The Garden Gate: Fearsome plants haunt us all the year through

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By Ellen Probert Williamson

Fearsome plants abound in Halloween lore and call to mind the legend of a poison garden rumored to have been part of the estate of Italy’s famous Borgia family in the 16th century, a time when poisoning was the preferred way of dealing with enemies and worrisome competitors.

The garden might have included cannabis, hellebore and the sinister yellow and purple flowers of the deadly nightshade, (a symbol of sin in the near East.) Such a garden might have had neat borders of poison ivy and be shaded by poison sumac or golden chain trees. Snakes and hornets were encouraged to inhabit such a garden, but birds and butterflies avoided it.

The mandrake is the oldest magic plant in botanical history. It is mentioned as an aphrodisiac in the Bible. In Greek legend, it was called the plant of Circe and credited with the power to turn men into swine.

During the Dark Ages its roots were an integral part of every witch’s cauldron. A concoction of mandrake roots was used in the Middle Ages as an opiate and a love potion.

It was believed that the mandrake plant grew under the gallows and that it would shriek if it was pulled from the ground. Legend has it that those who heard it shriek would go mad.

Even trees, usually thought of as friendly things, might sometimes be considered alarming at Halloween. What about strangler figs? Witch hazels? Or dragon trees?

Some other spooky plants appropriate for Halloween are the so-called carnivorous plants. They sound pretty dangerous, but they would make a special garden even now. The exotic fringed sundews, Venus flytraps and campions or catch-flies are small plants, but Cobra lilies or pitcher plants grow to 4-5 feet tall.

Strictly speaking, plants do not eat; they drink. But the carnivores catch insects and devour them.

This sounds violent, but it actually takes a cobra lily about 24 hours to digest a fly. If the carnivores have plenty of sunshine and moisture, they make interesting houseplants. You really don’t have to feed them much, but now and then they appreciate a bit of hamburger — or perhaps an ant or two.

The legend of the Solomon Islands, where Dragon trees flourish, is that the tree is so named because it grew from the grave of a sea monster. It is considered to be the most potent magical plant of all.

The resin from this tree, called dragon’s blood, was brought by Venetian merchants to Europe in medieval times and sold as a love incense.

If burned near an open window for seven midnights in a row, the escaping fumes were guaranteed to bring back straying lovers or attract new ones, which ever seemed indicated.

Hellebore, with its green flowers, curling leaves and poisonous honey, is another good Halloween plant.

It was described by the Bishop of Down in the 18th century thus: “and green its glaucus leaves expand, with fingers like a mermaid’s hand.”

Legends involving moonlore have been around for a long time. If you approach your garden in a horoscope mood, you might take heed of some ancient maxims.

In the Middle Ages, sorcerers and magicians used moonwort as a highly important magic plant in their brews and concoctions. It was believed to have the power to ward off evil spirits and to put monsters and demons to flight. It could also open locked doors, break chains and unshoe horses.

Moonwort has many names: it is sometimes called honesty plant, money plant, silver bloom and satinpod.

It is recommended that you do your planting in the time of the waning of the moon to ensure good root growth. Root crops should be planted during the third quarter of the waning moon, and above-ground vegetables should be planted two nights before the full moon. Seeds should be planted when the moon is going from half to full.

Legend says that pruning is also influenced by moon signs. It should be done in the first and second quarter of the moon and during the fruitful signs of Cancer, Scorpio or Pisces.

To retard plant growth, do your pruning in the third or fourth quarter with the moon in a barren sign. This is the time to spray to control insects and weeds.

Halloween brings to mind too, the predator plants which depend on other plants for sustenance and can overwhelm and strangle other plants in their vicinity. Kudzu, for instance, or arunda, loostrife or Spanish moss.

In Mexico, at this time of the year, the Day of the Dead is celebrated with picnics in the cemetery and the decorating of homes and churches with marigolds and skeletons.

As November approaches, remember that in the American Indian calendar the 11th moon of the year is known as the month of the mad moon, when anything can happen and usually does.

Happy Halloween!

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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.