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Halloween rituals rooted in horticulture

Hanbidge on Horticulture: Jack-o-lanterns were originally carved from turnips and other hard-skinned vegetables.
pumpkin and squash fall harvest (Large)
Pumpkins and winter squash did not arrive in Europe until the 1500s.

Each year on Oct. 31, we celebrate an age-old tradition dating back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. Traditionally, people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off ghosts that visit on All Hallows Eve. The new year used to be celebrated by the Celts in what is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and France on Nov. 1. Thus Oct. 31 marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter. This was a time when the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. This last day of October celebrated the last harvest of the year and consequently, many associated rituals involve an array of seasonal fruits and vegetables.

Creating lanterns to scare off ghouls is one of the most popular Hallowe’en traditions that is thought to have originated in England, Ireland and Scotland. Pumpkins and winter squash did not arrive in Europe until the 1500s so prior to that time faces were carved into turnips and other hard-skinned autumn vegetables.

There is a story behind the jack-o-lantern. The legend goes that a stingy, miserable old man named Jack liked to play tricks on everyone including his family, friends and even the Devil himself. It is said that he once tricked the Devil to climb up an apple tree and while up there, Stingy Jack placed crosses around the base which effectively trapped the Devil up the tree. He then made a deal with the Devil that if the Devil promised to not take his soul when he died, he would remove the crosses and let him down. Many years later when Jack did die, he was turned away from the pearly gates because he had led a worthless life on Earth. The Devil kept his promise to not take his soul and Jack became frightened as he realized he had nowhere to go and would be destined to forever wander the darkness. Out of pity, the Devil tossed Jack an ember to help him light his way. All his mortal life Stingy Jack loved to eat turnips and just so happened to have one along for this journey. He quickly hollowed out the turnip and placed the ember inside. It is said that Stingy Jack is still walking with his jack-o-lantern looking for a place to stay.

Kale may be now a fashionable healthy food, but in the past kale stalks were used to predict future romances. In the poem Halloween written by Robert Burns he wrote about the length and shape of the stalk to represent your partner’s height and figure. The amount of soil around the roots represented wealth.

Apples are often a feature in many Hallowe’en ceremonies as the apple harvest falls at around the same time as Hallowe’en celebrations. When you cut through an apple, you can reveal the witch’s five-pointed star and thus the apple has long been held as a symbol of magic. Bobbing for apples is a much-loved tradition and in areas where cider is produced, there is much wassailing that occurs. This is a celebration where people sing and hang toast on the apple trees to “bless” them.

In Scotland and Northern England, Hallowe’en we historically known as Nut-Crack Night. Couples would throw recently harvested hazelnuts or chestnuts into the fire to predict their romantic future. If the nuts burned quietly, they would have a happy union, but if the nuts hissed and crackled a more unsettled future was in store.

Hopefully your last harvest was bountiful and contained many things that you can use for your Hallowe’en celebrations.

Hanbidge is the Lead Horticulturist with Orchid Horticulture. Find us at; by email at; on facebook @orchidhort and on instagram at #orchidhort.

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