Spooky Plants for Halloween
Delighted to share my 'Spooky Plants for Halloween' double page feature in the 30 October 2021 edition of Garden News magazine. Read it if you dare!
Happy Halloween! Who doesn’t love a good ghost story? October brings enchanted tales of haunted houses and things that go bump in the night but if that is not spooky enough for you then discover which garden botanicals are creepier than fiction. Some plants defy imagination, and their spine-chilling stories really are haunting!
Corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanium)
Straight out of a sci-fi novel is the Corpse flower. With an intense stench of rotting flesh the flower may repel us but attracts beetles and flies efficiently for pollination! This enormous rare plant can take 15 years to bloom and then only open for 36 hours so a novelty to witness. Reaching up to two meters tall, four meters wide and a staggering 68-90kg this plant belongs in the ‘Land Where Time Forgot’ or ‘Day of the Triffids’ but actually grows wild in Asia’s tropical regions such as the Sumatran rainforest.
Wolfsbane (Aconitum napellus)
In folklore Wolfsbane provides protection against werewolves, well I don’t know about that but it certainly holds a dark secret. It is one of the most toxic plants in the UK. Containing Aconitine, Wolfsbane can cause heart failure if ingested; even touching it can be fatal if you had a cut. Ancient Greeks, Romans and Chinese used this extremely poisonous plant to charge poison arrows. The unusual purple flower heads, galea, resemble monk’s hoods, leading to their common names monkshood or devil’s helmets. Besides all this it still remains a coveted herbaceous perennial in ornamental borders but be warned, look but don’t touch.
Bat head lily (Tacca chantrieri)
A festoon of long whiskers surrounds eye-like petals. These tropical Asian curiosities are lovers of jungle humidity and shade. Glossy leaves crave rays of sunlight to produce the most unusual bloom, which resembles a bat in flight. This dark exotic entity is also known, unsurprisingly, as cat’s whiskers, devils’ whiskers and bat flower but you’d be forgiven for thinking this plant was a vampire as it cannot survive in direct sunlight.
Tacca are related to the yam family but in true Halloween style, all parts are toxic! Reaching a metre high and with whiskers or filaments of up to 70cm long, it is not a plant we see often in the UK but in a heated, humid glasshouse, it will thrive; more surprisingly, it could be grown at home as a houseplant from a dry tuber!
Purple Devil (Solanum atropurpureum)
If there is ever a plant that screams LEAVE ME ALONE then this is it! Covered in 2cm spikes, ‘Purple Devil’ and ‘Malevolence’ are apt common names for this short-lived spooky perennial found in the tropics of Brazil. It’s yellow flowers turn into fruits resembling tomatoes BUT caution, this Solanum is toxic and contains tropane alkaloids throughout all parts of the plant.
At 1.2 metres tall, it is certainly a shrub to bear in mind to keep out unwanted visitors.
Ghost Plant (Monotropa uniflora)
If you go down to the woods today you’re sure of a big surprise. You might stumble across ghosts…well a ghost plant if you are lucky. Monotropa is an unusual low-growing perennial, which relies on trees like beech for its survival. This translucent plant has no chlorophyll so is entirely dependant on parasitic fungi to provide its nutrition.
Sightings are rare as Monotropa mysteriously lives underground for 51 weeks and only surfaces to bloom for one week a year! This spooky plant can be found growing wild from Pakistan to Russia, North America, Canada and Japan.
Doll’s Eye (Actaea pachypoda)
No Halloween movie would be complete without a scary doll and Actaea pachypoda ticks all the boxes. Also known as White Baneberry, Doll’s Eye has eye ball-like fruits that are extremely poisonous! If crushed the plant releases the toxin protoasnemonin from its foliage and fruits. A popular addition in cottage gardens, this clump-forming herbaceous perennial is fully hardy and favours shade. Intriguing to look at, just do not eat!
Native to Central America, this epiphytic plant loves shade, humidity and cool temperatures anchoring its roots in moss and living on the surface of trees at altitudes around 1800-2200m. Over half the species can be found in the Ecuadorian cloud forests. Dracula orchids are also known as ‘Monkey orchids’ due to the striking monkey-like face in the centre of the flower. They’ve perfected the art of deception by tricking pollinators, attracting fungus gnats and fooling flies with the fragrance of gilled fungi and rotting meat.
Devil’s Guts (Cuscuta)
Devil’s guts, witch’s hair, hellweed and strangleweed all aptly describe the fine creeping habit of this parasitic plant, Dodder. Minute scales cover shoelace thin stems. Cuscuta is unable to photosynthesise; low chlorophyll makes it essential to reach a host within 10 days before food reserves diminish; instead the plant ‘grows’ root-like structures called haustoria (bit like vampire’s teeth), which penetrate hosts such as dahlia, tomatoes, potatoes, clover and flax to gorge on their nutrients, literally sucking the life out of them. Its own root then withers leaving the plant completely dependent on the host. Spine-chilling!
Did you know?
Carving pumpkins is a fun Halloween tradition but it first originated from Ireland from the myth of ‘Stingy Jack.’ Large potatoes and turnips were used to make jack-o-lanterns to frighten away spooky spirits.
‘Dracula’ actually means ‘dragon’ and comes from the Latin word dracō.
For centuries poisonous plants have been used in traditional and Chinese medicine. Devil’s Gut has been used to help kidney and liver complaints, Wolfsbane to slow heart rates and Bat Flower rhizomes to treat skin rashes, ulcers and high blood pressure.
Alnwick Garden in Northumberland is home to The Poison Garden. Secured behind bars are over 100 of the most dangerous plants on the planet. Visitors are warned not to smell, touch or taste plants. Enter if you dare!
Photo © Debi Holland 2021