10 Bizarre Plants
Image by iStock
Orchids are not shy about crossing the other species within their family, and hence gorgeous hybrids abound.
10 amazing examples from the weird and wonderful world of plants
Faced with extraordinary challenges, plants have evolved surprising solutions that make them seem bizarre to human observers. But really, their extreme appearances are clever responses to life's challenging circumstances.
Here are 10 wildly wonderful plants that have adapted in extraordinary ways for survival:
1. SUPERSIZED AMAZONIANS
Take the Amazon waterlily (Victoria amazonica; pictured) for our first example. It's a supersized version of the common and familiar waterlily (Nymphaea). Each leaf can reach 2 m (6½ ft.) across and has a vertical rim up to several centimetres high. They evolved in deep-water parts of the Amazon River. These hefty leaves require strong engineering – one good look at their undersides gives their secret away. A sturdy structure of ribs and cross-ribs keep these monstrous green pads afloat in strong currents.
2. HUNGRY FOR MEAT
Man-eating plants are strictly imaginary – but hundreds of species of plants do digest insects and other small organisms to supplement their nutrient intakes. Amazingly, this propensity seems to have evolved independently in about five different instances. Most carnivorous plants evolved in water-logged soils that lack the bacteria necessary to take nitrogen gas out of the air and turn it into a form that the plants can then take up. Nitrogen is an essential component in proteins and DNA, so without it life doesn't go on.
Carnivorous plants trap insects in "pitfall" traps or sticky traps. Once a victim has been captured, the plant excretes digestive enzymes similar to those produced in your own small intestine. The prey's amino acids are absorbed by the plant to supplement its nutritional demands. Making the required pitfall pitchers, sticky sundews and snap-shut flytraps costs a "carnie" a huge energy expenditure – that's why you find them only where there is plenty of sunlight to drive all the expensive machinery!
3. CATCH AND RELEASE
Some plants catch insects to pollinate their flower, but then release them once the task has been accomplished. One of the most ancient flowers (evolutionarily speaking) to do this is the waterlily (pictured). Waterlilies are pollinated by beetles, which aren't the brightest or most coordinated of insects. In flight, they are somewhat like heavy military transport helicopters – noisy too! To ensure that the beetle gets the pollen onto its legs before moving to another flower, the waterlily closes right up overnight. Some botanists call this "smash-and-mash pollination" for the beetle lacks the speed and precision of a bee. Never mind – the job gets done – which is why we still have waterlilies after 600 million years!
4. SLIPPERLY SLIDES
Dutchman's pipe vine is the common name for a genus (Aristolochia; pictured) that sports bizarrely shaped flowers resembling old-fashioned Dutch meerschaum pipes. These floral marvels hold a special appeal for tiny flies and gnats, for they have the ability to warm up and release an aroma of decomposing meat. Curious, their insect visitors climb into the mouth of the flower, searching for a meal. It's then a slippery slide into the swollen base of the flower, but their exit is blocked by backward-facing hairs. The insects' unwitting role is to pollinate the flower, and once this has happened, the hairs wither, making escape possible!
5. SMELLS LIKE DINNER
Since flies are often on the hunt for rotten meat, many species of plants are able to pump out eau de carrion. Members of the Arum Family, such as skunk cabbages (pictured), are well known for this feat, as is their relative, the dragon arum, Dracunculus. It also has glistening red flowers that could pass for a steak if you were missing your glasses on a dark night!
6. CRASH OF THE TITAN
The king of these arum relatives is known as the titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum; pictured). In flower, its central column can reach 2.7 m (9 ft.) in height! The surrounding spathe can be up to 1 m (40 in.) across, making it perhaps the largest inflorescence of any herbaceous plant. Not to be outdone, the leaves reach 4.6 m (15 ft.) tall and wide.
When this Sumatran giant blooms, it produces an "eye-watering stench," writes David Mabberley in Plant-Book, that can be detected up to 15 m (50 ft.) away. Scientists at Kew Gardens relate the odour chemicals to those found in rotting eggs. While humans are repelled, carrion beetles flock to this flower and effect its pollination. After a few days of this enormous effort, the flower collapses, and the plant doesn't bloom again for years.
7. SWEET TEMPTATIONS
Cyclamen repandum (pictured) is native to Europe, where it is most often found in shade or part shade, nestled into the roots of deciduous trees or pines. A challenge faced by all plants, since they are not mobile, is how to extend their range. This is often done by producing seeds that catch a breeze and sail off from the parent plant.
Since seed dispersal by wind is not an option on the sheltered forest floor, Cyclamen species enlist the help of their insect neighbours. Ripe Cyclamen seeds are covered with a sticky sugary coating. Ants seek out the seed and carry it back to their nests. Along the way, however, they always drop a few, and these eventually germinate and grow into new clumps of Cyclamen.
8. TEAM PLAYERS
At first glance, the charming black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia; pictured) seems to be a single flower, with its two-dozen petals reaching for the sun. In reality it is a sort of floral colony, with many individual flowers teaming up to “look big” and attract pollinating insects. The individual flowers (ray florets) around the outer edge have a large, yellow modified petal. The small, brown disc florets cluster within that yellow frame, giving the structure its “black eyes.”
This arrangement characterizes the aster family (Asteraceae), and its evolutionary success has created over 1,100 plant genera and 25,000 species worldwide.
Pieris japonica ‘Mountain Fire’ (Image: Flickr / Lesley Middlemass)
9. BRILLIANT DISGUISES
Unfurling like red flags, the new leaves of many evergreen shrubs herald spring. This bright burst of colour – think of Fraser’s photinia or Pieris japonica ‘Mountain Fire’ (pictured) – adds a splash to the garden, but more important to the plants, it helps ward off hungry insects looking for tender meal.
Botanists at the University of Chicago analyzed data from hundreds of trees and shrubs and found that 6 per cent produce pink or red new leaves. Insects cannot see red leaves as well as green leaves, so the red flush acts as camouflage. Pests may also be tricked into perceiving the new leaves as tough, old leaves that have turned red for autumn.
Phragmipedium caudatum (Image: Flickr / Gabriel Li)
10. FLIGHTS OF FANCY
Ever wonder how the orchid plant family's 18,000 species can be so variable and yet so recognizable at the same time? How can these exotic beauties be so diverse that we are endlessly fascinated with their form and yet so similar that almost anyone can spot one? A quick look at their anatomy reveals the answer.
This huge family of flowers shows little major floral or foliage diversity. Basically, species are variations on a theme – a very successful theme. As with many other animal-pollinated flowers, the showy flower parts are its sepals and petals. The three sepals are usually similar and enclose the flower bud during its formation, but it is the three petals that inspire our flights of fancy. One is always different form the other two and is called the lip or labellum. It may be pouch-shaped, ruffled, horned, bearded or wildly marked and spotted.
The two side petals may also catch the eye – those of the mandarin orchid (Phragmipedium caudatum; pictured) twirl downwards in long ribbons.
The business of the flower is, of course, sexual reproduction, and orchids have their own unique approach. The male and female reproductive organs are fused into a cylindrical column, atop which sits the cap-like pollinia, holding millions of grains of pollen. In comes a bee, and off pops the pollinium. Stuck to the unwitting bee, this pollen-packet-to-go hitches a free ride and jumps off at the next flower, where it gets the job done. Flower and pollinator are perfectly matched, so it is not surprising that the huge number of pollinators (including bees, wasps, flies, ants, beetles, hummingbirds, bats and frogs) is equalled by just as many forms of orchids.
Orchids are not shy about crossing the other species (or genera) within their family, and hence gorgeous hybrids abound.