For Halloween, the creepy side of plants

Friday, October 21, 2016

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

As published in the Miami Herald, OCTOBER 20, 2016 7:41 PM

Plants are incorporated into just about every holiday and occasion you can imagine. They are used to court, celebrate, mourn, console and congratulate. It’s time now to use them to frighten. Halloween plants can set the mood in your very own haunted mansion or creepy graveyard.


Skulls are easily altered to accommodate plants. Don’t forget the drainage holes. Kenneth Setzer Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

Plants suited for a Halloween vibe include many with purple, black and orange foliage or flowers, though foliage obviously lasts longer. Plants that are sold as black aren’t truly so, but more like a dark purple or brown.

Since your frightening foliage displays may not be around much past Halloween, choose plants that are inexpensive and easy to find. These aren’t necessarily plants you will install in your garden for the long term, though some can be incorporated into your permanent landscape like Crinum ‘Menehune’ with its long, strappy, brown-black leaves or Colocasia esculenta ‘Black Beauty’ elephant ears of dull purple-black with striking, almost lurid green veins to contrast.

Orange foliage can be found in the common crotons used in South Florida landscaping. The leaves go from green to pumpkin orange and flame red and look almost like reaching tendrils. Purchase small, young examples for use in decorations, then keep them for use in the yard or pots.

The ubiquitous “ti” plants (Cordylinespecies) can be found in a common red variety that approximates wine — or rather blood — red. Start with small versions of these as well, and continue them in the yard. Then there’s Cordyline fruticosa‘Black Magic,’ which gets closer to the black of a witch’s cauldron with faint red streaks.

I picked out the very common Persian shield (Strobilanthes dyerianus) for its deep, almost metallic purple. It’s very rich and dark, likes warmth and humidity and just reminds me of a haunted house plant. To offset the darkness, I am including chrysanthemums for the shock of orange-red that Halloween requires. It’s a short-lived plant and does not like wet feet, so plant it in a deep pot of well-draining soil. There are hundreds of varieties to choose from.

Now: where to put them? They work well as centerpieces or outside the front door. But not just any planter will do. If you have any Victorian cast iron or carved stone urns sitting around, they can look nice and creepy.

Otherwise, skulls! Loads of ceramic skull planters are available online, but even easier is to buy hollow plastic skulls that are everywhere in October (and dirt cheap after the 31st) and cut off the top of the cranium. They are very thin and easily cut with a saw or electric cutting tool. Plus it’s fun to place them out where the neighbors can see.

Drill drainage holes in the bottom of your skulls, then fill with potting soil and plant away. Some I’ve seen even include small plants like succulents growing out of the eye sockets.

Another option: if you find a Mammillaria elongata ‘Cristata’ brain cactus, plant your own botanical brain right into a skull. It’s a fasciated plant with pads flattened into brain-like folds and ridges. Another fasciated beauty to try is cockscomb Celosia, known as Celosia ‘cristata’ ‘Amigo Mahogany red.’ Some dark begonias that include deep greens, reds, and purples in the foliage also work well, while some Coleus are a stunning velvet-red reminiscent of the lining of Dracula’s cape.

If you are super ambitious, include AmorphophallusStapelia or Huernia. Their fetid flowers are often a ghastly maroon, and smell, let us just say, much like zombies.

Kenneth Setzer is writer and editor at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.

Beautiful backlighting on the red ti plant, Cordyline fruticosa.
Beautiful backlighting on the red ti plant, Cordyline fruticosa. Kenneth Setzer Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

The common croton can provide nice colors for fall and Halloween.

The common croton can provide nice colors for fall and Halloween. Kenneth Setzer Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

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