The plant that most people now associate with the 31st October Hallowe’en festivities is, of course, the pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo). Carved into hideous faces, pumpkin jack o’lanterns are supposed to ward off evil spirits. But it was not always so; in Britain and Ireland, where these traditions originated, other vegetables were used. In the north east of England, as a child, we carved large turnips (varieties of Brassica napus or B. rapa) into “tuggie lanterns”, the word tuggie being a colloquial term for that vegetable. Proudly displaying our string-hung lanterns, we’d walk around the local neighbourhood trying to scare each other.
This tradition has a long history, going back at least to the 17th century. Theres a great painting from 1838 by artist William Henry Hunt called The Turnip Lantern, which captures the juvenile excitement of Hallowe’en, even if the lantern itself is rather tame by modern standards. Given that Hallowe’en is supposed to be derived from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain it is interesting that there appear to be n0 earlier references than this. Did Shakespeare or any of the other Tudor playwrights not mention them, nor any of the Mediaeval writers? Perhaps they did but it’s not been widely acknowledged.
The “botany of festivities” (i.e. plants, particularly non-edible ones, associated with specific annual events or periods of the calendar) is a fascinating area of study that spans both biodiversity and cultural history. I’m particualrly interested in how traditional festivals exploit novel (but analogous) plants when they travel with immigrants to new parts of the world. The pumpkin is an obvious example, but there are others, e.g. the use of a New World mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum) at Christmas in the USA, in the absence of European mistletoes (Viscum album). The reverse of this also occurs, i.e. the incorporation of non-native plants into traditional rituals and festivities, such as the use of Forsythia (a mainly Asian genus) as a decoration in early spring in some parts of Scandinavia.
Yesterday evening, Karin, our sons Oli and James, and myself indulged in some pumpkin carving, and I relived my youth with a small turnip (see the photograph above). Happy Hallowe’en everyone!