Beware! The natural world is full of evil plants that can bewitch, maim, or even kill you. Amy Stewart, author of the best selling book Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities shares five diabolical plants for Halloween. There's a fungus linked to the Salem witch trials, a secret ingredient in witches' flying potions, flowers that smell like a rotting corpse, and a plant that bleeds red "blood."
Ergot (Claviceps purpura). In the cold, wet winter of 1691 eight young girls living in Salem, Massachusetts came under a spell that caused them to convulse, babble, and hallucinate. Were the girls bewitched? Or did they just eat contaminated bread? It turns out that rye and wheat are often infected with a fungus called ergot, which contains alkaloids that constrict blood flow. This leads to a creepy crawly sensation on the skin, seizures, hysterical behavior and hallucinations. Ergot infects cereal grains to this day, but post harvest processing kills the fungus, making our bread safe to eat.
Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger). Witches apparently add this weed to their flying potions, and it's easy to see why. Like its wicked relatives, datura and belladonna, henbane contains intoxicating compounds that, when consumed, could make you feel like you were flying, or in the very least, quite drunk.
Corpse flower. The flower of Amorphophallus titanium looks like a huge burgundy calla lily, but you wouldn't want this blossom in your wedding bouquet. When it opens it releases a stench that smells like (you guessed it) a rotting corpse. The odor is so bad, it has been known to make people wretch.
Sangre de Drago (Croton lechleri). This South American plant contains a viscous red sap that looks like blood, and some Amazon tribes actually use it to stop wounds from bleeding.
Strychnine Tree (Strychnos nux-vomica). The seeds of the strychnine tree contain compounds that seriously disrupt the nervous system, causing agonizing and uncontrollable muscle spasms, respiratory failure, and death. Victims of strychnine poisoning develop a terrible, terrified grin that becomes fixed on their face in death. Commonly used as a rat poison, the 19th century serial killer Dr. Thomas Neill Cream also used it to kill his victims, including his own wife.
You can discover more ghastly plants in the Wicked Plants book and a whole host of creepy insects in Stewart's new book, Wicked Bugs: The Louse That Conquered Napoleon's Army & Other Diabolical Insects.
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Willi Galloway writes The Gardener column. She lives in Portland, Oregon and writes about her kitchen garden on her blog DigginFood. Her first book Grow. Cook. Eat. A Food-Lovers Guide To Vegetable Gardening will be published in January 2012.
(Images: Cover image provided by Amy Stewart courtesy of Algonquin Books.)