Halloween’s Forbidden Fruit: Michael Pollan on Gardening as Radicalism and the Scandalous Botanical Origin of the Broomstick in Flying-Witch Legends


“For most of their history… gardens have been more concerned with the power of plants than with their beauty — with the power, that is, to change us in various ways, for good and for ill.”


Halloween’s Forbidden Fruit: Michael Pollan on Gardening as Radicalism and the Scandalous Botanical Origin of the Broomstick in Flying-Witch Legends

“Oh that beloved witch-hazel,” Emily Dickinson wrote to her cousins in 1876 as she tended to her famous garden, “one loved stalk as hearty as if just placed in the mail by the woods… witch and witching too, to my joyful mind” — her garden, across the hedge from which lived the love of her life, joylessly married to Emily’s brother, absent from Emily’s arms for a quarter century. She also wrote a poem that same year:

Long Years apart — can make no
Breach a second cannot fill —
It is not possible to be without the Witch
Invalidate the spell —

As a gardener and a poet, ever since she pressed four hundred wildflowers into the teenage herbarium that became her first formal act of composition, Emily Dickinson had an uncommon grasp of how the life of plants and the life of feelings interleave — particularly the forbidden, the subversive, the countercultural.

In many ways, across epochs and cultures, gardens themselves — and not only the plants grown in them — have served as psychoactive agents profoundly transforming the human experience: gardening as resistance, gardening as growing through grief, gardening as finding the roots of happiness, gardening as “an exercise in supreme attentiveness.”

Gardening as witchcraft for the soul — defying the permissible, magnifying the possible.

Red poppy by Elizabeth Blackwell from A Curious Herbal — the world’s first illustrated encyclopedia of medicinal plants. The Nature Conservancy receives a printed copy and a mask that can be used as a facial mask.

Michael Pollan explores this defiant side of gardening.

He wrote:

I sometimes think we’ve allowed our gardens to be bowdlerized, that the full range of their powers and possibilities has been sacrificed to a cult of plant prettiness that obscures more dubious truths about nature, our own included.

For most of human history, however, nature’s relationship with humans has been one that is more about friendship than control. Only in the mere blink of evolutionary time called modern civilization did we begin viewing the rest of nature as a “parallel world.”

Pollan envisions a future that might view our present conception of the garden — a place for basic produce, household herbs, and pretty flowers — as “almost Victorian in its repressions and elisions,” which include the modern repression and elision of the garden’s radical past. He traces the subversive botanical roots of the mythic flying witch’s broomstick as one example:

For most of their history, after all, gardens have been more concerned with the power of plants than with their beauty — with the power, that is, to change us in various ways, for good and for ill.

Ancient people gathered and grew holy plants. These sacred plants were able to incite visions, or lead people on trips to other realms. In some cases, these people are called “shamans” because they return with the spiritual knowledge that is the foundation of all religions. In medieval times, the medieval apothecary garden was not concerned with aesthetics. It was more focused on medicinal plants that could be intoxicated or healed. Witches and sorcerers cultivated plants with the power to “cast spells” — in our vocabulary, “psychoactive” plants. They used opium poppies (datura), belladonna and hashish to make their potion recipes.Amanita muscariaThese include the skin of toads, which can be rich in DMT, an extremely powerful hallucinogen. These ingredients would be combined in a hempseed-oil-based “flying ointment” that the witches would then administer vaginally using a special dildo. This was the “broomstick” by which these women were said to travel.

Dorothy Lathrop’s art from Down-Adown-Derry in 1922. Prints available.

It was in one such epoch that Johannes Kepler took six years from decoding the laws of the universe to defend his herbalist-mother in a witchcraft trial, while elsewhere in Europe the world’s first prim and proper botanical gardens were sprouting up.

The Botany of Desire — which also gave us the story of how “broken tulips” shaped the modern world — is thoroughly satisfying in its totality. Complement this fragment with the little-known botanical-cultural story of why NYC is known as “the Big Apple” — a surprise even to most native New Yorkers — then revisit Pollan on how one particular plant magnified the bewitchment of Bach.


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