Tag Archives: nature

Garden of Horrors: Lithops

Garden of Horrors: Lithops

I started this series to share disgusting plants—and typically we focus on plants that look like Lovecraftian monstrosities or those that ooze blood. Why? Well, because occasionally it’s nice to be reminded that real life is often weirder than fiction and nature can be just as (or more) disgusting than anything I dream up.

Today, however, I’m going to deviate away from the genuinely revolting, and instead focus on the strange. If we’re sticking with the horror theme, this plant would be the Gizmo of the plant world, or perhaps the Exogorth. Weird, maybe unsettling, and possibly bordering on cute… yep, I’m talking about Lithops.

Photographed by Egor V. Pasko – private collection of Ivan I. Boldyrev – CC BY-SA 3.0

Doesn’t it just look so happy? It’s like someone told it a joke. Sometimes these are called pebble plants or living rocks, and the reasoning is clear. These little succulents have fused leaves that allow them to camouflage themselves among stones—and occasionally they also look like goofy little puppets. So, you can see why I compared them to the adorable side of terror. (By the way, did you know Howie Mandel was the voice of Gizmo? No? Well, now you do!) Originally from southern Africa, these little pals have become a popular house plant over the years, and you can often find them at nurseries alongside their fellow succulents all over the world.

There are a great many varieties—well over thirty, and if I’m honest, they sprout some delightful blossoms. The “grossest” is probably Lithops verruculosa but even that variant with its little warts isn’t that disgusting. Perhaps “Garden of Horrors” isn’t the right classification for these cute little buggers. They’re weird but not horrible. If they’re anything, they’re very rude. Here’s a time-lapse of a lithops sticking its flower-tongue out at you.

Yeah, I’ll admit it, I’m grasping at straw with this one. These plants are adorable. We’ll be back to regularly scheduled horror-plants on the next installment of Garden of Horrors. Until then, happy gardening.

(Featured Image: “lithops” by Robin Kramer)


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Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae

Garden of Horrors: Gymnosporangium Juniperi-Virginianae

The natural world is often stranger than we give it credit, case in point heteroecious rust fungi which requires two hosts to complete their lifecycle. And some choose to do it in the creepiest way possible.

Enter Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae more commonly known as cedar-apple rust. The only thing more disturbing than its letter-salad binomial name is the way it looks—in particular in the spring when the pathogen is ready to leave its cedar/juniper home and find its next host.

The gall of Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae with with telial horns
The gall of Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae with telial horns

See what I mean? There’s something downright disgusting in those creepy finger-like protrusions. They remind me of an inverted tree-anemone (a comparison that is even more accurate when they’re wet.) Those are called telial horns, and they sprout from galls created by the fungus from the year before. Once it warms up the galls “sprout” and begins spreading spores that are usually looking for apple trees, although it’ll happily infest pears or hawthorns as well.

It’s not kind to the fruit trees either. Infestations can reduce the yield on crops and cause blemishes in the fruit—they can also kill the cedar trees as well. It’s so widespread that there’s loads of information out there focused on prevention. Luckily, the Teliospores can’t travel too far. So the best way to control the fungus is to remove cedars found within a mile of orchards. No cedars no fungus.

Here’s a quick video from Cornell University showing a timelapse of the horns growing from the fungi galls over six days. Vermiphobes you might want to look away.

Happy gardening.


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Dead Drop: Missives from the desk of K. M. AlexanderWant to stay in touch with me? Sign up for Dead Drop, my rare and elusive newsletter. Subscribers get news, previews, and notices on my books before anyone else delivered directly to their inbox. I work hard to make sure it’s not spammy and full of interesting and relevant information.  SIGN UP TODAY →

Garden of Horrors: Hydnora Africana

The idea of parasites is already creepy enough. Something deriving nutrients at the expense of a host can give one the willies. This has been amplified in fiction—many of our monsters are parasitic in nature. But parasites are common in nature and particularly common in the plant kingdom. While most look harmless, some can be downright disturbing, looking more like a movie monster than a plant. Think I’m kidding? Enter the Hydnora africana.

The flower of the Hydnora africana
The flower of the Hydnora africana

Not that’s not a Graboid. It’s a parasitic plant that lives mostly underground attached to the roots of its Euphorbia host. It has no leaves and doesn’t produce chlorophyll—but it does flower. After heavy rainfall, it reproduces by means of a creepy-mouth flower that emerges from beneath the ground and attracts pollinators. How does it do that, exactly? Well, it emits an awful odor that smells like poop. Fun! This, in turn, attracts dung and carrion beetles. The flower then traps the bugs for about a days allowing them to gather up pollen, then the flower opens like a monstrous mouth and the bugs are free to go find another Hydnora africana. It’s all very romantic.

PBS Digital Studios (arguably the best YouTube channel today) did an episode of Gross Science where Anna Rothschild explores the weird life of the Hydnora africana. She goes into more details on how this parasitic plant lives and reproduces. You can check it out below.

So, not only does the Hydnora africana look like a special effects monster taken from an episode of Star Trek: The Original Series, but it also smells like feces, and apparently (if you’re interested) this horrific thing is edible. After pollination, the Hydnora africana grows a fruit underground and apparently it tastes pretty dang good. So, if that sounds delicious to you… uh, have at it.

Happy gardening.


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Garden of Horrors: Pterocarpus Angolensis

Garden of Horrors: Pterocarpus Angolensis

Fantasy authors love coming up with fantastical names for the trees that inhabit their magical worlds, and as readers, we all enjoy learning about new species of strange flora be it George R. R. Martin’s ghostly “weirwood” or J. K. Rowling’s violent “Whomping Willow.” But our own world is ripe with plant life that sometimes seems almost fictional.

Enter the Pterocarpus angolensis a type of tree from southern Africa. It’s also known by its common name: the bloodwood. Why? Well, because it bleeds, man. It bleeds! Want proof?

Pterocarpus angolensis—the bloodwood, bleeding
Pterocarpus angolensis—the bloodwood, bleeding

Ack! I mean, doesn’t it look like this tree was the victim of a horrible crime? High levels of tannins (the same stuff in red wine) are what gives the tree’s sap its dreadful color. Because of its red hue, the sap is often used as a folk remedy for blood conditions. I mean, if it looks like blood it must be good for blood, right? Right? Folk remedies aside, the tree has been shown to have actual medicinal benefits as well. (See all its uses in this extensive PDF document.) I also found a video on YouTube of something cutting into a bloodwood, and it’s as disgusting as you’d expect. It looks like something from a horror movie.

Yuck. Funny enough the P. angolensis isn’t the only tree that bleeds red. Australia has a species named the Corymbia calophylla, a type of eucalyptus that oozes a red kino and also looks like a murder victim. That video above might be from the latter. Either way—gross.

So yeah, now you know some trees bleed red, and it makes most fictional creations seem almost tame in comparison. Happy gardening!


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Dead Drop: Missives from the desk of K. M. AlexanderWant to stay in touch with me? Sign up for Dead Drop, my rare and elusive newsletter. Subscribers get news, previews, and notices on my books before anyone else delivered directly to their inbox. I work hard to make sure it’s not spammy and full of interesting and relevant information.  SIGN UP TODAY →

Hydnellum peckii

Garden of Horrors: Hydnellum Peckii

Sometimes nature is downright bizarre. Take the Hydnellum peckii, commonly called the “bleeding tooth fungus” (it’s also called “strawberries and cream” by people who, I assume, have never had strawberries or cream before.) When young the Hydnellum peckii produces a fluid that makes it look like a mushroom murder victim. It appears to “bleed” a red juice that in certain light looks an awful lot like blood. I’m not kidding, it’s kind of horrific.

A young Hydnellum peckii "bleeding"
A young Hydnellum peckii “bleeding”

The bright red fluid actually contains a pigment that is known to have anticoagulant properties, but it doesn’t stick around for very long. Once the fungus ages the “bleeding” stops and the Hydnellum peckii dries out and looks rather dull.

Despite its appearance, Hydnellum peckii is not poisonous, but the fungus is so bitter it’s considered inedible. Besides, why would you want to put this thing in your mouth anyway? That’s disgusting. Don’t be nasty.


Dead Drop: Missives from the desk of K. M. AlexanderWant to stay in touch with me? Sign up for Dead Drop, my rare and elusive newsletter. Subscribers get news, previews, and notices on my books before anyone else delivered directly to their inbox. I work hard to make sure it’s not spammy and full of interesting and relevant information.  SIGN UP TODAY →

Clathrus archeri

Garden of Horrors: The Clathrus Archeri

The natural world is weird, wonderful, and often terrifying. Case in point: this morning, I stumbled across the Clathrus archeri—a real-world Lovecraftian species of fungi. Its know more commonly as the “devil’s fingers,” but to me, it looks more like a chthonian spawn emerging from its egg. The sticky black gleba doesn’t help. Don’t believe me?

Clathrus archeri
The devil’s fingers breaking free from their shell.

While originally from the Australasia the devil’s fingers have spread over the last century. Mycologists think that during WW1 the Clathrus archeri hitchhiked on Australian supplies for the war effort. Likewise, these stowaways have also shown up in California where it’s believed they arrived with shipments of bamboo. If the picture above hasn’t creeped you out, here’s a timelapse I found on YouTube showing one emerge.

Oh, and when mature they smell like rotten flesh. Because of course.