The Strangest Plant in the World

I’m one of the few botanists studying Hydnora triceps. Here’s why I dig it. /

Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so. The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.
—Gen. 1:11–12

If I asked you to imagine a plant, most likely you’d picture something with stems, roots, and green leaves. Perhaps a potted plant, a garden, or a tree.

Now imagine a plant with neither stems nor leaves, living entirely underground. Such a creature is my candidate for the strangest plant in the world: Hydnora triceps, a species so rare and poorly known that it has no accepted English common name. From its remote location, to its hidden nature, to its stealthy means of pollination, this is the weirdest member of an odd group.

A Parasitic Plant, an Ancient Desert

Like other plants in the African genus Hydnora, this species is a parasite that depends entirely upon its host for water and nutrients. The idea of plant cannibalism is counterintuitive—one of the first things we learn about plants in school is that they produce their own food. But many get their water or nutrients by boring into other plants through specialized roots. While all parasites take food from their hosts, these plants feed on other plants.

Mistletoe, that icon of holiday love, is a well-known parasite, feeding on whatever tree or shrub it it is attached to. But mistletoe still contains chlorophyll and can produce food from the sun through photosynthesis. Hydnora species lack chlorophyll and are the only known angiosperms (flowering plants) without leaves. ...

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Also in this Issue

Issue 31 / September 17, 2015
  1. Editor’s Note

    Issue 31: Yellowstone’s wolves, the strangest plant, and an even more beautiful creation. /

  2. Yes, Wolves Change Rivers. And So Much More.

    The changes at Yellowstone aren’t just an elegant recipe for ecological balance. /

  3. An Earth More Beautiful than Beautiful

    What will this stuff look like, I wonder, when God restores it? /

  4. The Thread of Life

    ‘Aloof, aloof, we stand aloof’ /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Wonder on the Web Issue 31: Links to amazing stuff. /

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