In 1994, in Australia, a species of tree was found that had been thought extinct for millions of years. This bizarre-looking beast had been known about only from 120 million-year-old fossil leaves before this moment of pure magic. It is called the Wollemi Pine and fewer than one hundred exist in the wild. They have strange bark that looks like bubbles of chocolate, multiple trunks, and ferny-looking leaves growing in spirals. They can grow up to 125 feet tall.
Soqotra is one of a remote group of islands in the northern part of the Indian Ocean, and part of the Republic of Yemen. It is one of four islands known as the “Galapagos of the Indian Ocean” because many of its plant and animal species are found nowhere else on earth. First settled 3.000 years ago by Arabian tribes, it was central to an ancient trade route across the Indian Ocean.
One of its most famous exports was Cinnibar – Dragon’s Blood Resin, prized by Alexander the Great. It comes from the Dracaena Cinnibari – the Dragon’s Blood tree – found only on these islands. Also called the ‘Tree of Life’, most parts of this tree are used by the islanders for something. The giant mushroom shape has changed little in 30 million years. The name comes from the bright red resin collected by cutting the trunk, and used for medicinal purposes.
Another very unusual plant is the Welwitschia, discovered first by Austrian botanist Friedrich Welwitsch in 1860 in the Namib desert of Angola. This is a plant of remarkably bizarre habits and survives in very harsh localities where the annual rainfall is often less than 25 mm and where the coastal fog is equivalent to about further 50 mm. The oldest living specimens are estimated at 1500 to 2000 years and capable of surviving severe conditions of stress. The sprawling shrub consists of just two leaves that never get shed, instead growing into fat dreadlocks as they get shredded by the harsh winds. Known as ‘Onyanga’ – onion of the desert – some parts of the plant are eaten by the local Herero people.
From this giant of a strange plant to one that is anything but. The ‘Wolffia angusta’ is the world’s smallest flower. A dozen plants would easily fit on the head of a pin and two plants in full bloom will fit inside a small printed letter “o.” An average A4 size piece of paper could easily hold 100,000 of these plants with room to spare. Though this plant has no scent to speak of, certain plants around the world rely on truly obnoxious perfumes to attract the right pollinating insects.
The Titan Arum, better known as the ‘corpse flower’ is very aptly named. Found in the forests of Western Sumatra, it is a huge plant which needs to be avoided if possible. Its botanical name is Amorphophallus, which translates to ‘giant penis’. It is one of two enormous plants called corpse flowers because they give off a strong scent of rotting mammal flesh to attract meat-eating insects. The other, Rafflesia arnoldii, is also native to the Sumatra rainforests. The titan arum takes six years or more to flower from seed, but after that it blooms every four months.
While the Amorphophallus could be likened by some to the human male sex organ, the plant world also depicts the female variety in the shape of another putrid smelling species, namely Hydnora Africana. It is a parasite living on the roots of another plant and gives off a strong smell of animal feces to attract the pollinating dung beetles.
Yet another big, smelly plant with sexual overtones is the Dracunculus Vulgaris, also called the Voodoo Lily, the Dragon Arum, the Black Arum, the Snake Lily, the Stink Lily, the Black Dragon. In Greece, part of its native range, the plant is called Drakondia, the long spadex being viewed as a small dragon hiding in the spathe, or by some as a tongue licking at a female organ. This plant does, however, give off the scent of rotting flesh to attract the right flies.
Be they gigantic or minute, these strange, sexy, smelly species of plants are all fascinating in their own right. You would need to travel the world if you wanted to see many of them first hand, though many can be seen in the UK at Kew Gardens and also at the botanical gardens in New York. There is such endless variety in every kind of life on earth, and we should be very grateful for that diversity. No matter how much you think you know, it is only a tiny drop in the ocean. There is always more to be discovered.