This series of short articles – Weird and Wonderful Plants – is going to share with you some of the most fascinating plants in the world. Plants you would never have dreamed of being real, such as the waterwheel plant – a leafy wagon wheel which rolls atop the surface of ponds to catch aquatic insects – and the sundancer plant, which is capable of rapid movement. Today we’re focusing on a darker side of nature: carnivorous and deadly plants.
Going straight in with the the most creepy category: Carnivorous plants. As a solution to low nutrient environments such as bogs and marshes, some plants (most of which look like they are from another planet) have adapted to obtain nutrients by trapping and digesting various insects and sometimes even small animals such as frogs and mice. Now, whilst most plants absorb nitrogen from the soil, carnivorous plants absorb nitrogen from their animal prey through their specially adapted traps.
Probably the most commonly known of these carnivorous plants is the venus fly trap, which looks like an alien from a Ridley Scott movie; with its leafy jaws and spiky pink interlocking teeth. The venus fly trap uses tiny hairs to detect the movement of insect prey walking across its trap; once enough of it’s sensors are triggered, it closes upon them and the poor bug is locked inside chlorophyll prison bars until the venus fly trap proceeds to dissolve the insect in acid and digest its nutrients… Mmmmm!
But, an even more terrifying carnivorous plant is one called the pitcher plant. The pitcher plant is found in the forests of Borneo and sports a deep tube shaped pit containing digestive enzymes. It’s kind of like a disgusting open stomach with treacherously steep walls that sits in the forest waiting for anything small enough to fall in and slowly drown in the most gruesome manner.
Whats intriguing about the pitcher plant is that it allows one ant species, the diving ant, to live on it. The diving ant is the only ant capable of escaping the pitcher plants trap – they can walk directly across the rim of the pitcher plant without slipping, and even those who fall in are able to climb out again!
At first scientists wondered how the plant benefits from having the diver ants living inside it, as all they appeared to be doing was making homes inside the plant’s stem, eating the plant’s sweet nectar, and even feasting on the less fortunate insects that had drowned inside the pitcher. All they really seemed to be doing was stealing the plants precious nutrients.
However, an experiment lead by Scharmann Al. revealed that the ants weren’t just free riding. The clever little ants were generously returning some nutrients to the plant by pooping into it and throwing in other waste such as bits of dead skin and other dead ants. So much for not pooping where you eat, but at least everyone’s happy.
The second category we’ll be covering today is a seriously dark topic. We’ve just covered plants which kill and eat animals and insects, this category deals with plants which can KILL YOU, so pay attention. Some of these plants are so deadly they can cause grievous harm upon contact, many of the others if accidentally ingested will induce a slow and horrible demise by poisoning, characterised by failure of one’s body organs, unbearable pain, vomiting and fatal dehydration.
Kicking things off is a plant which harbours one of the most terrifying substances known to man. The substance in question is derived from a plant with a very unsuspecting name: the angel trumpet plant. Although the angel trumpet looks droopy and harmless, the toxins contained within this pretty flower (such as tropane, alkaloids and scopolamine) are extremely poisonous; too much of it will cause death, and it’s dangerously easy to overdose.
In South America the scopolamine which is extracted from the angel trumpet plant has been utilised in some of the most unspeakable criminal activities. The strange properties of scopolamine (which has been administered by tricking the victim into ingesting an extremely low dose, or by blowing it into their face whilst they are unaware) induce a zombie like state, where people are deemed utterly void of free will and will do anything which is requested of them. In some of the less sinister cases, people have been recorded on camera literally helping their assailants to carry their belongings out of their homes. If one is lucky enough to survive an encounter with this substance, it will be impossible to recall as the nasty substance completely wipes the memory…
Ok, now we’ve got the worst one out of the way, let’s move on to plants which can make you blind.
The giant hogweed is a public health hazard more dangerous than poison ivy. In the USA the hogweed is uncommon, but still makes the list of Federal Noxious Weeds. In the UK however the giant hogweed is commonly found by riversides across the country… (why were we never told this before?) The giant hogweed produces a toxic sap that can cause severe skin irritation and blistering that can lead to permanent scarring. If the sap comes into contact with your eyes, you can go blind. Don’t worry though, we couldn’t find any actual recorded instances of blindness from this plant, so it’s probably just one of those propounded rumours the media makes up to scare us.
There’s one particular plant which has a very long and nasty history of use as a poison – deadly nightshade. Nightshade is a perennial which flowers from June to September and is typically found in woodland but also along paths and river banks. Every freaking part of this plant, including the delicious looking purple berries, are potentially fatal. The toxins contained within this plant include hyoscyamine and also scopolamine, and if ingested can cause a strange delirium, hallucinations and in the worst cases, death. There’s actually a bunch of plants (poison hemlock, jimson weed, foxglove, larkspur, oleander, rhubarb, iris, wisteria, yew, elderberry, buttercups, rosary pea, and so on) which are not really worth going into detail about because they basically all lead to the same outcome: if you eat them you can die. So, if you’re not Ray Mears or Bear Grylls then don’t go wondering around the forest like you’re some kind of wildlife expert tasting all the colourful berries and leafy snacks that you see. Actually, Bear, seeing as some of your habits include drinking your own urine and eating any kind of strange creature you can get your hands on – maybe you should stay off the wildlife buffet as well.
Tying off this category with a nice sentiment – when you were a kid did mummy chop up your apples into segments and take out the seeds? Or did she let you eat the whole thing and the seeds? If it was the latter then your mother was secretly trying to kill you. I’m just kidding, but she was poisoning you. I sure as hell remember eating tons of apple seeds as a child, disturbingly, because I later found out that apple seeds contain cyanogenic glycosides, making them slightly poisonous. Luckily for us, you’d have to eat quite a lot of apples, 20 whole ones to be precise (roughly equivalent to 200 seeds) to get a fatal dose. So, if your mum ever tried to force you to eat 20 apples, you know what’s up.
Next time we’re going to cover weird and wonderful plants with intelligent design, plants which can dance and plants which die and then come back to life.