By Cindy Haynes, Department of Horticulture, Iowa State University
There are many plants associated with Halloween. All sorts of pumpkins and gourds have been staples for Halloween decorations for decades. Black plants, thorny plants, or carnivorous plants are also used in Halloween decorations. But there are many other plants that could also be considered for the outdoor or indoor landscape, or simply used as décor for spooky celebrations.
Scary looking: Not only do the plants listed below have spooky names, they tend to back up the name with scary looking flowers, stems, or leaves. Be careful, some of these are toxic too!
Ghost Plant (Monotropa) or Indian pipe is truly a strange and spooky-looking plant (shown above). The entire plant is a pasty white because it does not contain the green pigment, chlorophyll, that is common in plants. It is considered a parasitic plant too — as it takes nutrients from another plant via root systems. Even scarier is that this one lives in the darkest, woodland locations (even in Iowa) since it doesn’t need light to survive!
Harry Lauder’s walking stick (Corylus) or Devil’s walking stick (Aralia) are shrubs noted for their twisted or thorny stems. Both plants reach around five feet tall making each stem the perfect size for a cane – if you dare!
Frankenstein cactus is a common name associated with almost any cactus that has been grafted onto another cactus. The union of two very dissimilar cacti is obvious as the top is often brightly colored or an entirely different shape than the plant below. These cacti can be quite cheerful looking, but they tend to die quickly making them frightfully hard to keep alive – just like Frankenstein!
Doll’s eyes (Actaea) is a normal looking plant with creepy looking fruit. The summer flowers become small, poisonous, pure-white berries on blood-red stalks. Each berry has a black center that resembles a pupil and ultimately contributes to the name — doll’s eyes. Just try not to think of Chucky when looking at this one!
Dracula orchids (Dracula) have flowers that resemble a face with long pointed spurs on the sepals that look like fangs. These South American native orchids are difficult to grow indoors — making them one of the rarer orchids to find, especially in bloom.
Corpse flower or Voodoo flower (Amorphophallus) gets its name for the large spathe-type flower that smells quite foul as it blooms. These bulb-like plants produce flowers that attract flies as pollinators, so it smells like trash or rotting meat. Some species are not hard to grow indoors as a houseplant — but beware — when they bloom the smell can clear a room!
Bat flower (Tacca) is another tropical plant with black, wing-like flower petals and long “whiskers” that extend beyond the petals. Unlike Dracula orchids this one is slightly easier to grow as a houseplant.
Cockscomb (Celosia) is a common annual flower used outdoors in the landscape. While the name doesn’t sound too spooky, the red, gold, or greenish brain-type flower is just creepy enough to attract attention around Halloween.
Wolf’s-bane (Aconitum) is a beautiful flower with a deadly past! All parts of this plant are highly toxic and it was once used to kill wolves. The flower petals are white or bluish-purple and hooded. This hood like flower or deadly toxin are also responsible for the other common names like monkshood, devil’s helmet, leopard’s bane, queen of poisons, or aconite.
Devil’s claw (Proboscidea) produces a sharp, long, woody, claw-like seed pods. Many seeds are produced in each pod making this plant a noxious weed in parts of the U.S.
Scary sounding: Sometimes nice plants are given weird, unfortunate, or even scary names. A sampling of some of the scary sounding, but really quite charming, plants are listed below.
Witchhazel (Hamamelis) is noted for its cheery, threadlike flowers in early spring or late fall. Extracts from this large shrub or small tree are added to lotions or ointments to soothe irritated skin. Fortunately, this plant does not attract or repel witches of any kind.
While the leaf tips of Japanese bloodgrass (Imperata) do look like there were dipped in bright red blood or paint, the only scary aspect of this plant is when it takes over an area in your landscape — beware!
Spiders often get a bad rap and Spider flower (Cleome) is the same. This annual flower produces pink, purple, or white blooms all summer until frost. The stamens that extend beyond the petals resemble long spider legs (think granddaddy long-legs), thus, its common name. The palmate leaves and stems do have small thorns, but few animals bother it, making it a great plant where deer and rabbits browse.
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria) is another wonderful native woodland wildflower with an unusual name. This early spring-blooming plant exude a reddish-orange, blood-like sap from the roots and base of the leaves when crushed.
Bleeding hearts (Dicentra or Lamprocapnos) are wonderful perennials for the shady landscape. Flowers resemble pink, red, or white hearts with a drop of “blood” falling from the center — but no one has ever thought this plant was the least bit scary.
Finally, eyeball plants (Acmella) look scary since the flower resembles an eyeball. Technically, it is a dark-centered daisy without the showy outer petals. The scariest part of this plant is that the flower is considered edible — not tasty — but edible. It has another common name, toothache plant, as it numbs your mouth for a few minutes.
You are now forewarned about the all the plant possibilities for “Spooktacular Halloween”! Have fun!
Thanks to the author, Horticulture and Home Pest News, and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. This article originally appeared at this page on Iowa State University’s Horticulture and Home Pest News website on October 11, 2019.