Halloween houseplants can give you a fright

By: Sarah Wojcik | Grosse Pointe Times | Published October 26, 2016

 Porcupine tomato plants grow very sharp, thin thorns that protrude from their stems and both sides of their leaves and produce tomato-like fruit, but their leaves, stem and fruit are poisonous.

Porcupine tomato plants grow very sharp, thin thorns that protrude from their stems and both sides of their leaves and produce tomato-like fruit, but their leaves, stem and fruit are poisonous.

Photo by Sarah Wojcik

METRO DETROIT — In the perpetual struggle to evolve and survive, some plants’ defenses and designs have transformed them into truly terrifying forces of nature.

Some plants have evolved to inflict pain, eat meat and appear thoroughly unappetizing and scary. Other plants have Halloween-esque names but appear more tame and beautiful.

Mary Gerstenberger, the horticulture coordinator for the Macomb County Michigan State University Extension Office, said the range of indoor, outdoor, cultivated and wild plants that fit into a Halloween theme is expansive.

Eyeball plants, she said, bloom from midsummer until frost and feature round, yellow blooms with red spots that resemble weird-looking eyeballs. A white baneberry, or doll’s eye, is a small shrub, she said, that sports poisonous white berries punctuated by a little black dot.

Deadly nightshade is a plant that grows in the wild — recognized for its purplish yellow flower — and is best to avoid because its leaves and black berries are extremely toxic, Gerstenberger said.

Snake plants, also known as “mother-in-law’s tongue,” she said, are common houseplants with tall, long and narrow blades that grow upward.

Many people also opt for ornamental peppers in the fall, which can be displayed indoors. Depending on the kind, Gerstenberger said to exercise caution.

“Ghost peppers are extremely hot, indoor peppers. People display them for their look, but they should be very careful — (ghost peppers) are hot and dangerous to deal with,” she said.

George Papadelis, owner of Telly’s Greenhouse in Troy and Shelby Township, said an ornamental pepper called “chilly chili” is bred for its very mild flavor, and turns from yellow to orange to red as it ripens. 

Gerstenberger added that a Dracula orchid is a bizarre plant that enjoys cooler temperatures — around 68 degrees during the day and 10 degrees colder at nighttime.

“It’s in the same family and does bloom like an orchid, with a weird-looking orchid flower, kind of like a striped-looking, black-and-white orchid flower that attracts flies and smells like mushrooms,” she said.

Other Halloween-like plants include stinging nettles, toad lilies, devil’s walking stick, poison ivy and spider wort, she said.

Papadelis said pedilanthus, or devil’s backbone, is a unique houseplant that has a zigzagging stem and can grow to be quite large.

A plant the greenhouse recently sold out of, he said, is called vampire celosia, which grows burgundy, brain-like flowers.

“It’s very pretty this time of year,” Papadelis said. “It’s the kind of plant you usually plant in your flower beds and has been very popular this fall.”

The pitcher plant, which comes in a variety of sizes and can grow to be very large, is a carnivorous plant capable of digesting vermin and other small animals, such as bats, birds and crabs, he said.

“The slipper extracts water from the roots and holds it in there. When a mouse goes inside of there and scratches the inside, it prompts the plant to produce enzymes that dissolve the animal’s soft tissue,” Papadelis said. “The skin and bones then putrefy, and that attracts other animals.”

Other festive plants include the porcupine tomato, mother of thousands, sticks on fire, sansevieria fernwood, dragon’s breath celosia and Dyckia fosteriana, he said.

Hands down, he said, mums, pansies, and ornamental cabbage and kale have been the greenhouse’s bestsellers this fall.

“Oranges, yellows and reds are very popular — all your fall colors,” he said. “The (cabbage and kale) also come in pink, purple and white, and the great thing about them is you can plant them and they will last until Thanksgiving, usually beyond.”

The same time frame holds true for pansies, he said, which are known to endure super cold temperatures and hard freezes.

Other trendy fall decorations include gourds, which the greenhouse stocks in many sizes, shapes and colors; ornamental grasses; hay bales and cornstalks, Papadelis said.