I thought I would conjure up a few ghoulish characters from the magical world of plants for Halloween.
Believe me, there are plenty of them. Some poisonous, some spooky, some just shocking in appearance, but all with fascinating stories.
Plants with surprising qualities still hit the headlines and shock the modern world when their hidden powers come to the surface. Never assume that the insignificant green plant growing in the hedgerow or garden is harmless, it may have the ability to get the upper hand….
The so called witches’ weeds include plants used to make magical potions. Often poisonous, in smaller quantities them may be hallucinogenic, anaesthetic and sense numbing. There may be a scientific explanation behind their properties, but their powers may be seen to go far beyond the barriers of science if you are a witch or believe in her magic.
Take Datura stramonium, for example. Sometimes called thorn apple because of its prickly fruits. Sometimes called angel’s trumpet because of the form of its flowers.
Also called devil’s trumpet because of its poisonous qualities. You may find this relative of belladonna growing by a roadside in Greece of Turkey, or it may turn up unexpectedly in your garden.
It also has the curious name Jimsonweed. The name is attributed to a garrison of soldiers based in Jamestown. When they ran out of food they picked and ate the fruits. Discovered in various places throughout Jamestown days later they were delirious and naked because of its powerful hallucinogenic properties.
Deadly Nightshade, or belladonna, botanically Atropa belladonna is perhaps one of the best known of the witches’ weeds.
The name, which means beautiful lady comes from its cosmetic use in eye drops which were used to dilate the pupils to make the eyes more appealing.
It contains powerful toxins but has been used as an anaesthetic and medicine. Extract of the berries was also used to tip poisoned arrows. However it is best known as a poison and features in many a deadly tale.
Henbane, Hyoscyamus niger is another darkly powerful relative, another member of the solanum family. Used in magic brews to induce psychoactive response it is thought to have been utilised by the oracles to induce trance. Its many uses over the years include flavouring certain beers – I bet they had a kick in them!
Most will know mandrake, Mandragora officinarum from their brilliant portrayal in the Harry Potter movies. Contrary to current belief they don’t squeal and wriggle, their powers go much deeper. Native to certain areas of the Mediterranean the mandrake forms a rosette of leaves with a swollen tap root that resembles a human, supposedly.
Because of the hallucinogenic properties of the plant, and its form it has long been attributed with magical powers and is used in certain magic rituals.
Monkshood or Devil’s Helmet, Aconitum napellus may be one of the most beautiful blues in the herbaceous border, but it is also the most deadly.
See beyond the colour and the shape of the individual flowers of this most poisonous of plants suits its sinister character.
This is one that has hit the headlines in recent years and certainly not for its use as a garden perennial or cut flower. The Queen of all Poisons probably gets its name from ‘akon’ the Greek for javelin. The poison, aconite, was used to tip poisoned arrows.
The magic of some plants is more harmless. Their ability to grow in an unconventional way without soil and water holds a certain fascination.
As a boy I recall the Voodoo Bulb being as popular as a Venus’ fly trap to grow on your window sill. Botanically Typhonium venosum it has the ability to produce a vigorous shoot and an unpleasant arum flower without soil or water; just stand it on a saucer and watch it happen. The stinking flower is so much more appealing to a schoolboy than a colchicum.
Dracunculus vulgaris, the Dragon arum is the ultimate horror to grow in your border. True it is dramatic and architectural and the colour is stunning.
However that wine and black bloom earns the name dead horse arum when the putrid stink pervades the garden to attract flies which effect pollination.
We all know that plants are green, due to chlorophyll which enables them to photosynthesise. The ghost plant, Monotropa uniflora defies that belief.
This parasite is a spooky, translucent white perennial that forms an association with the mycorrhizal fungi that associate with tree roots. Tree makes food, benefits mycorrhizal fungi, ghost plant draws nutrient from fungi – how magical is that?
This ghoulish selection of curiosities for Halloween are hardly things of beauty. So I’ll leave you with a good spirit – the ghost tree, Davidia involucrata.
Also known as the handkerchief tree or dove tree this is perhaps the most beautiful of flowering trees. In late spring or early summer the branches are festooned with large white bracts surrounding a dark centre. First discovered in China by the missionary Abbe Pere David it was introduced into cultivation in 1904.
It can take several years to flower but when it does it demonstrates the amazing power of plants to fill any mortal with awe and wonder.
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