6 wild and crazy sci-fi abilities of real-life plants

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Evan Hoovler
Dec 15, 2012

Plants don't get enough respect as sci-fi monsters. Sure, Triffids will always rule, but sci-fi baddies tend to be mutants, zombies, vampires and other altered mammals. This is in ignorance of plants' amazingly creepy special abilities.

To prove it, we've dug up six plant skills that freak us out more than Godzilla.

Eating Rats

Okay, here's the horrifying plot: You're a missionary near the Philippine Archipelago. While doing your daily missioning or whatever, you wander up to the top of a mountain. Thirsty, you stumble upon what looks like an ornate birdbath filled with nectar. Leaning over to take a sip, you see a dead rat inside ... and it's slowly being digested by the plant.

This is Nepenthes attenboroughii, one of the most badass scary plants on Earth. See, while most pitcher plants stick to eating bugs, Nepenthes attenboroughii prefers to lure in birds and rats by looking as tasty as possible. Once inside, the animal can't get out and is digested for the entire nearby ecosystem to see and to know ... don't screw with this plant.

There are believed to be only a few hundred of these carnivorous plants, and they weren't discovered until 2008. But we imagine one day they'll be sold as organic mousetraps.

Making a Forest

Quick quiz: How many trees are shown in the picture above? Just guess an estimate, knowing that this canopy covers about 7,500 square meters. It's hard to tell from that picture alone, so here's another pic, this time from inside.

Producing 60,000 cashews a year, this giant expanse of foliage comes from just one tree. The unique situation is caused by the tree's unusual growth process. Its branches are often too heavy for the tree to support. When the overweighted branches reach the ground, they grow roots. It holds the record for largest tree in the entire world.

Located in Brazil, this monster tree attracts thousands of visitors each year. Many of whom probably want the giant South American tree experience without actually having to travel into guerrilla territory.

Living 80,000 Years

When we imagine Cthulhu, a trapped beast that can overwhelm mankind, we imagine Pando. In Utah, there is a a single living organism that has been alive for the better part of 100,000 years. In all, the organism weighs 6 million kilograms and occupies an area of 107 acres. If ever the Pando wanted to turn on mankind, killing it would prove more than difficult. It has survived countless forest fires, burning to the ground only to be replaced with new growth thanks to its massive root system.

All of these trees come from the same roots. It is actually debated whether they are all part of the same tree. But we haven't mentioned the scariest part: It clones itself.

See, it's difficult to sexually reproduce when you're the only member of your species around. Sure, sometimes it can reproduce with itself, cuz plants are freaky like that. But the conditions aren't usually right, so the Pando likes to reproduce by a process that goes by the traumatizing name of "suckering," where it simply grows clones of itself. Imagine having 10 partly-formed twins growing out of your body. Forget the goat with a thousand young, this is the plant with a million clones.

Blinding People

In Florida and South America grows a tree that has a name that translates to "little apple of death." Every single part of the Manchineel can mess you up. If you stand under it in the rain, your skin will blister. If you are tied to the tree, you will die a slow and painful death from poison. Its sap killed Juan Ponce de Leon.

But perhaps the worst part is, if you decide to burn it down in a fit of brain-poisoned rage, it will emit toxic smoke. Smoke so toxic it quickly causes blindness. The Manchineel tree reached legendary status among Europeans during initial exploration of the New World as a beastly new creature to be respected.

One might think that being a generally nasty and fatal thing to be around would make this tree thrive. But also—Florida has it listed as an endangered species. This seems odd, but then again the general behavior of Floridians makes us wonder if the Manchineel also exudes some sort of "crazy" serum.

Spraying Poison Pollen

This plant in the blueberry family has some nasty toxicity. All parts of it are poisonous, including the pollen it emits. Farm animals are particularly susceptible, and symptoms include: vomiting, watering of the eyes, frequent defecation, heart distress, convulsions, coma and death. All of this can happen within six hours of exposure. Fortunately, there aren't many of these, and they are in some remote area ... right?

Oh, no, wait ... it carpets forests all over the eastern United States. It can also grow tree-sized.

The trouble is, it's so darn pretty that it's often grown for decorative purposes. Can't you see, people, that's how it sneaks into your homes in preparation for the invasion!

Killing You With Just One Seed

Plants are pretty big teases when it comes to being food. Sometimes they bear sweet-tasting fruits that scream, "Pluck me, eat me, toss my core and seeds on the ground." But sometimes trees are growing gorgeous-looking death. Such is the case with the innocuous-looking fruit of Cerbera odollam.

These innocuous-looking kernels were once responsible for 2 percent of the deaths in Madagascar's main province. During the 1800s, it was believed that eating the seed would prove guilt or innocence in a trial. Many innocent people gobbled up the seed, only to find that its toxicity is independent of guilt. Finally, the king had to abolish the ridiculous practice of killing yourself to prove innocence of stuff like minor robbery.

Also, as if this weren't bad enough, it's known as the "suicide tree" for its ability to kill while leaving a smooth aftertaste. No, really, the mild flavor makes it the cause of 500 poisoning cases in Kerala, India, over a 10-year span. This article calls it the "perfect murder weapon." How long before this plant figures that out and starts killing humans without a trace?

And if you think THAT's some strange botany, check out 12 bizarre real-life plants that look like sci-fi alien monsters.