Misrule and ghostly moments are the order of the day as we approach the beginning of winter. The darker days are coming in, when shimmering fireside light might hide witches, ghouls and ghosts, and the need for other-worldly magical protection from unknown harmful demons persists.
The end of October marks Samhain in the Celtic calendar, or, in many European and American countries, All Hallows Evening or Hallowe’en (Halloween). The night when the boundary between this world and the next is at its thinnest and the spirits of the dead may manifest themselves to us. Bonfires and candlelight are ‘de rigueur’ for the celebrations.
Plants were held in high esteem by our ancestors for many reasons, who I think knew a thing or two more than we do today, for all our highly-tuned knowledge. Many plants were thought to have protective powers to ward off evil, bad luck and ill health. Today, much of this can be corroborated by scientific processes and qualified, registered medical herbalists, whose reputations are founded on the efficacy of plant-based treatments.
There are many plants, especially herbs that could be drafted into action, should you need their help to keep out unfriendly spirits this Halloween. Here are a few to help, whatever your predicament.
There is an old moratorium on burning elder wood in fires, as it is supposed to summon up the Devil and fairies and witches are supposed to shelter in its branches. On the plus side, in summer the white blossom is said to deter insects such as flies. And the berries are particularly useful in a soothing syrup for a winter cough.
Apples and pumpkins
Apples and pumpkins seem to have centre-stage in many of today’s Halloween celebrations, mainly because they represent some of the most important harvests of this time of year. Apples have many mythical connections, not least being the extreme bad luck for Adam and Eve. But of course, we know that they are good for us to eat.
It has been a long-held tradition that garlic will protect you from the advances of vampires and other evil spirits. So make sure you have some to hand at Halloween, probably the most likely time for encountering spooky creatures bearing you ill-will.
But garlic, apart from enlivening and flavouring your cuisine, has many powerful medicinal attributes, so it should be part of your kitchen garden repertoire at any time of the year.
Many plants are highly poisonous and shrouded in mysticism. They include deadly nightshade, which legend tells us was one of the plants used by witches to enable them to fly! Other plants that are alleged to offer this form of astral flight (a posh term, perhaps, for hallucinating) include many that are highly toxic such as aconite, hemlock and henbane.
Screaming in the night
Mandrake plants were said to scream if pulled from the ground and had a reputation as a magical and medicinal plant. It was said that if placed in an amulet, it would protect you from various threats, would help you become wealthy and if wished, make you invisible. No small claims!
A flowering Mandragora plant
Bunches at the door
A bunch of herbs at the door will do no end of good in keeping out thieves, and other ne’er do wells. Juniper is one of the plants that will protect the house and keep evil out. And if someone has laid a curse on you, you're in luck! A bunch in place will weaken and break the curse.
Many house fronts these days are ornamented with cone-shaped or mop-head bay trees. I wonder if the householders know that they are continuing a long-held tradition of growing bay outside the front door for protection and also to encourage good fortune and health.
Rue is also useful when bunched at the front or back door to prevent the entry of evil, but beware handling it as it can cause severe skin irritation.
Bistort is an anti-inflammatory herb that grows wild in damp locations. Its spooky reputation rests on the fact that if you burn the root - as you might burn incense - you will clear the house of ghosts, and deter any more from arriving.
Aniseed, with its liquorice taste, is used as a digestive and flavouring, but it will also deter evil spirits from entering the house.
Good luck, love and survival
Goldenrod in legend has a reputation as a divining plant that could point the way to good fortune, while periwinkle and vervain will indicate the longevity of love and faithfulness.
The lesser periwinkle
Holly and ivy, both entwined during the festive season, have their own legends relating to love and protection. Holly will protect you from being struck by lightning and ivy is symbolic of survival, living through the dark days of winter to the spring ahead. Green shoots and all that!
Herbs are powerful and useful plants, as well as ornamental in the garden. If you want to find out more then try the following books:
Hidden Histories: Herbs by Kim Hurst
The Herb Garden Month by Month by Barbara Segall
A Handful of Herbs by Barbara Segall, Louise Pickford and Rose Hammick.
A Pocketful of Herbs by Jekka McVicar
If you want to join an enthusiastic herb-loving community, get in contact with The Herb Society.
Always identify plants before using, and don’t ingest or externally use any plant that you don’t know to be edible or safe to use.
If you want to see a collection of poisonous plants head up to Alnwick to the Poison Garden, to see a collection of poisonous plants that are kept under lock and key for visitors to inspect at various times.
Barbara Segall grows herbs, fruit and vegetables, as well as ornamental plants in a small town garden in Suffolk. She is the author of several books on herbs and is a member of the RHS Fruit Vegetable and Herb Committee.