To the delight of all of us here at PHS who have been anticipating this day, Halloween has finally arrived! In celebration of this most unholy of holidays, we did a bit of research into the creepiest, crawliest, scariest, freakiest, grossest, smelliest, spikiest, most dangerous, just-plain-awful plants nature has to offer—and now we offer them to you.
Our first category is: Plants that Resemble Scary Things, or Just Generally Look Scary. Some of these, such as the spider flower (also known as Cleome), the ghost fern (a hybrid version of the Japanese painted fern), and the spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum) are very common, and can probably be found in your backyard or in a pot in your house. (Personally, I’ve always been a little freaked out by dusty miller, which looks to me like the skeleton of a plant-that-used-to-be.)
Others, such as the Chinese Black Bat Flower, the White Bat Flower, and the Voodoo Lily are a little more exotic. But when you want to see weird flowers that look like they came straight from the bowels of the underworld, it goes without saying that the Cactaceae and Orchidaceae families have got the goods. Two of my favorites? The Medusa orchid and the Brain cactus.
Next, we move onto Plants that Smell Like Rotting Flesh. There are so many of these that they have their own category: they’re called “carrion flowers,” and they smell like that because they’re trying to attract dead-flesh-loving flies and other insects to pollinate them. Perhaps the grossest of these is called the titan arum. It can grow to over 10 feet tall, reeks of decomposing mammal, and was recently voted the ugliest plant in the world in a Telegraph poll.
Then there are the Plants that Do Terrible Things. Ever hear of monkey cups? No? You should! Also known as tropical pitcher plants, these carnivorous little weirdos can grow large enough to lure rats, birds, and lizards to their colorful, mouth-like flowers. When prey slips inside, it can’t get out, and the plant slowly digests it.
Then there’s the dodder vine, also known variously as vampire vine, devil’s guts, devil’s hair, devil’s ringlet, goldthread, hailweed, hairweed, hellbine, pull-down, strangleweed, and witch’s hair—and yes, it’s as awesome as it sounds. This parasitic plant needs to attach itself to a host plant in order to survive, and once it does, it basically chokes the life out of its host by engulfing it in thin, freaky tendrils of doom (see below).
Next, on a sober environmental note, I’d like to introduce you to “zombie weeds.“ Not a species of plant per se, these are plants that have been so over-treated with chemical herbicides that they have become completely resistant to traditional agricultural poisons, and are now essentially impossible to kill—except by thwacking them the old-fashioned way with hoes. You can see some of these resistant weeds growing between the soybean rows below:
(In the interest of keeping this blog entry to a somewhat sane length, I’m not even going to begin to talk about the nasty antics that fungi can get up to. But I can’t resist just one plug for this fungus, which infiltrates the minds of insects and drives them crrrrrazy, and which clearly came straight out of a horror film.)
Last but not least, I can’t forget to mention the most ubiquitous Halloween plant of all: the loveable, edible pumpkin.
Every year, they do their best to look cute enough not to be made into pie. And every year, they fail.
Happy Halloween, everyone! If you want more Strange Beauties, be sure to attend the new plant exhibition at the PHS McLean Library. Learn more here. And we do sincerely apologize if any of these horrible horticultural specimens haunt your dreams…