Posted by: Michelle Mitton | June 26, 2008

Weirdest Plants on Earth

Amorphophallus Titanum, Tallest Flower in the WorldSummer normally has me pouring over my garden. With only a few brief months to accomplish anything I have to get my green fix quick or *poof* the summer’s gone and I’m staring at snow in the front yard.

However . . . this year it’s been hard getting in the mood. In just a week or so we begin the remodel on our house and my flower beds out front are going to pay the price and are to be relocated. This Saturday we paint the house so what isn’t being moved will be sadly damaged in the process. I ask you: what fun is it to slave and labor over your beds when they’re just going to get splattered and matted and moved?

So I’m instead going to post about other people’s gardens today and list the oddest, wildest freakiest plants there are. It ought to provide for some entertainment.

1. Amorphophallus titanum. With a name that includes “phallus” you know you’re in for a treat and the name for this beauty comes from the Greek “amorphos” which means “misshapen,” “titanum” which means “enormous” and “phallus” which means . . . well never mind. Apparently those Greeks are a crazy wild bunch of plant lovers.

Anyway, also known as the titan arum it was so nicknamed by David Attenborough (who apparently thought that plants known as gigantic misshapen Greek privates shouldn’t be talked about in polite company) and is the world’s largest inflorescence which means it’s the largest flower in the world that technically grows in clusters. It can grow 10 feet tall and is found in Sumatra. Kind of pretty though in a King-Kong-ish kind of way.

Castor Beans, World's Most Toxic Plant2. Ricinus communis. The castor oil plant has the distinction of being the most poisonous plant in the world and a couple of the beans can kill an adult–if they ate them that is. So don’t eat them.

The beans of the castor plant (or I should more correctly call them seeds) is where castor oil comes from and which has a few good properties about it–triglycerides for example–but then the seeds also contain ricin which is a poison and isn’t something you want mixed up in your java. Despite its toxicity you don’t exactly hear about castor poisonings on the six o’clock news do you? It’s pretty rare and the odd person who happens to chew on a castor bean or two has recovered pretty easily. Whew! Good to know the next time I’ve got a raging castor bean fetish.

3. Nepenthes villosa, Dionaea muscipula and Drosera. Also known as the pitcher plant, Venus fly trap and sundew plants–all carnivorous. Just because you know what they look like doesn’t mean they don’t make the list because they’re odd nonetheless. We still have our terrarium with some of each of these guys and the boys will still catch flies to feed to the plants–and though you’ve seen it before it really is fun to watch those traps close on an insect. Wonder how they’d do with a camel spider?

Joshua Tree4. Yucca brevifolia. I didn’t know that a Joshua tree was anything more than one of the greatest albums ever created until I was an adult driving through Joshua Tree National Forest and saw these hairy creepies everywhere. They’re a conifer, no wait they’re a cactus, no wait, they’re just ugly. Sorry, I shouldn’t say that. I’m sure they’re very beautiful in a creepy-hairy-misshapen-tarantula-tree kind of way.

Ever wonder where they got the name? According to the source of all knowledge, Wikipedia, they were named Joshua trees by some Mormon, or Latter-day Saint, pioneers crossing the plains in the late 19th century. The travelers thought the trees reminded them of the story in the Bible of Joshua reaching to heaven to stop the sun in its course which surprises me a little. I don’t know that that would be my first impression of the species but then I should be glad I suppose people went with the Mormons’ selection because my vote for Ugly Tarantula Tree wouldn’t be nearly so effective as an album name now would it?

Bunchberry Dogwood, World's Fastest Organism5. Cornus Canadensis. You may have seen these in the forests around North America and they’re commonly called the bunchberry dogwood but these little guys hold the record for being the fastest organism in the west. Make that the world. Fastest? Yes fastest.

You probably won’t notice how fast they are because if you blink you miss all the action. The flowers are only a tenth of an inch tall but when they open their petals they fling their pollen into the air with an acceleration 2400 times the force of gravity and achieve speeds of 10 feet per second (though I’d love to see the guy whose job it is to hold the radar gun on the bottom of the forest floor, waiting for this little flower to sneeze–that’s got to earn you some mockery with the guys at the gym). The pollen flies up an inch into the air which is the equivalent of an adult throwing a rock to the top of a six-story building. Not bad. They’re like the Nolan Ryans of the plant world.

Rafflesia Arnoldii, World's Largest Flower6. Rafflesia arnoldii. This most unusual plant holds the record for being the largest single flower in the world. The titan arum is the largest inflorescence but the rafflesia arnoldii is the biggest flower growing all by itself. It too grows in the Indonesian rain forests but has no leaves or stem, can get to be three feet across and weigh up to 24 pounds. Oh, and it smells like rotting flesh. Put THAT in your corsage and smoke it.

Supposedly the flowers are becoming harder to locate as they live as parasites, take months to develop and then blossom for just a couple days for pollination. So it’s not exactly one for your cutting garden is it? Still, it is rather fascinating albeit grotesque. Like something you’d see on Star Trek.

Mimosa pudica, the Tickle Me Plant7. Mimosa pudica. Also known as the Tickle-Me Plant, this weed coming from South and Central America moves when it’s touched. Fun huh? I wish the weeds here did that, all I’d have to do is walk on them and they’d move out of the way. Nice.

Anyway, the plants leaves close up and then droop (nyctinastic movement) when brushed to reopen minutes later and scientists don’t exactly know why–though I saw speculation about electrocurrents in the leaves and other silly language. In most places it’s a weed that causes problems in farming communities and is sometimes toxic to cattle but leave it to Americans to pick up a nasty pest, rename it, trademark it then sell it as a novelty. To see a video of the action click on the website here.

Hydnora Africana8. Hydnora africana. This one is straight out of Little Shop of Horrors. Seriously, it has “Feed me Seymour!” written all over it and is a real, honest-to-goodness plant found in Africa. Probably Namibia as I recall, there are a lot of cool plants found in Namibia and also in Madagascar. Anyway, it’s a parasite and looks rather like a cantaloupe with teeth. This page here has more photos of the nasty creature whose “leaves” look like tentacles.

Wolffia Augusta, World's Smallest Plant9. Wolffia augusta. The world’s smallest plant award goes to the wolffia augusta which is so small that a dozen of them can fit on the head of a pin. Floating on tropical ponds this tiny little plant has no roots and looks more like couscous than a salad if you ask me. Wild.

Welwitschia Mirabilis10. Welwitschia mirabilis. This plant is hard to describe and the pictures don’t do it justice. It starts out as a round head with two broad leaves, one on either side, and it grows in the Namibian dessert, perhaps the harshest on earth, where it can survive for 1000 years growing deep into the ground. The thing is it never gets more than those two leaves–keeps the original two leaves its entire life–which can be several meters long and the desert winds whip those two leaves around, shredding them into little strips, until it looks as if all there is to show is a pile of dead leaves. Then if that’s not weird enough the round flat head of the female plant (think mutant sunflowers from Mars) develops these enormous cones on stalks when it’s time to reproduce. Who thinks these things up? So if you’re ever trekking through the Namibian desert and happen upon a large pile of dead leaves you’ll know that it’s not dead at all. It’s a plant.

Dragon Lily11. Dracunculus vulgaris. You don’t have to use the Latin nomenclature for this beauty, try one of the many other choice names for it instead: Dragon Lily, Voodoo Lily, Snake Lily, Black Dragon, Dragonwort and Stink Lily–aren’t those better? “Dragon Lily?” Apparently it’s the flower that comes with it’s own exotic dancer name. Can’t you just hear yourself on the phone with FTD saying, “Yes, a dozen Stink Lilies please–and don’t scrimp on the stink”?

Native to Mediterranean countries such as Greece, Turkey and Italy it supposedly grows like a weed. Obviously it’s been under appreciated. A lovely specimen such as this a weed? I would have thought it would be welcome in gardens all over the world–though it certainly looks like a dangerous plant with that big spiky thing coming out of the top–probably wouldn’t get through airport security with a bouquet of those under your arm now would you?

Solanum Mammosum, Nipple Fruit12. Solanum Mammosum. Also another plant with a name to make you wince–a name of Biblical proportions. Called the Nipple Fruit, the Apple of Sodom or the Cow Udder–depending on your level of piety–this relative of the tomato is just ripe for the joking but don’t eat it because it’s poisonous. Hard to resist I know but just try to refrain from indulging.

Hold on, I do recall that tomatoes were originally thought to be poisonous as well so maybe this one just hasn’t been put to the test yet. I’d like to meet the person brave enough to try it. I’m not gonna try it–are YOU gonna try it? Don’t tell me, tastes like chicken.

13. Armillaria ostoyae. Okay you got me here, this one isn’t absolutely, technically, completely a plant. It’s a fungus but it’s interesting enough that I’m overlooking that little detail. Said to possibly be the largest living organism on the planet this underground fungus is between 2400 and 7200 years old and covers an area approximately 3.5 miles across and the equivalent of over 1600 football fields, popping up above ground here and there in little clusters like you see here.

World's Largest Organism, The Honey MushroomHow do they know it’s all the same fungus? Well apparently trees in Malheur National Forest (eastern Oregon) were dying because of the tentacle-like growths that moved underground to strangle the trees, cutting off nutrients and moisture. Wasn’t there a movie with Kevin Bacon built on that same premise or something? Anyway, testing in multiple spots revealed it to be all the same growth (apparently they have DNA testing for plants too–good to know the next time I’m mugged by a rhododendron). You know what this means don’t you? Eventually we’ll all be living on one big ol’ fat mushroom. Andrew will be thrilled.

Honorable mentions: The passionflower which isn’t named for the emotion but for the event. As in the Passion of Jesus Christ. The parts of the flowers represent various things in the life of Christ–ten petals for the ten remaining apostles of Christ, three stigmata for three nails and five anthers for five wounds–that kind of thing. All I know is straight passion fruit is amazingly tart–puts lemons to shame. Another honorable mention: the bottle tree in Africa where the trunk is like a bottle and fills with rain water. You’ll have to Google it to get the full effect.

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