Foggy mist shrouding a trail. The light of a full moon beaming down on your tent. The brush of a branch or the wind on your back. Fungi that oozes and goozes across decaying logs. If you’re looking for an alternative to more classic Halloween parties this year, the wilderness is full of haunts waiting for your arrival.

To get you started on your spooky outing, we’ve rounded up five plants and fungi to inspire your curiosity while you’re out there. So, strap on your witch’s hat, grab your broomstick and Vagabond Trail day pack full of candy, and let’s go!

1. Ghost Pipe

Ghost pipe (Monotropa uniflora) is a spooky low lying plant that flowers from early summer through early autumn, typically after rainfalls. It’s primarily found in the eastern half of North America and the Pacific Northwest, as well as temperate regions in Asia and northern South America.

Ghost pipe’s scientific name helps describe its shape, with Monotropa meaning “one turn” in Greek and uniflora meaning “one-flowered” in Latin. The plant comes up from the forest floor as a single stalk, reaching a height of between 2 to 12 inches. It bears a single flower at the end that turns downward. You can find ghost pipes both as lone wolves or often in clusters. The plant is typically fully white in color with some translucence in parts, but is also often seen with black flecks or some pale pink coloration, particularly if it's further along in its lifecycle. 

Unlike most plants that produce their food using the sun’s energy, ghost pipe is a parasitic plant that does not contain chlorophyll. Instead, certain fungi that have groovy, symbiotic relationships with trees serve as hosts to ghost pipes. This ultimately means that ghost pipe gets its nom noms from photosynthetic trees, which is both super cool and allows the plant to grow in pretty dark environments.

2. Dead Man's Fingers

Dead man’s fingers (Xylaria polymorpha) is a saprobic fungus, which basically means that it gets its energy from breaking down dead organic matter. Yum! This is why you’re most likely to find them growing at the bases of rotting or injured trees or on dead, decomposing logs.

Dead man’s fingers like to startle you into thinking you’ve stumbled upon the beginning of the zombie apocalypse while hiking through the woods. The fungus is often found in clusters of “digits,” if you will, poking up from the forest floor like, well, a dead man’s fingers. Sometimes, however, you might just find one lonely finger reaching up to say hello. These “fingers,” also known as fruiting bodies, are typically black or brown but can also look bluish or greenish. 

During the spring, these spooky forest fingers produce a layer of asexual spores called condida, which produce a white or blue layer on the fungus and sometimes the surrounding area. Unlike many fungi, dead man’s fingers like to take their sweet time with the spore distribution process, sometimes up to several months.

3. Honey Locust

Honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) sounds a little sweet, doesn’t it? This deciduous tree is native to central North America and likes to hang out in moist river valleys. I mean, who doesn’t? So, what’s so spooky about a honey locust? Well, honey locust also goes by the name thorny locust. 

These trees typically have dense clusters of thorns that range between one to four inches long, but sometimes grow as long as eight inches. Whoa! It’s thought that these thorns evolved to protect the trees from Pleistocene megafauna like the interglacial rhinoceros or woolly mammoth. However, they’re apparently less useful against current-day thieves and/or herbivores, like deer.

Honey locusts grow to a height of around 65 to 100 feet and do so pretty quickly. They live around 120 years. They have cream-colored flowers in the late spring with a strong aroma. Their seed pods are long legumes, like a six- to eight-inch snow pea that dries out a bit and rattles in the breeze. The seeds are primarily spread and released via the manure of grazing herbivores.

4. Doll’s-Eyes

This plant goes by the name “doll’s-eyes,” which is enough to explain its spookiness. You know the doll. The one whose eyes follow you no matter where you go in the room. You’ll never forget that doll.

Doll’s-eyes (Actaea pachypoda) also goes by the less creepy name, white baneberry. It’s a flowering plant with a native range throughout eastern North America. It likes to work its magic in hardwood and mixed forest stands, growing around 18 to 30 inches tall with toothed, compound leaves. In the spring, it creates delicate, puffy clusters of white flowers. When these begin to die back and the plant’s fruits take their place is when things start to get weird.

The multiple short floral stalks grow white berries at the ends that are about a half inch in diameter. They have small black stigma scars that leave them looking like little eyeballs. Meanwhile, the stalks all turn a bright magenta or red. They’re a very, err, eye-popping plant to see in the woods.

5. Witch’s Butter

Witch’s butter (Tremella mesenterica) is a jelly fungus that goes by all sorts of other fun names, such as yellow brain, golden jelly fungus, and yellow trembler. It grows in deciduous and mixed forests, widely distributed in temperate and tropical regions. It is a plant that I have personally wiggled in the woods and have very much enjoyed the experience.

Witch’s butter likes to kick it on dead attached tree branches or those that have recently fallen. Its fruiting body is gelatinous and typically an orange or yellow color. It wiggles. It jiggles. It grows up to three inches in diameter. It’s slimy. It’s greasy. It’s lobed. It’s curvy. It’s brainlike.

Witch’s butter makes its appearance during rainy weather. It dries up within a few days, becoming a shriveled mass. But, just like a sponge, add a little moisture again and it’s back to the exclusive jiggly wiggly witch’s party in the forest that we all want an invite to this Halloween.

Enjoy the Haunts of the Great Outdoors This Halloween

Like most days, Halloween is a great time to spend outside. So, fill your Vagabond Trail day pack with all of your trick-or-treat candy (the ten essentials are also a good idea), and head out for some spooky fun on the trail! If you’re looking for some more haunted content to inspire your trekking, check out these other fun articles from the Light Feet blog:

Hiking in bear country? Our Smelly Proof Clear Flat Storage Bags make an excellent trick-or-treat bag.

And, as always, we’d love to see your adventures! Share your trail costumes and spooky plant finds with us by tagging us on social media (@gossamergear) and using the hashtag #takelessdomore.
October 27, 2022 — Korrin Bishop