Rare plants & Where they Grow
In rainforests, deserts, and secluded islands, strange things are growing
Botany offers many pleasures. Among them are the quiet satisfaction of watching living things grow from seed and the visual splendor of a field of wildflowers. And then there are the freak shows, rare plants so unique and strange that they seem the stuff of science fiction. Rare plants restore our sense of wonder while reminding us of the urgent need for environmental conservation. The following rare plants are just a few of the many biological wonders the world keeps tucked away in its remoter corners.
Rafflesia arnoldii holds the distinction of producing the world’s largest single flower. Aside from photos, the chances of seeing it are minuscule, and not just because these rare plants are found only in the rainforests of Southeast Asia, particularly Borneo and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Rafflesia’s bloom lasts less than a week, but when it appears it is over three feet across, weighs nearly 25 pounds, and smells like rotting fish.
Rafflesia is actually a parasite that does not have any visible leaves, roots, or stems. It is composed of small threads that grow within the tissue of other plants, specifically vines of the Tetrastigma genus. When Rafflesia displays its reddish-brown flower, the stem is the tissue of its victim.
Strange things grow in the desert, but perhaps none stranger than Welwitschia mirabilis. The first thing one notices about Welwitschia is its odd appearance. It looks like a giant, tattered green flower tossed down from the sky to die on the desert ground.
These rare plants are composed of nothing but two leaves, a stem base, and roots. Though torn to shreds, Welwitschia’s two leaves will last a lifetime — a lifetime being 400 to 1,500 years — and eventually, reach lengths of up to 12 feet.
Welwitschia grows in the Namib Desert along the southwest coast of Africa, specifically in the nations of Namibia and Angola, but rarely more than 100 miles from the coast. Some of its characteristics are unique even for rare plants. Welwitschia is the only plant in the world in which the stem’s apical growth point stops at an early stage. The stem thus grows out, up, and away from the original dead apex, giving it a weird obconical or inverted cone shape.
Hydnora triceps is the only known eudicot with hypogeous flowering. How terribly exciting, you say. Let’s put that another way then, shall we? Hydnora triceps is the only one out of about 200,000 species of plants that bears its fruits and flowers underground. It’s also unique among about 400,000 species of angiosperms in that it has no leaves or leaf-like structures.
Not only are H. triceps’s rare plants, but they’re also some of the rarest plants on the good side of extinction. H. triceps is native to southern Namibia and a small region south of the Orange River in South Africa. It is a subterranean parasite; only the tops of its flowers appear above ground. H. triceps produces no chlorophyll (unsurprising, considering how much sunshine it gets), and is thus dependent on its host for survival.
Much of what is known about this rare plant is attributable to Dr. Erika Maass of the University of Namibia and Dr. Lytton John Musselman of Old Dominion University.
The Island of Soqotra
Finally, there are those isolated regions, lost worlds preserved through some accident of geology that contain numerous rare plants found nowhere else in the entire world. Soqotra (or Socotra as it’s commonly spelled) is such a place.
Socotra is an archipelago of four islands in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Somalia. The main island is also called Socotra and is known as the island of the Dragon’s Blood Tree. Of the 800 plant species in Socotra, about one-third are unique to the region, including the umbrella-shaped dragon tree, Dracaena cinnabari.
The Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, Scotland presented a Socotra exhibit from July 1 to October 29, of 2006.
They can be found in blistering deserts, remote tropical rainforests, on little known islands separated eons ago from the earth’s primordial continents, or as James Joyce has put it, anywhere else “where the hand of man never set foot.” We are talking of course about exotic plants, those strange beings that sometimes make botany seem like science fiction.
There are orchids that lure wasps into neatly sprung traps, and unseen parasites composed of myriad threads that send out giant blooms from within the tissue of their victims. With exotic flowers, it seems that nothing is impossible and everything is astonishing.
Few fields of scientific study are so able to inspire wonder and awe as the world of exotic flowers. If you’re looking to grow some exotic plants of your own, or just desiring to indulge your curiosity, the articles listed below will stimulate your mind and senses.