Langley gardening: Halloween history includes interesting plants


As Halloween draws near, children and adults in costumes of witches, ghosts, zombies and bloodier characters roam the streets and our homes and the magic of play-acting is all around.

But in the long-ago roots of Halloween when people lived with the belief that spirits surrounded their lives and could wreak harm if they wished, there was another kind of magic and at times real fear. That’s because Halloween (then called Samhain) was the one night when the gates of death stood open and spirits were said to move freely and unobstructed in both directions.

That’s why people relied on the magic of certain plants to protect them against any harm which might come from the unseen world. Often the magic of these plants was proved to them by their use in healing. Many of these plants are widely used today.

Planted near a door, rosemary could bar evil spirits from your dwelling, protect you from bad dreams and stop you from catching the plague. Ivy could also stop evil spirits from entering but it had to grow on the walls of your house.

Garlic was even more use because it was thought to evict evil spirits once they got in and ward off vampires as well. Holly planted near a house was believed to be yet another protection as were hawthorn and rowan (Mountain Ash).

One of the beliefs of the time was that on Halloween, witches held ceremonies in which they flew broomsticks with the aid of flying ointment. The reported plant ingredients are interesting since some are poisons/pain relievers/tranquilisers while others are hallucinogenic.

These include: foxglove (digitalis), hemp (marijuana), Aconitum napellus (Wolfsbane), Deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna), hellebore and also poppy juice made from Papaver somniferum (source of opium).

All have immense power, but the sad truth is the healing record was not good. Patients tended to die from the medicine.

Most are beautiful-looking plants but none should be planted anywhere near edible-leaf plants that might be harvested by an inexperienced gardener. 

Deadly nightshade sometimes volunteers from the wild. It’s attractive with red, shiny berries and purple petals with a yellow pointed beak – but so deadly in all its parts that it should be removed (with gloves) from any garden where it appears.

The tall, blue-flowered garden perennial named Aconitum is so poisonous, it can burn unprotected skin on susceptible people (I was susceptible). Hellebore seeds blister fingers if you collect them too slowly and growing hemp frequently causes difficulties with authorities.

Papaver somniferum seed is used by some cooks for baked goods. The decorative, pink double form is the one usually grown and seeds, and plants are easily available. But it can get out of hand since it’s a prodigous seeder.

One of the magical trees associated with Halloween is willow. In fact, the words ‘witch’, ‘wicked’ and ‘wicker’ all come from the same ancient word for willow. The belief was that a witch’s broom had an ash handle and birch twigs while willow stems formed the binding.

Another magical plant is the hazel tree. This was believed to supply the wood for witches wands. Today a forked hazel branch is sometimes used for water divining.

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