Unique and Unusual Plants of the World
The other day, it was dark, dreary and rainy here in Connecticut so I decided to go somewhere that would make me happy: the greenhouses at my alma mater, the University of Connecticut.
If you’ve never been there and you live in the area, you really should go. Although the greenhouses aren’t huge, they’re jammed with hundreds and hundreds of species of exotic and unusual plants from all over the world.
I took a TON of pictures in the greenhouses and wanted to share some of them with you. I also did research on some of the weird, wild and wonderful plants there, so I’m gonna share all that newfound knowledge with you. I am, after all, the world’s biggest plant nerd…..
This plant is Mandragora autumnalis, the Autumn Mandrake. Yes, that mandrake. As in, Harry Potter and the screaming baby roots. Wasn’t that scene just a tad creepy? I mean, they were supposedly going to grind them up to use them in potions….yeah, ick.
So, anyway, J.K. Rowling did get that semi-creepy scene from actual folklore. Ancient cultures believed mandrakes had magical properties and because the roots are vaguely human-shaped, they also believed they would scream when uprooted (again, ICK!).
The plant is native to Israel and its surrounds and contains multiple substances, including scopolamine, hyoscymine and atropine. Although it has historically been used as a preoperative anesthetic and for motion sickness (scopolamine is the drug in those patches they give you to put behind your ear on cruises or before surgery), please don’t go digging one up and eating it. They’re poisonous. It is a pretty plant though.
This post contains affiliate links. When you make a purchase through one of these links, I receive a small commission. This does not affect your purchase price.
The King Protea (Protea cynaroides) is native to South Africa. In fact, it’s their national flower. Can you really blame them? It’s beautiful!
The really cool thing about this plant is that it lives in a region that gets regular wildfires. That’s not a problem for this guy though. After the top burns off, the root senses that the fire has occurred and it sends out new buds that have been dormant and protected underground. Pretty cool, huh?
This rather scary-looking plant is Alluaudia ascendens. It doesn’t seem to have a common name. I’m guessing it’s because no one really wants to cozy up with this one and become friends. No one but the lemurs, that is.
You see, this plant is native to southwest Madagascar where lemurs live (too cool, I’d love to live where there are lemurs!) Anyway, the lemurs have special footpads that allow them to live in and among these wicked-looking plants without getting spiked. They even eat the plants! No thanks!
Trumpet or Snakewood Tree
This beautiful tree is the Trumpet or Snakewood Tree (Cecropia peltata). It’s a native of the Caribbean and tropical America.
This tree has a unique talent. It recruits ants to live in it! It does this with hollow stems that make great ant houses, and sweet treats for the ants called Mullerian bodies (basically little sugar bombs situated on the surface of the tree). If you’d like to see a picture of Mullerian bodies, you can check them out here.
Why would the tree want to attract ants, you ask? Because they drive off insects and other critters that would potentially harm the tree. The ants even remove competing plants or epiphytes that might cause harm to their host.
Fun fact: Epiphytes are plants that live on other plants. Orchids are epiphytes in their native environment, as are air plants. Although they’re not parasites, depending on the type of plant, epiphytes can get so big they’ll eventually smother the host.
Speaking of epiphytes, next on our list is the Autograph Tree (Clusia rosea), a native of the Caribbean. Technically, this tree is a hemiepiphyte.
Another fun fact: Hemiepiphytes are plants that start out their life cycle as epiphytes high in the tree canopy. As they grow, their roots grow downward until they reach the ground. At that point, the roots burrow into the ground and the plant becomes nonepiphytic. Cool, huh?
Remember how I said some epiphytes can harm their hosts? That’s what the Autograph Tree is known to do. It gets so big that as its roots grow downward towards the ground, they actually strangle their host plant. Not very nice of them, if you ask me.
In case you’re really liking those epiphytes, I have another one for you. This is Codonanthe devosiana, a native of southeastern Brazil. This plant is not an epiphyte of other plants, however, but of ants!
It develops glands called extrafloral nectaries that produce nectar. Ants luuuuurrrrrvvvve nectar. So, they’re attracted to the nectar and visit the plant. While they’re there, they notice the pretty, brightly-colored seeds Codonanthe produces and carry them back to the nest. There, the seeds germinate and, voila!, a new Codonanthe is born. No word on how the ants feel about this.…
Before we go any further, just wanted to let you know I’ve got some free goodies for you. You can find them here, and then you’ll get instructions to pick up ALL the freebies, all at once!
No post on weird, wild and wonderful plants would be complete without a section on carnivorous plants, now would it? Well, you’re in luck! UConn has a bunch of them.
Venus Fly Trap
I think we’ve all seen Venus fly traps at one point or another. They’re a type of carnivorous plant called snap traps, because they snap shut when their trigger hairs are touched.
They’re native only to North and South Carolina, USA, which I didn’t know. Unfortunately, they’re also endangered in the wild due to their coolness factor, ie., everyone wants one so too many people have collected them. In other words, if you see one in the wild, leave it alone!
You can always buy one from a reputable source if you really want one. If you do decide to get a Venus flytrap, please check out this website to find out how to keep it healthy. (Hint: Feeding it hamburger is not going to make it a happy critter).
Most kids love these plants because of the creepy crawly factor, so if you’re trying to introduce your kids to the wonderful world of plants, this is a great place to start (as long as YOU don’t mind the creepy crawly factor! Haha)
Next up on the carnivorous list are the sundews, genus Drosera. UConn has three different species. Although they look very different from each other, you can see what makes them similar and gives them the name flypaper trap, if you look closely.
Hint: It’s particularly obvious in the King sundew picture above. They all exude a sticky sap that attracts and then traps their insect prey. Once the bugs are stuck, the leaves (or tentacles, if you prefer) bend over and engulf their unlucky victim.
What’s really cool about these plants is that they can differentiate between insect prey and other things, like rain. They will not respond to even the heaviest rainstorm. Pretty smart, huh?
Although the pitcher plants are native to eastern North America all the way from Florida to the Arctic, I’ve never seen one in the wild. Of course, I also don’t spend too much time in peat bogs where they like to hang out.
Pitcher plants are pitfall traps, as insects fall into their deep traps filled with digestive enzymes and can’t escape because of downward-facing hairs. There are many, many species of pitcher plants. If you’d like to check them out in more detail, you can visit this site.
Last on our list of carnivorous plants list is the bug plant (Roridula dentata), a native of South Africa.
Technically, I guess, the bug plant isn’t carnivorous. It carries on a symbiotic relationship with a type of assassin bug, Pameridea marlothii. The plant exudes a sticky sap that attracts bugs, which get caught in the sap. Then, the assassin bug comes along and eats the trapped bugs. As it is doing so, it poops, which fertilizes the plant.
Unfortunately, Roridula is becoming endangered because of habitat loss due to the farming of Rooibos. Because of their close symbiotic relationship, this has also caused a precipitous decline in the numbers of Pameridea. Hopefully, something will be done to allow both plant species (and the insects too!) to live in harmony.
And even better? When you’re done, you can head across campus and stop at the Dairy Bar for ice cream! They make their own with milk from the cows raised at UConn, so it is phen-o-men-al!! Give mint chocolate chip a try. Trust me on this. If you want to see what the fuss is all about, check out their page here.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my little foray into the world of weird, wild and wonderful plants! I saw many more plants than those I’ve shown you here, so look for another post or two in the coming weeks about the amazing plants I encountered at UConn. I can’t wait to share them with you! (Update: Here’s that post too!)
Feel free to share me with your gardening or plant-addicted friends. I’d love it if you’d follow me on Facebook (www.facebook.com/crazyorganicmama) or pin me on Pinterest if you have relevant boards. If you’re not already an email subscriber, why not head here right now and sign up? No spam, just updates and freebies, I promise!
Related Unique & Unusual Plants Posts
As always, smile and have a crazy organic day!
References and further reading: