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27 Oct 2023

8 petrifying plants for Halloween

A huge variety of shrubs, trees and other plants can offer some gothic Halloween inspiration. Here are eight plants audited by the PLANTS project within the National Trust for Scotland’s gardens. Some poisonous, some spooky, some just ghoulish, but all with fascinating stories.

Doll’s Eye or White Baneberry
(Actaea pachypoda)

Doll’s eye | Image by Kerrie W/Shutterstock

If you get the feeling you are being watched in the garden, then beware – you could well be, by a spike of doll’s eyes. Actaea pachypoda is an herbaceous perennial in the buttercup family from the woodlands of eastern North America. Its common name, doll’s eyes, is due to its white berries with a black mark (stigma scar) which resemble small eyes.

It begins the season innocuously, an attractive plant with divided leaves and delicate white flowers, not revealing its sinister side until the fruits develop. As the eyeballs grow, the stalks holding them take on a blood-red hue and thicken, so the eye appears to pop out of the socket to get a better look at you.

The doll’s eyes are arranged around the stem so they can see you everywhere – there is nowhere to hide. If you are feeling brave, you can attempt to stare down this plant at various Trust gardens, including the new tennis court borders at Geilston.

Don’t be tempted to taste a doll’s eye as they are poisonous to humans (perfectly safe for birds though, who help to disperse the seeds in their native habitat).

Fran, West Inventory Officer

Devil’s Walking Stick
(Aralia spinosa)

Devil’s walking stick | Image by Ewa Saks/Shutterstock

While Aralia spinosa doesn’t have any direct cultural or historical ties to Halloween, it’s easy to see how it has earned its place in the realm of scary plants. Indeed, the most prominent characteristic of this plant is its numerous, sharp, and particularly long thorns that cover most of its stems.

The long thorns are said to be an evolutionary development against herbivores, such as mammoth, that used to roam over the eastern North American coast, the native range of this plant. The menacing look of Aralia spinosa was also appreciated by the Victorians who, notorious for their love of bizarre and eerie-looking things, used it in their gardens as a grotesque ornamental.

Devil’s walking stick can be observed in some of our Trust properties, including the south walled garden at Culzean, where it has formed a dense thicket .

Created for the devil or not, this plant can certainly add a natural spookiness to a landscape.

Lucrezia, West Inventory Officer

Enchanter’s Nightshade
(Circaea lutetiana)

Enchanter’s nightshade | Image by weha/Shutterstock

The generic name enchanter’s nightshade celebrates the Greek enchantress Circe, renowned for her knowledge of herbs and potions. The specific epithet refers to Lutetia, the Latin name for Paris which was known as ‘Witch City’.

Unlike other nightshades (e.g. deadly, woody) it is not in the family Solanaceae but in Onagraceae. It therefore does not share the same alkaloids and is not known to be toxic. It does however contain an impressive array of chemicals which have anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and anticancer properties. In traditional Chinese medicine, it is used for colic, dysuria and dysmenorrhea. It has been used as a cosmetic lotion, and in Highland Scotland it was thought to be an aphrodisiac!

Circaea lutetiana is a pseudo-annual (ie a clonal) plant surviving the winter only as seeds and hibernacles. Hibernacles are specialised overwintering buds produced by the rhizome apices. The plant is native to Europe, middle Asia and Siberia. It grows in woodland and can tolerate heavy shade. Occurring in several Trust gardens, enchanter’s nightshade is regarded as a troublesome weed.

Alistair, East Team Manager

Dead Man’s Finger
(Decaisnea fargesii)

Dead man’s finger | Image by guentermanau/Shutterstock

This Halloween, venture into the gardens at Crathes or Branklyn to uncover a spine-chilling surprise: the Decaisnea fargesii, a frost-resistant shrub with a macabre secret, hence its common name, dead man’s finger.

Originally native to China, Nepal and Bhutan, the blue-fruited form Decaisnea fargesii was first collected around 1895 in China by Paul Guillaume Farges, a French botanist and plant collector. Seeds were sent to Paris and then to Kew in 1897. The plants flowered at Kew in 1901. Botanists used to recognize two species of Decaisnea: D. insignis with yellow-green pods and D. fargesii with blue pods. Genetically they are nearly identical – the main difference being the colour of their pods, and not enough to consider them as separate species. The two populations have therefore been combined under the polymorphic D. insignis. However, there is still some debate over the nomenclature and many gardens and nurseries still label the blue-fruited form as Decaisnea fargesii.

Nonetheless, its greenish-yellow blossoms serve as a prelude to the real showstopper: 7–12cm eerie, metallic blue bean pods which ripen just in time for Halloween. Should you dare to open one of these pods, covered in a skin resembling human flesh, you’ll reveal a translucent, gelatinous pulp filled with small black seeds. Each female flower gives rise to a cluster of three of these fruits, an uncommon sight in the plant kingdom. Despite their sinister appearance, the fruits are edible and possess a delicate sweetness reminiscent of watermelon.

Charlotte, East Inventory Officer and Valeria, North Inventory Officer

Japanese Rowan
(Sorbus commixta ‘Ravensbill’)

Whether you get your gothic via weekend festivals, computer games, vampire stories or Game of Thrones, your scene is incomplete without a raven, long associated with other-worldly forces, whether because of their unearthly sound, their intelligent, wily ways or their fondness for carrion.

The distinctive shape of the raven’s bill is found in the winter buds of the Sorbus commixta ‘Ravensbill’. The buds are blue-black and curved like a raven’s bill, until they break in spring to allow dark green pinnate leaves to appear, soon followed by delicate white flowers.

You can find this relatively small tree at Crathes, close by the path between the shop and castle. Our team got a good look at the buds last winter, when we were checking the sorbus species in that area. The buds are very distinctive, so if you do go down to the woods tonight…

Philippa, North Team Manager

‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’
(Eryngium giganteum)

‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’ | Image by pr2is/Shutterstock

Are there ghosts in the gardens? Possibly! ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’ has been spotted in the walled garden at Castle Fraser. Whereas at Leith Hall, ‘Silver Ghost’ (possibly another form of Eryngium giganteum) has been previously spied!

The cultivar names of this genus hint at its unusual colouration. Pale metallic silvery-blue ruffs surround a conical seed head bleaching colour towards All Hallows’ Eve. Looking striking at dusk and under moonlight with a spiky skeletal structure throughout the haunting autumnal evenings. Eryngium giganteum clings on throughout the frosty icy months hoping to survive another year or producing seed for future apparitions, as they are biennial or short-lived perennials.

Niki, North Inventory Officer

Purple Toothwort
(Lathraea clandestine)

Purple toothwort | Image by Svetlanko/Shutterstock

The mauve flower of the purple toothwort ticks many of the Halloween boxes. Parasitic? Yep. Oversized? Yep. Creepy looking? Certainly. Horticulturist Robert Gathorne-Hardy described the flowers of L. squamaria (the native relative of purple toothwort) as being ‘all the colour of raw meat’.

Toothwort’s scientific name, Lathraea, comes from the Greek word ‘lathraios’, or hidden; the specific epithet clandestina meaning kept-secret or surreptitious, refers to the fact that for nine or ten months of the year the plant almost entirely grows underground, only revealing its flowering shoots in February and retreating again in May after setting seed. Found in woodlands, this plant doesn’t have chlorophyll to help give it substance, so steals its energy (water, carbon and nutrients) from other plants. The suckers on its roots allow it to feed from trees including hazel, elm, beech and lime. It was found thriving in the roots of a willow (Salix) in Threave Garden, near Castle Douglas. It arrived from Europe to Kew in 1888, and was first reported in the wild in 1908 at Coe Fen (Cambridgeshire), where it still thrives.

Colin, Project Manager

Witch’s Broom
(Taphrina betulina)

Witch’s broom | Image by Ingrid Maasik/Shutterstock

As moonlight breaks through the clouds, you may glance upwards through the branches of a tree and think you see the fleeting movement of a broom grasped by the bony fingers of a witch. But look closer, if you dare, and you will realise that the broom is actually a growing part of the tree. This abnormal growth of shoots can occur on woody plants and is mostly caused by fungi, although other pathogens or damage may also be the cause. Birch trees are a common host, but they can also be seen on cherry and other Prunus species, hornbeams and some conifers. Best seen in winter, brooms are often mistaken for birds’ nests and can remain on a tree indefinitely, sometimes growing to a large size.

Brooms on birch trees are caused by the fungus Taphrina betulina. The Taphrina genus also includes fungi that can cause the growth of galls and leaf-curl, including the common peach leaf curl. Cherry trees can have both brooms and galls caused by Taphrina wiesneri.

Witch’s brooms can be seen in many of the gardens that the PLANTS project has visited, including a downy birch, Betula pubescens, at Arduaine, a cherry, Prunus avium ‘Plena’, at Greenbank and Betula at the Hill House.

Jennifer, West Team Manager

Plant Listing at the National Trust for Scotland (PLANTS) is the biggest horticultural audit project undertaken by the Trust and aims to celebrate, protect and better understand the flora and vegetation across our gardens and designed landscapes.

Read more about the PLANTS project