From black flowers and the shrieking mandrake to poisonous potions and the devil’s plants, Andy Sturgeon unveils ghostly goings on in the garden, just in time for Hallowe’en
Apart from Coca Cola, Friends and George Clooney the Americans have kindly given the world the phenomenon of ‘Trick or Treat’. In Britain this used to be known as ‘Demanding money with menaces’, which carries a custodial sentence, but it’s somehow become an acceptable Hallowe’en custom. Basically it’s a sort of polite robbery whereby the perpetrator, usually wearing a £1.99 ‘scary’ mask, is civil enough to ring your doorbell before insisting you hand over money and sweets. If all you can muster is a bit of fruit and some nuts then your house is bombarded with eggs, flour, fireworks and whatever else they happen to have in their arsenal.
Now cabbages may not seem the most romantic of vegetables but they were powerful aids to love divination. A Scottish girl would go into the garden the day before Hallowe’en and with eyes closed as she pulled cabbage stalks, would recite:
Hally on a cabbage, and hally on a bean,
Hally on a cabbage stalk tomorrow’s Hallowe’en
The shape of the stalk she pulled out, long, thin, short or fat revealed the physique of her future husband and I should think pulling out a cabbage with club root would have sent many a young girl running off to the nunnery.
Hazel nuts were also used on Hallowe’en to discover the extent of a suitor’s love. They were given the names of prospective husbands and tossed into the fire. The loudest bang as they exploded and the brightest flame indicated the hottest prospect. They would also be laid on the edge of the grate and the girls apparently chanted: “If you love me pop and fly, If not lie there silently”, which of course doesn’t actually rhyme but what the hell.
Parsley is probably the plant shrouded in the most ghoulish folklore. The seed supposedly goes to the devil and back a number of times before germination, which is why you never get 100% success rate. ‘Transplant parsley, transplant death’ the saying goes. If you receive parsley seedlings from someone there will be a death in your family. I was given some by my grandmother once and sure enough, five years later she died. But I suppose that could have been because she was 94.
The mandrake, also known as Satan’s Apple, has long been associated with witchcraft. The large brown root was popular with herbalists who used it as an aphrodisiac and a cure for sterility, and in medieval times it was used by witches for its narcotic, hallucinogenic properties. It was thought to resemble the form of a man but I’ve seen one and what it actually resembles is a nobbly brown root. The shrieks it allegedly made when it was pulled up were said to scare a person to death so to get round this they tied it to a starving dog then waved a bit of meat in front of its face. Cunning.
There are lots of spooky black flowers that you can grow for a truly ghoulish garden. Now’s a good time to plant tulips like ‘Queen of Night’, ‘Black Diamond’ and ‘Black Parrot’, which are very deep purple. For sunny spots there’s the columbine Aquilegia ‘Black Barlow’ and hollyhocks Alcea rosea ‘Nigra’, ‘Black Beauty’ and ’Night Watchman’. For the front of the border you could grow Iris ‘Study in Black’, ‘Hello Darkness’ and ‘Paint it Black,’ Dianthus nigricans and D. ‘King of Black’ and the annual cornflowers ‘Black Ball’ and ‘Black Boy’. For shady corners there’s the mourning widow Geranium phaeum and the hellebore, Helleborus orientalis ‘Little Black’.
About the closest you get to a black flower is the pansy Viola ‘Bowles’ Black’ and the slightly bigger ‘Molly Sanderson’. They really do look black but you get the faintest hint of purple around the yellow eye. Like all pansies they hate heat and drought so try and plant them in the shade of a shrub. They are basically annual but seed freely and come almost true, weed out any that show signs of paling.
But it isn’t all about flowers. There’s the black lily turf Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ worth growing for the name alone, which has virtually black, grassy leaves although it’s actually closely related to an orchid. The pale purple flowers of summer give way to shiny black berries and the clumps of leaves will flourish in a fertile neutral or slightly acid soil that doesn’t totally dry out.
Poisons, Witches and the Devil
The monkshood, Aconitum napellus, is a popular cottage garden perennial and is the quintessential plant of the occult. The ancient Greeks believed it sprouted from the spittle of the hellhound Cerberus and witches used it with cinquefoil, parsnip, belladonna and soot so they could ‘contact the other side’. It contains a deadly poison that slows the heart rate, decreases blood pressure and numbs pain.
Foxgloves are also known as Witches thimbles or Dead man’s bells and are well known to be poisonous. In medieval Italy they were used for ‘trial by ordeal’. Basically, suspects were fed with the poison and if they lived then clearly they were guilty and had to be killed. If, however, they died then they must be innocent but sadly by then they would be dead. Clever old Italians.