Archives For halloween plants

Wolfsbane is a beautiful—and poisonous—fall-blooming perennial. It also has a colorful history associated with werewolves, vampires, and witches.

PHOTO: Werewolf gargoyle at the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Moulins

Werewolf gargoyle at the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Moulins

The plant has been a familiar plot element in horror movies, television shows, and novels. In the Harry Potter series, Remus Lupin, a tormented werewolf, drinks a potion of wolfsbane carefully concocted to control his transformations. As early as Dracula in 1931, wolfsbane casually replaced garlic as a repellent for vampires in film. Nevertheless, the correlation of wolfsbane with the supernatural predates Hollywood and familiar authors. 

In Greek myth, wolfsbane (Aconitum) originated from the toxic slobber of a three-headed dog named Cerberus, the scary canine guardian to the gates of Hell. In the Dark Ages, wolfsbane was said to be used by witches in spells and potions and was one of several ingredients for an ointment that, when applied to a broom, could facilitate flight. Stories also proclaimed that a sorceress who carried wolfsbane seeds wrapped in lizard skin could become invisible and witches who applied the poisonous sap to their flints and launched them at unsuspecting enemies.

One thing both Hollywood and horticulturists can agree on: wolfsbane is a potent plant. Ingesting wolfsbane is typically fatal. 

PHOTO: Arends azure monkshood/wolfsbane.

Arends azure monkshood (Aconitum carmichaelii ‘Arendsii’)

PHOTO: Lamarck monkshood/wolfsbane.

Lamarck monkshood (Aconitum lamarckii)

The plant belongs to a genus of highly poisonous perennials known as monkshood or aconite. They naturally grow in mountainous areas across the northern half of the globe and are also planted in gardens for their deep purple blooms, which continue flowering long after other perennials fade for the season. Ancient Greeks hunted wolves by poisoning their bait with this plant, which lead to the common name of wolfsbane.

PHOTO: Werewolf illustration circa 1512 by Lucas Cranach the Elder

Werewolf illustration circa 1512 by Lucas Cranach the Elder

While those hunting traditions were lost, the plant retained its common name into the Middle Ages, where wolves and werewolves were a genuine fear in Europe. Frightened folks turned to growing wolfsbane for their protection, as superstitions said that werewolves could be repelled by the plant, or even tamed by it. Others, however, believed that having contact with wolfsbane on a full moon could actually cause shape-shifting. Patients who suffered from lycanthropy (the delusion of being a wolf) were prescribed regular—and often lethal—doses of wolfsbane by their medieval doctors.

For gardeners, it is important to remember to always wear gloves while handling a deadly plant such as wolfsbane.

Find wolfsbane at the Garden with our Plantfinder or on the GardenGuide app. Remember to look—don’t touch!—its beautiful blooms. Happy Halloween!


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

A Paranormal Perennial

Jacob Burns —  October 20, 2015 — 4 Comments

I appreciate any cultivar name that invokes thoughts of my favorite holiday: Halloween.

It is fun to stumble upon some Gaillardia ‘Goblin’, Hemerocallis ‘Bela Lugosi’, or Alchemilla mollis ‘Thriller’ and suddenly wonder, “What should my costume be this year?” One perennial in particular has a designation so dark, it can conjure up a gruesome ghost story: 

Symphyotrichum lateriflorum ‘Lady in Black’
Side-flowering aster

PHOTO: Symphyotrichum lateriflorum 'Lady in Black' with frost.

A late-fall frost, not ghostly images, sets off Symphyotrichum lateriflorum ‘Lady in Black’. Image courtesy Northcreek Nursery

Symphyotrichum lateriflorum ‘Lady in Black’ was one of only seven asters to receive a five-star rating of excellence by Richard Hawke, plant evaluation manager at the Chicago Botanic Garden. The straight species, S. lateriflorum, was also among the seven, so you can see that this is one of the best asters for your garden.

The foliage of ‘Lady in Black’ is an almost black-purple color, enhanced in autumn by numerous sprays of teeny white daisies with pinkish-purple centers. A location in full sun or partial sun will produce the darkest foliage.

Side-flowered asters can grow three feet tall, and a striking effect is to plant it in front of Blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) or any other shrub with amazing fall color.

“Lady in Black” also happens to be the popular name for a mournful soul who haunts Fort Warren, located on George’s Island in Boston Harbor.

The myth goes like this:

In 1862, Mrs. Melanie Lanier of South Carolina tried to rescue her husband, who had become imprisoned at the fort during the Civil War. On a stormy night in January, she rowed across the freezing water with nothing more than a pickax and an old pistol. She chopped off her hair and disguised herself in men’s clothing. She snuck her way to the prison cells and signaled to her husband by whistling a Southern refrain. He signaled back, and quickly she found a way to squeeze through the bars of his cell window.

Worried about seeing the Lady in Black?

PHOTO: Victorian Lady in Black wearing mourning jewelry and clothing.

Pick your superstition: In Victorian times, seeing an owl during the day, finding a single snowdrop flower in your garden or witnessing a sparrow land on a piano all foretold imminent death.

After weeks of tunneling underground with the pickax, they were discovered. Mrs. Lanier shocked the guards and tried to shoot a Union officer with her pistol. However, the antiquated weapon backfired, and some shrapnel ended up killing her husband. She was captured, tried, and hung a month later.

Just before her death, she was given a black robe, the closest thing to a dress they could find. Visitors to George’s Island now claim to see a woman in this same black robe. The Lady in Black has been known to appear in photos, and her moans have even scared away fishermen.

Not spooked? These creepy (or dangerous) plants might do the trick!

YIKES!

While I’m fairly certain that the Dutch breeders who named Symphyotrichum lateriflorum ‘Lady in Black’ were not familiar with this particular ghost story, you can’t help but wonder if they were not aware of some other spirit dressed in dark garb, drifting or moaning down the paths of their garden.

So the next time you notice an eerie cultivar name like Geranium phaeum ‘Stillingfleet Ghost’, Hemerocallis ‘Snowy Apparition‘ or Eupatorium dubium ‘Phantom’, try not to get shivers down your spine.

PHOTO: "The Fly" Halloween costume.

The author as pollinator and (much) larger-than-life pest

Get your costumes on and discover more spooky fun in the Garden at HallowFest and the Spooky Pooch Parade! Corpse flower costumes, anyone?


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org