Terrifying Plants: Be Scared, Very Scared
- Words by
- Georgina Reid
You can’t judge a bottle of wine by its label. Nor a book by its cover. It follows, then, that one can’t assume all plants are quiet, pretty green things with a plant-soul full of sweetness and light. No way. Where there’s light there’s always darkness lurking ever so closely beneath the surface. Here’s The Planthunter’s list of plants to be scared of…. The bad guys, the killers, the devil, the parasites and the two-faced-never-to-be-trusted beauties… Be alert, be alarmed.
The Two-Faced Beauty – Papaver somniferum (Opium Poppy)
Never trust an opium poppy. One minute they’re poppy seeds in the herb and spice section of the supermarket inspiring dreams of poppy seed cake, next they’re hovering about in painkillers like codeine, then they’re inhabiting hospital wards as morphine, and finally (and less desirably), they’re being sold illegally as the principal element in heroin.
Papaver somniferum probably originated from the Mediterranean region but has been in cultivation for so long its true origin is unknown. It has a long and chequered history as a feared and loved botanical. Wars have been fought over it and its referred to in countless texts over the last few thousand years – from Homer’s Odyssey in the 8th century BC to Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an Opium Eater in the 19th century.
Fast forward to 1898 and the drug company Bayer developed a new opium based wonder-drug called Heroin.
It was sold as a cough syrup(!) for around 10 years before being taken off the market…. The damage, however, was already done, and the drug was soon taken up recreationally.
…Then there’s the story of the guy in Victoria who grew opium poppies from imported, untreated poppy seeds from the supermarket in an attempt to make his own heroin. He ended up with a jail sentence.
PS. Opium poppies are illegal to grow in Australian gardens, but are legal to grow for horticultural purposes in the UK and parts of central Europe.
The Stinger – Dendrocnide excelsa (Gympie-Gympie)
The most potent of four species of stinging trees in Australia, the intense pain caused by the hairs covering all aerial parts of the tree have been known to cause anaphylactic shock, kill dogs, and send people ‘mad as a cut snake’. Cyril Bromley, an Australian ex-serviceman tells of being strapped to a hospital bed for three weeks following a sting, and of a fellow officer shooting himself after using its large leaves as a toilet paper substitute. It’s a bad, bad, baddie this one.
When brushed or touched, the stinging hairs of the plant dislodge and act as self-injecting needles, the tiny hairs become embedded in the skin, which can lead to months-long suffering and sensitivity. The pain has been described as unbearably intense and similar to an acid attack.
Forestry workers in gympie-gympie prone areas are issued with antihistamines, respirators and thick welding gloves as precautionary measures.
The Devil – Dracula diabola (Devil Orchid)
A confession – This plant is included purely for its devilish name… Its brilliant, eh? But what is it, you ask. It’s an orchid, originating from a single valley in Columbia.
Its species name, diabola, was inspired by the devilish appearance of its flowers and the genus name Dracula means little dragon. Bill and Jan Miles of the Victorian Orchid Society suggest the name is a little un-necessary: “The names chosen for species such as Dracula diabola, D. gorgona and D. vampira unjustly stress the perceived ‘nasty nature’ of these fascinating and rather beautiful orchid flowers.”
The Parasite – Nuytsia floribunda (West Australian Christmas Tree)
No one likes a parasite. They’re greedy, selfish little buggers who suck the life out of their host. Yuk. Nuytsia, endemic to Western Australia is one such beast – constantly on the hunt to tap into other plant’s root systems – sucking out water and nutrients to feed itself.
Nuytsia floribunda roots have been known to attach themselves to underground electrical cables and irrigation pipes – shorting out houses and disrupting water supplies!
Nuytsia is a hemiparasite – this means it derives some, but not all, of its nutrition from its host plant (Holoparasites are the real bad guys – they get all their nutrition from their host). John Charles Ryan writes in A Very Striking Parasite, published in The Griffith Review writes that the plant is “a producer and consumer that pilfers nutrients from other fibrous bodies (from banksias and couch grass to utility lines), a perfectly adapted contradiction comfortably at home in the thicket of binaries we impose on the natural world.”
The Killer – Dionaea muscipula (Venus Fly Trap)
The Venus fly trip is a carnivorous plant native to the east coast of the United States. It’s a true killer – using it’s leaves to trap insects and spiders. The plant absorbs the nutrients provided by the decomposing animals and uses it to stimulate growth.
Venus fly trap plants are a prime example of the highly developed intelligence of plants – they use hairs on the inside of each trap as a sensor – when a bug touches a hair the trap prepares to close, snapping shut only if another sensor is activated within 20 seconds of the first…. If not, it sees it as a false alarm, and stays open.
Another brilliant modification are the teeth on each side of the snapping mechanism. They provide space when the leaf is shut for a small bug to get out, meaning the plant doesn’t waste its energy trying to consume something that won’t provide it with much nutrition.
According to the International Carnivorous Plant Society – if you have a Venus fly trap and it’s indoors, you’ll need to feed it with freshly caught flies, blood worms, or fish food! Killers unite.
All images sourced from Wikipedia Commons. Links to images below:
Nuytsia floribunda (featured image)