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The Garden Gate: Is the madness ready to begin?

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By Ellen Probert Williamson
As November approaches, remember that the 11th month of the year is known as the Mad month in the American Indian calendar. That’s when anything can happen and usually does.

Our annual Halloween celebration is an offshoot of the ancient pagan festival of Samhain.

On that night, the ancients believed, the spirits of all those who had died during the previous year would come back to haunt those still living.

To appease them, and possibly to scare them away, people began to dress in fiendish costumes. And they began to leave offerings of food on the doorstep to mollify the spirits.

So now we have bands of costumed revelers going from house to house shouting “trick or treat,” and we mollify them with candy treats.

During the 8th century, the Christian church replaced this pagan holiday with All Saints Day on Nov. 1. The evening before that was called Allhallows (or Saints’) Eve. It eventually became known as Halloween.

Our tradition of carving pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns began as an 18th-century Irish folk tale about a miserly drunkard named Jack, who is said to have trapped the devil in the branches of an apple tree.

After Jack’s death, he was not allowed into heaven. But the devil, still resentful, would not accept him, either. So poor Jack was left to endlessly wander the night, lighting his way with a little piece of coal inside a hollowed-out turnip.

Using a pumpkin, which is much larger than a turnip, is an American adaptation of this old tale.

Superstitions about vampires have existed in all cultures from very early times. The vampir or vampire comes from a Romanian legend about demons or spirits that left their graves at night to seek and entrap human victims.

The only way a vampire could be warded off was with a variety of charms, amulets, herbs and potions. It could only be killed by cremation or by driving a stake through its heart.

Bram Stoker used this ancient legend in writing his classic story “Dracula.”

In 16th-century France, it was thought that several noble families had become lycanthropes or werewolves.

After several wolf attacks had occurred, a servant went to the local bishop and “confessed” that he had seen his employers turn into dogs or wolves and become very wild.

After being arrested and tried, the accused werewolves were shot with silver rosary beads, instead of bullets, fired from a musket. This is how the modern myth of the werewolf originated.

Unlike other monsters, Frankenstein was not based on any actual person or event.

Mary Shelly was traveling through Darmstadt, Germany, with her family in 1814 when she visited the ruins of an ancient castle owned by a knight named Arbogast Von Frankenstein.

She was apparently so intrigued by the castle that she used its name for the title of her subsequent novel about a student who created an artificial man while exploring the secrets of life in his laboratory.

There are so many superstitions that come to light at Halloween time. An old one is that an unmarried woman will dream of her future husband if she puts some rosemary and a silver coin under her pillow on Halloween night.

Don’t look back if you hear footsteps behind you on this special night. It might be a ghost following you with evil intentions.

If your candle unexpectedly goes out, it is because a ghost is in the room with you and has blown it out.

Don’t let a black cat cross your path, as it only means bad luck.

And what about predator plants? Even the world of plants seems to harbor villains hoping to find human victims.

The strangler fig is a vine which is only too happy to engulf a shrub or a small tree. They become its life support system until they are killed, then the fig moves on to find another victim.

Honeysuckle and mistletoe are also parasitic plants. Over time, we have endowed one with sentiment and the other with romance, so they do not seem quite so threatening.

Then there is kudzu, the most alarming of all predator plants. It was introduced into the United States in the 1870s as an ornamental garden plant. It was popular because it is so easy to grow and grows fast.

It was brought to the southern states many years ago as a means of controlling erosion along highways in mountain areas. It is now found as far north as Pennsylvania.

Kudzu can be used as a forage plant for livestock, and it enriches the soil by adding leaf litter and nitrogen.

But for all that, it is still a perfect Halloween plant.

It has taken over. It is an alarming predator, a rampant plant growing as much as 12 inches a day and climbing to a height of 60 or more feet with roots 12 feet deep.

Left alone, it will soon engulf everything in its wake: fences, trees, small buildings and other trees. Telephone poles and wires can be totally covered by the determined onslaught of the silent kudzu.

It can be quite terrifying in its onslaught. With its rapid growth, it is almost impossible to eradicate once it has gotten a foothold in an area.

Another predator plant, loostrife, is somewhat gentler in its approach but quite as determined as kudzu.

Some plants are actually carnivorous too, like pitcher plants which entrap insects and which can grow to a large size and might entrap large prey.

Perhaps the Indians are correct: This is the month of the mad moon, and anything can happen.

Happy Halloween!

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