Garden Variety: Scary plants more delicate than they appear

October is the season for scary things, and the plant world has plenty of offerings to awaken a sense of fear in gardeners and non-gardeners alike. From the carnivorous Venus flytrap to the bat flower that is easily mistaken for an actual bat, there are plenty of scary plants from which to choose.

The Venus flytrap is probably the most well-known plant in the scary category. They are small plants, growing to about 6 inches at maturity, with a cluster of leaves at the base and short stalks with wings like a clam shell. These wings are the traps for which the plant is named. They are open most of the time, closing only when the sensitive hairs on the edges sense prey such as an ant or a fly. The traps snap shut very quickly and can only feed a handful of times before they die and are replaced by new ones.

Venus flytraps are less known for their flowers, but the plants also send up a one-foot stem (scape) with flowers that last a short time in the spring.

Venus flytraps prefer acidic soil and boggy conditions, so use the right potting soil and consider growing them in a terrarium or a steamy bathroom with a sunny window. Use distilled water or rain water as they are sensitive to additives found in tap water.

The man-eating Audrey II in the 1980’s musical Little Shop of Horrors resembles a giant Venus flytrap. In the original 1960 film, however, Audrey Jr. was a cross between a Venus flytrap and another scary plant, butterwort.

Butterwort (aka Pinguicula spp or pings) is carnivorous like the Venus flytrap but is generally more tolerant to indoor conditions. There are many species with a few variations in size and shape, but most resemble echeverias, which are trendy succulents.

Size varies among species, but all butterworts are 6 inches or less in diameter with little height. Butterwort leaves produce a sticky substance on the surface that mimics water droplets to lure insects to it. When insects land and get tangled in the sticky droplets, more of the sticky substance is produced. A few butterwort species can curl or cup their leaves to further trap struggling insects.

Grow butterwort in a south or east window. Use a lightweight potting mix and unglazed planter to keep the roots as dry as the plant desires. Growers recommend pure perlite or perlite mixed with different combinations of vermiculite, sand, rock, limestone and very little peat moss. Use distilled water or rain water for occasional watering. Butterwort also goes through a dormant period (winter or mid-summer) where it produces small succulent-like leaves and requires very little water or food.

Bat flower lives on water and nutrients from the soil like most not-so-scary plants, but it produces dark-purple to black bracts (specialized structures often confused for flower petals) that look like bat wings.

Bat flower is a larger tropical, growing to 24 to 36 inches. Grown indoors, it needs a sunny window.

Dracula (or drac) orchids are another plant that is scary only in appearance and name. For orchids, Dracula refers to a whole genus – a group of about 100 different species of closely related plants. The flowers of drac orchids have long tails on their sepals and warty structures in the center that could be thought to resemble eyes.

One Dracula orchid of particular interest is Dracula vampira, with purple blooms and extra-long sepal tails.

Dracula orchids have similar growing requirements to most other orchids. They are very beautiful and unique, but also produce a mildew smell to attract flies for pollination.

There are plenty of other scary plants, but most of them are less desirable to grow in the home or landscape. There are stinky plants like the Titan arum whose giant short-lived flower reeks of rotting flesh, extra super thorny or prickly plants, parasitic plants, and poisonous plants.

— Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation.