Archive for Sunday, October 31, 1999


October 31, 1999


Japanese blood grass, the corpse flower and ghost weed bring the spirit world down to earth.

The scariest night of the year is upon us. On Halloween, we willingly seek out things that go bump in the night, we actually revel in being "haunted" and we playfully cavort with witches, goblins and ghosts. On this one evening we welcome the creepiest characters clutching plastic pumpkins or pillowcases who come begging at our door for a sweet handout. Of course, the night is all in fun.

Gardeners can have fun too, especially those who plan ahead to create a frightfully beautiful garden. "Witches," "toads," "ghosts" and "bats" haunt the Halloween garden. Beware, too, of the carnivorous ones, the zombies and the Dracula plants. So, put on your mask, take a deep breath and join me on a tour of the Halloween garden.

Consider first, the Trick-or-Treat pansies. Unlike other pansies that bloom in the cool of spring, the Hiemalis varieties of pansies produce delightful flowers in the late autumn, sometimes lasting through the winter. The blooms of the Trick-or-Treat pansy arrive in time to party with Halloween guests. The "faces" are a mixture of bright orange with dark centers or dark "faces" with small spots of orange. They have long stalked, rounded and bluntly toothed leaves.

Other fall blooming Hiemalis pansies come in shades of yellow, red, blue, mauve, purple and white. The seeds for these plants can be sowed in spring in full sun or partial shade. They prefer moist fertile soil that is well-drained. The plants grow 8 to 8 inches.

If you want to get really creative with Trick-or-Treat pansies, plant them in a pumpkin shell. That's right, a pumpkin shell. Scoop out the seeds of a small, lightweight pumpkin, fill it with potting soil and place three or four pansies in it. Water well and pour off any excess water. You can even carve a "bow tie" low on the side of the pumpkin to serve as drainage holes. The entire pumpkin can be used as a table decoration for a Halloween party.

Toads and ghosts

You won't get warts from touching the toad lily plant, but you will get plenty of miniature orchid-like flowers that bloom along the entire length of the arching branches of the plant. They arrive just in time for this late autumn holiday.

The flowers are usually spotted; some in a finely misted pattern, others more deeply speckled. The woody stemmed plant loves the shade and grows to a height of about 2 feet with a matching spread. Even though its flowers don't arrive until late autumn, the graceful branches of this plant make it a lovely addition to the garden throughout the season. If you want an easy-to-care-for late blooming plant, one toad lily probably won't be enough.

Another aptly named plant for the Halloween garden is the ghost weed, and it is spooky. This Euphorbia actually blooms in late summer or early autumn. Its leaves start out green at the bottom of the plant and become marked with white as they reach the top. The resulting variegation is striking, much like a sheet over the top of the plant. In the fall, the leaves turn red.

But, beware of the ghost plant! Just as you wouldn't want to get too close to other ghosts, you are well-advised to exercise the same precaution around the ghost weed. The sap will cause skin irritation on contact. All parts of the plant will cause severe discomfort if ingested. So, you may look, but do not touch and definitely do not eat any "ghosts."

Thirst for 'blood'

I suppose it wouldn't be Halloween unless we saw "blood." It drips from rubber masks fitted with fake daggers, creating a macabre scene. Fortunately, the blood in the garden is less gruesome.

Many gardeners are familiar with dragon's blood sedum. This handsome succulent has green leaves that change to a purple tint as they age. The deep pink flowers are noticeable atop the stems, making a fine specimen for color in the late autumn garden.

If that doesn't satisfy your need for "blood," don't forget about Japanese blood grass. The sunnier the location the more vibrant red the grass becomes. The spikes of grass grow to 18 inches and should be placed in a well-drained area. Also, with good planning you can plant the grass in an area where the sun is behind it. You multiply its scare factor by really being able to show off its brilliant red color.

Stiff but not dead

Commonly seen fall flowers are asters. About 250 species exist as annuals, perennials, biennials and subshrubs. Their daisy-like flowers come in a variety of colors including pink, white, blue or purple. The plants are comfortable in a moist woodland setting, but different varieties make them at home in rock gardens, wildflower gardens and dry sites. They perform well in sun or partial shade.

One aster, aptly named Stiff aster, is fun for the Halloween garden. It forms clumps, and violet flowerheads are borne atop wiry, hairy stems with stiff dark green leaves.

Aster may be too delicate, too small for those who truly care about haunting. For something on a larger scale, plant a witch hazel tree. Depending on the variety, height may vary from 6 to 15 feet. Some witch hazel plants resemble a bush more than a tree.

Typically, these plants are not grown for their fright factor. Rather, they have brilliant fall leaf color followed by spider-shaped flowers late into autumn and winter. The flowers are highly fragrant and may be red, orange or yellow. Some varieties produce flowers early in the autumn while the leaves are still on the trees. Others put out flowers late in winter, long after all the leaves have fallen.

Haunted houses?

The Halloween garden can flourish inside as well as outside. If you prefer to bring the scary garden into the house, cultivate a Venus flytrap plant. This insectivorous plant attracts insects with its nectar. The unusual plant has sensitive hairs at the center of its leaf lobes. Touching the hairs triggers a hinge mechanism along the leaf, which closes it. Stiff spines on the outer edges of the leaves trap insects inside.

It wouldn't be Halloween without a Dracula. No, not the vampire. Rather, this plant is a lovely orchid with spotted flowers of maroon on yellow.

Then, again, if you are not into lovely, especially for Halloween, try the Dracunculus plant. The tuber produces dark green leaves and large unpleasant smelling flowers. Now that stinks.

But not nearly as much as the famed Amorphophallus titanum or corpse flower. The plant was coaxed into bloom not long ago at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Calif. The foul-smelling bloom rose more than 5 1/2 feet. All things considered, I guess this plant would be the scariest of them all.

While it's too late to plant a Halloween garden for this year, there's always next year. In the meantime, I guess you'll have to enjoy the spooks at the front door.

-- Carol Boncella is education coordinator at Lawrence Memorial Hospital. You can reach her at

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