Tonight is Halloween and everywhere, little ghosts and goblins will ring our doorbells in costumes designed to scare us half to death. But plants too sometimes have names that chill our blood. Here is a selection of plants with horrifying names that seem to have been specially designed for Halloween.
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)
Let’s start with the bloodroot. It’s common in deciduous forests throughout eastern North America and makes an excellent perennial for woodland gardens. There’s nothing bloody about the immaculate white flower of the small plant, though. You have to dig it up and cut into its rhizome to see the flow of blood red sap that earned it its name. The root was used in traditional medicine to treat blood diseases and cancers and even today bloodroot salves are available online, but the extreme toxicity of the plant has banished it from mainstream medicine.
Ghost Plant (Monotropa uniflora)
The ghost plant, also called ghost pipe or Indian pipe, owes its phantasmal name to its unique cadaveric white coloring. It’s a parasitic perennial living on conifer roots and spends most of its life underground. Only the arching flower stem, bearing scales and a single bell-shaped flower, all of a ghostly white, rises from the ground. Many people mistake it for a mushroom, but the ghost plant is a true flowering plant, in fact, belonging to the rhododendron family (Ericaceae). A flowering plant of such pallor, and parasitic to boot, seems particularly ghoulish. It’s found in the forests of the Northern Hemisphere and is especially abundant in Eastern North America.
Monstera (Monstera deliciosa)
As far as monsters go, this popular houseplant is rather a nice one. The name comes from its heart-shaped leaves of monstrous size, up to 3 feet (90 cm) in diameter, full of holes and slashes. To stay with the Halloween theme, you could say that they seem to have been carved out by Freddy Krueger! The holes in the leaves also give this plant a less gruesome name: Swiss cheese plant. Curiously, while monstera fruits are poisonous when immature, they are edible and, in fact, delicious when ripe, tasting, I’m told, like pineapple, hence its deliciosa epithet.
Dracula Orchid (Dracula vampira)
This Ecuadorian orchid takes its name from its large, almost black, three-sepaled flowers that can be reminiscent of the cape of the mythical Count Dracula or perhaps, with a little imagination, a bat with three wings. It’s an epiphytic plant (one which grows on other plants) and you sometimes see it in orchid shows. Needless to say, with a name like Dracula vampira, it attracts a lot of attention!
Zombie Palm (Zombia antillarum)
The zombie palm gets its name from its origin as well as its frightening appearance, since this small palm because it comes from Haiti, the country of origin of zombies. Its stem is so covered in piercing thorns that nobody but a zombie would dare to approach it.
Devil’s Claw (Proboscidea louisianica)
The plant is a pretty annual with pink flowers and is indeed sometimes sold in seed packets. There is absolutely nothing threatening about it at this stage. But the seed capsule that follows bloom is long and black with two very pointed “horns” at the end, like devilish claws. The capsule latches onto the legs of passing animals, dropping seeds as the animal scratches desperately in an attempt to remove it. And it would appear that a barefoot meeting with this ultra-thorny capsule is nothing to laugh about!
Death Apple (Hippomane mancinella)
This tree, also called manchineel, is a common sight on the beaches of tropical America. It produces small green fruits that look like apples (in fact, the name manchineel derives from the Spanish manzanilla, or “little apple”), but are so toxic that they would kill anyone who dared eat one, thus earning it its macabre name. In fact, this plant is toxic in all its parts. Even sheltering under its branches during a rain storm can cause skin lesions from particles picked up by water dripping over the leaves!
Strangler Fig (Ficus spp.)
There is not just one species of strangler fig, but dozens species of Ficus found throughout the Tropics that share the same ghoulish way of life. The seeds germinate on the branches of a tree of another species, then the roots of the strangler gradually wrap around the trunk of its host. Over time, it eventually suffocates (strangles) the other tree and then takes its place as a forest giant. The weeping fig (Ficus benjamina), a common houseplant often used as an indoor tree, is one of these strangler figs. So maybe taking a nap it its foot isn’t the wisest thing to do!
Bat Flower (Tacca chantrieri)
The huge black flowers of this houseplant are the stuff of nightmares. They can be up to 1 foot (30 cm) across and consist of two black “wings” with long, slender black whiskers that can exceed 2 feet (60 cm) in length. It’s often sold as a houseplant, but you’ll need really good humidity (i.e. greenhouse levels!) to keep it happy.
Corpse Flower (Amorphophallus titanum)
This plant, which produces the world’s largest inflorescence, up to 10 feet (3 m) tall, grows from a huge underground tuber. Every year, it produces a single gigantic, deeply cut leaf, perfectly erect on a petiole measuring up to 20 feet (6 m) tall. It could easily be mistaken for a trunk and gives the leaf the appearance of a tree. Every decade or so, the plant produces a gigantic inflorescence that gives off an intense smell of decaying flesh, hence the name corpse flower. You’ll have guessed that it attracts, as a pollinator, carrion flies. The bloom lasts only three days, but often attracts crowds to the botanical gardens that grow it: everyone wants to see—and smell!—the horrendous monster!
If you do a bit of research, you’ll find lots of other plants with equally scary names: spider plant, bloody cranesbill, wolfsbane, ‘Bloody Butcher’ corn, devil tree and many more. Certainly enough to give Halloween a macabre touch of green!