From a flower which resembles a brain to a three-metre-tall plant that smells of rotting flesh, sometimes the natural world is more horrifying than any fiction. Discover this creepy collection of nature’s strangest plants.
Native to Siberia, northern China, Korea and Japan, bleeding heart gets its name from its heart shape and distinctive white tips which resemble droplets. The first specimens were introduced to the UK in the nineteenth century by botanist Robert Fortune. They bloom in springtime.
This bushy plant has dense, brain-like flowers nicknamed wool flowers or brain celosia. Despite its unsettling appearance, cockscomb has a rich history in traditional medicine and has been used to treat everything from headaches to menstrual cramps.
Cogon grass, or Japanese bloodgrass, earns its name from its blood-red spikes. A perennial plant, Japanese bloodgrass is popular with gardeners for its bold colour. But beware: though, any variety of cogon grass without the red tips is highly invasive. It is also very flammable, burning at higher temperatures than native grasses which can lead to wildfires.
Witches’ hair (Cuscata), also known by the equally spooky name of strangleweed (and the less scary dodder), is a genus of over 200 different parasitic plants. It is native to tropical climates but also appear in temperate areas – including the UK. Cuscata is often identifiable as a mass of green, brown or orange spaghetti-like substance hanging from other trees. It lacks chlorophyll so it needs to feed from other plants (not unlike a vampire) to reproduce. Even stranger, Cuscata can identify the plants around it based on smell alone.
This popular kitchen herb may be more commonly associated with sauce than sorcery, but this hasn’t always been the case. Victorian floriography – the practice of assigning codes to flowers to send messages via bouquets and arrangements, also called the language of flowers – associates basil with hatred. This link comes from the ancient Greeks who felt the plant’s leaves resembled a basilisk’s opening jaws. Maybe you’ll pause before sprinkling your friend’s pizza with this hateful herb next time…
Belladonna or deadly nightshade is an extremely toxic herb that, when eaten, causes delirium, hallucinations and eventually death. Belladonna literally translates to ‘beautiful lady’, and during the Medieval period, women used the berries’ juice to dilate their pupils to appear more attractive (do not try this!). Deadly nightshade has also been the poison of choice throughout history and literature, and its reputation led to the belief that witches could use it to fly. Belladonna belongs to the Solanaceae (nightshade) family which includes tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplants.
Wolf’s bane is the name of a genus of flowering plants in the Ranunculaceae family. Identifiable by its beautiful flowers, wolf’s bane is a fast-acting poison which can result in nausea, vomiting, paralysis, breathing and heart problems before killing you. It was used to create poison arrows in China and like Belladonna, was a popular poison in ancient Rome. Wolf’s bane got its name from when it was used to poison wolves and panthers in the eighteenth century. As fact often blurs into fiction, this use has morphed in popular culture, where it is often shown to be an effective werewolf deterrent.
The extremely hardy, poisonous hemlock is an invasive plant that can grow to heights of 2.4 metres. Its seeds and roots are especially poisonous. If being deadly was not enough to put you off, hemlock also has a repulsive smell which can be carried on the wind. In ancient Greece, hemlock was used to poison prisoners, including the philosopher Socrates.
A flowering plant native to the desert regions of Tanzania and South Africa, the carrion flower (or toad flower) earns its name from its absolutely repulsive smell. It releases a rotting-flesh odour to attract flies to pollinate it. The plant smells so terrible that scientists are working on ways to use it as a human appetite suppressant.
Arguably the cutest of the spooky entries in this list, the cobra lily or Californian pitcher plant is a carnivorous plant that grows in bogs. Its name comes from its tubular top which resembles a cobra’s hood, while its forked leaf looks like a tongue. The plant traps insects by luring them in, and once the prey is inside, light shining through the translucent hood prevents it from finding the exit. The downward-pointing hairs ensure the insect’s trip is one way.
Not to be confused with the carrion plant above, this is another plant that reeks of rotten bodies on blooming. Corpse flowers can take five to ten years to bloom for the first time and may take another two to ten years to bloom again, so smelling one is a rare experience. It has the largest unbranched inflorescence (a group of flowers on a main branch) that can reach heights of up to three metres. Bonus fact: its binomial name derives from the Greek for ‘giant, misshapen phallus’.
The most iconic of the carnivorous plants, the Venus flytrap’s uncanny, seemingly sentient nature has influenced pop culture including Pokémon, The Day of the Triffids and Little Shop of Horrors. Charles Darwin once described the plant as ‘one of the most wonderful in the world’, though it is unlikely their insect prey would agree. The plant uses sweet nectar to attract flies, then when one lands and triggers the fine hairs within the trap, the plant closes around the fly and digests its soft tissue with an enzyme.
Flowers tend to be colourful to attract pollinators, but this and the next entry lean to the dark side. The black bat flower has large black flowers which measure 30 centimetres and sprout ‘whiskers’ which reach 70 centimetres in length. It is found primarily in southeast Asia and prefers forests and valleys in shady areas.
The unusually coloured leaves of the taro plant are specifically bred for their appearence. Also known as black elephant ears, which isn’t quite as spooky, this evergreen plant can grow up to 1.8 metres tall. Black magic is fairly easy to grow, so it could be the perfect Halloween addition to your garden.
White baneberry is known as doll’s eye as the black stigmas in the white berries make it look like a cluster of eyeballs on stalks. If this banesberry’s creepy appearance wasn’t enough to ward you off, it is also poisonous to humans thanks to its immediate sedative response in muscle tissue. Birds find the berries harmless and are the main means of the plant’s dispersal.
The ghost plant gets its nickname from its unusual colouring. It completely lacks chlorophyll and does not need to photosynthesise thanks to its symbiotic relationship with fungi, where it gets its nutrition through parasitism. This gives it an ethereal glow and the ability to grow in the darkest of forests.