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Halloween Horticulture

By Jan Maas, Beltrami County Master Gardener

Halloween will be upon us shortly and there are bound to be witches and goblins about. Most of them will be the kind knocking at our doors begging for treats!

We associate jack-o-lanterns and bobbing for apples with the holiday. Ever wonder where these rituals came from? In England and Ireland, Halloween lanterns were originally made from turnips and large beets. Demonic faces were carved in them and they were placed on doorsteps with a glowing coal inside them to ward off evil spirits. When the Irish people arrived in this country, they found pumpkins to be abundant and thus were used as the vegetable of choice for jack-o-lanterns.

Who as a child didn't enjoy bobbing for apples? It's a standard game at Halloween parties. During Victorian times, apples were used to determine a young girl's future spouse. By placing the apple under her pillow on Halloween night, she was sure to dream of her husband-to-be. Young boys and girls also could determine some qualities of their future spouses by visiting the cabbage patch on Halloween. They rushed into the patch and chose a cabbage. If the stalk was short, so would the spouse be; if it was long, a tall spouse was in the future. Dirt on the cabbage leaves meant they would marry rich. It sounds silly to us now, but so goes the folklore.

But what about the lore associated with witchcraft and gardening? Historically, they go hand in hand, witchcraft being the "earthly religion." I don't condone "black magic" and the evil practice of witchcraft, but there is fascinating information about the physical powers of plants and ancient beliefs.

Many of the plants associated with witchcraft are poisonous or narcotic. One of the most notorious is belladonna or deadly nightshade. Historically, Italian women used the juices of the plant to improve their complexions and dilate their pupils, giving them a rather dreamy, spacey look. Thus, the name belladonna, or "beautiful lady" in Italian.

Another favorite plant is aconitum or monkshood. This plant also is poisonous. It is considered to be a powerful plant in the witch's garden and is dedicated to love. The helmet-shaped flowers are said to resemble soldiers and thus have a connection with war, which seems to be contradictory with love. Monkshood is still used today in homeopathy for fever and joint pain.

Numerous herbs are associated with witches' gardens. Rosemary is considered to be a great all-purpose herb used as incense for purification, cleaning and sanctification. This practice goes back to ancient times. It also was used to repel nightmares during the middle ages by sprinkling it under the mattress. Sage helps to build strength and courage and as an "earth herb" can be used to ground oneself. It is also used to cleanse an area of all that is negative. And I thought the only use for these herbs was to give great flavor to a stew! Other herbs that are believed to protect from evil include angelica, dill and caraway.

Mountain ash trees are prominent in Scottish history. Known as "rowan" trees, they can be seen among the ruins of old settlements in Scotland where they were believed to protect from evil witchcraft. So rest easy this Halloween if you happen to have a mountain ash tree on your property.

Many plants have played traditional roles in modern or ancient earth-based spirituality and magic. Spiritual gardens are linked to the divine with botanicals playing particular roles and connecting to the universe in special ways. Even though your garden may be put to bed for this season, maybe, just maybe, next year you'll want to consider plantings to keep those witches and goblins at bay.

Look for information about horticulture on the University of Minnesota Extension Home and Garden Information page or on the Beltrami Master Gardener site

This is the last week in 2011 for getting your questions answered by local Master Gardeners. Please call 444-7916 leaving your name, number and question. A Master Gardener will call you.