Spring may be for pastel tulips and heavenly scented lilacs, but autumn is when plants with spooky names like bat flower, cobra lily, corpse flower and doll’s eyes take their turn in the spotlight.

The black bat flower (Tacca chantrieri), native to Southern China, Malaysia and Thailand, is nearly pitch-black and has what appears to be bizarre ears with whiskers that can grow up to 28 inches. The cobra lily (Darlingtonia californica) is a relentless carnivorous plant that captures insects and small animals and then slowly breaks them down in their stomach acids.

The corpse flower, (Amorphophallus titanum) grows in Western Sumatra, blooms 10’ tall once every 40 years for just four days, and, in grotesque fashion, smells like a rotting corpse. Eastern North America boasts the white baneberry (Actaea pachypoda), commonly known as doll’s eyes, which sprouts creepy, toxic berries that resemble (much too closely, IMO!) eyeballs protruding from a stick.

But all of those are absolute child’s play compared to the eight plants we have to showcase. Any botanist who has to work near these dark beasts recognizes that they are the real things that nightmares are made of.

1. Manchineel

The torture tree you don’t even have to touch to go blind

Poisonous manchineel tree with a warning sign at the access to Playa Jeremi on the Caribbean island of Curacao

Poisonous manchineel tree with a warning sign on the Caribbean island of Curacao. You wouldn’t catch us sitting on that bench!

Referred to as the “most dangerous tree” by Guinness World Records, the manchineel (Hippomane mancinella) is not to be messed with. Everything about this “death apple” tree, including its bark, sap, leaves and fruit, is a witch’s brew of toxins.

Some Native American tribes used to tie people to this tree as a form of torture—mere contact with the bark or leaves can result in severe dermatitis with blistering, swelling and inflammation. They also used its leaves to poison water sources, and, as Spanish explorer Ponce de León found out the hard way in 1521, they also poisoned arrows with the sap.

Eat just the tiniest amount of the fruit, which contains physostigmine, and your mouth will start to swell. A little more, and it’s as though you were exposed to nerve gas, flooding you with excruciating pain, esophageal ulcerations that bleed, edema, and cervical lymphadenopathy that will make it tricky to breathe and practically impossible to swallow. You won’t even be able to talk to tell someone what’s happening to you.

As if that weren’t bad enough, you don’t even have to touch this tree for it to cause painful havoc. Just standing underneath it while it’s raining can make you break out in blisters. And if it’s burned, the tree produces a smoke so toxic that it can cause blindness!

2. Bullhorn Acacia

The mind-controlling drug dealer of flowers

Bullhorn acacia tree branch and resident ants in western Panama.

Bullhorn acacia tree branch and resident ants in western Panama.

Sure, carnivorous plants consume insects, but can they also command swarms of them? The devious bullhorn acacia (Vachellia cornigera) provides shelter and nutrient-dense nectar to stinging ants in exchange for their protection. But there’s quite a bit more to the deal than that.

An enzyme in the plant’s nectar changes the ants’ physiology to the point where it becomes impossible for them to digest any other kind of sugar. Basically, it makes the ants junkies for a hit that only the bullhorn acacia can provide. The plant keeps giving the ant doses as long as the ant protects it. To prompt its flowers bloom in peace, the super-controlling acacia also produces a chemical that attracts pollinating bees to help it reproduce—a chemical that also happens to totally repulse the ants. Once the pollination takes place, the acacia takes the chemical lock off the door and seductively beckons the junkie ants back in once again.

Its final boss move? This plant has yet another chemical it can bust out that makes the stinging ants go absolutely psychotic on command. So, whenever an animal tries to munch on the plant, the acacia releases the chemical and basically drugs its ant army to sting the hungry interloper.

3. Gympie-Gympie

Offering up year-long brutal pain



The unassuming gympie-gympie (Dendrocnide moroides) is a poisonous shrub from, unsurprisingly, the land of cute double names and creepy deathly wonders that is Australia. Its gnarly foliage is covered in tiny hairs that, if you so much as touch them gently, hit you with an excruciating sting that can remain blindingly painful for more than a year.

It’s been said that the gympie-gympie’s sting feels like a cross between acid and mace. One scientist was wearing welding gloves when she got stung and still compared the experience to “being burnt with hot acid and electrocuted at the same time.” Sadly, some people who have been stung have even committed suicide to escape the pain. The hairs are almost impossible to remove, and the only recommended treatment is “applying hydrochloric acid,” which gives a rough idea of just how horrific the plant is.

4. Puya Chilensis

No biggie—this plant just eats sheep

Puya chilensis

Puya chilensis.

This one blows cutesy little carnivorous pitcher plants and Venus fly traps out of the water. Endemic to South America, Puya chilensis is an evergreen perennial with sharp spines at its base. These spines entangle animals like a really efficient barbed wire. Once ensnared, there is no escape for birds, rodents and even sheep, and the trapped animal slowly dies from thirst and hunger. That’s when the Puya chilensis starts to party, absorbing all of the decomposing nutrients that the corpse fertilizes the ground with.

This all seems a bit much, considering that, on the surface, the Puya looks like nothing more than a beautiful bromeliad that blooms each spring with enormous and vivid chartreuse-yellow flowers. Its impressive stalks can reach 12 feet tall!

5. Horsetail

Comes equipped with spider-like spores that walk and jump

Spore-bearing shoots of the horsetail Equisetum arvense.

Spore-bearing shoots of the horsetail Equisetum arvense.

For the longest time, scientists knew that Equisetum plants (horsetails) reproduced by spores that usually ended up far from the plant. But when some experts suggested that the spores walked along the ground after being released by the plant, things started to seem a bit far-fetched.

Well, they not only walk, but they jump. How? The horsetail plant has a central bulb surrounded by four independent elaters that respond to humidity and curl up, almost like human hair can in humid conditions. When the air dries out, the elaters relax and unfurl. In some instances, the elaters uncurl so rapidly that the spore is hurled from the ground up into the air and far from the plant.

6. Squirting Cucumber

A super soaker that will coat you in mucilaginous slime

Fruits of a squirting cucumber (Ecballium elaterium).

Fruits of a squirting cucumber (Ecballium elaterium).

Walking spores don’t seem like that big of a deal? Well, what if you were strolling along and got randomly squirted by a stream of seed-filled mucilaginous liquid from a plant 18 feet away? The squirting cucumber (Ecballium elaterium) is a Spanish-origin, pan-Mediterranean poisonous relative of the edible cucumber. When they ripen, the fruits pop off the end of their stems and forcibly eject their mucus-coated seeds in an explosive stream that aids in seed dispersal.

As if getting coated in slime wasn’t bad enough, the plant is a very powerful purgative that causes one’s bowels to empty themselves with strong diarrhea. No thank you!

7. Cerbera odollam

The “suicide tree”

Cerbera odollam tree and fruit

Cerbera odollam.

Native to south and southeast Asia and Australia, this tree has a highly toxic fruit called othalanga that resembles an apple but, when ingested, will stop a heart pretty quickly. The Cerbera odollam tree, also known as the “pong pong” or “suicide tree,” is one of the most poisonous plants in all of Asia. Eating its seeds has a really high chance of leading to death, which is why it has been used both for homicidal and suicidal purposes.

A 2004 study found that the fruit was the cause of about one death per week in Kerala, India, where it is a popular method of suicide. Murder numbers are a bit trickier to know, as the poisonous substance is conveniently difficult to detect in autopsies and its taste can be masked by strong spices, making the victim unsuspecting.

8. Hemlock water-dropwort

A favorite weapon of assassins

Hemlock water-dropwort.

Hemlock water-dropwort.

Think of the creepy Joker smile—and know that it’s this nasty plant most commonly localized on the island of Sardinia that gave rise to the term “sardonic grin.” Sometimes known as “dead man’s fingers,” hemlock has a long and historical use by assassins and hired killers, as just one drop of the poisonous hemlock water-dropwort (Oenanthe crocata) is enough to completely incapacitate the target with lung collapse, brain hemorrhage and death. In the process, the victim’s muscles become taut, and an exaggerated smile creepily spreads across the victim’s face.

Weirdly enough, it’s reported that this plant has quite a pleasant taste, although can we all agree not to test that out?