The Herb Society of America - South Texas Unit
The most popular plant associated with Halloween is undoubtedly the pumpkin, used to carve jack o’lanterns. It’s generally thought that this tradition came to America from Ireland. However, a type of large turnip called a mangel wurzel was probably used originally. So, when the mists of October are swirling at you’re feet and the candle flickers in the jack o’lantern and there’s a bump in the middle of the night, remember the old rhyme …
“Trefoil, vervain, John’s wort, dill
Hinder witches of their will”
And give a little thought to the history associated with your holiday decorating.
Recipe for Soul Cakes
12oz plain flour
pinch of salt
1/4 oz fresh yeast
1 oz white sugar
1 egg, beaten
1/4 tsp powdered rosemary or allspice
milk for mixing
Sift flour and salt into a bowl. Cream yeast with a tsp of the sugar then add the beaten egg. Beat the creamed mixture into the flour with the rosemary or spice and enough milk to make a fluffy dough. Shape the dough into a ball, cover and leave in a warm place for about 30 minutes. Work the sugar and shape the mixture into 8 equal-sized flattish patties. Leave in a warm place for 20 minutes. Heat oven to 425°F. Bake 15 mins. Cool on a wire rack.
The origins of Halloween date back 2,000 years to Celtic times and the Feast of the dead. Through time, various cultures and their traditions were added and incorporated, while the others became lost or distorted until we arrive at today’s amalgamation of folklore and tradition that mark this popular fall holiday. The traditions of trick or treating, the costumes, the carved pumpkin and the broom by the front door all have ancient roots. It’s interesting to note that as with many significant calendar dates, plants (many of which we consider herbs), have played and continue to play a conspicuous role as symbols from the past and as part of the modern day celebrations.
For the Celts, this day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the start of the long dark winter. They believed that on October 31 the boundary between the world of the living and that of the dead became blurred. To commemorate the event they called samhain, the Druids built huge bonfires.
By A.D. 43, the Romans had conquered the vast majority of Celtic lands and brought with them the autumn festival of Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. Her symbol was the apple and it is generally thought that this explains the close association of apples with Halloween, for example the children’s game of ‘apple bobbing’.
The evolution of this holiday continued as more changes came under the influence of Christianity when Pope Boniface IV designated November 1 as “All Saints Day”. This was a time to honor Martyrs and Saints. The celebration was called All Hallows from the Middle English ‘Alholowmesse’ meaning All Saints. It was celebrated with bonfires and people dressing up in costumes; not that dissimilar to the early pagan Celtic celebration of samhain.
From this came the old English tradition known as the soul day parade when the poor citizens of Shropshire would go door to door, begging for food. They were given a special pastry called a soul cake (recipe below), in return for songs and prayers for the souls of the family’s dead relatives. Sometimes these sweet buns were flavored with saffron, although more often rosemary. They were also given apples and a spiced ale. This practice of “going a souling” was eventually taken up by children and probably marks the beginning of the modern day trick or treating.
Nut Crack Night
In England another name for October 31 was Nut Crack Night. Traditionally, Halloween was a night for telling fortunes. Hazel has a long association with magic and fortune telling. In some areas of Britain, nuts were thrown onto the fire and meanings were inferred from how they burned. If it burned brightly, it meant that the thrower would still be alive in twelve months time. If it flared up with a bright light, it meant a marriage within the year. An exploding shell foretold a short but tempestuous marriage. The height of the popularity of these divination games came during the Victorian era.
Another old belief, again involved the apple, claimed that the initials of a future lover could be discerned by peeling it in one piece then throwing the skin, spiraling over your shoulder.
An all but forgotten Scottish ritual was the ‘pulling of the kale’. The seeker of romantic prophecy would pull a cabbage stalk from the ground. The shape of the root would foretell the future mate, especially his or her disposition; a wizened root would mean someone old but wealthy!
We cannot talk of Halloween without thinking of images of witches in black hats flying through the air on broomsticks! There is an incredible association of plant folklore with witches, although in virtually ever case those plants that were supposed to be beloved by witches are also spoken of as “holding witches of their will.” Another country name for the foxglove was ‘witches thimbles’ as they were supposedly used to decorate witches fingers. On the other hand it was also said to be an herb of protection. Welsh housewives rubbed the juice of the leaves into intricate patterns on the floors of their cottages to prevent evil from entering into their homes at Halloween.
Several trees have at some time been directly or indirectly associated with witches, especially the witch-elm and witch-hazel (an old name for hazel). It’s now thought that the term ‘witch’ referred to the pliant nature of the wood and comes from the Anglo-Saxon word wic-en (to bend). A hazel twig was supposedly used in discovering witches. By the same token, laying a hazel broom on your doorstep would prevent witches from entering the house. The rowan or mountain ash tree was preferred by the Norwegians and the Germans as a means of deterring witches from bothering your home. As a result of the Viking invasion of England, a rowan close to a house is a common sight in the north of England, especially in Yorkshire.
There were other plants that were said to help a person detect witches. In the Middle Ages, rue was considered a magical herb and if the juice of the plant was dropped in the eyes of a person, he would be able to see witches disguised as ordinary people. It was also hung in doorways and at windows so that no evil spirit would dare enter the house. It was thought by some that the elder tree was repulsive to witches because the juice of the inner bark was also used to anoint the eye to see witches. Even at the turn of the 20th Century in England, it was reported that some people carried a piece of elder twig in their clothing to protect them from the charms of witches. It has been suggested that this is why many older cottages almost invariably have a large elder growing in the garden by the house.There was a widespread belief that rosemary was a potent counter charm against witchcraft; possibly leading to its use at weddings and funerals. Burned with thyme and juniper, the smoke was said to get rid of witches and evil spirits.
Herb Trinity or Trefoil was an herb considered “noisesome to witches”. Doubtless because its leaves testified of the holy trinity. Belladonna was also known as “witches berries”, and together with hemlock and mandrake has had a long association with witches. Some folklorists allude to the plant’s hallucinogenic nature and suggest that it was an ingredient in the witches “flying ointment”.