Rotting flesh, poison, folklore, evil smells and funny plant forms
Pumpkins (or swedes/turnips if you’re a UK traditionalist) are the plants we usually associate with Halloween – mainly because of their convenient harvest time, autumn colouring and willingness to be carved into lanterns.
However, what about the plants that reflect the darker undertones of All Hallow’s Eve and the time of year we are supposed to be closest to the spirit world – and therefore the dead?
There are myriads of poisonous plants I could have included here (see my Plants Poisonous to Pets page in Perennials) but like the shallow soul I am, I’ve gone for mostly poor looks and evil stenches.
Here are my nine favourites…
Carrion flower (Stapelia)
If you really want to keep visitors away, or are a fan of The Walking Dead, go for plants that smell – and sometimes mimic – cadaverous flesh.
Carrion flowers (corpse or stinking flowers) give off a powerful scent like rotting meat, usually to attract scavenging flies and beetles as pollinators.
Stapelia, one of which is pictured here, are small, spineless, cactus-like succulent plants. Most are native to South Africa, and people do actually grow them as pot plants.
The flowers are hairy, absolutely stink and mimic the colours of rotting flesh to attract flies. Stapelia gigantea, the biggest of the lot, can produce flowers 30cm in diameter.
Titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum)
Another notable in the rank scent stakes is Amorphophallus titanum, (titan arum, corpse flower, corpse plant) although not one to grow at home.
As you’ve probably guessed by its Latin name, it not only smells but looks obscene. A quick translation is ‘misshapen giant phallus’. Apparently, it became known as the titan arum thanks to Sir David Attenborough, as its true name was though too shocking for TV audiences!
It’s a flowering plant with the largest unbranched inflorescence (complete flower head including stems, stalks, bracts, and flowers) in the world, found in the rainforests of Sumatra, Indonesia, and Malaysian Borneo.
Bat flower (Tacca chantrieri)
If you’re looking for something a bit more well behaved for the conservatory, try Tacca chantrieri, the bat flower, in the yam family – and with care, you can grow it from seed.
T. chantrieri has black bat-shaped flowers, up to 30cm across, with long ‘whiskers’ that can grow up to 70cm, with the plant growing up to 1m.
Thompson & Morgan sells three varieties – black, Nivea (a white version with green-veined blooms) and Green Isle (dusky green flowers and lime tentacles), visit https://search.thompson-morgan.com/seeds/Bat-Plant.
Native to Southeast Asia including Thailand, Malaysia, and southern China, they are understorey plants, so prefer shade, well-drained soil, high humidity, and lots of water. Hardy above 4.5°C.
Ghost plant (Monotropa uniflora)
So difficult to grow in gardens due to its complex feeding habits, you’ve probably never seen (fittingly) the ghost plant. Monotropa uniflora, also known as ghost pipe, Indian pipe or corpse plant, is a rare herbaceous perennial native to temperate European Russia, Asia, North America and northern South America.
It contains no chlorophyll, hence the white colouration. It gets its food via a complex three-way relationship – ghost plants are basically parasitic, deriving nutrition from certain fungi that have a symbiotic relationship (mycorrhizal) with trees. It can grow in very dark environments, often near beech trees.
Witch hazel (Hamamelis)
Now for a moment of disappointment. Although many magical and medicinal qualities are associated with Hamamelis, it has nothing to do with witches.
It’s from the early 17th Century word ‘wych’, used in names of trees with pliable branches, from a Germanic root meaning ‘to bend’.
To New World settlers, it looked very like the European Wych Elm, so the name stuck. This later evolved to ‘witch’ but possibly because so many magical properties were also attributed to it.
Cockscomb (Celosia cristata)
Another good looker for the Halloween season is the cockscomb (Celosia cristata), an easy-to-grow half-hardy annual.
It’s the varieties that look like coral (or brains) that you need to look out for, such as the deep blood red Dracula, available as plug plants with dark foliage from Thompson & Morgan.
The fuzzy, wavy flowers are caused by fasciation, which develops due to infections, insects or mutations – perfect.
The wonderfully-named Wolfsbane (Aconitum), also known as aconite, monkshood, leopard’s bane, mousebane, women’s bane, devil’s helmet, queen of poisons, or blue rocket, should give you a vague warning that it’s extremely poisonous.
These herbaceous perennials are native to the mountainous parts of the Northern Hemisphere, in moisture-retentive but well-draining soils of mountain meadows.
Wolfsbane has had a long association with werewolves, used to ward them off (as the name would suggest). However, JK Rowling has muddied the waters in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, as Professor Lupin took a potion containing wolfsbane to prevent him from turning into a werewolf during the full moon.
Chinese lanterns (Physalis)
Chinese lanterns (Physalis alkekengi and P. franchetti), unlike most of the other plants mentioned here, can be grown outside, although you may regret it, as once they get going, they’re very invasive.
The papery orange coverings of the berries fit right into the Halloween colour scheme, more so when they are ripe and the lantern rots away, leaving a skeletal covering to the fruit.
Ripe berries (I’m not talking Cape Gooseberry here) are supposed to be edible, but leaves and unripe berries are poisonous. I’d use them as ornaments… they’re in the nightshade family.
Deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna)
And finally, another member of the above family – deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna, murderer’s berries, sorcerer’s berries, and devil’s berries). It’s related to tomatoes, potatoes, aubergines, and peppers.
Another common name, belladonna, is from the Italian ‘bella donna’, or beautiful woman, because Renaissance Italian ladies took it to enlarge their pupils.
Medieval folklore states that deadly nightshade was the devil’s favourite plant. Those practising the Black Arts would use the plant’s juices in their potions. It is still used medicinally in eye drops, for relaxing muscle spasms and to regulate the heartbeat.
However, it still grows wild in Europe – eating a few leaves or berries can be fatal to humans and animals. Even touching the plant can lead to poisoning!