Halloween Plant Lore

Halloween Plant Lore Featured Image
Jack ‘o-lanterns originated from the traditions of mid-nineteenth century Irish immigrants.

All ancient festivals relating to Halloween involved the harvest as well as fruits, herbs, trees, and vegetables that were believed to have mystical properties. Plants historically linked to Halloween were most often used to ward off evil, gain good health, or even tell the future. Some classic examples include/d fruits and vegetables carved into Jack ‘O Lanterns as well as apples, elderberries, hazelnuts, and rowan.

The Celtic Feast of Samhain

Halloween is tied to ancient Roman harvest festivals as well as the Celtic feast of Samhain, a festival held at summer’s end. The Celts believed that the dead ascended from their graves on the eve of Samhain and communicated with the living through druid priests. When the Romans conquered the Celts, and Christianity became the dominant religion in Europe, traditions hybridized, and over the centuries culminated into Halloween as we know it today. With each new tradition, a new symbolistic use of plants was employed.

Vegetable Jack ‘O-Lanterns

Pumpkins are the ultimate symbol of Halloween in North America.

A combination of Old World and American traditions led to the hugely popular Halloween Jack ‘o-lantern. The Irish legend of Stingy Jack, a character that fooled the devil using devious, unorthodox means, inspired the first Jack ‘o-lanterns. As the story goes, when Jack died, neither God nor the devil wanted him, so they turned him away with nothing more than a burning ember for light. Jack hollowed out a turnip to hold the ember, and Jack of the Lanterns has been wandering the countryside with his glowing turnip ever since.

The Irish, Scots, and English carved faces into turnips, rutabagas, potatoes, and beets, and lit them on All Hallows’ Eve to frighten away Stingy Jack and other evil spirits. This tradition was then brought to the Americas. It was the influence of mid-nineteenth century Irish immigrants that lead to the carving of pumpkins for jack ‘o-lanterns. Pumpkins (Cucurbita pepo) are New World vegetables, so they are true symbols of American Halloween.

Apples on All Hallows’ Eve

Apples are ancient fruits that have been long associated with Halloween traditions.

Halloween also has roots in the ancient Roman harvest festival, Pomona, named for the Roman goddess of apples and trees. Pomona and her fall fruits symbolized romantic love and fertility.

Most European pagan religions applied important symbolism to the apple. During Samhain festivals, the druids are said to have used apples to foretell the future in divination ceremonies. The ancient practice of using apple peelings for divination was a common Halloween game until the early twentieth-century. The length of the peel and pattern it created when falling were used to determine one’s longevity.

Other age-old apple games are still popular today. The Halloween traditions of bobbing, ducking, or diving for apples, have been American favorites since Victorian times (1830s – 1900). Most of these games are thought to have originated from seventeenth-century Ireland. Apples were put in a tub of water, and those able to bite a bobbing apple hands-free would be blessed with good health and luck for the coming year. Others used it as marriage divination; the first to bite an apple would be the first to marry. A similar game, called snap apple, was played with apples hung from strings.

Rowan, Elderberry, and Hazelnut to Ward off Evil

Rowan twigs and berries
Long ago, crosses made of rowan twigs were carried for protection on Halloween.

European rowan (Sorbus aucuparia), elderberry (Sambucus nigra), and hazelnut (Corylus spp.) are three woody plants once believed to ward off witches, evil spirits, and offer protection on All Hallows’ Eve. The ancient Celts believed that rowan berries magically gave good health and that rowan trees planted near gravesites would help the dead sleep. Branches were also used as dowsing rods, and crosses made of rowan twigs were carried for protection on Halloween.

In old Europe, elderberry branches held above doorways were thought to protect homes from malevolent spirits and witches. And, though bonfires are still a part of many European Halloween celebrations, tradition dictates that elderberry should never be burned as this will invite death or the devil.

It was once believed that burning elder invited death and evil.

Hazelnut trees and their nuts were thought to hold equally potent powers on Halloween night. Strands of nuts worn or kept in the home would bring good luck. They were also used in divination practices and carried by young women to ensure fertility for the coming year.

These are just a few of the many plants and fruits with roots in the ancient and interesting holiday of Halloween. Knowing them makes the holiday a little richer and helps us understand the importance and role of seasonal plants in our traditions.

Miniature Pumpkins

Small pumpkins at a market
If you didn’t grow your own small pumpkins this season, they are easily found at local orchards and markets! (photo by Jessie Keith)

Miniature pumpkins are so irresistible they almost beg to be picked up and held. Varieties like the bright orange ‘Jack-B-Little’, striped ‘L’il Pump Ke-Mon’, tangerine orange ‘Bumpkin’, and the ghostly white ‘Baby Boo’ stand about two inches tall and three inches wide, their sides creased with deep ridges. Whether you use them for decorating, cooking or party favors, one baby pumpkin is never enough. In October retailers offer bins full of the little charmers, but it is also easy to grow them at home. Raising mini pumpkins can be a great, kid-friendly gardening project.
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Growing Mini Pumpkins

These smallest pepos are part of the same squash or cucurbit family as their larger relations and favor similar growing conditions—plenty of sunshine—at least six hours per day–and consistently moist soil enriched with organic amendments like Fafard ® Premium Natural & Organic Compost. The vines will sprout happily in large containers or in-ground settings. As befits their smaller size, minis take somewhat less growing time than the orange behemoths, maturing in 90 to 100 days from seed. Under good conditions, each vine should produce eight to ten miniature pumpkins.

If you live in an area with a short growing season, start minis indoors two or three weeks before the last frost date for your area. Otherwise, sow outdoors in mid-May to ensure a supply for harvest-time decorations. Follow package directions, making sure to give the young plants plenty of room. Grow the pumpkins in vegetable or ornamental beds, or on sunny decks or terraces. Proximity to some kind of support—fences, trellises or bamboo teepees—is helpful, though the vines can also be allowed to sprawl along the ground or cascade from porches or raised beds.

'Jack-B-Little' pumpkins
The cute little ‘Jack-B-Little’ is one of the cutest and most common little pumpkin. (photo by Marian Keith)

Lilliputian Jack-o-lanterns are very amenable to container culture. Almost any sturdy vessel will work, as long as it has drainage holes. A ten-gallon container will support a single mini pumpkin vine. To grow several vines in one pot, select one that will hold twenty to twenty-five gallons, preferably with a diameter of at least thirty-six inches. Whatever container you choose, fill with a fifty/fifty mix of quality potting medium like Fafard® Ultra Potting Mix With Extended Feed With Resilience™ and Fafard ® Premium Natural & Organic Compost.

In-ground or in containers, if you decide to support the young pumpkins, tie them with soft ties–pieces of old pantyhose or any other flexible material. As you tie the vines, you will notice that the young fruits start out rather pale in color. Rest assured, the orange-fruited varieties will turn tawny in time.

Critter control is a must because varmints like raccoons, squirrels, and groundhogs are extremely fond of miniature pumpkins. Spray the developing minis with an organic critter deterrent to keep them away. Remember to re-spray after every rainstorm.

Mini Pumpkin Harvest and Use

You will know your minis are ripe when the vines appear dried-out and the stems greenish-brown. If you are using the pumpkins as decorations, let them cure in a cool, dry place for about a week before piling in baskets, mounting on wreaths, carving into votive candle holders or arranging on the mantle. Minis also make clever place cards for birthday or dinner parties.

Cucurbita pepo 'Bumpkin' pumpkins
‘Bumpkin’ is another sweet little pumpkin worth seeking out this season. (photo by Jessie Keith)

Though less fleshy than larger varieties, ‘Jack-B-Little’s and their kin can also be used in cooking. The little pumpkins make eye-catching individual containers for baked eggs or savory hot dishes containing combinations of meat, vegetables and/or grains. Sprinkle the insides with a bit of brown sugar, dot with butter and roast for a simple dessert.

Minis can also be used as colorful ramekins for sweet baked concoctions like custards, bread puddings or fruit crumbles. Because the sides of the pumpkin are somewhat thicker than most ceramic vessels, you may have to add extra cooking time to standard recipes.

In fall, the garden is full of big specimens—giant squash, “dinner plate” dahlias and cushion mums big enough to seat a giant. Miniature pumpkins are a reminder that good garden things also come in small packages.