“From ghoulies and ghosties and long leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night, good Lord, deliver us!” That traditional prayer was one way that Scottish people dealt with frightening evenings, such as Halloween.
Over the past several years however, you have probably noticed that Halloween has totally morphed. Once, it was the single day when children would race home from school and change into some kind of fantasy character or a monster, with the task of collecting candy and cash from “unsuspecting” neighbors. At least, that is how I remember the day.
What we have now, however, is something more along the lines of a “Halloween season.” Have you sent out your Halloween cards yet? Halloween is second only to Christmas for holiday spending! As if children did not have enough concerns, now they must also pay close attention to getting the right costume; no more torn T-shirts and cheap makeup! No simple jack-o-lanterns, either. People buy patterns in order to carve headless horsemen or other scary scenes into their pumpkins. Trees are festooned with dangling plastic goblins or jack-o-lanterns, and front yards display spooky gravesites dripping with cobwebs. Doors and windows have whole tableaux populated by ghosts and skeletons, and of course, there are many witches.
Witches are reputed to be terrible individuals who try to do frightening things to children, both in fairy tales and in the Land of Oz.
In the world of horticulture, witches can be no less terrifying. Fortunately, while many of the plants that have “witch” in their names are indeed villainous, there are a number of good ones worth mentioning.
Among these “good witches” is witch hazel (Hamamelis) a yellow-flowered shrub that produces a refreshing astringent. Unfortunately, it does not grow well in alkaline, salty, dry soils, so it is not a great choice for Nevada landscapes. An orchid found in North Carolina (Ponthieva racemosa) is known as “hairy shadow witch” but again, it is not ideal for our challenging climate. Witch alder (whose proper name is Fothergilla gardenii) is a pretty shrub that might survive here, but this cousin of witch hazel also prefers rich, well-drained, acid soils.
Hylotelephium telephium, which you might refer to as “witch’s moneybags”, is an attractive succulent that could probably grow in this region. Even foxglove, the medicinal garden plant, was once called “witches bells”. There is a climbing floribunda rose called “Witching Hour” that might be worth trying. It has purple petals that meet at a white center.
Aside from these, and perhaps a couple of other “good witches”, quite a few plants containing the word “witch” in the name are unwelcome, and many of them do indeed survive in the desert Southwest.
Some witch plants are grasses. Two members of the genus Panicum are “witch grass” (P. capillare) and “western witch grass” (P. dichotomiflorum). Even the noxious weed we commonly call “quack grass” or “couch grass” (Agropyron repens) is sometimes known as witch grass. Here is another good reason not to use common names if we have a choice; using proper names can lessen confusion.
We tend to think of witchy things as not being very attractive. Consider the “Wicked Witch of the West”, an unappealing character. That is not necessarily the case. The invasive plant St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) was known as Witch Herb or Devil’s Scourge in English folklore, and witches reportedly used it when they were casting spells! More recently, its attractive yellow flowers have been an herbal treatment for depression. In parts of the world, including the eastern US, grows a genus of root parasites known as “witchweed” (Striga). These are truly bad plants; by sucking out the nutrients of their hosts, these pests devastate desirable plants. Indeed, parasitic plants like this one can be attractive, but that makes them perhaps even more terrible, since we hesitate to remove them.
The Mojave’s difficult climate does not prevent the parasitic plant dodder (Cuscuta spp.), from wreaking havoc. Anyone who has seen something that looks like a tangled mass of orange or yellow string sitting atop wild plants has seen dodder. Some people know this freeloader as “witch’s hair,” and others call it “witch’s shoelaces.”
There is something known as “witch’s broom.” This is not a plant, but actually a phenomenon. When certain parasitic plants (or other organisms) land on a limb, it can cause the plant to respond by wildly producing masses of twigs and foliage. The resulting cluster can look like the business end of an old broom. This is very common on evergreens in this region, but you can also find it on acacia and mesquite. Producing all that extra growth without getting any of the benefit really weakens a plant.
There are many witches out there. Enjoy Halloween, but you might not want to bring most of these witch plants into your garden.
Email Angela O’Callaghan, Social Horticulture Specialist, or call at 702-257-5581.