Ask the Master Gardener: It’s alive! Raise the spirit of Halloween with plants

By: Laurie Meyerpeter Placer County Master Gardener
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Question: I’m a Halloween freak. It’s my favorite holiday. Do you have any weird plant suggestions that would help create a surreal atmosphere? Answer: A personal favorite is the Corpse Lily, (Dracunculus vulgaris), aka Stinking Corpse Lily, Dragon Arum, or Voodoo Lily. The flower is like a blood-covered grotto sheltering a black spike. The rank scent smells strongly of dead flesh and it’s pollinated by flies. Unfortunately, it’s dormant this time of year but just its presence in the garden is macabre. There are many plants with black foliage. Some that you can probably locate in nurseries this time of year include Black Mondo Grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’), Black Scallop Ajuga (Ajuga reptans ‘Black Scallop’), ‘Blackie’ Ornamental Sweet Potato Vine (Ipomea batatas ‘Blackie’), Obsidean Heuchera (Heuchera ‘Obsidian’) and Black Elephant Ears (Colocasia escultenta ‘Black Magic’). There are many more black plants; in fact the plants listed above have different cultivars that are also black. Not all are frost hardy, so check with the nursery if you plan on extending the Halloween ambiance beyond October. Combine black plants with those dusky orange pumpkins available from stands for a haunting look. Some plants have intriguing names that conjure up spooky Halloween images. For example, there is a “Ghost” series of Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) that includes ‘Purple Ghost,’ ‘Sister Ghost,’ ‘Uncle Ghost,’ ‘Grandma Ghost’ and ‘Amber Ghost.’ These have a skeletal variegation pattern on the leaves. Other scary Japanese maples include ‘Bloodgood,’ ‘Red Spider’ and ‘Moonfire.’ Japanese maples have good fall color around your favorite holiday. Of course, many other plants also have frightening names as well. So if it sounds scary and provides the proper dark ambiance, go for it! You might want to cultivate a garden of carnivorous plants. The Venus Fly Trap is well known, but there are many others. My favorites are the Cobra Lilies or Pitcher Plants with their weird elongated tubular shape that lures insects into the deadly depths. There is even a native Cobra Lily, Darlingtonia californica. They are not particularly hard to grow; I grow mine in a terrarium on a partly sunny windowsill. Traditional seasonal plants include rustic grasses, plants with fall berries and plants with colorful autumn leaves. Also fun are plants with large scary thorns. But these definitely should be used with caution to avoid hurting Halloween guests. Have fun gardening and best wishes on your favorite holiday! Have gardening questions? Call the Master Gardener hotline at (530) 889-7388.