Plants & Human Affairs
Cherries.wmf (7140 bytes) Plants & Human Affairs (BIOL106)  -  Stephen G. Saupe, Ph.D.; Biology Department, College of St. Benedict/St. John's University, Collegeville, MN 56321;;

Halloween Botany

 I. Origin of Halloween

A. Pre-Christian festival of the dead in Ireland/Britain

B. Collision with Christianity

C. Activities

  1. Trick-or-treating – costumed individuals went door to door dressed as spirits seeking food and drink
  2. Jack O’Lantern
  • Originally carved into a turnip or rutabaga – couldn’t be a pumpkin cuz not native.
  • Legend of the Jack O’Lantern – check out the essay I wrote.

II. Pumpkin Biology

A. Cucurbitaceae – Gourd Family

B. What’s a pumpkin? Comparison of squash/pumpkin/melons/gourds

  Squash Pumpkin Gourd Melon
Shape Not round round    
Color Not orange orange    
Food type Veggie Dessert Ornamental, other (bottle, sponge) – bitter, inedible Dessert
Origin New World New World New/Old World Old World – "luxury" fruits – watermelon (Africa), cantaloupe (Africa), cucumber (SE Asia)

C. Importance of Pumpkins

D. Kinds (species)

Cucurbita pepo
  • pentagonal stem with spines
  • Examples: Halloween pumpkin, Pie pumpkin, Zucchini, Acorn squash, Summer squash
  • Domesticated in C. America and Mexico, at least 9000 ybp.
  • Member of important food triad: squash-maize-beans


C. maxima
  • Round stem
  • BIG! – largest fruit
  • Buttercup, turbans
  • Domesticated S. America


C. moschata
  • Pentagonal ridge on stem,
  • Smooth stem, enlarged next to fruit
  • Butternut
  • Canned pie-filling (most canned filling is made from Golden Delicious or Boston Marrow squash varieties)
  • Northern South America & C. America


C. mixta – white and green cushaws

5. Miscellaneous

Characteristic Summer Squash Winter Squash
Harvest summer fall
Skin soft hard
Seed soft large, hard
Storage poor good

III. Witches & Ergot

A. Introduction

B. Possible Explanations (hypotheses)

C. Ergot & Salem

1. References:

  • Linnda Corporeal (1976) Science 192: 21 – 26.
  • Mary Matossian (1982). Amer. Sci. 70: 355 – 357.

2. Hypothesis - Salem affair was initiated because individuals ate bread/products from ergot-infected rye. This caused the symptoms of bewitchment.

3. Ergot Biology

  • Parasitizes rye flowers
  • Releases spores, land on stigma, enter pistil, grow to ovary
  • Ovary replaced by fungus mycelium
  • Produces more spores in a sweet nectar (dispersed by insects to other plants)
  • Mycelium hardens to become a sclerotium ("sun burnt" grains). Resting/dormant/resistant phase
  • Fall to ground, germinate in the spring
  • Produce a stalked structure that produces more spores.

4. Ergot Chemistry

  • produces about 1% alkaloids
  • Two major kindsof alkaloids

Clavine (i.e., ergotamine)

  • Used medicinally since 1582 (German midwives recognized use in childbirth)
  • Childbirth & migraine
  • Vasoconstrictor – reduce blood flow after childbirth and dilation of vessels that may be associated with migraine headaches

Lysergic Acid derivatives

  • Studied by Albert Hoffman (Sandoz Chemical)
  • Hallucinogenic effects

5. Gangrenous ergotism

  • Serious problem
  • Between 1580 � 1900, 65 major episodes worldwide (29 in Germany, 11 Russia, 5 US. 1977 Ethiopia)
  • In 994 there were 4000 recorded deaths; in 1041 at least 2000 deaths
  • St. Antony�s fire (Patron Saint of fire). Egypt, 3/4th century; hermit, monk
  • Peter the Great called off attack on Turkey because 20,000 men and horses stricken
  • Napoleon (1812 � 1813) defeat was related to ergot
  • Caused by clavine alkaloids
  • Symptoms � constriction of vessels, especially extremities; burning, alternate with cold sensations; numbness, blackening, odor, death

6. Convulsive Ergotism

  • due to proportion of lysergic acid derivatives
  • twitching head, arms, feet
  • vomit, nausea
  • deafness, blindness
  • hallucinations

7. Evidence for ergotism

  • symptoms of bewitched matched ergotism (giddiness, nausea, convulsions, pinch/bite, formication, weak
  • children/women affect (i.e., smaller, nursing)
  • perfect growing conditions for fungus (severe winter 1690-1; wet cool in 1691 when started, dry cool 1692 when ended)
  • alkaloids stable for 2 years (i.e., still toxic after harvest)
  • many of afflicted lived in low, wet areas (likely growing spots)
  • unrelated to causes of other witch trials (cuz so long after)
  • horses and children afflicted with symptoms (even death) BEFORE witch accusations began

IV. Broad Beans (Vicia faba; Fabaceae – Legume Family)

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Last updated:  10/31/2008 / � Copyright  by SG Saupe