Tag Archives: nature

Garden of Horrors: Cordyceps

Garden of Horrors: Cordyceps

Garden of Horrors faithful probably expected we’d eventually come to this: a particular fungus (It’s always a fungus, why is it always a fungus!?) with a terrifying parasitic ability it infects and then enslaves its host. That’s right, today we’re looking at Cordyceps.

Here’s how it works: Cordyceps spores infiltrate an insect’s body, infecting them. Once infected, the real terror begins; the fungus takes control of the insect’s muscles, driving it upward where it forces the insect to fasten itself to a branch and waits for death. The fungus eventually fruits, pushing through the exoskeleton. This kills the host, and the added height helps spread the cordyceps’ spores over the most extensive area possible infecting others below, and the cycle repeats.

Cordyceps ignota parasitizing on a bird spider
Cordyceps ignota parasitizing on a bird spider – Photo by Ian Suzuki, Wikimedia Commons

Ghastly right? It’s pretty clear why these parasites have become known as the “zombie” fungus. The concept of something taking control of your muscles and dragging your conscious mind along for the ride is the sort of story you’d expect from a horror novel, not the natural world. It’s no wonder both Mike Carey (in The Girl with All the Gifts), and Naughty Dog Studios (in The Last of Us) used cordyceps as the source for their zombie apocalypse. The very idea is unnerving.

But it’s not all horrible. In Traditional Chinese medicine, Cordyceps is actually collected and dried and has been used for centuries to treat fatigue, sickness, kidney disease, and apparently low sex drive. There’s been other research happening as well looking into the other potential benefits of imbibing cordyceps. So, for those who always ask: “Can I eat this?” Yes! Yes, you can eat this weird parasitic fungus that wrestles control of the motor function of insects forcing them to climb higher and higher until the fungus kills them. Apparently, it’s good for you.

The 2006 BBC Earth special Planet Earth featured a small segment on the cordyceps, and it included some amazing footage. You can watch it in all its enthralling details below.

Funny enough, new research from Penn State University and the University of Notre Dame has only made our understanding of cordyceps more unnerving. As I implied above—and what Planet Earth got wrong at the time—cordyceps don’t take over its host’s brain. It only takes control of the muscles. This means the host is very much aware of what is happening to it as it performs its upward death march. Yikes.


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Ascocoryne sarcoides

Garden of Horrors: Ascocoryne sarcoides

Perhaps it is the nature of fungus to be disgusting? Maybe they exist on some other level that demands grossness? Some union thing? Spiritually one could see it as a physical manifestation of wickedness—a glimpse into the darkness that dwells within the fungus’ soul. I mean, who really knows? Regardless of the reasoning, one thing is certain—fungi tend to be featured in Garden of Horrors much more than plants. They always put their best (worst?) “foot” forward, and today’s entry is no different.

Meet Ascocoryne sarcoides, more commonly called “jelly drops” or “purple jellydisc” by people with a much brighter outlook on life than me. Because I think we all know what this looks like and it ain’t no “jellydisc.” I mean… look at this thing:

Ascocoryne sarcoides
The fungus Ascocoryne sarcoides. Photographed in Pacific Spirit Park, Vancouver BC Canada – Photo by Daryl Thompson

“Jelly” isn’t the first word that comes to mind. I don’t want to spread this on toast. You can find these ugly little fungi all over the world. Various species are found in North Ameria, Northern Europe, parts of Asia, Australia, and down in South America. It gets around. A. sarcoides derives its nutrients from decomposing plant matter—usually trees, but species of choice tend to vary based on location. It’s not a picky eater.

While it took a while for scientists to land on a species name, they settled on the Greek word “sarkodes” fairly early on, it charmingly means “fleshy” or “flesh-like.” An indication of what this thing feels like when touched. Neat. I think it’s clear why this is the perfect addition to our terrible little garden. It looks like the remains of gelatinous innards spattered on the ground. It’s revolting and a touch horrific.

While the A. sarcoides has minor antibiotic properties, it’s not edible. So don’t put it in your mouth! Quick aside: it amuses me that this comes up all the time. Who would attempt this? What person would look at Guts Mc Fungus there and wonder if they could eat it? I don’t get it. I don’t understand people.

This is the part of Garden of Horrors where I like to share a video showing this thing growing. But thankfully, videos like that don’t exist! So, we’ll just have to make do with this short video of a guy poking at one.


Featured image by Stu’s Images


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Garden of Horrors: Rafflesia

Garden of Horrors: Rafflesia

Not sure what it says about Garden of Horrors, but we seem to feature a whole lot of parasitic plants. It’s not intentional. Perhaps it’s a nature vs. nurture thing—maybe if they weren’t so disgusting these plants wouldn’t become parasites! You know? Maybe if they had gone to college, bought a house, and settled down, things would have turned out differently! You ever thought about THAT plants?

Ahem—regardless of the reasoning, today’s featured plant is one I’m sure many of you expected to see sooner or later. After all, it looks like a cheesy prop from the Star Trek: The Original Series and it smells like rotten meat. That’s right; we’re looking at the Rafflesia more commonly known as the carrion flower or corpse lily.

"Rafflesia keithii" by Mike Prince
Rafflesia keithii by Mike Prince, 2014

The Rafflesia (technically a family of twenty-eight distinct species) is often called “Queen of the Parasites.” It’s such a parasite that you can’t see anything other than its goofy-ass blossom. There are no leaves. No roots. The rest of the plant—mostly made up of the rootlike haustorium—spreads like a creeper through the tissue of its host vine. There it gathers the nutrients needed to grow its enormous fleshy flower.

And what a flower it is. This is the largest flower on earth. Others are mere pretenders. How large is this thing? Well, this sucker can be nearly three and a half feet wide and weigh up to twenty-two pounds. “A beaut” or “an absolute unit” as they say on the farm. Across the genus, the look remains mostly the same, but the details shift. Some are wartier than others. A few wilt quicker. Others grow smaller. Some are more star-shaped. But they all have the distinctive five-petals, the fleshy look, and… oh, and the smell.

There’s a reason this is called the carrion flower. The title is more than appropriate for something so gross. Most often, the buds take months to develop, and when they blossom, they smell like rotting flesh. Neat? This Eau de mort (Yeah, okay. Look, I know that translates as “death water” but I’m trying to evoke the concept of perfume. Work with me here!) attracts carrion flies which in turn pollinate the unisexual flowers. I have to say; you need to rethink your pollination strategy if you have flies working as your go-between during sexy times.

Goofy looking, parasitic, and smells like death—I’d say this is a fitting entry into the Garden of Horrors. Thankfully, many of us will never have to smell these flowers, it’s generally found in the rainforests of Southeast Asia, and they’re rare, taking months to blossom and then lasting only a few days when they do. If you want to see what this strange flower looks like opening, I’ve embedded a video above. Silly as it is, let’s all take a moment and be thankful we can’t smell it.


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Garden of Horrors: Monotropa uniflora

Garden of Horrors: Monotropa uniflora

Usually, when I put one of these together, we all get to make stink-faces and act terrified by some weird plant or fungi. In the past, I’ve shared this horrific mushroom thing, trees that bleed red, and this ugly worm-like fungus. Today’s plant is a little different. It’s not that terrifying visually, but when you realize how downright weird it is, you’ll see why it’s a candidate for this series. Meet Monotopa uniflora, the ghost plant.

Ghost plants
Ghost plants, photo by O18 shared on English Wikipedia

They’re pretty to look at; Emily Dickinson reportedly loved them. Usually white, occasionally flecked, these plants can also come in pinks and reds if the conditions are right. And conditions matter to Monotropa uniflora. This mysterious fella is classified as an ephemeral (just like ghosts); it only shows up when moisture follows a dry period.

But, it gets much weirder. You see the ghost plant doesn’t need the sun to grow, and because of that, it can easily grow in very dark places (just like ghosts.) The plant—and this is a plant, it has roots, seeds, and flowers—contains no chlorophyll, which is why it’s most often white (again, just like a ghost.)

"Ghost Plant" by qkjosh is licensed under CC BY 2.0
“Ghost Plant” by qkjosh is licensed under CC BY 2.0

We love creepy parasitic plants around here, and the ghost plant is also a parasite, but it doesn’t grow by feeding off other plants. Instead, the ghost plant feeds on fungi that are mycorrhizal with the trees in old growth forests (as far as I know, ghosts don’t do this, but you never know.)

Some people call these “Indian pipes,” but those people are wrong. This is the ghost plant. Take all of this evidence: growing in the dark, usually white and even translucent in places, rejecting the notion of the sun, spooky, and parasitic. That’s all very ghostly stuff—ghost plant is a much more fitting common name.

I mentioned earlier that Emily Dickenson loved the ghost plant, in a letter to a friend she once said, “That without suspecting it you should send me the preferred flower of life, seems almost supernatural…” which is a lovely thing to say about the little creeps.

Despite appearances, I think it’s pretty easy to see why the Monotropa uniflora belongs in our garden of horrors.


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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 →