Scary Plants: Part II

What we do with them and to them…

Steinberg Garden hand Montreal PPA 7-18-06 crop 2

By Debra Knapke

While some plants have scary attributes and uses (see Michael’s post on Scary Plants from October 15th) we often add to the scariness of plants by how we use and abuse them.

Sometimes plants are the backdrop for a scary moment. While on a garden tour at an artist’s home I turned a corner and saw this chilling vignette. You know the feeling: your heart stops for a moment – then you realize it isn’t real… or is it?

But the scariest moments are when I see plants that we have massacred Freddy Krueger style a la the endless Nightmare on Elm Street series.

Below is a variegated English oak that is in my garden. I made the initial mistake of planting it too close to overhead wires. As a result of assuming what I was told was true (this tree only will grow to 15’ tall, max!), it became one of the casualties of a line clearance crew. One day, I came home to see the dreaded blue dot on the trunk. If I had had warning, I would have called in my arborist, but the crew came the next day. After briefly mourning the loss of my tree, I asked the crew to cut down the tree. It is now sprouting from the stump, and I have a variegated English oak shrub.

topped English oak 4-14-15

A topped variegated English oak

Why is poor pruning scary? It stresses a plant, and this increases the probability that insects and disease will be able to get past a plant’s defense mechanisms. A very real consequence of poor pruning is the creation of a “hazard” tree. In some cases, the structure of poorly pruned tree is so compromised that the first windstorm will tear it apart. No one wants to see a large limb fall on a car or a person!

Exhibit B: the pruning of a line of honey locusts at a shopping center in Columbus, Ohio.

Improper pruning

Improper pruning

A close-up look shows us what should never happen to a tree: stub cuts, shredded wood and bark, and topping. I took these pictures in 2003. None of these trees survived.

Kroger frayed stub

Close up of improper pruning

While walking in Cincinnati on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I documented what happens when a homeowner plants a “shrub” that grows 35-40’ tall and wide in its native habitat.  Yews (Taxus species and hybrids) have long been pruned into shape by gardeners who wish to screen or decorate with plants.  In this case, the yews outgrew their space, and the only option was to remove most of their understories. Too bad the stub cuts were left behind.

taxus Cincy 5-1-15 resize

This shouldn’t happen to a yew!

One last picture of scary pruning, this time in my neighbor’s yard: line clearance done without proper clean-up. Lower branches, which had been supported by the branches that had been removed to clear the line, were hanging over the lower wires. Look at the wires just left of the blue spruce. I can only think that this was the last job of the day and last job in our subdivision as there were no trucks to be seen in the neighborhood. After a call to the electric company, the line clearance company sent in a crew to finish what they had started.

Do not stand under this accident waiting to happen; this is a “widow-maker” tree.

Do not stand under this accident waiting to happen; this is a “widow-maker” tree.

So on this Halloween, and all through the year, be on the look-out for scary plants; whimsical and real.

For your viewing pleasure only: an inspired cactus chair and ottoman at the Franklin Park Conservatory in 2008.

For your viewing pleasure only: an inspired cactus chair and ottoman at the Franklin Park Conservatory in 2008.



Scary Plants

IMG_6689 swamp resize  (2)Needles, poisons and creepy shapes make some plants scary

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. 20151013_130054

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.Virginia creeper Poison ivy

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.IMG_7968

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.Spanish moss Middleton Place 9-14-11

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.signs-2002-shyamalan

Gardens to Drive: Scary Plants

IMG_3804Boo! Scary Plants for Your Garden

By Teresa Woodard

I love a good scare – a scary movie, a haunted house and even an occasional hide-behind-the-door prank.  IMG_3789So, I was captivated by the Franklin Park Conservatory’s timely “Scary Plants” exhibit which turned out to be a virtual fun house of horticultural horrors!

Two flesh-eating favorites starred in the carnivorous plants display.  The American pitcher plant (Sarracenia) lures prey inside its trumpet-shaped leaves with an intoxicating nectar.

IMG_3805The Venus fly trap (Dionaea muscipula) tricks insects with its open trap that snaps shut when insects unknowingly touch trigger hairs that signal the trap.

Equally scary, another group of vicious plants are famed for their spikes and hidden poisons.  Don’t be fooled by Daturas’ beautiful blooms – the plants contain highly poisonous tropane alkaloids that can cause hallucinations and even death.  Castor bean plants (Ricinus communis) may be fun to grow for their colorful foliage and interesting seed pods, but the plant contains ricin, a deadly toxin. Even the beloved Ohio buckeye (Aesculus glabra) produces nuts that contain poisonous tannic acid.

On the prickly side, be sure to sidestep any honey locust trees and their wicked thorns.  A neighbor boy was hiking in a nearby preserve with our kids and stumbled upon a thorn which punctured his knee. Ouch!  Prickly pear (Opuntia polycantha ‘Bronze’) and porcupine tomato (Solanum pyracanthum) are two other don’t-touch plants.

A final group of plants are more bizarre than scary.  Check out gray-haired ‘Old Man’ cactus (Cephalocereus senilis) and pumpkin-on-a-stick (Solanum aethiopicum) which is a relative to tomatoes and eggplants. IMG_3826 IMG_3823

If I haven’t scared you away, visit Franklin Park Conservatory to learn more about these botanical wonders.  The ‘Scary Plants’ exhibit runs through Nov. 9.  Other ghoulish garden events include the Haunted Conservatory (Oct. 30) at Garfield Park Conservatory in Indianapolis, the Creepy Crawl (Oct. 31)at Missouri Botanical Gardens in St. Louis, and the Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular (through Nov. 9) at Iroquois Park in Louisville.


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