The end of October, and the shops are full of skeletons and pumpkins as Halloween approaches. Don’t think that the
horticultural world can’t join in the spooky fun though; there are plenty of botanical nightmares out there worthy of The Little Shop of Horrors.
The carnivorous plants hold a special fascination – monkey cups (Nepenthes), cobra plants (Darlingtonia), Venus fly-traps (Dionaea) and the like. These lure innocent insects to their doom with their gaudy shapes and colours and scents. Horrified but intrigued, we watch as the fly buzzes nonchalantly towards mortal danger, like a young woman in a skimpy nightie walking through a house at midnight without turning the light on (doesn’t she KNOW that the film is called ‘Axe Murderer III’?)
Black plants exude that other-worldly quality needed for All Hallows’ Eve. Aeonium ‘Swartkop’, lilyturf (Ophiopogon) and black bat lilies (Tacca chanteiri) would make a bouquet fit for Frankenstein’s Bride. Airplants (Tillandsia) would provide perfect white cobwebby decorations for the Wedding Breakfast, as the guests sipped their Deadly Nightshade cocktails and danced to the theme from The Addams Family or Don’t Fear the Reaper (by Blue Oyster Cult. Do you remember it? Very haunting).
Very gothic…very Caroline. In fact the pitcher-plant which renders its victims so roaring drunk (albeit on nectar, not prosecco) that they fall down a deep dark hole has a strong resonance with her weekends.
My favourite spooky plant is the mandrake (Madragora officinarum) which is said to emit a such a terrifying scream when you pull it out if the ground, that you die of shock. The only way to pull one up is to tie the plant to the tail of a rabid dog. Now, there’s a plant with a bad attitude.*
OMG could she be more dramatic? At least she stopped short of telling us that maidenhair ferns would be ideal in the steamy environment found behind the shower curtain in a remote motel……. But actually all her examples are just sensible adaptations that plants have evolved to help them cope with their environment. So-called carnivorous plants still photosynthesise like any other plant but just need a bit of extra nitrate due to the nutrient-poor soils they live in, so the odd insect makes an ideal protein supplement.
The ethereal aura of airplants is down to the their exterior layer of specialised non-living cells called trichomes which are able to absorb water from the atmosphere, and there is clearly a huge advantage to any plant to have leaves that are poisonous to eat! All just basic botany really (well she did choose an arts degree over a much more useful science training, comme moi)
I am more intrigued by plants that have developed deception as a way of procreation and you probably harbour some of these in your own back garden (it’s nearly always someone known to the family….). The Arum family, which includes our native ‘lords and ladies’ (Arum maculatum) and it’s more garden worthy relative, Arum italicum, past favourite of Louise’s, operate a dastardly scam in which they emit a foul stench, (from a weird, distinctly male looking organ known as a spadix) designed to trick flies into thinking they are a piece of rotting meat into which eggs can be laid and maggots thrive.
They can even raise their temperature several degrees above the surroundings to mimic the natural warmth of decomposing flesh. But instead, the flies find themselves trapped inside the bulbous base, unable to leave until they have performed an act of pollination. If only there was a horticultural #metoo hashtag those poor flies would be all over it….
Blimey our own ‘dark secrets’ look rather tame in comparison. Though 50 years ago I do recall Laura and I tying a charm bracelet to a length of nylon thread and running it from our bedroom, up to Elaine’s. After ‘lights out’ we gave the thread a tug and as the bracelet clanked up the outside of Elaine’s bedroom window, her ear-piercing screams quite drowned out our own delighted giggles (which soon turned to wails when we were soundly ticked off by mum).
But if you are wanting to go a step further and actually poison your annoying sibling, you could try Brugmansia which has such a hallucinogenic effect that after drinking tea made with just two of its flowers a young man once cut off his own arm with pruning sheers apparently. It’s rather tender although Laura does grow it in her glasshouse (yes it does make you wonder….).
Or you could try passing off the root of the now-flowering Autumn crocus as a garlic bulb. They’re hard to tell apart but the former can kill you in very short order.
If this is a little too much halloween for you, may I suggest you plant some garlic? Now is the perfect time of year to do so and of course, it’s an excellent deterrent for witches. Remember there are three of us, we have some expertise in these things mwahahahahah!
*In contrast Louise has the perfectly scented tree for your town garden or for your front door in her Great Plants this Month section today