Miss Floribunda: Funky Junky on Jefferson Street
]Dear Miss Floribunda,
Hallowe’en is coming up again, after being pretty much cancelled by COVID-19 last year, and I delight in fright. I understand trick or treating is not forbidden though not encouraged, and I’ll guess that anybody who does come to my door will be wearing a mask or two. As for me, I plan to dress Goth, hang glow-in-the dark skeletons on the trees in front of my house, set out tombstones and other funky kitsch, drape my doors and windows in spiderwebs and hang black lights outside. Yet it seems to me that there must be some spooky things I could actually have growing in my garden. I recently was shown a picture of something called a “ghost plant,” and it was awesome. Will that grow here? Do you have any other suggestions for a fright-festive Hallowe’en garden?
Funky Junky on Jefferson Street
Dear Funky Junky,
After reading your letter, I immediately got in touch with my cousin Moribunda, and she didn’t disappoint me. She knew exactly what your ghost plant was. Its Latin name is Monotropa uniflora, and it has other popular names like ghost chimes and corpse flower. A translucent white, it is gorgeous in a ghastly way. The poet Emily Dickinson knew it as Indian pipe, and it was her favorite plant. Moribunda tells me it is all white because it has no chlorophyll, and as a matter of fact, it cannot abide sunlight. Despite its aversion to sunlight, it’s not a vampire plant but a fungus, and only does well in a densely wooded setting. While it is unlikely to grow in your garden, you might try to grow it indoors in pots, and set the pots out each Hallowe’en night. (No sunlight, remember?)
There is a more easily grown succulent also called a ghost plant (Graptopetalum superbum paraguayense) that is too cold-sensitive to grow outside but makes a good house plant. It’s other name, mother-of-pearl plant, tells you it is pretty rather than scary. Another easy-to-grow and quite phantasmal plant is Miss Willmott’s Ghost (Eryngium giganteum) — a 2-foot-high sea holly of an icy pallor that glows in the dark. By Hallowe’en its spiky flowers have dropped, but its large, seemingly disembodied seed heads poking through the gloaming look even more startling. A biennial, it pops up in different places from year to year as it self-seeds, which gives it a ghost’s evanescence.
Speaking of heads, why not have living jack-o’-lanterns? Even if space is limited in your garden, you can grow small pumpkins like Jack Be Little or the white Casperita. Consider leaving them on the vine, maybe draped over bales of straw, and paint faces on with a permanent marker.
You might buy some white spider chrysanthemums; they would be eerily dramatic in the dark.
Opalescent calla lilies would be effective too, if you can find them, but if you can’t, you can buy the rhizomes and plant them next spring for late summer/mid-fall bloom next year. Another idea for next year would be moonflowers, a vine whose luminous disc-shaped blossoms continue opening till frost. White plumey grasses would look quite spectral, but be sure you have enough room for them. I wouldn’t advise pampas grass because of its sharp edges and invasive tendency. Pallid winter pansies are available now, and in the dusk they’d make a creepy, as well as creeping, edging along your walkway. Their ghostly gleam might even help guide little feet venturing toward your door.
While it’s too late to plant them from tubers, perhaps you can find dahlias in bloom at a nursery. Most charming for Hallowe’en are the orange honeycomb dahlias, which look like those paper pumpkins that you unfold for table decorations. You might be able to find Chinese lantern plants, whose papery orange pods look like clusters of little pumpkins, too. However, they really are poisonous, and if you have any children cutting through your yard as they go trick or treating, the lanterns provide possible danger to curious fingers.
Moribunda’s own garden is at its best in October, but it’s not clearly visible except in daylight because she favors black — or rather, very dark reds and purples that give the impression of being black. As soon as the soil is warm enough, she plants near-black elephant ears, which pop up as early as July and get enormous by Hallowe’en. They harmonize beautifully with the dark leaves of her Black Knight Canna and form a striking contrast with the canna’s flame-colored flowers that make them look like torches. However, it would take an entire column to describe her garden in full, which is strangely beautiful with its harsh dramatics of dark and bright, so I will limit myself now to the seasonally gruesome.
She cultivates varieties of coxcomb, Celosia cristata, that come in pale shades of orange, yellow and pink. It’s impossible to look at the convoluted formation and not think of brain lobes. She also grows a shrub called Hearts-a-bustin’ (Euonymus americanus). By Hallowe’en its rough pink pods burst open to reveal glossy scarlet seeds that look like drops of blood.
On a more cheerful note, I’d like to invite you to the Hyattsville Horticultural Society’s Oct. 16 outdoor meeting and plant exchange at the home of Betty Beunning, nd5202 42 Avenue. The meeting will begin at 10 a.m. Only the vaccinated should attend, and mask-wearing is encouraged. (Hallowe’en masks are good too!) The meeting will be cancelled if the COVID-19 positivity rate ticks up to an unsafe level. Our modernized and beautiful new website, hyattsvillehorticulture.org, will carry that information.