Samhain and the Land of the Dead
Halloween is one of the oldest and most celebrated holidays in the UK and is loved especially by children, though it originated here over two thousand years ago, and at that time it went by a different name and served a very different purpose.
Halloween is the offspring of the marriage of two separate religious traditions, Samhain and All Saint’s Day, that arose respectively from the Celtic and Roman cultures.
Samhain, the older of the two, was observed in Pagan traditions as the last night of the year and the beginning of a merging between the world of the living and the world of the dead.
As a culture whose spiritual traditions rested largely on ideas of prophecy, it was believed that during Samhain, a period that history tells us lasted anywhere from three to six days, Druidic priests would be able to more effectively tell the future and inform the community and individual decisions.
Given that October 31st also falls at the tail end of the harvest season, the transition into Samhain and the new year was also symbolic of the journey from the life and vitality of summer into the deathly stillness and eventual rebirth of winter and spring.
After the Roman conquest of Celtic lands, Samhain fell into relative obscurity and eventually Pope Gregory III moved All Saint’s Day to November the 1st, and thereafter October 31st became All Hallow’s Eve in honour of the Christian saints.
Today this auspicious night is called Halloween and though the new name comes from Roman influence, the eve itself still retains the themes of death, otherwordly spirits, and the uncanny relationship between life and the world beyond.
Planting a Halloween Garden
Although there are few plants universally associated with Samhain or All Saint’s Eve, there are many species whose names and reputations can lend a distinctly spooky feel to your garden without having to turn to a mass of pumpkins, here are a few of our favourites:
1. Witch Hazel
A plant that blooms in the autumn and so will arrive on time for your Halloween celebrations and when the flowers disappear, the seed pods will explode with an audible pop meaning that these crones can
haunt your garden for months to come!
Wolfsbane was fabled throughout history as an effective deterrent for werewolves and you can use it this year to ward the lycanthropes from your door. Moreover, while some species of this plant can be
highly toxic, others were essential to some of our early medical treatments.
3. Dracula Orchid
This Orchid shares the scent of another autumnal staple, mushrooms, and not for no reason. The smell is designed to attract fruit flies in order to piggyback on their pollination efforts. Their spooky reputation is derived from the appearance of their blooms which resemble a vampire’s fangs.
4. Chinese Lantern
The Chinese Lantern is a double threat visually, its blooms will initially resemble the globular, ribbed, and orange appearance of Halloween pumpkins and then turn to uncanny skeletal structures as the petals begin to die back. They also yield edible berries which, like some Wolfsbane, have historically been used to treat sickness such as fevers.
5. Devil’s Claw
It is perhaps fitting, for a holiday in celebration of death, that this plant’s terrifying name is derived from its appearance after all life has left it. When the seed pods dry out, they split down their centre and its
ribs resemble sharp hooks or a single large claw.
As you’re preparing your Halloween garden, consider planting a little piece of history and folklore with some of these varieties to keep your cobwebs, candles, and candy hoarders company.