The right flora can produce a haunted-looking autumn space.

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HALLOWEEN IS DEEPLY rooted in nature and seasonal change, but you’d never know it from all the marketing. This most ancient of holidays is an acknowledgment, if not a celebration, of newly bared branches, the chill winds of autumn and darkness falling so early it’s already eating up the late afternoon.

Pacific NW Magazine: Oct. 30 edition

International Stunt School student Vincent Johnsson practices a fire-burn exercise — ISS instructors kept reminding the students to look more dramatically agonized while on fire. (Benjamin Benschneider/The Seattle Times)
International Stunt School student Vincent Johnsson practices a fire-burn exercise — ISS instructors kept reminding the students to look more dramatically agonized while on fire. (Benjamin Benschneider/The Seattle Times)

So what does any of this have to do with the plastic jack-o’-lanterns on sale since before the kids went back to school? The only thing frightful about pumpkin spice candles and paper black cats is how persistently and early they appear. The current consumer holiday dilutes the shuddery fun of a nature-based Halloween.

Luckily, gardeners can ignore all the hype and look outside their doors for an authentic hit of Halloween. Some plants are dying down and looking pretty skeletal by now, while others are just made for thrills and chills. Planting with Halloween atmospherics in mind helps us get over the garden’s prettiness. A garden is a fully dimensional creation that expresses life’s ebbing and decay as well as its flow, degeneration as well as regeneration, and no more so than now, as the light fades and we slide toward winter.

You might start your Halloween garden with a contorted plant or two whose wild branches evoke November windstorms on even the calmest of days. These shrubs come into their own when leaves drop to reveal their frozen-in-place gyrations. One of the most effective is Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’, AKA Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick. Best to keep this vigorous shrub contained in a large pot, where you can admire its fantastical quality while controlling its suckering tendencies. Be sure to place the pot where you’ll pass by, or see it from the windows, in winter and early spring. By November, ‘Harry’ is a masterpiece of convolution, and in March, its branches drip long, yellow catkins.

A smaller, more tidy possibility is a wire netting plant (Corokia cotoneaster ‘Little Prince’), which barely looks alive most of the year. It is more attractive than it sounds. Grow this odd, distinctive little shrub up-close in a pot. Its slim, snarled, bad-hair-day branches and tiny yellow spring flowers tend to disappear in the landscape.

And how about the spookiness of plants that are pointed, sharp and thorny? Few plants are as architecturally graphic as yuccas. Y. filamentosa ‘Ivory Tower’ is positively swordlike, with gray-blue evergreen foliage. And it’s dependably hardy in our climate, as is Y. filamentosa ‘Bright Edge’, with its razor-pointed, dagger-shaped leaves.

There’s also the drop-dead-beauty of the wingthorn rose (Rosa sericea ‘Pteracantha’). Can you imagine any other rose you’d plant for thorn over flower? The blooms are small, single and white; the foliage is ferny; and the thorns are jagged, plentiful and glowingly blood-red. Plant this dramatic rose in a sea of spidery, Goth-black mondo grass, and you’ll have a moody scene as well as an eye-catching color combo that’ll carry on all the way through winter.

Happily, plants collude with the gardener in the making of a Halloween-inspired, late-autumn garden, for it’s their nature to express the season in unique, varied and sometimes macabre ways. On a late-autumn afternoon, when the sun slants low across the pumpkin patch and a sliver of moon rises in the rapidly darkening sky, it takes only a little imagination, and maybe a bat or two, to herald in the spooky season.