While I enjoy looking at spring blossoms and autumn foliage, I also realize that there is a dark side to nature that is filled with bizarre and unsettling life forms. Many of these life forms, including the strange yet fascinating plants and fungi in this week’s post, draw attention to the forces of decomposition and destruction that are ironically so much a part of life.
The corpse plant and Jimson weed are prime examples of nature’s odd choice to mimic the stench of decay and death in plants that are not actually dead.
Corpse Plant (Amorphophallus titanum)
Corpse plants are renowned for their huge flowers that smell like rotting meat. This scent attracts pollinators that benefit the plant. Despite the horrible odor, people get excited about seeing a corpse plant in bloom because it is a rare event. It can take up to 7-10 years for a corpse plant to produce one large stinking flower that can grow up to 10 feet (3 meters) tall.
Jimson Weed (Datura stramonium)
This plant is not only smelly but also poisonous. While it has some positive medicinal uses, it can also literally cause death when people try to ingest it for what Wikipedia calls its “psychoactive effects.” I cannot believe people would actually risk their lives just to get high on this poisonous plant! Needless to say, many of these Jimson weed eaters end up in the hospital, and some of them end up in the grave.
Jimson weed actually has a nice appearance while in bloom, and the flowers supposedly have a nice scent as well. However, the rest of the plant stinks, which discourages animals from eating it, and the seed pods look like something out of a horror movie.
Datura stramonium Flower
By Skäpperöd https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Datura_str_tat5.JPG
Datura stramonium, Wroclaw, Poland
Most people have probably seen tumbleweeds in Western movies. They are essentially dead plants, and their main purpose is to scatter seeds wherever they roll. One lone tumbleweed or a few tumbleweeds are pretty harmless, but a windstorm can easily blow together a large group of them into an invading army of dead plant balls that blocks roads and traps people in their homes.
Here is an example of how easily tumbleweeds can converge upon a physical structure and take it over:
If you want to see some major tumbleweed entrapment, you should check out these stories:
Ghost Plant (Monotropa uniflora)
Also known as a corpse plant or Indian pipe, this rare plant has a pale white or pinkish appearance because of an absence of chlorophyll. Although its paleness may make it look ghostlike, it actually functions more like a vampire. It does not preserve life but slowly takes it away. It is a parasitic plant that feeds on trees, and it thrives in a dark forest environment.
Indian pipe PDB
By Unknown https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Indian_pipe_PDB.JPG
Night Light Fungi
Fungi are more examples of life emerging from decomposition and death. They live in soil and on decaying matter such as rotting logs. What makes some of them freakier than others is the ability to glow in the dark. The technical term for light produced by living organisms is bioluminescence. The eerie green glow of bioluminescent fungi is made possible by a chemical reaction between an enzyme called luciferase and a compound called luciferin.
I find myself wondering how I would react to seeing these glowing fungi at night in the wild. Would I be delighted to see them, or would I want to stay away from them? I certainly would not eat them because most of them are poisonous.
Jack O’ Lantern Mushroom (Omphalotus olearius)
By Antonio Abbatiello https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Omphalotus_olearius.JPG
Omphalotus olearius 33857
By Noah Siegel (Amanita virosa) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Omphalotus_olearius_33857.jpg
By Own work lalalfdfa https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Mycena_chlorophos.jpg
Bitter Oyster (Panellus stipticus)
By Ylem https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:PanellusStipticusAug12_2009.jpg
As the seasons change and time passes, don’t forget that death and decay underlie life and that nature has a black thumb as well as a green one.