Tag Archives: plants

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 →

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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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: 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 →