Botanical Mystery Tour

A podcast about the real-life science behind the plants in pop culture.

In each episode we interview a scientist, horticulturist, or educator at the Garden who dives into the botany behind our favorite stories. We explore what’s real and what’s fantasy, while discovering plants that are characters all on their own.


Hosts: Jasmine Leonas and Erica Masini
Producer: Charles Goss

Latest Episode

Episode 7: Harry Potter and Magical Plants

Guest: Amy Iler, Conservation Scientist

We all know the “Harry Potter” series is filled with magic. But did you realize how important magical plants like Devil’s snare and mandrake are to the stories? We explore whether these kinds of plants really exist in the Muggle world.

Episode 6: The Silence of the Lambs and Death's-Head Hawkmoths

Guest: Krissa Skogen, Conservation Scientist

The poster for the movie The Silence of the Lambs is iconic — a sinister winged insect covers the mouth of a pale-faced woman. That insect is a death’s head hawkmoth, and in some cultures it’s considered a dark omen. Do hawkmoths deserve their creepy reputation? What do hawkmoths and Buffalo Bill have in common? And how does Clarice Starling compare to real-life women in science?

Episode 5: Shakespeare in the Garden

Guest: Heather Sherwood Senior Horticulturist

“What's in a name? that which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet.” Botanical references abound in Shakespeare’s works, like in this famous quote from ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ He was a writer who celebrated plants in verse and someone who kept a garden of his own. But his interest in the botanical wasn’t necessarily special for his time. What do modern English gardens have in common with those back in the Bard’s day? And why did he choose to mention certain plants and trees?

Episode 4: Alice in Wonderland and the Mysteries of Mushrooms

Guest: Greg Mueller, Ph.D., Chief Scientist and Vice President of Science

Mushrooms! Colorful, weird, possibly deadly, and an important part of the classic tale by Lewis Carroll. When consumed, the mushrooms Alice encounters have wacky and strange consequences, but are there real-life equivalents? And where can you go to find mushrooms that would feel right at home in Wonderland?

Episode 3: The Star Wars Sarlacc Pit and Carnivorous Plants

Guest: Tom Weaver, former Garden Horticulturist

Move over Darth Vader and Kylo Ren: Sarlaccs are way more terrifying than your light sabers. The terrifying, plant-like creature that almost eats Lando Calrissian in Return of the Jedi is the stuff of nightmares. What makes this pit of despair a plant? Does it have any real-life comparison? Do venus flytraps and pitcher plants torture and communicate with their prey like Sarlaccs do?

Episode 2: The Simpsons, Dennis the Menace, and the Corpse Flower

Guest: Pati Vitt, Ph.D., former Senior Scientist and Manager of Conservation Programs and Curator of the Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank

Amorphophallus titanum, better known as the corpse flower, is one of the Garden’s superstar plants. These stinky, rare blooms attract thousands of visitors intrigued by their foul odor and towering height. How has the corpse flower been accurately (and inaccurately) portrayed as a character in pop culture? Are the references in Dennis the Menace (“The 40 Year Orchid”) and The Simpsons (“Sumatran Century Flower”) based in science or fiction?

Episode 1: Black Mirror and the Automated Drone Insects

Guest: Paul CaraDonna, Ph.D., Research Scientist

Black Mirror is a British sci-fi TV series that explores some nightmarish consequences of new technologies. In the season 3 episode “Hated in the Nation,” humans have curbed colony collapse disorder by developing autonomous drone insects. Are we headed to a world where robot bees are possible? Or is the idea just a ludicrous invention of Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker’s imagination? Do we still not know why bees are disappearing? And what can we do now to save them?