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'Magic' plants' power is in beauty, taste

'Tis the season of ghosts, goblins, witches, warlocks and spooks of all sorts.

Add to that ghoulish carved pumpkins, which originated in ancient Celtic festivals, and other mystical plants that bring the Halloween spirit to life.

Connecting plants and magic became a little easier after I visited the Cloisters in New York City earlier this year. This re-creation of a French monastery is a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art overlooking the Hudson River in Upper Manhattan.

The gardens were designed by two medieval art scholars from the Metropolitan who drew on old herbal texts and medieval writers. Some 250 different plants appear in a relatively small area.

Most of the garden is typical of other herb gardens I have visited: herbs for cooking, fragrance, dyes or medicinal uses. But one small corner caught my eye. It was filled with "magical herbs."

While most no longer ascribe magical properties to plants, people in medieval times used magical herbs to cast spells, protect livestock or bring good luck.

Some of these "magical" plants contain chemicals that induce hallucinations, while others are toxic and gave the perception that magic was involved in someone's sickness or death.

The following magical herbs are for Halloween curiosity, not for planting or using in spells. Never ingest or use an herb unless you fully understand its properties and toxicities.

One interesting herb in the Cloister garden is the mandrake, a plant mentioned in the Bible. This plant was considered so powerful that it would let out a shriek if uprooted, and anyone hearing that shriek would either die or become incurably insane.

Mandrake, which was worn as an amulet, was supposed to bring wealth or make soldiers invisible to the enemy.

I scratched my head when I saw peonies in the garden. I had never heard they were associated with magic, so I did a little research. Peonies were planted with fennel and coriander and grown for their seeds. These were added to wine as a potion against nightmares and melancholic dreams.

Great Burnet — or saxifrage — supposedly had dramatic magical powers as well. People chewed it to stave off the bubonic plague.

Mugwort was believed to protect travelers from fatigue, wild beasts and poisons. It was also believed to protect valuable books by repelling bookworms and other insects.

Garlic supposedly repelled the plague, witchcraft, vampires, scorpions and snakes. It also was thought to be an aphrodisiac, and some thought it increased courage.

I wish the belief about horseradish — that those with a piece of it in their purse on New Year's Eve would not run out of money the next year — were true.

Juniper smoke was supposed to protect people from plague and other epidemics, prevent fairies from stealing infants and repel evil spirits.

Three more edible plants were important. Parsley was associated with the devil, because the plant germinates very slowly. People claimed that parsley seeds needed to ask the devil seven times for permission to grow. If the seeds didn't germinate, people believed that the person who planted them would die during the next year.

Radish plants were thought to protect against scorpions and were considered an aphrodisiac, and turnip seeds were made into liniment (or wine) to protect a person from snake bites and other poisons.

My professional advice? Enjoy Halloween as well as your vegetables and other plants. The magic of these plants and veggies is in the beauty — and the taste.

Larry Sagers is the horticulture specialist, Utah State University Extension, at Thanksgiving Point.