Archive for Thursday, October 26, 2006

Plant world offers spooky spectrum

October 26, 2006


There's a chill in the air, and it's not just from the dropping temperatures. Frightful scenes are creeping up all over town: Bony skeletal arms are reaching up out of the earth, 12-eyed spiders are dangling from limbs, and the cackles from covens of witches are echoing throughout neighborhoods.

Halloween is quickly approaching, and with it a morbidly good time should ensue. But the ghoulish good times are not for mankind alone. The plant world can be a spooky spectrum of disgusting, fascinating and sinister behavior as well. With names like Corpse Flower, Satan's Apple, Death Lily and Dead Man's Bells, the underground, seedy world of flora has deep roots in the occult.

You might think the particular aroma of rotting flesh is earmarked for that purpose alone. After all, what possible asset could that thorough bouquet have other than a warning in warding off others to a possible morbid scene? Well, how wrong you are. This odor is actually used in the plant world to attract the finicky pollinators known as flies. A species of flora in the Arum family wafts an S.O.S to flies, beckoning them to visit their incredible bloom. The singular flower can reach up to 10 feet (the Titan variety) in height, and the flower is only unfurled for a 24-48 hour period. The Arum is coined the "Corpse Flower."

Jack Landgrebe, a Douglas County Master Gardener, says this of his Dragon Arum variety, "It is a bulb that produces a large flower in the late spring or early summer. The center spadix is very shiny and dark purple, almost black, and for about 24 hours after the bloom opens, it emits a very strong odor of 'rotting flesh.' Within several feet of this plant, in the beginning of the blooming cycle and downwind, the smell is almost unbearable."

Scott Wisdom, a sales associate at Sunrise Garden Center, has the Arum Italicum. He says of the large bloom that it has its Dr. Jekyll side and is gorgeous to behold.

But then comes Mr. Hyde.

"This repulsive odor of something that has died happens. Of course, I strategically place this plant by my front porch, not just because of the flower but the evergreen foliage and the bright orange berries that develop on the stem throughout the summer."

Solicitors, beware when treading near Wisdom's house.

Meat: It's not just for mammals anymore

Carnivorous plants have turned the tables and are striking back. Could you imagine feeding Fido in the morning and then tearing a little raw meat off for your hungry houseplants? No need to imagine - carnivorous plants are alive and well, gobbling up live little critters that get trapped in their ravenous web. Alan Branhagen, horticulture director of Powell Gardens, enlightened me on the following hungry flora:

¢ Pitcher Plants or Saracenia are gorgeous, blooming flowers with long, umbilical-cord-looking tendrils that suck up live insects and send them down their long, narrow tube.

¢ Sundews or drosera plants enjoy raw meat when domesticated but in the wild will catch their prey using sticky hairs that wrap around unsuspecting visitors and engulf them in digestive liquids, sounds slow and painful.

¢ Venus' flytrap plants have clawlike hands that imprison anything moving that lands on them. Even a rock or leaf that falls will be spit out after closer inspection. Live bugs will be devoured over a weeklong period, and then the exoskeleton will merely blow away.

¢ Pinguicula plants grow in a rosette shape like succulents, with pretty lilac-colored blooms that are similar to violets, but insects that sneak a peek at the blooms get caught on the sticky leaves and are gobbled up.

¢ Lastly in our carnivorous category is the nepenthes plant, which can grow to the size of a basketball and is capable of eating amphibians like frogs. It has a slippery rim and deep, cavernous cup that : well, one misstep and that frog is as good as gone.

Feasting on the dead

In this world of horticulture, even the dead are feasting. Saprophytes plants no longer have chlorophyll, so they are always ghostly looking. They are parasitic plants that dine on the dead and decaying. There are more than 3,000 species of these nonphotosynthetic flowering plants. They often resemble a fleshy white fungus and might have scaly stems. Branhagen pointed out the three following examples of these ethereal species: Indian pipes are plants with white stems and blooms and are actually in the blueberry family. Pinesap smells strongly of cinnamon but is pale and feeds off of decaying matter. Finally, the coralroot orchids are quite pretty, with maroon stalks and yellow, albino blooms. They tend to grow in clusters, rising from the earth off the death of another.

Buffet of bereavement

There are a slew of unsavory plants that don't fit into any given category; they are just shrouded in myth, veiled in the darkest of hues or present in most witches' caldrons.

¢ Mandrake - Otherwise known as "Satan's Apple," it has a root shape that is reminiscent of a male figure. It has been used for odd, voodoo-type rituals for centuries. Legend says if you pull the root from the ground, you'll hear it shrieking. Herbalists used it for an aphrodisiac; witches used it as a narcotic for its hallucinogenic properties.

¢ Foxgloves - Often known as Witches thimbles or Dead Man's Bells. These plants are poisonous, and in medieval Italy they were used for "trial by ordeal." Basically, suspects were fed Foxgloves, and if they lived, then clearly they were guilty and had to be killed. If they perished then they were innocent but dead. Some judgment!

¢ Monkshood - An archetypal plant of the occult, in fact the ancient Greeks believed it grew from the spittle of the hellhound Cerberus. Witches brew monkshood with other plants to "contact the other side." It contains a deadly poison that slows the heart rate, decreases blood pressure and numbs pain.

¢ Yarrow - Has a bad reputation, having been called "The Devil's Plaything" and the "Devil's Nettle." Witches throw Yarrow into many brews.

¢ Poppies - Have been known to be the flowers of dreadful omens. It is an old superstition that staring into the center of a poppy might make you go blind.

In all seriousness, go ahead and plant the "Superstition" black iris, or the "Bela Lugosi" daylily. Or try sowing the Death Lily or making room for the helleborus niger. A little intrigue in the garden and a walk on the dark side might just be what keeps your outside oasis of constant interest, for with each beautiful bloom there is a story, a legend or a screaming voodoo man echoing through the hills.

- Jennifer Oldridge, a Kansas University graduate, is an avid gardener who previously operated a landscaping business.


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