Gardening in Langley: Halloween and plants have a long history

Send gardening questions to It helps me if you let me know the name of your region or city.

  • Oct. 28, 2015 3:00 p.m.

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.

Just Posted

DW Poppy Sr. boys basketball defeats ACSS Totems rivals

DW Poppy’s Sr. boys RedHawks defeated ACSS Totems this Friday in a high-stakes basketball match.

VIDEO: All ages participate in Langley Hospice Historic Half marathon

Turnout was down, slightly, this year but donations are up

LETTER: Langley man says Wilson-Raybould deserves Canadians’ respect

A letter writer said the former federal justice minister is one of a rare class of politicians.

VIDEO: Vancouver Giants blank Rockets

Langley-based G-men take over top spot in the west

Langley Township goes high tech to spotlight local history

To mark the start of History Week, the Township has put out a new app all about the community.

VIDEO: Langley hosting high-flying fun at annual gymnastics tournament

Action runs Friday through Sunday at the Langley Events Centre fieldhouse.

B.C. athlete takes home gold in freestyle aerials at Canada Games

Brayden Kuroda won the event with a combined score of 121.65.

Pedestrian in serious condition after hit by car downtown Abbotsford

A youth was also hit, suffered minor injuries, police say

Cabinet likely to extend deadline to reconsider Trans Mountain pipeline

The can’t decide the pipeline’s fate until a new round of consultations with Indigenous communities

B.C. government provides $75,000 towards salmon study

Study looks at abundance and health of Pacific salmon in Gulf of Alaska

Murdered and missing honoured at Stolen Sisters Memorial March in B.C.

‘We come together to make change within the systems in our society’

UBC researchers develop inexpensive tool to test drinking water

The tricoder can test for biological contamination in real-time

Disgraced ex-Congressman Anthony Weiner released from prison

He was convicted of having illicit online contact with a 15-year-old North Carolina girl in 2017

Most Read