcanic pools, where fire serpents sometimes bathe, the water can develop unusual properties, particularly in arctic climates such as Iceland. If water from these pools is poured from its container into temperate surroundings, it will turn instantly into ice. But can it be? This ice gives off HEAT!

A Portable Furnace
When hinkypunk eggs are soaked in basilisk venom, they will boil into life and overflow their surroundings. But you can control this reaction and use it to create a perfectly safe hand-warmer to carry along on chilly days.

Just pour half a cup of basilisk venom into a zip-top freezer bag. Add one teaspoon of hinkypunk eggs and seal the bag quick! Knead the eggs into the venom and you should see them come to life, but their fiery power will stay comfortably in your bag!

Part III: Captivating the Elements

Dancing Colors
Direct the elemental colors in beautiful pirouettes on a stage of unicorn milk. Drip each color on top of each other in the very center of a plate of unicorn milk. Dip the end of a cotton wand into oil of naiad scale, then lightly touch the colors with the wand to make them dance!

Obedient Spider Slime
Dissolve a scoop of ground spider legs with a bottle of liquefied marsh gas, then stir in 1/8 of a cup of bubotuber pus. When the marsh gas and pus have thoroughly bonded into slime, pull the slime out onto a plate, knead it a little more, and pat dry. Now you can command the spider legs to dance with a special Pole Field Wand.

An Expansion Brew
Wolfsbane and Bezoar have an explosive relationship: mix them together and things will blow up. Carefully pull a rubber sack of ground bezoar over the opening of a bottle of essence of wolfsbane. When the bottle is sealed, lift the sack so that the bezoar falls into the wolfsbane. Watch the expansion in action!

Tips for Home Potion Making (Requires adult supervision)
It is a sad truth that many ingredients used in these potions are unavailable in Muggle homes and stores. Fortunately, these potions can be approximated by Muggles using the following simple substitutions:

Creating Dragon’s Blood: Boil red (purple) cabbage in a large saucepan of water for about 5 to 10 minutes. Remove cabbage, but continue to boil the liquid until it reduces. The longer you boil, the darker the liquid will become, but the longer your kitchen will smell like boiling cabbage, also.

Test the color changing properties of your Muggle dragon’s blood with many different substances around the kitchen. Try juices, powders (baking soda is particularly effective), or anything else you can mix.

Substitute vinegar or lemon juice for your invisible ink.

For Doxie-Tainted Wash: Brew one cup of black tea. Allow to steep for a long while, until it is too bitter to drink. You can restore its apparent clarity with lemon juice instead of essence of dittany, and recontaminate it with baking soda.

Creating Snow: Yeti tears can be substituted with very cold water. Ground iceworm larvae are harder to come by. You can find an excellent substitution at http://www.stevespanglerscience.com/store/instant-snow-powder.html . It won’t be nearly as satisfying or snowy, but you could also try a less-fluffy-pure stand-in from your local home and garden store under the name “water-retaining polymer” or even harvest some from the inside of a disposable diaper. Unused, please.

Hot Ice: You can approximate fire serpent pool water by creating a relatively safe substance called “Sodium Acetate” with vinegar and baking soda. This must be done slowly so you do not accidentally recreate the effects of an Expansion Brew.

Pour one liter of clear vinegar into a saucepan and place it on the stove on medium heat. While the vinegar begins to heat up, SLOWLY, GRADUALLY add 4 Tablespoons of baking soda, stirring in after each addition. Let the solution boil slowly until a crystalline film forms on the surface. This will take about an hour. If you use higher heat the process will go faster, but your pool water will turn brown and foggy. It will still work, though.

Dissolve any crystals back in to the solution—add a tiny amount of water or vinegar to help dissolve them—and immediately transfer the solution to an airtight container and place in the refrigerator.

When you remove the solution and pour it over a plate or drop a crystal into it, it will quickly become solid through a process called exothermic crystallization. You can remelt the crystallized solution and do this process over and over if you like! If you have any trouble or questions you can find answers here.

A Portable Furnace: Replace basilisk venom with hydrogen peroxide and hinkypunk eggs with quick-rising dry yeast. These same ingredients can produce “Elephant Toothpaste” if combined with a few drops of food coloring and soap and exposed to the air.

Make Colors Dance: simple food coloring will do in the absence of elemental colors. Whole-fat cow’s milk makes nearly as nice a stage as unicorn milk, and liquid dish detergent has many of the same properties as oil of naiad scale.

Slime: there are many methods for making slime even outside of the wizarding world, as noted here. A curious substance can be created with two parts cornstarch and one part water. An edible slime (but you don’t want to eat too much at once or you WILL get the runs) can be made by cooking one tablespoon of psyllium fiber supplement (such as Metamucil) in one cup of water. But the only way to make slime in the Muggle world that is obedient as Obedient Spider Slime is by using iron filings or iron oxide powder instead of ground spider legs, in a slime base of glue and starch. You can then control the slime with a very powerful magnet (ie one made of neodymium or other rare earth).

Expansion Brew: as noted in the recipe for Sodium Acetate, vinegar and baking soda mixed quickly together will give you nearly the same results as wolfsbane and ground bezoar. Because baking soda does not come in rubber sacks as ground bezoar does, pour two teaspoons of baking soda into a small deflated balloon.

“How to Make Magnetic Slime.”

“Hot Ice or Sodium Acetate.

Harris, Elizabeth Snoke and Rain Newcomb. The Mad Scientist’s Notebook. Lark books, New York, 2008.

Kuskowski, Alex. Science Experiments With Food. ABDO Publishing, Minneapolis, 2014.

Wheeler-Toppen, Jodi and Carol Tennant. Edible Science: Experiments You Can Eat. National Geographic Society, Washington, DC, 2015.

The witch hat I made
Me right now. Selfie courtesy Amy M. Weir