The nights are drawing in and there is a definite chill in the air. Summer heat has given way to autumn’s dark and frosty mornings and most of us are craving comfort and warmth this time of year. This is my absolute favorite season, full of beautiful colour and deep traditions.
For many however, this can be a difficult time of year filled with feelings of low mood and depression. Historically, many diseases and especially mental illnesses were often connected with spirits and possessions of evil, and there were a lot of superstitions and precautions around trying to keep them at bay – particularly around this time of year and the changing of the seasons.
Halloween is a great example. The celebration of Samhain (as it was once called) has its origins dating back 2000 years to Celtic times and was referred to as the Feast of the Dead. This day marked the end of the summer and harvest, and was the start of the long, dark winter ahead. The Celts believed that on October 31 the boundary between the world of the living and the dead became blurred and that the souls of people who had died that year journeyed to the spirit world during Halloween. The holiday’s bonfires and glowing turnips (now replaced with the illuminated pumpkin) helped the dead on their journey while protecting the living.
It’s interesting to see that, as with several important calendar dates, many plants have played and continue to play a significant role as symbols from the past and as part of the modern day celebrations. To protect a person’s susceptible spirit, many herbs were considered protective against witches, ghouls, ghosts, and anything else that might have gone bump in the night! Here is a look at a few herbs widely used in medicinal practices today – and the ancient folklore surrounding them!
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
When hung over a door, fennel was believed to fend off witches. The seeds from the plant were also placed in the keyhole of doors to give the home protection from evil spirits that might be creeping about. Instead of rice, it’s seeds were thrown for fertility, and farmers would rub a mix of fennel seed, lye soap and salt on the blades of their plows to strengthen the land and encourage a better harvest.
Fennel is used today in many digestive blends and teas for its ability to soothe indigestion and relive abdominal cramps and bloating. It is also great used with honey for coughs and bronchitis.
Elder (Sambucus nigra)
Elder was considered a magical tree and thought to be possessed by a spirit or goddess inhabiting the plant. The goddess turned the plant’s natural gifts of flowers, berries, and wood into blessings, and was treated with great respect.
It was considered unlucky to have branches from the elder tree inside your home, especially at Halloween, for fear of displeasing the tree spirit. Instead branches were hung outside the front door (after asking permission from the elder in the tree) in the hopes that it would prevent witches or evil spirits from entering. As well, planting an elder tree in your yard would keep evil away, and in European countries you will often find them in cemeteries for this reason. There is an old Celtic rhyme that my grandmother used to say about the elder tree that grew in our yard when I was a child living in Scotland: “Elder be yer lady’s tree, burn it not or cursed ye be!”
The elder tree is practically its own medicine chest with its bark, leaves, berries and flowers all being used in herbal medicine to treat many ailments including bruises, wounds, colds and flus, hay fever, respiratory illness and fevers.
Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia, or European Mountain Ash)
The stunning rowan tree has a long tradition in European folklore and was thought to be more magical than the Elder for fortification against evil beings. The tree was also called the ‘Travellers Tree’ because of its supposed ability to keep anyone on a journey from becoming lost. In Scotland it was forbidden to use the wood from the rowan tree without obtaining a special dispensation. Houses often had a rowan wood lintel beam over their front door to keep those who lived there safe. It was so closely tied to magic that a woman named Margaret Barclay was brought to trial in Ayrshire, Scotland in 1618 – practicing folk magic was a sign of witchcraft to the Scots and the damming evidence used to condemn her was a Rowan charm found in her possession (a rowan twig tied with red thread for protection).
The rowan tree has numerous health benefits including its ability to boost the immune system, strengthen the respiratory system, improve digestion, urinary or gallbladder difficulties, and to reduce bacterial infections. The tiny berries pack a punch with high levels of vitamin C and dietary fiber, but are mostly praised for their high levels of antioxidants. In Europe, the berries are often used today in jams and jellies. Always consult with a knowledgeable herbalist to ensure safety if using the berries.
Garlic (Allium sativum)
European folklore gives garlic the ability to ward off the “evil eye” and was powerful against evils like devils, werewolves, and vampires. Garlic could be worn on the person, hung in windows, or rubbed on the chimney and keyholes of houses with the belief that evil spirits would not come close to that powerful smell.
Garlic is used today for numerous conditions including: cholesterol, colds and flus, coughs, fever, bronchitis, and liver or digestive problems.
Mistletoe (Viscum album, or European mistletoe)
Mistletoe is the common name for a parasitic plant that grows on a larger one- usually hard wood trees- drawing its nutrients from the sap of the host plant. It has always been thought to be a magical and good luck plant. Lovers who kiss beneath it were supposed to have lasting happiness, and carrying a sprig on you ensured good luck, fertility, and protection. Hanging in the home it was thought to protect those inside from disease and lightening strikes, as well placing it in a baby’s cradle would prevent a child from being changed into elf-bairns by the fairies that were believed to exist at that time. In Scotland and England farmers gave a meal of mistletoe to the first cow that calved to ensure the health and protection of the whole herd for the year.
Historical use of the herb focused on the nervous system. Mistletoe is a nervine, antispasmodic, and tonic. European mistletoe is used to lower blood pressure and for the general health of the circulatory system. It is also used for epilepsy and has been indicated in the treatment of some cancers. Mistletoe should only be used by experienced practitioners – it is a powerful cardiac herb!
Modern day ‘spirits’
If you do suffer from depression, seasonal affective disorder or low mood over the darker fall and winter months, consider seeing a herbalist. There is a wide-range of plants that contain a variety of phytochemicals that can help to lift your mood! St John’s wort, passionflower or skullcap, valerian, nettles, and California poppy are just a few of the options! A skilled herbalist can help and will find the right combination for you, especially if you are already taking any conventional medications.
From this brief review, we can see that at one time herbs played a large role in the supernatural and offered magical properties. Today, their mystical charms are another interesting way to learn about the herbs we use for our health and wellbeing. And this Halloween, while the mists are swirling at you’re feet, the candle begins to flicker in the jack-o-lantern, or there’s a bump in the night, remember the very plants we turn to for their medicinal purposes just might afford you some protection as well 😉