An Oxford botanist’s top 10 most fascinating plants

There are unusual plants to be found the world over…

And many of these unusual plants are hidden in the deepest reaches of the earth’s rich wilderness.

Dr Chris Thorogood, Head of Science and Public Engagement at the University of Oxford’s Botanic Garden & Harcourt Arboretum, has a special interest in the speciation of parasitic and carnivorous plants. Here on Mr Plant Geek, he talks about the unusual plants that he finds most fascinating, and why.

“I have always been fascinated by plants. I spent my childhood growing unusual plants, and illustrating them too. I’m now a botanist, based at Oxford. Being a botanist means I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to travel around the world to see some incredible plants in their natural habitats for a living. So here are my top ten fascinating plants!”

And, if these incredible plants whet your appetite, come join my Weird and Wacky Plants Project Tour, click here for show dates!

Dr Chris Thorogood’s unusual plants:

Rafflesia

Unusual plants - Rafflesia - the largest flower on earth
1. Rafflesia – the largest flower on earth

My top ten fascinating plant has got to be Rafflesia. This vegetable vampire is the largest flower on earth, measuring up to an incredible 1.5 metres across. It’s a parasitic plant, meaning it has no chlorophyll and steals all of its nutrients from the roots of other plants. It’s very rare, little is known about its biology, and it has never been cultivated anywhere outside of its native Southeast Asian rainforests.

Euphorbia handiensis

Unusual Plants - On the hunt for Euphorbia handiensis
2. On the hunt for Euphorbia handiensis

Succulents. All my windowsills are choked full with them! I’m never happier than when I’m hunting for rare succulents in the wild. Only last week I was searching for a very rare and special one called Euphorbia handiensis, which grows in just two placesin the semi-deserts of Fuerteventura. I find the thrill of finding a rare plant in the wild without compare.

King pitcher plant

Unusual plants - King pitcher plant
3. King pitcher plant

Next in line is a pitcher plant. The king pitcher plant is a species that grows only on one mountain, Mount Kinabalu in north Borneo. Like other insect eating pitcher plants it produces traps, derived from modified leaves, but the ones of this plant grow to about a foot long. And moreover, these ones are toilets for tree shrews! The animals feed on the nectar produced by the traps, and defecate into them, fertilising the plant – genius! My research currently focusses on the evolution of these incredible unusual plants.

Flying duck orchid

Unusual Plants - Flying duck orchid
4. Flying duck orchid

My number four goes to the orchids. No other plant family has a greater diversity of flowers and some of them are downright bizarre. The flying duck orchid, for example, looks and smells like a female insect, and attracts male insects which to attempt to mate with the flowers, and in so doing, they bring about cross fertilisation. The fact it looks to our eyes exactly like a duck in flight is a wonderful coincidence.

Arum dioscoridis

Unusual Plants - Arum dioscoridis in Cyprus
5. Arum dioscoridis in Cyprus

Arums. I just love them all. This exquisite group of plants has a myriad of shapes, sizes and colours. Last spring I encountered a beautiful specimen of Arum dioscoridis growing in a rocky gorge in Cyprus and it was a moment I won’t forget.

Sea lavenders

Sea lavenders. They’re beautiful. However, they can be tremendously complicated to identify in the field for a botanist because there are lots of similar species – AND they tend to grow on very inaccessible sea cliffs. Luckily for me they’re most diverse in the Mediterranean, so I get to go by boat to some very beautiful places to see them – and you’ll never find me happier than when I’m doing botany by boat!

Hooker’s lips

Unusual Plants - Hooker's lips!
7. Hooker’s lips!

Number seven goes to Hooker’s Lips. The bright red, shiny bracts may look like a Warhol painting, but this is, believe it or not, a real plant! Always a crowd pleaser this one.

Maltese fungus

Unusual Plants - Maltese fungus
8. Maltese fungus

The Maltese Fungus. This weird-looking leafless parasitic plant is shrouded in a rich history of folklore, most of which, it must be said, relates to its rather – well – provocative shape!

Dodder

Unusual Plants - Dodder stems on the march
9. Dodder stems on the march

There’s nothing more sinister than a writhing mass of dodder stems. This is a real ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ kind of plant because it lassos other green plants and steals food from them. I recently saw whole shrubs engulfed by yellow tangled masses of this greedy parasitic plant in the Canary Islands. A menacing sight!

Bat pitcher plant

Unusual Plants - The bat pitcher plant
10. The bat pitcher plant

And finally, the bat pitcher plant. Most pitcher plants attract, trap and digest insect prey as a source of nutrients. However, this one has almost lost its ability to trap insects and instead houses bats. The bats use the pitchers as a place to rest and to hide from predators. In exchange for providing a resting place for the bats, the plant benefits from the nutrients released from the animals’ droppings. What a beautiful example of evolution of a mutualistic relationship between a plant and an animal.

Follow Chris’ exciting journeys around the world and discover more unusual plants on his Twitter page.

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