Friday, 5 September 2014

Frightening plants

I have always been very wary, in fact scared, of certain plants - generally ones with spikes, barbs, thorns or prickles - the sort you can be stung by, scratched by, wounded by, or get impaled on. I don't think this is a silly fear, as it's clearly worth keeping out of harm's way. But the plants I want to talk about are the sort that do more than give you a cut or a nasty rash. I mean to discuss the ones that will kill, or worse. Nightmare stuff.

Fear of such things is of course a hangover from my childhood, when indeed I was afraid of many things. Anything I saw that was really awful stayed long in my memory. For instance, I vividly recall watching a TV series called The Red Grass in 1959 (in black and white of course, so you had to imagine it was red) which had frightened people barricading themselves in buildings, trying to prevent the spiky stuff from getting in. It made a sinister sizzling noise as it grew (and it was rampant and uncontrollable in its growth). Inevitably it forced its way under doors, and, if it spread across the floor and touched you...well, let's not say.

Then there was another 1950s TV series about astronauts landing on Mars, stepping out onto the polar ice cap and suddenly being overwhelmed by giant lichen erupting from the powdery white frost underfoot. Overwhelmed, it's too horrible. It took many years before I understood that lichens generally weren't flesh-eating.

In my early teens (around 1965, let's say) I saw the 1955 Hammer film The Quatermass Xperiment - not to be confused with the earlier TV series - in which an astronaut, returned from Outer Space, hospitalised, and clearly Not His Usual Self, brings his arm down onto a cactus by his bedside. He can't help it - his mind has been taken over by an alien life-form. The arm swells, and in the next cut has grown spines and looks dreadfully like a cactus itself. He gets out of hospital, and goes on the run. In every subsequent scene we see how he is mutating more and more into Something Plantlike And Horrible. (Ugh)

A decade on, I saw something rather similar in a couple of Dr Who episodes, which I now know must have been part of the 1976 story called The Seeds of Doom, with Tom Baker as Dr Who (he of the long scarves). This time the transformation of the hapless victim was horrific. I was appalled to see waving branches and other plant appendages growing out of the poor man's body and head, before he became completely vegetable and had developed into a monster, with victim-seeking tendrils spreading out like the many writhing arms of a squid.

Nor was I sensitive only to what I saw on the box. (TVs looked like boxes then, of course: you wouldn't say 'on the box' now, in our modern era of flat screens).

I'd already read John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids (in my estimation, the 1951 book has never been bettered by any subsequent TV or film adaptation), about strange walking plants with lethal stings, a flesh-eating habit, and a remorseless kill-the-humans intelligence. And even more scary, an old short story that I'd read in a compilation of horror stories published by Hutchinson, called A Century of Horror (a thick book from 1935 containing one hundred short stories). I think it might have been a story by H T W Bousfield entitled The Unknown Island. Anyway, a becalmed and fog-bound sailing ship is approached by a rowing boat. In it is a figure that can't quite be seen in the fog. He asks for food and water and a little medicine. He has been shipwrecked on an uncharted island nearby, together with his wife. They are both dying. He begs them not to go ashore to aid them. Nothing grows on the island except a type of large edible fungus. Starving, desperate, and lulled by the sweet mesmerising smell of the fungus, his wife ate some of it. So did he. It has taken them over. At first it would erupt from their skin here and there, and he would cut it away. But it always came back, and rather than bleed to death from knife incisions that won't heal, they have let it spread its filaments under their skin. Now they are both practically all fungus, barely human at all. The crew of the ship float supplies to him, and he rows away out of sight. The fog clears for an instant. He is just a grey blob.

All this makes me shudder. The idea of being lured into a plant's malevolent embrace and becoming like it is too awful. And yet, there is one real plant, not at all uncommon in the gardens owned by - for example - the National Trust, that has all the nightmarish qualities one could wish for. (Or not, in my case) I speak of that ornamental plant, Gunnera Manicata.

This is a truly huge creepy plant that misguided plant collectors introduced into this country from tropical South America. It looks absolutely primeval, of the swamp. I can illustrate it from pictures I have taken myself. When it first sprouts, it looks cute:

But then it quickly gets bigger:

It has a strange presence. It wants you to step closer. It wants you to put your head under that umbrella-like canopy. It wants you to go deep into the dark shadows. But if you do, you will see thick stalks covered with spikes:

Do not go in. No matter what temptation fills your confused mind. Resist the pull. Fight the spell. You will be made to grasp those spikes, and become one with the plant. Your skeleton will be found only in the spring, when they cut the frost-blackened foliage back for burning.

Gunnera is my Ultimate Nightmare.


  1. Oh I don't know about that Lucy. If you stand long enough next to a cucumber plant it wraps its tendrils around you in a loving embrace! Many other plants do that too, some even more quickly. There are many plants which are hazardous to humans, thankfully most plants are not. One of the most annoying things for me are those which scratch or sting, brambles, roses, nettles, they have to be handled with care. My father-in-law used to grab hold of nettles at the base where he said you don't get stung. Yeah sure, I tried that and guess what? It didn't work.

    Shirley Anne x

  2. Roses and brambles can be vicious indeed, especially old, well-entrenched ones!

    Roses - the flowers, anyway - can be very beautiful and a civilised adornment to an indoor room. But Gunnera is primitive and threatening.


  3. Gunnera has a place in our family folklore ever since a dear friend, in all innocence, kept calling it gonorrhea. Now there's a thought to keep you awake at night!

    My pet hate is maze - not the corns, which are lovely, but the whole plant. I recall encountering a field full of it during a walk in Wiltshire. The footpath cut right through the middle. The problem was that the stuff was so high that we couldn't find our way out. We finally emerged, battered and bewildered, going in entirely the wrong direction. Now I know why they call it maze.


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