By Michael Leach
My earliest memories of plants are a mixture of mostly delight and a modicum of dread. Fragrant flowers, tasty vegetables and juicy windfall apples were early favorites and remain so.
My first exposure to cactus also left a lasting impression — stickers in a tiny, curious fingertip. I instantly learned to exercise considerable caution when approaching plants armed with prickles, thorns and bristles.
As language skills increased a vocabulary of dangerous flora was introduced. Poison ivy and poison oak are obviously plants to give an even wider berth than that cute, little potted cactus. Others have scary sounding names: deadnettle, Virginia creeper and Miss Wilmott’s ghost, to cite a few.
Sometimes perfectly innocent plants assume sinister attributes. Even at noon a creepy twilight fills ancient cypress swamps. The upthrusting “knees” conjure thoughts of deformed hands of zombies. Their gnarled fingers reaching up to seize an unsuspecting ankle and pull the victim into the inky water like an alligator grabbing prey.
Winsome sugar maples and apple trees may also menace without intending to. Skeletal shadows of branches silently clawing on a bedroom wall or softly tapping on the window in a storm are standard props in Grade-B Hollywood horror movies. The branches of a big apple and old maples occasionally haunted my childhood bedroom, too.
Live oaks strung with long strands of the tattered lace of Spanish moss and glossy green Southern magnolia are two favorite trees, but even these have their dark side (literally). An old cemetery in Fernandina Beach, FL has stones and monuments that wear a faint patina of orangish lichen, as I recall. Unforgettable is the disquieting effect this has in the malevolent shade of a giant live oak and equally massive Southern magnolia. The hairs on the back of my neck almost rose, despite the sunny-bright spring day awaiting beyond the gloom.
And consider corn. For those who find it difficult to navigate up and down rows in an autumn maze, the sight of towering corn plants becomes a source of frustration. Should the way out remain elusive, those stalks may inspire anger. For me, the corn maze, indeed corn fields in general, are places I shun. After seeing the movie Signs, I stay well away from corn fields lest the slithery fingers of greenish aliens snatch and drag me off to their silvery saucer.