In “Little Shop of Horrors”, the audience is introduced to the Audrey II, a Venus flytrap-like plant which falls to Earth as a seed, grows to immense size, and starts eating humans, and, at least in the musical version, has an impressive baritone singing voice.
There are plenty of bizarre plants native to Earth to keep botanists busy without looking for alien species. While none of these plants can sing, some may qualify as horrors.
Most people are familiar with the Dionaea muscipula, or Venus flytrap. It is commonly sold as a houseplant. The plants, native to North Carolina swamps, attract insects and spiders into their open lobes. The flytrap has sensory hairs inside the lobes; when the hairs detect movement, the lobes close and the trapped insect is digested. Venus flytraps are classified as a vulnerable species due to habitat destruction by wildfires.
Darlington californica, the cobra lily, takes a more passive approach to obtaining food. The cobra lily has tubular leaves which attract insects with their reddish color. Once inside, an insect has difficulty finding its way out due to the slippery inside of the tube and window-like translucent areas at the top of the leaf’s hood. Eventually the insect falls into the digestive enzymes in the base of the leaf. The cobra lily grows best in bogs and is native to the northwestern United States.
Nepenthes rajah and Nepenthes rafflesiana are pitcher plants native to Indonesia and Southeast Asia, commonly known as monkey cups. Both are scrambling vines with pitcher-shaped leaves. The leaves are filled with a nectar the plant produces to attract prey; the prey falls into the cup and eventually drowns. What makes these members of Nepenthes unusual is their size. The two plants are known to trap not only insects and spiders, but also lizards, frogs, and even small mammals such as mice and shrews. Both plants are classified as endangered due to habitat destruction.
Wolffia angusta, a species of watermeal native to Asia, is the smallest flower on Earth. Twelve of the plants would fit on the head of a pin. The plants have no root structure and float freely on the water’s surface, sometimes grouped together with other W. angusta and other floating plants. To the naked eye, they often look like cornmeal scattered across the water. Plants in the Wolffia genus are high in protein and are often harvested for food.
Welwitschia mirabilis thrives in extremely dry conditions. In fact, the oldest specimens are estimated to be up to 2000 years old. W. mirabilis is a low shrub with just two leaves which grow throughout the plant’s life. It is native to the Namib desert in Angola and Namibia on the southwestern coast of Africa. The W. mirabilis needs only three inches of water per year; it obtains one inch from rain and two from fog off the Atlantic Ocean. Desert natives eat many parts of the plant; they call it the onyanga, or desert onion.
Wollemia nobilis may be the best plant at hide and seek. This evergreen native to Australia has a very distinctive bark which looks like bubbles of chocolate and flat, fern-like leaves. The W. nobilis was only known from fossil records and was presumed extinct until David Noble, a field officer in the Wollemi National Park service, found some live specimens in the Blue Mountains in 1994. Botanists estimate the oldest W. nobilis to be between 500 and 1000 years old. Less than 100 live specimens have been found.
Hydnora africana is a foul smelling plant native to Africa. This is a parasitic plant which grows from the root of another plant. Most of the plant’s growth is underground. The aboveground flower gives off a strong scent of animal dung in order to attract dung beetles. The beetles crawl into the flower, which closes temporarily so that when the flower eventually releases the beetles, they’ll carry more pollen away with them. When scientist Sherwin Carlquist transplanted some specimens to California in 1973, he discovered that H. africana was just as efficient at attracting California dung beetles as it had been at attracting African ones.
Amorphophallus titanum, the corpseflower, is named for its shape. When the Latin name is broken down, it literally translates as “huge misshapen penis.” The flower looks like a massive calla lily with an immense, phallus-shaped spadex growing through the middle. Corpseflowers can reach 10 feet in height, but they’re better known for their smell: dead, rotting flesh which attracts carrion beetles who serve in pollination. Corpseflowers are native to Sumatra but have been transplanted around the world.
Written By: Donald Alvord at Bonsai Tree Gardener