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The Garden Gate: Some plants are spooky all year long

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By Ellen Probert Williamson

Area markets are featuring enormous pumpkins and, even though it isn’t quite Halloween time, preparations are afoot for that annual day of witches, haunts, goblins and ghosts.

Some plants, however, haunt us all the year around. Even trees, usually thought of as friendly things, might sometimes be considered alarming at this time of year. What about strangler figs, witch hazels or dragon trees?

The mandrake is the oldest magical plant in botanical history. It is mentioned in the Bible as and aphrodisiac. In ancient Greek legend, it was called the pant 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 as an opiate and a love potion.

There is the legend of a poison garden rumored to have been part of the estate of Italy’s famous Borgia family in the 16th century. It was a time when poisoning was the preferred way of dealing with enemies and worrisome competitors.

The poison garden might have cannabis, Hellebore and the sinister yellow and purple flowers of the nightshade, a symbol of sin in the Near East. Such a garden might have 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 butterflies and birds avoided it.

Some other spooky plants appropriate for Halloween are the so-called carnivorous plants. They sound pretty dangerous, but they could be a special garden plant even now.

How about the exotic fringed sundews, the Venus flytraps and the campions, or catch-flies? All 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 is actually takes a cobra lily about 24 hours to digest a fly. If the carnivores have plenty of sunshine and moisture, they make interesting house plants. You don’t have to feed them much, but occasionally they appreciate a bit of hamburger, or perhaps one or two ants.

The legend in 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 it was burned near an open window for seven midnights in a row, the escaping fumes were guaranteed to bring back straying lovers or to attract new ones, whichever seemed to be indicated.

Another good Halloween plant is the Hellebore, with its green flowers, curling leaves and poisonous honey. It was described in the 18th century by the Bishop of Down thus: “And green its glaucus leaves expand, with fingers like a mermaid’s hand.”

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

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

Moonwort has many other names. It is sometimes called honesty plant, money plant, satinpod or silverbloom.

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. Most seeds should be planted when the moon is going from half to full.

Legend says that pruning is influenced by moon signs. During the time the moon is in the first quarter and during fruitful signs of Cancer, Scorpio or Pisces.

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

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

As November begins, 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.