By Evin Morrison, Extension Master Gardener
It’s that time of year again! We are pulling out the pumpkins and the paper skeletons and hanging spider webs and ghosts from the trees, but what if you level up your decorating this year with a houseplant that adds a little “yikes” to the season’s staples.
Whether you know this plant as a snake plant, devil’s tongue, mother-in-law’s tongue, or a viper’s bow string, they’re all perfect names for this frightening season. The upright growth structure makes it easy to pop into any décor. Hide a plastic skeleton peaking between the leaves or top each one with an eye (made from a ping pong ball) to create a truly terrifying living decoration.
Look for varieties called “black coral” or the harder to find “black dragon,” which boasts wider leaves, both are a very dark green color and will blend in great with your seasonal decorating. Dracaena angolensis (previously Sansevieria cylindrica) will give the look of green fingers reaching out from the soil. Pot this in a plastic cauldron and top dress it with some dark gray stones for a spooky display on a coffee table.
We talked about Dracaena (previously Sansevieria) in a recent article about low-maintenance plants. It’s important to plant any variety of snake plant in well-draining soil. Add some perlite or vermiculite to your potting mixture to ensure the roots have enough air to breathe. Only water when the soil dries out or you might end up with rot around the base of the plant. Luckily, these plants don’t need high light to survive, so they make great options for decorating. You can tuck them in just about anywhere, as long as there is some natural sunlight. Since they are such tough houseplants, you can also place them in less-than-ideal conditions for the month ahead and then relocate them to a more proper spot in November. They will definitely handle a week or two volunteering as seasonal décor.
Every year around this time we start to see cactuses popping up at the grocery store, the hardware stores, and even the big box stores. Usually, they are cleverly planted in a skeleton head planter and sometimes they are even decorated like a Dia de los Muertos sugar skull. Not surprisingly, these cacti are commonly called brain cactus.
However, as we’ve learned you can’t always trust a common name of a plant. When searching for brain cactus, you’ll commonly find two different species Stenocactus multicostatus, which is usually the rarer to find specimen, and Mammillaria Elongata ‘cristata’, the one most often seen for sale this time of year. Of course, being in the cacti family, whichever you find, the care will be very similar.
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Adding something gritty to the soil when you repot them will ensure that you don’t overwater. Be careful with store bought planters like the skulls previously mentioned because they won’t always have a drainage hole. While this is great for your household surfaces, it makes it harder to ensure that there isn’t residual moisture at the bottom of the planter that could be leading to root rot that you can’t even see. While you can unpot the plant and add a drainage hole using a drill and a diamond drill bit made for tile (always wear protective gear and eyewear if you choose to go this route), I find that just watering even more sparingly than normal is a fine way to keep these desert plants happy. You have to remember that glazed pottery and plastic don’t breathe like clay and terracotta, so purchasing a pre-planted cactus in a decorated, glazed planter means that you probably will only need to add a little water about once a month.
Since we are headed into the winter and most plants are going dormant, these plants will be happy with just a small splash of water, once a month until spring. It’s always better to underwater cactus than to overwater them. And keep them in the brightest spot in your home, as possible. Cacti need bright light and warmth, so after Halloween make sure they are moved to a sunny, warm spot. Maybe even consider adding some supplemental lighting through winter to ensure that these kooky plants will be around to decorate with again next year.
The Carnivorous Family (Warning: These are not for the faint of heart [or beginners])
The carnivorous plant family is a very broad category, but what is spookier than a plant that gets its nutrients from trapped pests! These plants range from looking alien to something right out of a horror film, so why not add them to a seasonal display!
The most common to find on your local shopping run will, of course, be the Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula). Not only are these plants great for helping with fungus gnats or other flying nuisances in your house, but they look like little monsters in a pot!
For a hanging variety that looks like it’s right out of a haunted greenhouse, try the pitcher plant or something in the Nepenthes family. These plants have long leaves and brightly colored pitchers dangling down around the edges. Be careful to keep them upright as each cup has a liquid inside that will spill out. This liquid contains a digestive enzyme that helps break down any pests that crawl inside the pitcher and converts it to food for your plant. Many of these varieties of pitcher plants are from Asia and require a tropical environment. But did you know that we actually have native pitcher plants in Virginia? The yellow pitcher plant (Sarracenia flava) and the purple pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea) can be found in bogs here in our home state. They are endangered due to habitat loss, so please don’t source these from the native landscape, and if you choose to purchase make sure you’re doing so through a reputable breeder. Native pitcher plants stand tall with vertical, pipe-like pitchers and come in a variety of colors. They make a great native planting choice to go around a wetland pond in your backyard.
Lastly, the most alien looking, or maybe like a creature from the depths of the ocean, sundews (Drosera) are a creepy addition to any bog garden. With their flat growth pattern and sticky hairs that trap small insects, they really do give Halloween vibes. Much like pitcher plants, there are many tropical species available on the market, but there are also Virginia natives that can be added to a garden. The Lewis Ginter Garden in Richmond has an entire section dedicated to bog plants where you can go and see these native pest-munchers in action!
Adding carnivorous plants to your home, can be a challenge. And like the subtitle mentions, these are much more temperamental plants that do require some maintenance and specific care. One option that is popular is to create a container bog garden. We made a container garden in a previous article and the concepts still apply, but will need to be altered for the specific needs of bog plants. Since most of these plants need very specific care that are similar, combining them in one planter can take the hassle away from caring for multiple containers. They can also create a small microenvironment that will benefit them all. The most important part of creating a bog garden is using specific soil that is made for these plants. These plants require acidic soil, or they won’t survive, you can make your own by combining peat moss and sharp sand, but by no means should you ever plant them using your normal potting mix.
Additionally, these plants need very specific watering needs, never just use sink water as the additives and chemicals can quickly harm and damage the roots. It’s important to only use collected rainwater or distilled water to maintain healthy plants. They need to stay moist, but never sit in stagnant water so drainage is very important. They also need to stay in bright light and have plenty of humidity, so for Halloween maybe sit a humidifier next to your garden for a spooky, smokey look.
Most carnivorous plants need a dormant season to thrive, so in the winter they will die back to the ground like many of your perennial plants outdoors. These aren’t the houseplants that will look spectacular year-round. While they look dead, you do have to keep caring for them, or they will in fact die and not come back the following year. It’s for this reason, that most people find planting bog gardens outdoors more effective, as they can cycle naturally with the seasons. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to bring a few into your home, but make sure you do further research about the specific variety you are choosing to make sure you can give it the care it needs indoors.
“String of” Plants
Need a trailing plant to add a little something special to your Halloween bookshelf? Well look no further than a succulent favorite, the “string of” category. Looking for something to trail out of a cauldron to look like a witch-y brew is boiling over? Try out a string of beads or string of pearls (Senecio rowleyanus). How about something to add to a head planter to create a mythological Medusa? Look no further than string of bananas, or string of hooks (Senecio radicans). You could also use string of dolphins (Senecio peregrinus) for an even more interesting shape.
The creativity that these varieties allow make them a really fun option for seasonal decorating. Once the holiday is over you can simply add them to a hanging basket or a macrame planter, and they quickly become a statement in your everyday space.
Decorating with succulents is so easy, because like Sansevieria and the brain cacti mentioned above, they are hardy enough to handle being used in seasonal décor for a few weeks and then moved to more ideal conditions. Planting them in a cactus and succulent mix, maintaining a light watering schedule, and making sure they get plenty of warmth and light are all you need to ensure a happy healthy plant. The nice thing about these types of plants, is that the beads, hooks, dolphins, or whatever variety you pick will start to shrink and wrinkle when they aren’t getting enough water. While you don’t want this to happen often, as it causes unnecessary stress to the plant, it’s a clear indicator that you need to increase watering just a little.
In last month’s article we discussed air plants, but for Halloween décor you should look no further than Tillandsia usneoides or Spanish moss. Yes, this is the same thing that you can buy in bags in the floral department at craft stores dried and used to top off floral arrangements, but did you know you can buy it still alive? When dried, Spanish moss is a brown, twisty top dressing, but alive it’s a beautiful cascade of grey/green tendrils that give major spooky forest vibes.
Just like other air plants, Spanish moss is an epiphyte that clings to trees and vertical surfaces and gets the moisture it needs from the air. In our homes, Spanish moss can be tucked into a planter or mounted to a plant like a staghorn fern. Bringing something so delicate into your home can be more challenging than some of the other varieties discussed in this article, but as long as you have a mister and keep it away from AC/heating vents where it will dry out, this plant is pretty low maintenance. Humidity is going to be the key to supporting this cool plant. Like other air plants, misting with a bromeliad fertilizer can be beneficial, but make sure you follow the directions, so you don’t cause fertilizer burn.
Holland, Jonah. “Carnivorous Plants.” Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, 22 Apr. 2015,