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Archive for Thursday, October 24, 2013

Garden Calendar: Nature’s scariest plants

October 24, 2013

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The nightshade

The nightshade

Venus flytrap

Venus flytrap

The devil flower

The devil flower

When gardeners talk about witches’ brooms, devil’s claws and deadly nightshade, the conversation probably has little to do with folklore or fall holidays. Some of these plants really can cultivate nightmares, however. Here is a look at some of nature’s scariest plants.

Deadly nightshade, Atropa belladonna, almost always ranks at the top of scary plant lists.

The plant looks friendly enough with herbaceous stems and deep-green leaves, producing purplish-black berries that are just a bit smaller than blueberries and nearly as enticing. These pretty little berries (and all parts of the plant) contain toxic alkaloids that cause fever, hallucinations and even death if ingested.

Deadly nightshade was used as a weapon in medieval wars and in early medicine as an anesthetic (sleeping potion). The plant has been cultivated since at least the 16th century and its native range is Europe, Asia, and northern Africa. Better-known and friendlier relatives include potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and petunias.

Carnivorous plants (more than 600 species) earned their fame in “Little Shop of Horrors,” but they are generally more diminutive. Venus fly traps, pitcher plants, and other species lure insects and arthropods to them, then use various trapping mechanisms to hold and consume their catch. Almost all carnivorous plants are native to tropics or bogs, but some can be kept as houseplants. In that case, you may have to feed it.

Ghost plant, Monotropa uniflora, lacks poison and insect-catching abilities, but it is creepy if you ever find it in the wild. Ghost plant is completely white and when it makes a rare appearance it is usually in the depths of a forest.

The plant is a parasite, so it can get nutrients without chlorophyll or sunlight. It is also sometimes called corpse plant as the stems are thought to resemble the curling fingers of a corpse sticking up out of the ground. Occasionally it appears with a blood-red tint to the stems. Ghost plant does grow in North America but requires a unique combination of tree species and certain mycorrhizal fungi.

Devil’s claw, Proboscidea louisianica, is more bark than bite. The plant’s name refers to the appearance of its seed pod, which narrows and curls on one end like a claw. As the pod dries, the “claw” becomes especially suited to latching on to the legs and feet of passing animals in hopes of being carried to new locations. Besides the creepiness of the latching seeds, the only really scary thing about this plant is its invasiveness in some parts of the country. Devil’s claw is also sometimes called ram’s horn.

Bat flower, cat’s whiskers and devil flower all refer to the same plant, Tacca chantrieri. It is named for its large black flowers that resemble bat wings. Blossoms can be up to 12 inches across and produce long reproductive structures from the center that look like whiskers. Bat flower is an unusual tropical that is native to China and really only scary to people who fear bats.

— Jennifer Smith is the former Horticulture Extension Agent for K-State Research and Extension in Douglas County. Extension Master Gardeners can help with your gardening questions at 843-7058 or mastergardener@douglas-county.com.

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