6 of the Strangest Plants on Earth

Lithops (Living stone), Cactus on flower pot
Lithops cactus in a flower pot. kynny / Getty Images

From a shrew-eating flower to a perennial that demurs upon touch, these extraordinary members of the kingdom Plantae are some of the most unique in the world. First up, a plant that rocks.

of 6

Lithops: The “don’t mind me, I’m just a stone” plant

credit: yellowcloud/Flickr

These “flowering stones” are so cute that they would be constantly pinched if they had cheeks. Just look at them. Native to swaths of desert in southern Africa, these clever succulents have adapted into a wonderful act of mimicry, “impersonating” stones to avoid being gobbled up by thirsty herbivores. So effective are they in their art of camouflage that even experts sometimes have trouble spotting them.

Most lithops produce cheerful daisy-like flowers during autumn and early winter, which gives their plant-status secret away, but a plant's got to do what a plant's got to do. And if all of this weren’t extraordinary enough, there’s this little bit of poetry: When there is no rain, they live on mist alone.

of 6

The sensitive plant: Demurs at the slightest touch

Branch of Sensitive Plant
Kevin Schafer / Getty Images

The “spirit plant” to all who possess a delicate nature, Mimosa pudica, the sensitive plant, can’t help but elicit “awww”s. The lightest touch of the plant’s leaves will cause them to fold inward in a graceful dance worthy of a Busby Berkeley number, resulting in a wilted-looking heap; the plant world’s version of playing dead. It’s a sight so sweet you just want to cuddle the little thing.

Only a few species of plants display these “seismonastic movements,” botanists expect that it reduces attractiveness to herbivores and may help survival during environmental stress. After around 10 minutes, the leaves perk back up, only to fold up immediately when touched again.

of 6

Rafflesia arnoldii: The world’s largest flower that smells like ...

credit: kkaplin

It’s an irony among ironies: The largest bloom in the world, Rafflesia arnoldii, doesn’t take its cues from its sweet-smelling flower cousins. No jasmine or rose or lily of the valley here; rather, the 15-pound blossom emits the aroma of rotting meat. Growing to widths of 3 feet across, this parasitic plant has no visible leaves, roots, or stem. It attaches itself to a host plant to obtain water and nutrients. And then bombards it with its stench, which serves to attract the insects that pollinate the lovely beast.

of 6

Welwitschia mirabilis: Old as the hills

credit: Thomas Schoch

Welwitschia mirabilis takes its name from the Latin for “marvelous,” and the spectacular plant from the Namibian desert does not disappoint. While it may not be much to look at, Welwitschia is remarkable for having just two leaves. That’s it, just two. It has a teeny little trunk from which the leaves grow. And grow and grow and grow. They become torn and tattered, they pile up in a big mess, they get old, but continue growing they do. And here’s where the marvelous Welwitschia really stands out: They keep growing, on average, for 600 years or so. Some of the larger guys are thought to be 2,000 years old. As NPR’s Robert Kraulich NPR muses:

Welwitschia plants were around when the killer asteroid hit our planet 65 million years ago. They stayed when the ice came. They stayed when the ice went. They have survived fires, pests, seen an endless parade of new insects, viruses, parasites, people, roads, local wars — and somehow, even today, there are thousands of them in the Namibian desert. How they've survived, I don't know. Why they've survived, I don't know. That they've survived, being so slow, so un-needy, so ignorable, so modest, so quiet seems — what's the word I'm looking for? Oh, yes – Mirabilis.
of 6

Giant pitcher plant: Has a taste for shrews

credit: Dr. Alastair Robinson

Believed to be the world’s largest carnivorous plant, Nepenthes attenboroughii, sets the world all topsy-turvy by not being a plant that animals eat but a plant that eats animals. While carnivorous plants are nothing new, the discovery of the plant named for the naturalist Sir David Attenborough was surprising for the size of its pitcher: almost one foot in diameter and formed by a tendril which inflates into a large cup-shaped trap.

Botanist Stewart McPherson, who was on the team that discovered the plant in the central Philippines, tells CNN, "Around the mouth of the pitcher are secretions of nectar which attracts insects and small animals. The rim has lots of waxy downward-pointing ridges, which help prey fall directly into the pitcher. The pitchers are half full of a liquid consisting of acids and enzymes which help break down its prey." He adds, "These plants have evolved to catch insects. But on rare occasions, they do catch rats and mice." And while they didn’t observe an actual rat or mouse in the plant's maw, upon their return later, they did come across the carcass of a shrew.

of 6

False rose of Jericho: The resurrector

credit: Umberto Salvagnin/Flickr

What a trooper is Selaginella lepidophylla, a desert plant in the spikemoss family that can survive near total dehydration by curling up into a little ball. The exterior stems bend into circular rings, and the inner stems curl into a spiral, thereby protecting itself, when necessary, from the hot and arid climate of Chihuahuan Desert where it lives. Once moisture is introduced, S. lepidophylla unfurls and resumes life as normal. Other names for this stalwart spikemoss include resurrection plant, resurrection moss, dinosaur plant, siempre viva, and stone flower.