Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
Halloween, with its make-believe ghosts, goblins, and witches, comes but once a year. But you can keep the spirit of Halloween alive by choosing plants for theme gardens that conjure up thoughts of this spooky day.
Granted, it’s too late in the year to actually plant the garden, and most of the plants wouldn’t survive fall frosts and still be around for Halloween. But that shouldn’t stop you from planning for next year now while the spirit of the season is at hand.
Chances are you may already have plants in your garden with ghoulish connections. While we all know that the broomstick-riding witches associated with Halloween don’t really exist, folklore tells us that once upon a time anyone who was a bit different risked being called a “witch” or being accused of having special powers. Sometimes a woman was declared a “witch,” simply because of the plants she grew in her garden, plants thought to be used for casting spells.
Do you have witches’ thimbles, devil’s nettle, fool’s parsley, or wolf’s bane in your garden? If you do, and this was several centuries ago, the talk around town might be that you are a “witch.” Don’t recognize any of those names? You may know them by other names.
Witches’ thimbles is another name for foxglove, a biennial with tall spikes of large, bell-shaped white, pink, purple, or red flowers. It’s a source of digitalis, a heart medicine.
Devil’s nettle or yarrow was once used as a poultice for wounds. This plant comes in a variety of colors and grows to heights of two to four feet. While some species are tall and yellow, many newer cultivars (cultivated varieties) are short, don’t spread, and come in a range of colors.
Fool’s parsley is a hemlock herb, not to be confused with the tree although just as deadly. Wolf’s bane, or aconite, has small yellow flowers. In the 1500s it was mixed with English yew, powdered glass, arsenic, and a number of other deadly ingredients to make pills. A word of caution.: if you plant any of these poisonous plants, be sure to keep curious kids and pets away.
According to folklore, other plants that “witches” grew in their gardens include cumin and verbena (both for love potions), opium poppies (sleep potions), and morning glories (wicked spells). “Witches” also mixed monkshood, which has spiky purple blooms, with cinquefoil, belladonna, water parsnips, and ashes to make a strong potion that allowed them to talk to spirits “on the other side.” An ointment of monkshood and belladonna supposedly made objects fly.
These folklore witches also made sure they planted flowers from every birth sign, so they would have the ingredients needed to cast spells on everyone. Chrysanthemums, heather, and thorns were needed for power over a Scorpio. Someone born under the sign of Aquarius could be “hexed” with potions using foxglove and snowdrops.
For your witches’ theme garden, you also need to plant three or four rows of red flowers–nasturtiums, geraniums, zinnias, vinca, and monarda, for instance–around the edges of the garden to keep “witch hunters” away.
To keep “witches” out, border your garden with yellow and green flowers and foliage. Plant marigolds, rudbeckia, sunflowers, green zinnias, and Bells of Ireland, for example. These colors remind “witches” of the sun (which they supposedly hate), so they will keep their distance.
Another way to create a Halloween theme garden is to plant only orange and black flowers. While some gardeners may argue that there are few true black flowers, many near-black flowers are available, especially in the iris and tulip families. There are also some pretty black pansies that will last into fall and maybe even to Halloween. Grow these with an orange variety called “Jolly Joker.” You can find deep maroon (almost black) varieties of bachelor’s buttons, snapdragons, cosmos, sunflowers, and gladioli. Check seed catalogs and ask the experts at your garden center for other varieties.
For orange, it’s easier. Many common flowers like zinnias, marigolds, daylilies, and cosmos all come in orange. You also might try butterfly weed, orange nasturtiums, and oriental poppies. Of course many fall chrysanthemums are found in shades of orange.
While not in Halloween colors, “spiky” perennials with their sinister or ghostly appearance can be used for contrast or accent. Popular in recent years is the artichoke or cardoon with its large silvery, deeply cut and sharply pointed silvery-white leaves. Or try other silvery spiky perennials such as globe thistle or sea holly. Yucca, or Spanish dagger, has several cultivars all with long leaves with needle-like tips.
Or instead, how about plants with creepy names like bloodroot, bleeding heart, Dragon’s blood sedum, or blood lily for your theme garden? Or scary names like snapdragon and devil’s tongue (also known as the voodoo lily)?
Add a few stone gargoyles or folk art, such as that found at craft shows, like pumpkin clay pots (for candles) or pumpkin and Halloween character silhouettes carved out of wood. Or how about some orange and ghostly green lighting for the garden? With a Halloween theme garden, you can enjoy this October holiday for many months of the year!