Halloween, an evening when children have fun dressing up to go trick-or-treating. This commercial sugar-fest may seem to be a recent and superficial cultural import from across the pond, but the traditions have their roots in pre-christian times, and were later associated with those when witchcraft and evil spirits were considered a very serious threat, and could have an impact on all aspects of everyday life.
“Witchbane” is one of many names, including "Wickenwood" and "Wicken tree", for a tree most of us know as Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia). It was considered a sacred tree in many ancient traditions in Britain, but particularly in Yorkshire where the legacy of the Vikings includes aspects of Norse tradition, in which the Rowan was the tree from which the first woman was made. For a Rowan to grow near to a dwelling was seen as a gift from the Goddess and it afforded protection from witchcraft and evil spirits. Similarly, the felling of a Rowan could bring misfortune, and in Yorkshire it was the Rowan, not the Yew, that was also associated with graveyards where they were planted to keep the dead in their graves.
From a practical point of view, Rowans are excellent trees for a domestic garden as they are compact, will grow in most soil conditions except waterlogged, cast light shade, and there are varieties available in a range of different sizes and berry colours. For the best attributes of the native Rowan, one of the best varieties is ‘Sheerwater Seedling’ with strong vigour, excellent wind tolerance, uniform shape and reliable berrying. For spectacular autumn colour, you could try Sorbus discolour (also known as Sorbus commixta) which produces orangey-red berries and rich coppery-red autumn foliage shades, or Sorbus ‘Joseph Rock’ which bears bright yellow berries on a backdrop of fiery scarlet autumn leaves. For very small gardens you could try one of the white or pink berried options, such as Sorbus hupehensis, S. arnoldiana ‘White Wax’, or S. cashmiriana, just be aware that these need a relatively sheltered site as they are far less robust or wind tolerant than native Rowan.
So, if you want to protect and bring good fortune to your home, perhaps planting a Rowan might help... although we can’t guarantee that it will deter little witches seeking sweets!