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by Des Kennedy
by Des Kennedy

Des Kennedy is a celebrated public speaker, having performed at numerous conferences, schools, festivals, botanical gardens, art galleries, garden shows and wilderness gatherings in Canada and the U.S. His humour, irreverence and passion for gardening and the natural world have made him a 'must see' speaker in demand across the country.

October 31, 2010

To really appreciate the soulfulness of All Hallows' Eve, it's advisable to step outside the costume party for a moment and take a turn around the darkened garden, for in its shadowy depths ersatz ghosts and goblins give way to deeper and more ancient mysteries.

Certain evergreens, for example, have long been associated with death and burial -- one's even called the coffin juniper, Juniperus recurva. For millenia cypresses have symbolized the soul's descent into eternal death, which is why so many were planted around old cemetaries and at the head of graves. Because the wood resists decay, ancient Egyptian aristocrats were entombed in mummy cases made of cypress and Greek heroes in cypress coffins. These are the trees of the dark forces of the netherworld, the Furies and Fates.

In the old Celtic calendar the last night of October was 'old year's night,' the night of all the witches, and no good garden should be devoid of bewitchment. A weed to some, a lovely native grass to others, witchgrass or old witchgrass, Panicum capillare, is a tuft-forming annual grass native to eastern North America. It has broad leaves and stems that rise a metre tall, each bearing a dense panicle of tiny greenish spikelets on delicate stalks.

For real witchery you can't do better than the common mullein, Verbascum thapsis, known as witch's candle or hag's taper, for in pre-Christian Europe its thick flowering stalks were dipped in tallow, set alight and carried in nature ritual processions. From these fecund beginnings the mullein gained a reputation as a potent charm against demons and malignant spirits, and it's for this reason we always have a few growing at our place. Although more recently developed varities like 'Gainsborough' flower more profusely and tower more majestically, they have not been conclusively shown to repel malignant spirits as reliably as old witch's candle.

Nor has devil's club, Oplopanax horridus, but this infernally spiny shrub can repel just about anything else, including roaming dogs, delinquent juveniles or even heavily-armed intruders. It grows wild on the west coast, typically in moist woodlands where it forms an impenetrable and tropical-looking understory. Its sparse and spiny branches twist up about two metres high, with few but large green leaves. In late summer it produces umbels of small greenish-white flowers followed by clusters of red berries that attract bears. If you get scratched by the plant, the spines emit a poison that inflames the scratches. In other words, devil's club is precisely the type of plant no reasonable person would cultivate, but naturally it's becoming increasingly popular in native plant woodland gardens, zones 6 to 10.

Ghostliness goes well in gardens too. The ghost plant, Artemesia lactiflora, is a hardy perennial from China that performs splendidly in late summer. In August it produces flowering stalks about two metres tall that bear creamy plumes of ivory-tinged flowers. It works beautifully as a foil to stronger colours like bold reds or pinks or gleaming yellows. We've got several growing among thalictrum of matching height whose ethereal clusters of powdery blue flowers mingle artfully with the ivory artemesia flowers.

Perhaps my favourite ghost of all is Eryngium giganteum, 'Miss Willmott's Ghost.' Named for the great British plantswoman, this big biennial eryngium has a striking silvery presence, especially as dusk descends. The plant has a central stalk of metallic blue-grey from which multiple flowering shoots arise. At the tip of each shoot sits a flower head of stiff and finely pointed bracts etched in silvery white. At the centre there's a cone covered in tiny flowers. The cones are silvery green at first, gradually turning blue-grey.

We could go on and on with spectral plants -- into the greenhouse where we've got the bizarre voodoo lily growing, or where there might be the peculiar little bushy cactus called dancing bones. We could look at the mysterious datura of voodoo legend or the euphorbia known as Gorgon's head. But enough. Time to straighten our ridiculous costume and slip back into the party, away from the darkened garden of All Hallows' Eve.

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