October: Dracula, brains and eye balls. Yes, this is garden column but I can’t seem to resist the spooky theme this year.
There is a Dracula rose, which is stunning with its black and red petals, and a Dracula orchid, often called monkey’s face or little dragon monkey. Some might argue the orchid blooms are sweet with their resemblance of little animals; I think they are a bit creepy. Because of two long sepals — or petal-like leaves at the base of the bloom and what appear to be eyes inside the bloom — they look just like little monkey faces hanging on the stems staring back at you. Creepy.
Doll eyes, or white baneberry, are native to the East Coast, often found in wet but well-drained forest areas with light or deep shade. Before we go any further, know that all parts of this plant are poisonous to humans, so be mindful if children are in your garden. Something I learned in my research, “bane” — as in baneberry — refers to a killer or slayer, and is used in the names of toxic plants.
Bet you are wondering why it’s called doll eyes. The plant has pink stalks and produces white berries. These berries have a black spot, or “pupil,” making them look like eyeballs. The berries form in summer and stay through late fall. The plant is about two feet tall and can be two feet wide. Birds will eat the berries, and then who knows where you’ll have doll eyes popping up and looking at you!
During my recent visit to the Huntington Museum of Art’s conservatory, I had a chance to get up close with other “spooky” plants. There I saw a sensitive plant, sometimes called the bashful plant. That name doesn’t sound scary and really the plant is very innocent looking, but it’s sneaky and can play dead.
It is so sensitive that it will quickly close its leaves at the slightest touch or stimulation. Of course I had to try it, and yes, with a light touch the leaves quickly close and the stem droops. I’m fascinated by how smart plants can be. Does it have a brain?
The sensitive plant may not have a brain, but check out the pineapple brain coral in the museum’s fish aquarium. Perfect name — it looks like brains! Well, let’s be honest, I’ve never really seen brains, but it sure does look like brain photos. This is a fast-growing coral and will occasionally have to be trimmed, because it will crowd out the neighbors. Not only does the conservatory have a fish tank, there is a fish pond, and tanks of really cool blue and yellow frogs. Kermit the Frog did not prepare me for this. I instantly fell in love with the cute little blue dart frog.
A tale of spooky plants wouldn’t be complete without a carnivorous plant. Not the Venus flytrap, but the pitcher plant. Of all the plants in the conservatory, this was my favorite. It’s a tall vine with the most marvelous pitchers hanging everywhere.
At the museum there are two varieties, but the spotted pitchers caught my eye. Such an elegant pitcher with its red and green skin, you would never guess that the rim is secreting nectar to lure its prey. As insects follow the sweet nectar, they fall into the pitcher and meet their demise. Because this prey provides the main source of nutrients, the plant can grow and thrive in poor quality soil.
Having fun with Halloween and learning about creepy, spooky plants is another reminder of how amazing a garden can be. Daisies and tulips may be my favorite, but it sure is fun to take a trip to the dark side and visit “man-eating,” monkey faced, brain-resembling, playing-dead plants.