History of Folk Medicine - Herbal Folklore for Halloween 🌚

Gianne Rayandayan, Clinical Herbalist

 

With Halloween upon us, we wanted to speak to how plants play a huge role in connecting to this time of year! Think about all the festivities that happen in October involving plants– pumpkin-carving, apple-picking, beer-drinking, wine-making– it’s a smorgasbord of play and enjoying all the fruits of our labor!

So this time of year is perfect for anyone interested in re-building a personal relationship with herbs. (Although, to be clear, anytime is a great time!). Through ethnobotany– the study of a region's plants and their practical uses through the traditional knowledge of local culture and people– we quickly realize that the relationship between humans and plants is as old as civilization itself (2). 

 October is commonly associated with the ‘otherworld’, our shadow sides, change, and literal and metaphorical death. But there is a flip side to all this heaviness!– It is a time of letting go and really celebrating the joy of living!

Regionally, San Diego sees most of its folkloric influence from the cultures of Baja Mexico and more widely popularized Euro-centric traditions. Nowhere is this better shown than in Dias De Los Muertos– the Latin American holiday celebrating life and those who have passed on (12). 

 

Here’s some  fun herbal folklore to bite into and incorporate into your celebrations for the rest of the ‘spooky season’:

 Pomegranate (Punica granatum) - These blood-red fruits are romantic symbols of fertility, power, and the Underworld. The fruit is highly antioxidant. In Persian, Iranian, and Chinese cultures, the seeds were used in wedding ceremonies to commemorate a fertile marriage. To the ancient Greeks, Pomegranates were associated with the story of Persephone--goddess of Spring-- who sacrificed part of her life to rein alongside Hades as rulers of the Underworld (4). 

 Elder (Sambucus spp.)- The Elder tree was considered a ‘gateway guardian’ to the Underworld and the faerie realms in pre-Christian and medieval Europe (6). While the berries and flowers are highly valued medicinally, the bark is mildly toxic and, in low doses, will induce vomiting. The flowers are antiseptic, and diaphoretic, and help mount healthy fevers, and the berries are heavily studied immune system tonics. In the Americas, Native Kumeyaay also used the branches for ceremonial blessings and the flowers for addressing fevers, coughs, and colds(3, 9). 

 Datura (Datura stramonium)- Commonly known as Jimsonweed or Devil’s Snare: A highly poisonous native plant with psychoactive properties. It is easily recognizable by its white trumpet-like flower. Native Kumeyaay peoples have worked with this plant shamanically for initiations and rituals (--). It is a part of the Nightshade family, which historically has been associated with European ‘witches brews’ featuring infamous poison plants like Belladonna (11). 

 Mexican Marigolds (Tagetes erecta.)- Ancient tradition in Mexico, easy to grow. Herbs for altars on Diaz de los Muertos. Marigolds were thought to help guide souls back from the underworld so they could enjoy everything they loved about being alive with their friends and family (12).  ‘Catrinas’-- skeleton statues of the Virgin Mary– would be adorned with marigolds. Though not in the same genus, Mexican marigolds are similar to the European Calendula, which has lymph-moving and skin-healing properties (6).

 Juniper (Juniperus spp.)- The high concentration of volatile oils in the wood, leaves, and berries made Juniper an ideal burning herb for ritually cleansing homes and temples throughout Europe. Native Kumeyaay prepared this herb as a tea to cleanse the liver, kidney, and urinary systems (3). 

 Lastly, many common culinary spices like Cinnamon, Nutmeg, and Allspice are excellent herbs to work with through October and the rest of Autumn. As our bodies slow down with the season, culinary spices are really important allies for maintaining healthy digestion. 

 

And to commemorate Halloween’s unearthly zest for life: try this recipe for a fiendishly blood-red spiced pomegranate syrup:

 

Spiced Pomegranate Syrup 

 3 (3”) cinnamon sticks

1 (4”) piece ginger, thinly sliced lengthwise

10 allspice berries, crushed

½ tsp green cardamom pods

6 cups pomegranate juice

⅓ cup sugar

 Bring cinnamon sticks, ginger, allspice, cardamom, pomegranate juice, and sugar to a boil in a medium saucepan. Cook until reduced to 1½ cups, about 40 minutes. Strain syrup through a fine-mesh sieve into a heatproof measuring glass; discard solids. Let cool and serve or store in the refrigerator. 

 For a devilish mixed drink, pair this syrup with your favorite alcohol base or simply drizzle over your favorite dessert! (By the way, if you are in love with botanicals and the cocktail scene, we will be showing you how to make your own rootbeer bitters next month! Sign up for our newsletter to stay tuned!) 

 

We hope this blog has inspired you to rekindle your connection to life and all things earthy and spooky this Halloween! October is not a month of ‘going through the motions’-- it's a time to celebrate interconnectedness and have fun! 

 

 

Sources

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2956839/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4020364/
  3. https://www.sandiego.edu/kumeyaay-garden/plant.php?ID=6 
  4. Lansky E., Shubert S., Neeman I. Pharmacological and therapeutic properties of pomegranate. In : Melgarejo P. (ed.), Martínez-Nicolás J.J. (ed.), Martínez-Tomé J. (ed.). Production, processing and marketing of pomegranate in the Mediterranean region: Advances in research and technology. Zaragoza : CIHEAM, 2000. p. 231-235 (Options Méditerranéennes : Série A. Séminaires Méditerranéens; n. 42)
  5.  2008. Wood, Matthew. Earthwise Herbal Vol 1: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants. North Atlantic Books  
  6. 2008. Wood, Matthew. Earthwise Herbal Vol 2: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants. North Atlantic Books  
  7. https://www.joinultimatehealth.com/pdf/pomegranate/ThePomegranateFruit.pdf 
  8. https://treesforlife.org.uk/into-the-forest/trees-plants-animals/trees/juniper/juniper-mythology-and-folklore/
  9. Wilken, M. A. (2012). AN ETHNOBOTANY OF BAJA CALIFORNIA’S KUMEYAAY INDIANS [Master's thesis].
  10. https://www.rcpe.ac.uk/heritage/deadly-nightshade-botanical-biography 
  11. https://www.npr.org/2021/10/30/1050726374/why-marigolds-or-cempasuchil-are-the-iconic-flower-of-dia-de-los-muertos