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Fun trivia about plants and Halloween

Julie Weisenhorn - Extension Educator - Horticulture

Going to a Halloween party? Here are some fun plant-related trivia to wow your friends ...

Halloween & the seasons
Food and the fall harvest is at the core of our traditional American Halloween. It is a combination of Christian traditions and the ancient Celtic Pagan festival Samhain (pronounced sah-win) which means “end of summer” and the harvest. It was a time to commune, put up resources for winter, and bring animals in from the summer pastures. Times of transition in the natural world were thought to be special and supernatural, creating the belief among some that Samhain was a time when spirits of the dead would cross over to the living world. However, the festival of Samhain as more about changing seasons and preparing for dormancy of nature as summer changes to winter.
Sources: History of Halloween
History of Halloween - Live Science

Pumpkins are a symbol of Halloween. The Latin name for pumpkins is Cucurbita pepo. “Pepo” means “to ripen in the sun”. Squash and zucchini are also in the Cucurbita genus and the three plants sometimes cross-pollinate resulting in some unusual fruits and a baffled gardener. Pumpkins are thought to be some of the oldest domesticated plants on Earth. The first pumpkins were small hard gourds cultivated around in 10,000 B.C. in Mexico. The winner of the 2015 Giant Pumpkin contest - a popular attraction at Minnesota State Fair - weighed in at 1,473 lbs. and was grown by Bill Foss from Buffalo, MN. The record for the largest pumpkin grown in North American was set by Gene McMullen and weighed in at 2,145 lbs. It was shown at 2015 Cedarburg Wine & Harvest Festival, Cedarburg WI.

Pumpkin carving is a tradition based on an Irish myth about an unsavory character named“Stingy Jack”. Stingy Jack's questionable dealings with the Devil during his life led to him wandering through the darkness of purgatory with only a piece of burning coal in a carved turnip to light his way. He became referred to as “Jack of the lantern” or “Jack o’lantern”. Each year at Halloween, the Irish carved turnips or potatoes and placed them in windows to ward off evil spirits including Stingy Jack. Pumpkins were used instead of turnips when the Irish brought the tradition to America. The first image of the modern jack-o-lantern appeared on the cover of Harper’s Weekly in 1867.
Source: All about pumpkins

Apples have been used for making life predictions during Halloween festivities. Bobbing for apples in a tub of water has long been a party game with the goal of grabbing an apple in one's teeth without using your hands. The first to successfully bob for an apple was destined to be the first to marry. Likewise, on Halloween, young women would peel apple in a continuous strip and throw it over their shoulder where it would supposedly land in the shape of the first letter of her future husband’s name. Imagine if that young gentleman also grabbed the first apple from the tub of water!
Source: History of Halloween - Live Science

Witches’ Broom
Witches' broom is a bushy bunch of twiggy, weak stems protruding from tree or shrub. It can be caused by environmental and pathological stresses that lead to formation of the witches' broom by the plant. Environmental stresses can damage growing points and pathogens can cause abnormal growth when they attack a host plant. Depending on the plant, environmental stresses include road salt and  herbicides. Pathogens that cause witches' broom include fungi, mites, aphids, Phytoplasmas and parasitic plants like dwarf mistletoe. Sometimes genetic mutations occur in a plant and create a witches' broom growth. Some larger growths on conifers like Norway spruce have been successfully propagated to produce new dwarf conifer cultivars. In Minnesota, witches' brooms are commonly seen on spruce and caused by the parasitic plant dwarf mistletoe. This plant lives its entire life within the canopy of the tree, stealing nutrients and water from host plant. Large witches' brooms may kill plant over time. Management of witches' brooms includes pruning out offensive branches,  removing plants with over 50% dead branches, and avoid planting spruce or other susceptible conifers near infected trees.
Sources: Witches' brooms sightings in trees
Eastern spruce Dwarf Mistletoe
Witches' broom

The Ghost Pepper (Bhut Jolokia)
The ghost pepper originated in Assam, located in northeast India, and was introduced in the Western world in 2000. Bhut is translated as "ghost" due to fact the heat sneaks up on the consumer. The key agent in peppers - what gives them their "heat" - is called Capsaicin, a neuropeptide releasing agent.   Peppers are rated in scoville heat units (SHU) determined by how much sugar syrup it takes to completely offset the heat of the capsaicin. For example, a green bell pepper rates at zero SHU. On the other end of the spectrum pure capsaicin rates at 15 million SHU. The ghost pepper is rated at 1,041,427 SHU - three times the former winner, the Red Savina habanero pepper and certifying the ghost pepper by the Guinness Book of World Records as the hottest chili pepper on Earth. CAUTION: This is a seriously hot pepper and while it is an interesting plant, I am not recommending its consumption. It apparently can cause severe pain and intestinal distress, resulting the medical attention.
Sources: Ghost Pepper

The gut-wrenching science behind the world's hottest peppers 

Update 11-02-15: Just heard about two peppers that rank hotter (!) than the Ghost Pepper on the Scoville scale: Naga Viper (1.38 million) and Carolina Reaper (1.56 million SHU and noted as the hottest pepper in the world).
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