What’s Halloween without a carved pumpkin, some apples and a few ghostly-looking trees and shrubs backlit by a full moon? We all know what Oct. 31st is meant to look like, but if you really want to shock the kids this holiday, tell them that plants are more historically linked to Halloween than a bag of candy. Some fruits, herbs, trees and vegetables were even thought to have magical properties. (How many chocolate bars can do that?)

giant jack-o’-lantern

This creepy giant jack-o’-lantern at Longwood Gardens definitely has more fright power than any carved turnip could ever scare up.

Photo Credit: Jessie Keith

Apples

Apples are ancient fruits revered over the ages and long associated with Halloween traditions.

Photo Credit: Jessie Keith

Elderberry

Old lore suggests burning elder invites death and evil – a pretty harsh legend for such an innocuous, pleasant plant.

Photo Credit: Jessie Keith

Rowan

The glowing leaves and berries of rowan are some of the most beautiful in autumn.

Photo Credit: Jessie Keith

Did you know that Halloween is tied to ancieunt Roman harvest festivals, as well as the Celtic feast of Samhain, a summer’s-end festival? The Celts believed that the dead ascended from their graves on the eve of Samhain and communicated with the living through druid priests. When the Romans conquered the Celts and Christianity became the dominant religion in Europe, traditions hybridized and over the centuries culminated into Halloween as we know it today.

The plants historically linked to Halloween were most often used to ward off evil, gain good health or even foretell the future. Some classic examples include vegetables (other than pumpkins) carved for jack-o’-lanterns, as well as apples, elderberries, hazelnuts and mountain ash (or rowan).

Vegetable Jack ‘O-Lanterns

A combination of Old World and American traditions led to the hugely popular Halloween jack-o’-lantern. The Irish legend of Stingy Jack, a character who fooled the devil using devious, unorthodox means, inspired the first jack-o’-lanterns. As the story goes, when Jack died, he was turned away with nothing more than a burning ember for light because neither God nor the devil wanted him. Jack hollowed out a turnip to hold the ember, and “Jack of the Lanterns” has been wandering the countryside with his glowing turnip ever since.

The Irish, Scots and English carved faces into turnips, rutabagas, potatoes and beets, then lit them on All Hallows’ Eve to frighten away Stingy Jack and other evil spirits. It was the influence of mid-19th century Irish immigrants that led to the carving of pumpkins for jack-o’-lanterns. Since pumpkins (Cucurbita pepo) are New World vegetables, they’re true symbols of American Halloween.

Apples on All Hallows’ Eve

Halloween also has roots in Pomona – the ancient Roman harvest festival. Pomona was the Roman goddess of apples and trees, with apples symbolizing romantic love and fertility. During Samhain festivals, the druids are said to have used apples to foretell the future in divination ceremonies. The practice of using apple peelings for divination was practiced as a Halloween game until the early 20th century. The length of the peel and pattern it created when falling were used to determine one’s longevity, as well as other predictions.

The Halloween game of bobbing for apples, an American favorite since Victorian times, is believed to have originated in 17th century Ireland. Apples were put in a tub of water, and the person able to bite a bobbing apple hands-free would be blessed with good health and luck for the coming year. Others used apple bobbing as a marriage divination: The first to bite an apple would be the first to marry. A similar game, called “snap apple,” was played with apples hung from strings.

Trees and Shrubs to Ward off Evil

Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia), elderberry (Sambucus nigra) and hazelnut (Corylus avellana) were once believed to be “magical” trees and shrubs that could ward off witches and evil spirits, as well as offer protection on All Hallows’ Eve.

The ancient Celts believed that rowan berries magically gave good health and that rowan trees (or mountain ash) planted near gravesites helped the dead sleep. Branches were also used as dowsing rods, and crosses made of rowan twigs were carried for protection on Halloween. In old Europe, elderberry branches held above doorways were thought to protect homes from malevolent spirits and witches, and though bonfires are still a part of many European Halloween celebrations, tradition dictates that elderberry should never be burned as this will invite death or the devil.

Hazelnut trees and their nuts were believed to hold equally potent powers on Halloween night. Strands of nuts worn or kept in the home were said to bring good luck. They were also used in divination practices and carried by young women to ensure fertility for the coming year. Sure, it’s easier to carve a Halloween pumpkin instead of a turnip, and it’s more fun to carry around a tub of candy as opposed to a bunch of twigs. But knowing some of the meanings and lore behind the holiday’s traditions can make your Halloween all the more spook-tacular!