Plants are generally thought to be pretty boring. They just stand there looking all green. But that is only because we are so used to just strolling past green grass and trees that only liven up in autumn. It is also pure anti-plant prejudice. The botanical world is every bit as rich and interesting as the animal one, if only we take the time notice them.
Plants provide us with food, medicines, and the oxygen we breathe. They live on a different time scale to humans. We buzz around them while they tend to move only slowly with the seasons. If we could see their sedate lives sped up we would see them communicating, waging chemical warfare against other plants and animals, we would see them responding to the weather. But these are run of the mill characteristics shared by many plants just to allow them to survive. In special situations, though, plants have to develop special qualities. This list examines some of the strangest plants to be found on the Earth.
If you don’t have the time to make a close examination of plants, then the world is diverse enough to have thrown up a whimsical range to catch your attention. Here are fifteen of the weirdest and trippiest plants that evolution has created.
15. Rainbow Trees
Imagine walking through a forest of trees 200 foot tall with bark striped like a rainbow. It would look like something from a gaudy fantasy film. But Eucalyptus Deglupta, commonly called the “Rainbow Eucalyptus,” really exists in the forests of the Philippines. The trees grow so fast that their bark peels off in strips that run down the length of the trunk. This exposes the green underneath. That green then changes colour as the bark ages – going yellow, orange, red, purple and brown. Despite their fancy exterior the trees are mostly grown to be pulped into paper and are considered an invasive species in some places.
14. Snapdragon Seed Pods
Snapdragon flowers are those fun ones which you can pinch at the sides to make their mouths flap open and shut. Snapdragons have also been used heavily in research by botanists – perhaps they just like pretty things in their labs. In fact their genetics have been used as a model for many plant genetic studies. Gregor Mendel and Charles Darwin both used snapdragons to study inheritance. Once the flowers have been pollinated and seeds produced by your experiment though you are left with a field of these pods. Each one looks like a screaming skull. Science isn’t all fun and flowers.
Juboticaba, Myrciaria Cauliflora, is a fruit tree with a unique way of producing its fruit. Unlike most trees which will hang their fruit from branches the Jaboticaba sprouts its black fruit directly from the trunk. It looks like they are being bled from the wood. The fruit are popular in Brazil but tend to ferment after just a few days once they are picked so they are rare to find in other places. The fruit can be eaten raw or turned into jams, strong wines, or liqueurs. If you want one for yourself the Jaboticaba can be grown as a bonsai tree.
12. Corpse Flower
The Stinking Corpse Lily, Rafflesia Arnoldii, is the largest flower in the world. It also stinks. The plant has no leaves or roots, surviving parasitically on a host tree. The flower bursts through the bark of its host and can grow to be up to a meter across. The petals are mottled pink and brown. As well as looking like rotten flesh it has the same stench. The smell attracts flies in search of a free meal but they end up picking up pollen. The flower is used in traditional medicine to aid recovery after childbirth. So next time you need a bouquet of flowers for a new mother consider some Stinking Corpse Lilies.
11. Titan arum
The Titan arum is the tallest flowering structure in the world. It grows up to 3m tall but is not a single flower. The central spike carries the small white flowers of the plant. Once the flowers are ready to spread pollen the spike begins to produce heat. The heat helps to spread a fetid odour likened to that of a rotten corpse. This is again a method of the plant to attract flies. The flowering of the Titan Arum is rare, thankfully for those with noses, but they have been closely studied to discover what chemicals the plant makes to get such horrible stink.
10. Elephant Foot Yam
The Elephant Foot Yam, Amorphophallus Paeoniifolius, is closely related to the Titan Arum. One way of distinguishing between the various species in this group of plants in the past was to sniff them and see which terrible smell they made. The Elephant Foot Yam, despite its strange appearance, is widely cultivated. The tubers, which have given it the yam name, are the third most widely used carbohydrate source in Indonesia after rice and maize. The Amorphophallus portion of the plant’s name directly refers to the shape of the flower – it means “Shapeless Penis.”
9. White Baneberry
The white baneberry also goes by the cheery name of “Doll’s Eye Berries.” As the Baneberry name suggests the creepy looking eye fruit are poisonous. Eat a handful of them and the effects on the heart are immediate, and can lead to death. As few as six berries can be lethal. Though it is a brave person who looks at them, sees them staring back, and thinks that eating them is a bright idea. They tend to grow in woods so it is entirely possible to blunder into a patch of these plants and end up surrounded by tiny eyes gazing at you.
8. Bitter Melon
The Bitter Melon, Momordica Charantia, is a vine grown throughout the world. Also called the Bitter Squash the fruit it bears have a notably warty appearance. They are hollow with a thin layer of flesh. Mostly they are eaten while still green because as the fruit ripens and turns yellow it becomes bitter and tough. Once fully ripened though the fruit splits open to reveal the bright red pith inside which is sweet. Traditional medicine has recommended its use in preventing everything from diabetes to HIV. The medicinal effects require further experiments but known side effects of Bitter Melon include diarrhea, fever, and incontinence.
7. Naked Man Orchid
Orchis italica, called the Naked Man Orchid (or less cheerfully the Hanging Man Orchid), is found all around the Mediterranean. They are hugely popular among orchid collectors because… well the petals look like naked men, so what more do you need? There are around 40 varieties so you can have any size and colour of naked man on your orchid that you choose. Unfortunately their very popularity may be their downfall as they are considered threatened in the wild. With so few plants taking the shape of a naked man, including pointy little pricks, what is a collector to do?
6. Pitcher Plants
Animals eat plants. That feels like the natural order of things. Some plants have chosen to fight back. Pitcher plants lure in insects, spiders, and even small mammals and reptiles and then drown them. Their modified leaves hold fluids that contain digestive enzymes and chemicals. Once an animal enters the pitcher it slips down the slippery, waxy interior of the pitcher so it cannot climb out. Once exhausted by its escape attempts it slips into the fluid, drowns, and gets digested to provide the plant with nutrients lacking in the soil. Some pitcher plants have evolved transparent patches on their surface to act as false exits to confuse those animals which are unfortunate enough to enter.
5. Flowering Stones
You’ll not be surprised to hear that there is no such thing as a flowering stone. But these plants really do look like they are just that. Various Lithops species are found in rocky and bare patches in South Africa. The many species have evolved to resemble the rocks native to the areas they live in. They consist of a pair of bulky leaves almost fused together. This shape helps them to survive in areas of low rainfall, their small surface area gives less space for evaporation. Lithops are popular house plants and sold as living rocks. As too much watering can kill them they thrive on being left alone.
4. Hydnora Africana
Growing your own leaves is just so tiring and boring. Hydnora Africana does not bother with them. It lives parasitically from the roots of another plant. It spends most of its time underground only poking its flower above the soil when the time comes to breed. The craggy bulb of the flower emerges and then splits open to reveal the crimson flesh inside. At first the flower only opens slightly, enough to allow beetles to enter. Stringy fibres then make it hard for the beetles to get out. Stuck inside for several days the beetles get covered in pollen. Finally the flower spreads open and the beetles get to escape, carrying the pollen with them.
3. Albino Redwoods
Ask a child to draw a tree and you’ll get a brown trunk and green leaves. Everyone knows that trees are green. Albino redwoods buck that trend. Albino redwoods are trees that cannot produce chlorophyll. Without chlorophyll they are unable to capture sunlight and produce their own sugars. This would be fatal to most trees. Most trees live alone but redwoods often join their roots together. When an albino redwood sprouts it must attach itself to the root system of another tree which it can extract food from. Albino redwoods are extraordinarily rare. When they do appear their locations are usually kept secret to prevent people damaging them by visiting them.
2. Red Tumbleweed
Tumbleweed can be impressive enough. When they dry out and detach from the ground they can form vast drifting dunes. Bassia scoparia is native to Eurasia but it has been introduced to America and somehow picked up the name Mexican Fireweed, or the more prosaic Burningbush. Where native tumbleweeds turn a desiccated yellow or brown the Bassia turns a fiery scarlet. The seeds are spread by the wind and the tumbleweed is just what is left of the plant once the seeds have been released. Fields of them are grown in Japan where the black seeds of the plant are known “Land Caviar.”
1. Kissing Lips Plant
Psychotria Elata is called he Kissing Lips plant. It is also known as Hooker Lips. One look at it is enough to understand where the name comes from. The plant is native to the jungles of Central America but, despite its seductive appeal, it is becoming endangered due to loss of habitat. The lips would not look out of place on Batman’s enemy Poison Ivy and fittingly it also produces a hallucinogenic chemical. The kiss is not the true flower of the plant. Those emerge from between the shiny red lips in a slimy looking yellow mass. There may be a lesson about beauty being only the surface.