October 28, 2011 | Ellen Hertzman, Former Manager of Volunteer Experience

In the spirit of Dia de los Muertos and Halloween, this week I took a tour of some of the Gardens’ more ghoulish plants. This time of year, the Conservatory, Orangery, and Marnie’s Pavilion are great places to spot all kinds of beautiful but deadly flora. Here’s what I found:

Life of Crime
Amy Stewart, in her fun and enlightening book, Wicked Plants, calls the Solanaceae, or Nightshades, one of the “great plant crime families”. Yes, this family boasts potatoes and tomatoes, peppers and eggplant, but its darker cousins are numerous.

Among them, Brugmansia, also called Angel’s Trumpet, is seductively gorgeous. Its thick, sweet fragrance grows stronger as the flower matures. All parts of the plant are poisonous to humans and animals.

Also in the nightshade family is this Solanum mammosum, which bears a resemblance to its tomato relatives, but is much less pleasant to eat! Weakness, drowsiness, and nausea, and even death can result from eating the wrong member of this family.

Don’t Let it Escape!
Safely contained in the pond in Marnie’s Pavilion, water hyacinth (Eichhornia crasipes) is a show-off with bubble-shaped leaves and lavender flowers. However, once it escapes into the warm waterways of southern climes, it quickly chokes out other plants, grabs light and nutrients, and can double its population every two weeks! This invasive plant is outlawed in warm-weather regions, but we can safely grow it inside and outside in our cold-winter climate.

Lovely to Look at…
With red berries, white flowers, and attractive speckled leaves, Psychotria is a deceptively innocent-looking shrubby plant. However, it is a source of both psychotropic chemicals as well as drugs that induce vomiting.

Another hall-of-famer in the deadly plants pantheon is the Sago palm, a member of the ancient Cycad family. Its leaves and berries contain quantities of carcinogens and neurotoxins. Eating just a few seeds will bring about a most unpleasant demise, in people or in pets.


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