Plants to Know on All Hallows Eve
Autumn Leaves, John Everett Millais
Like so many of our most familiar Judeo-Christian rites and rituals, Halloween has some very old and very juicy pagan origins.
Originally called Samhain, it was a festival observed in ancient Ireland and Scotland. What we now know as All Hallow’s Eve (or Hallowe’een, or Halloween) began as a pagan Gaelic observance. It was one of four seasonal observances, and would occur about halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice to welcome in the darker winter months.
The Corn Harvest (August), Pieter Bruegel
Like el Dia de Los Muertos in Mexico, which occurs around the same time as Halloween (November, 2nd), Samhain is believed to be a time when the lines between worlds become blurred. It’s a time when spirits and faeries can enter into our world, and when we might have more access to theirs.
Samhain is a time of honoring death and the dead, possibly because it occurs following the end of the harvest, when the fields are barren, and are left fallow till spring. It was believed that on the night of Samhain, the deceased might return home, in search of some hospitality. Places were often set for them at the dinner table.
This, it’s thought, is how the costume tradition we know and love was cooked up. People would dress up as these returning souls, and go door to door reciting songs or poems in exchange for food. The costumed believed the ritual would protect them from the returning ghouls--your returning family could just as easily come in love as in malice; and, the givers of treats believed by bestowing these ghouls with sustenance, they’d receive good fortune in the coming year. Win, win. Another interpretation of the costume tradition is that folks dressed up to deceive the visiting deceased, who might wish to call them to the underworld before their time.
It’s not difficult to see how a night of ritual feasting, masks and costumes, honoring the dead, and roving about town in disguise could lead to the trickery and mischief we now associate with Halloween.
To get into the Samhain spirit, here are a few plants and traditions that might bring you closer to this spirited holiday, which was, at its roots (pun intended!), deeply agrarian.
PUMPKINS, TURNIPS, & MANGELWURZELS
Pumpkins, the big, familiar orange squash, are obviously a classically autumnal fall harvest, as are turnips. A mangelwurzel is just a beetroot, which happens to be the original (and far creepier) precursor to the jack-o-lantern.
It’s thought that hollowed-out vegetable lanterns became part of the Samhain tradition as a simple method of illumination for either pranksters or women and children who’d head to the village to gather their inebriated fathers and husbands. From a distance, and through the fog, revelers thought the veg-lights were the very dead coming to get them! From there, some started to carve ghoulish faces into their mangelwurzels, and there you have it.
Turnips, and especially beetroot, are harder to carve than pumpkins, so mind your hands should you make the effort. They all are, however, quite durable crops that are easy to grow from seed and seedling, even in a small urban container garden.
FRUIT AND NUTS
Fruit and nuts are some of the very last edibles to be harvested at the end of the growing season.
Nuts, particularly hazelnuts and walnuts, were roasted on the hearth, and used in divination rituals to determine whether couples might stay together, for example. Hazelnuts in general are an ancient symbol of knowledge and divination, and hazel wood is the most common material for magic wands, among those who take that sort of thing very seriously.
Apples are a symbol of rebirth and immortality. They have a star at their horizontal center, and the five-pointed star is an ancient representation of the goddess, in all her mystical power. Bobbing for apples evolved from the idea of capturing a dormant goddess.
Growing apples and hazelnuts will require plenty of space and patience. The hazelnut bush takes about four years to reach maturation, and requires plenty of trimming and upkeep to encourage nut production. The good news is, they’re fairly hearty, drought-resistant plants. Apple trees, grown from sapling size, can take many more years to bear fruit, and aren’t suitable in many climates.
If you’d like to celebrate the season with these symbols of goddess and divination, head to your local farmer’s market and benefit from the efforts of their labor.
Along with sweets and a bit of dinner, some tobacco might have been left about for a wandering soul who might alight on Samhain to revisit the living.
Tobacco is fairly hearty, and can be grown in many climates and types of soil; but, growing good tobacco is a bit more difficult. Over watering, or lack of sunlight, can produce thin, spindly plants. Seeds can be started indoors 1-2 months before the last frost, and then transferred to an outdoor garden.
A FEW SIMPLE WAYS TO HONOR THE NATURAL WORLD THIS SAMHAIN
- Harvest anything left in your garden by October 31st. Anything not harvested by then gets cleared out.
- Use dead branches and vines from your garden to create a seasonal wreath.
- Clear the spent branches and stumps from your garden, and ceremoniously tidy it up before October 31st.
- Wear dark colors in a gesture of synchronicity with the season happening around you.
- At dinner on October 31st, set an extra place, or designate an empty seat, for your beloved deceased. If you like, write them a letter to be burned in the fire of your jack-o-lantern at the end of the night.
Happy Samhain. May the darkness of the winter season welcome more light into your life come Beltain!