There are plenty of weird plants around for Halloween.
There are plenty of weird plants around for Halloween. Photo Thinkstock

The spookiest things in the plant kingdom

THIS weekend is devoted to the weird, the spooky, and the scary. So here's a quick round-up of some of the creepiest inhabitants of the plant kingdom.

We have to start with carnivorous plants. They mostly eat insects, although some of the larger ones have been known to consume frogs and small mammals. The easiest of these to grow are venus fly traps (Dionaea musipula), pitcher plants (Sarracenias), and tropical pitcher plants (Nepenthes). They have all evolved very clever ways of luring insects to their nasty traps. Once caught, the insects cannot escape and the plants secrete digestive enzymes to turn these hapless visitors into food.

I always think that strangler figs (Ficus watkinsiana) are pretty creepy, too. They are parasitic trees that grow from seeds which are dropped by animals in a fork or crevice of a host tree. The seed germinates, and roots of the new tree grow down the sides of the host. Once the roots reach the ground, they enter the soil and the strangler grows quickly, eventually killing the host.

Bat plants (Tacca chantrieri) are rainforest dwellers with lush green leaves like giant peace lilies, and extraordinary flowers that are said to resemble black bats, with large "wings'', and long whiskers. There is a white form (Tacca integrifolia). Both make fantastic potted plants in a shady spot in warm climates.

But perhaps the plant that embodies Halloween above all others is the mandrake (Mandragora officinarum). From ancient times, the mandrake has been closely associated with magic and witchcraft. It is highly toxic, has hallucinogenic properties, and was valued as a potent aphrodisiac. Mandrake has a long, brown root that is said to grow in the shape of a human. According to legend, the mandrake would emit a terrible scream and ooze blood when it was uprooted, and the person responsible for uprooting it would be struck dead. However, because of its highly desirable properties, elaborate rituals were developed to protect the harvester from the terrible danger presented by the mandrake.

Magicians and wizards in the Middle Ages used powdered mandrake root as an incense for summoning demons - this truly was a plant in league with the devil. Because it is so toxic and narcotic, it was much prized in medieval witchcraft and sorcery.

Mandrake is certainly not a common plant. I've never seen one growing, and I really wouldn't recommend it.

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