These days Halloween’s characters look more like a Hollywood zombie set – but the central theme is one any long-ago pagan would recognize: on this night the dead walk again (at least symbolically) and spirits roam freely.
In those ancient times, healing, magic and spirituality were all linked in a complex dance that’s not difficult nowadays to dismiss as superstition. Except that some of the plants then considered powerful have been found to be so.
Hemp (aka marijuana) is one of these. It was one of the ingredients in the ‘flying ointment’ said to be used by witches to give the illusion of levitation. Once, it was reputed to assist visions for psychics.
But it had another life for many thousands of years as a source of food from its seeds, as a sedative and pain-reliever and as a fibre which produced strong and durable cloth. In more recent times, its narcotic properties overshadowed its more practical uses. Now the pendulum is swinging back again.
Another ‘flying’ ingredient is aconitum. Today this is still used (in very minute doses) as a pain-killer in alternative medicine. Its valued for its beauty and slug-resistance as a garden plant but is hugely poisonous.
Used as a wolf poison for many years, aconitum should be treated with gloved hands and the utmost care.
Yet another flying ingredient is foxglove (Digitalis) which produces the heart stimulant digoxin. One ancient name for the plant is ‘Witches Thimbles.’ Tall and eye-catching with pink or white bell-flowers, it will grow in deep shade, flower for weeks and populate the neighbourhood if you let it.
Hellebore, another ‘flying’ favourite was used long ago as a cure for worms, lice and as a vomiting agent. It fell into disuse due to a high death rate among patients. Today its beautiful cup-shaped flowers and decorative leaves make it a valued garden plant.
But hellebore sap on naked skin can give you nasty burns and blisters. Wear gloves for seed-collecting and pruning and thoroughly clean pruners after using them for hellebores.
Hazel is one of the trees associated with Halloween along with willow. Both were considered ‘magic’ trees with an especial attraction for water. They are still used for water divining.
Unfortunately hazels in North America have been attacked by Eastern Filbert Blight – and whole orchards of European hazels have already been torn up. The contorted hazel is one of those affected. Native Canadian hazels have some resistance.
Willow’s magic included its ability to relieve pain and to heal. The active substance in willow is salicyclic acid which is now made synthetically in the pain-reliever known as aspirin.
Cuttings can root faster and stronger if started in willow water. This is made by using water which has had many small-cut willow twigs soaking in it. The twigs are removed after a day or so and the cuttings either started in that water or watered several times with it.
It’s interesting how many of the plants once used to protect against evil spirits were also believed to have healing potential. For instance, ivy was once believed to cure toothache and make corns vanish.