Long before The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), The Day of the Triffids (1963) or Little Joe (2019), the horror genre featured an absolute menagerie of strange and fantastical flowers. In contrast to Cold War era sci-fi, where plants were bent on humanity’s destruction – take the carnivorous vegetable-creature in The Thing from Another World (1951) or the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), for example – plants in early horror came to humanity’s aid as poisons, antidotes and talismans against the creatures of the night. This breed of herbal magic is as old as folklore itself. The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the world’s oldest written stories, mentions a mystical flower that grants immortality to anyone who eats it.
Plants are potent ingredients in fairytales too, from Snow White’s poisoned apple to the enchanted rose in Beauty and the Beast. Some herbal magic remains common knowledge to this day – thanks to the many adaptations of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, most people know that vampires despise garlic. But other plants have faded into obscurity. In honour of National Plant a Flower Day on 12 March, here is a look back at some of Hollywood’s most hair-raising bouquets.
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The Wolf Man (1941)
Director: George Waggner
Also known as monkshood, aconite or queen-of-poisons, this ravishing yet toxic plant is native to the northern hemisphere and has been a staple of the horror genre since the very first monster movies. Today the flower is popularly associated with werewolves, due largely to Universal Pictures’ The Wolf Man (1941). Here the Gypsy Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya) informs newly-turned werewolf Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr) that wolfsbane can be used as a charm to protect victims from his attack.
Curiously, Dr Van Helsing, in the original Dracula (1931) film, also claims wolfsbane to be a powerful charm against vampires. In fact, damsel-in-distress Mina Harker is sent to bed with a wreath of wolfsbane – rather than garlic – around her neck.
Werewolf of London (1935)
Director: Stuart Walker
Plant: Mariphasa lupine lumina
In Werewolf of London (1935), this imaginary exotic plant is native to the slopes of Tibet and blooms only beneath the light of a full moon. Famous botanist Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull) acquires the rare specimen on his travels, but is bitten by a mysterious shaggy creature in the process. Back home in London, he’s horrified to discover he has contracted lycanthropy from the bite. The blossoms of the mariphasa are an antidote to the disease – preventing the wolfish transformations – but their effect is only temporary. Glendon is now in a race against time to find a more lasting solution. While mariphasa may be an imaginary plant, other flowers like the evening primrose, moonflowers and angel’s trumpets do indeed bloom at night.
London after Midnight (1927)
Director: Tod Browning
The tuberose or Agave amica is another night-blooming flower, originally domesticated in Mexico and celebrated for its strong perfume-like scent.
Tod Browning’s enigmatic London after Midnight is one of the most sought-after lost films of the silent era. Concerning a suspicious suicide, an amateur hypnotist and a sinister pair of sharp-toothed suspects, this eerie-sounding murder mystery features a twist on the classic vampiric mythology. While many versions of Dracula mention both garlic flowers and hawthorn blossoms as effective deterrents against vampires, this film claims that a wreath of tuberoses and a drawn sword laid over a door or window prevent a vampire from entering. Indeed, surviving stills from the film show the flowers guarding the entrance to the house.
Mark of the Vampire (1935)
Director: Tod Browning
Tod Browning’s sound remake of London after Midnight again introduces a new bit of vampire lore. Instead of a wreath of tuberoses, vampires are now repelled by the fictional plant ‘bat-thorn’, a type of coarse cemetery-growing weed. Professor Zelen (Lionel Barrymore), occult expert and vampire-hunter, claims vampires can only be killed by cutting off their head in a single stroke and placing bat-thorn over the bleeding wound.
While the effect on vampires may be different, bats can be repelled in real life by planting peppermint bushes, since the natural menthol irritates their skin and eyes.
House of Dracula (1945)
Director: Erle C. Kenton
Plant: Clavaria formosa
In House of Dracula (1945) – the fourth instalment in Universal’s Dracula franchise – brilliant surgeon Dr Edelman (Onslow Stevens) is experimenting with the spores of the Clavaria formosa plant. This coral-like fungus supposedly has the magical properties of softening and reshaping bone tissue, which Edelman hopes to harness as a cure for his assistant’s hunchbacked spine and for relieving Lawrence Talbot’s painful werewolf transformations. But while Edleman’s experiments yield some success, the real Clavaria formosa (more commonly termed Ramaria formosa) has no such powers.
The Invisible Man (1933)
Director: James Whale
In The Invisible Man (1933), ambitious scientist Jack Griffin (Claude Rains) unlocks the secret to invisibility with the aid of the volatile drug monocane. The chemical is compounded from a fictitious Indian flower, said to drain the colour out of any object it touches. Griffin doesn’t realise, however, that prolonged exposure to the plant causes madness. This flower is the source of troubles again in The Invisible Man Returns (1940), but its name is switched from ‘monocane’ to ‘duocane’.
While slightly less sensational, there is a basis for this plant in real life. Diphylleia grayi, or skeleton flower, is a small woodland blossom native to east Asia. When in contact with water, the plant’s white petals become transparent like glass.
The Mummy’s Hand (1940)
Director: Christy Cabanne
Plant: Tana leaves
Sanguisorba tanna is a clump-forming perennial of the rose family, known for its lovely seed heads and cucumber-like scent. While particularly attractive to bees, the plant also seems to have a curious effect on mummies. In The Mummy’s Hand (1940), a brew of dried tana leaves (spelled with one ‘n’) is used to reanimate the body of Kharis, so he may guard the tomb of his beloved Princess Ananka. This is a departure from the lore of the original The Mummy (1932), in which the mummy is resurrected by reading from the sacred Scroll of Thoth. Tana leaf brew would feature in the 3 subsequent sequels: The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), The Mummy’s Ghost (1944) and The Mummy’s Curse (1944).
Director: James Whale
While Frankenstein (1931) has no herbal magic either creating or repelling the Monster, the film nonetheless contains a climactic moment with flowers. After watching the little peasant-girl Maria (Marilyn Harris) cheerfully throwing daisies into the lake to float, the Monster (Boris Karloff) excitedly throws Maria into the water, thinking she will float too. She drowns, prompting a mob of angry villagers to hunt the Monster down. According to the Victorian language of flowers, daisies traditionally represent purity and innocence – a fitting metaphor for a tragic story.