Plants might just surprise you. If you’re like most people, you find it easy to think of impressive animals—tigers, elephants, maybe something obscure like giant squid—but what about incredible plants? Sure they can’t run and they’re not cute and cuddly, but being literally rooted to a single spot they have had to evolve some remarkable abilities to survive and thrive. From the world’s biggest flower to the world’s longest and largest leaves, here’s our rundown of the planet’s 10 most incredible plants.
1. Mimosa pudica
If you ever thought plants were dull and boring, then you clearly haven’t encountered a mimosa. Known as the ‘shy plant’, mimosa display the remarkable behaviour or folding and retracting its leaves when touched, only to reopen them a few minutes later. Scientists aren’t sure exactly how this trait evolved, but it is most likely a form of defence against herbivores. Surprisingly, they come from the same family as common peas that you might buy at a local supermarket.
Endemic to the coastal Namib desert, Welwitschia is often described as a living fossil. Its most remarkable feature is that it grows just two leaves throughout it’s life. These grow continuously from the base, splitting and becoming increasingly frayed, eventually reaching up to four meters in length. Many wild plants are likely to be over 1000 years old, leading to a rather scruffy appearance. The good news is that the conservation status of this incredible plant is relatively positive, but sadly this is largely due to the high concentration of landmines in Angola, which has discouraged plant collectors.
3. Rafflesia Arnoldii
No list of incredible plants could be complete without the legendary Rafflesia Arnoldii, which produces the largest individual flower on earth. Alas if you thought it might be amongst the most beautiful, then you could be disappointed. Whilst it is enormous and undoubtedly impressive, it absolutely stinks which has earned it the name ‘corpse flower’. Sadly, as rainforests in Borneo and Sumatra disappear, numbers in the wild are thought to be dwindling.
4. Sundew (Drosera)
If you think of carnivorous plants, many people envisage steamy, dripping tropical rainforests. But little do they know that carnivorous plants abound in all sorts of temperate habitats. One of the most beautiful is the wonderfully named sundew family. A group of almost 200 species, these plants glisten with tiny tentacles covered in sticky secretions. These attract and ensnare insects allowing them to be slowly digested. Amazingly, these remarkable little plants have found use in medicine and biotechnology too. Sadly, many species around the world are threatened by over collecting—so remember, they belong in the wild.
5. The Tree Nettle (Urtica ferox)
Endemic to New Zealand, the tree nettle is in many ways an oversized version of the more familiar stinging nettle, and it originates from the same family, too. It’s large spines can inflict a painful sting that lasts for several days. In 1961 this species is said to have killed a hunter who stumbled through a dense patch, and it still hospitalises several people every year—probably best admired from a distance.
6. Socotra dragon tree (Dracaena cinnabari)
Few people have heard of Socotra, let alone its iconic dragon trees. Found only on this tiny island, their canopy has been likened to a densely packed upturned umbrella. These trees gained their name from the blood red sap that they produce. This sticky sap strangely found use in the 18th century as violin varnish and even toothpaste! Like many of our remarkable plants, the dragon tree is threatened by climate change, with the habitat of the island slowly drying out meaning fewer and fewer trees survive.
7. Monkey Face Orchid (Dracula simia)
If you want to get people excited about weird and wonderful plants, then find one that looks like a monkey. That seems to have been the strategy that has worked for the amazing monkey orchid, a very rare epiphytic plant from the Andes Mountains. The photographs, which you might imagine have been photoshopped, are in fact entirely real. Having become something of a plant celebrity, you can now buy seeds and attempt to grow them for yourselves. The flower is said to smell like ripe oranges.
8. The rainbow Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus deglupta)
Growing to over 60 metres. the rainbow eucalyptus gets its name from the colourful patterns on its peeling bark. Native to New Britain, New Guinea, Seram and Sulawesi, quite why this plant has evolved such colourful patterns is unknown, but what we do know is that the colours are most vibrant and impressive in the heart of its native range. Sadly, these wonderful patterns haven’t found much use in furniture or the arts, most are simply grown for pulpwood used in making plain white paper.
9. Tumbleweed (Kali tragus)
You might have seen tumbleweed in old western films, but far from being a jumble of old dry grass, forming a ‘tumbling weed’ is actually a clever evolutionary adaptation. After the plant has grown and produced seeds, it begins to become brittle. Eventually, in high wind the stem breaks and the plant begins to roll and disperse its seeds. Large specimens can produce almost a quarter of a million! On the downside, large accumulations of tumbleweed can occasionally swamp remote outback towns, and can be a substantial fire hazard.
10. Giant Waterlily (Victoria amazonica)
Discovered in 1801, the magnificent giant waterlily is so large that a single enormous circular leaf can easily support the weight of a child and grow to two and a half metres across. Named in honour of Queen Victoria, the mass of leaves block out sunlight to the water below, restricting the growth of other plants. Sadly, it’s equally impressive flowers which smell like sweet pineapple, only bloom for around 48 hours each year and have evolved a clever strategy where they trap beetles within the flower overnight to ensure pollination.
Particularly piqued by nature’s amazing plant life? Why not take your pick of our flora-focused shows and documentaries, including The Meadow, now streaming on Love Nature. Sign up today and watch on demand right now, with an exclusive 30-day free trial.
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The flower meadow, an ocean of colours and shapes, is home to countless species of animals. Some live underground, some among the blades of grass and others populate the colourful canopy. This award-winning documentary is a technical tour de force. It uses time lapse photography, special effects and CGI to track the development of one European meadow all the way back to the ice age.