Top 10 Bizarre Plants
These plants are not garden basics! Walk on the wild side with these weird and wonderful bizarre plants.
Sure, we love plants for their beauty and fragrance, but have you ever browsed the aisles of a garden center and felt your creative side, I don’t know, sigh just a little? That’s a huge problem for me: settling for the tried-and-true when I’m really craving a plant that belongs in a grade school science fair. Botanically speaking, I’m a sucker for a bizarre personality.
But committing to adventure often leads straight to disappointment. Either I can’t find a place to buy what I’m looking for, or I learn the hard way that the plant is too temperamental for the average gardener. Because of cost, size or the cultivar’s picky preferences, my plans usually end in grumbling defeat.
So imagine my excitement when our editor placed a copy of Timber Press’ Bizarre Botanicals in my greedy hands! Authors Larry Mellichamp and Paula Gross introduced me to the plant world’s friendlier eccentrics, focusing on varieties that, with a little work, anyone can locate and grow at home. This month’s Top 10 plants come directly from those pages: my must-grow favorites of the wonderfully weird.
Which means that, very soon now, my home will finally be jam-packed with living conversation pieces. So bring on the bizarre plants! I’m feeling brave.
Polka dot begonia
(Begonia maculata var. wightii)
An impressive height of 3 to 4 feet provides a good view of this begonia’s striking leaves. The elongated-heart shape and ruffled edges make for lovely foliage, but the round, sparkly white spots steal the show.
Why we love it: It’s not just beautiful—it’s a brilliant example of nature’s engineering. It is believed that the spots scatter sunlight within the leaves, helping this begonia adapt to lower light below a forest canopy.
It’s easy to grow this compact perennial indoors near a window or outdoors on a bright patio. With tiny green leaves on multiple stems, the artillery plant offers a pleasing mound of green year-round. Periodically, flat-topped inflorescences appear, tipped with tiny reddish buds. Watch carefully as they plump up.
Why we love it: Mist those fattened buds and wait about 30 seconds. Poof! Whoof! Puffs of pollen begin bursting out as the flowers open, wafting up like smoke from a cannon.
Like other window-leaved succulents, this one has chubby leaves tipped with triangular patches of translucent pigment. These windows protect the plant from burning desert rays while letting in just enough light for photosynthesis. A large white flower rises up from the sand to attract pollinators.
Why we love them: In bright light, baby toes produce a red pigment that gives them further protection from the sun. They take on a pink tinge, almost seeming to blush.
To me, it looks like a skinny starfish on a stalk. But to wasps, the five banded petals of this tropical orchid resemble big, tasty spiders. While wrestling with the blooms, a wasp becomes covered in pollen, which it will helpfully—though hungrily—take to the next spider orchid.
Why we love it: When it comes to botanical moxie, it’s hard to beat a wasp-wrangling orchid.
With delicate powder-puff flowers and lacy fernlike leaflets, the sensitive plant seems to earn the name pudica—shy—based on appearance alone. But touch it gently and the leaves fold up, one pair at a time, all the way down the axis.
Why we love it: Within 15 to 20 minutes, the leaflets open back up. It’s hard not to admire such resilience.
In its native Bolivia, this cactus creeps along the rocky ground—but in a tall pot, its stems bend to resemble an enormous, hairy spider emerging from its hole. Just when you get super creeped out, pretty salmon-colored flowers bloom. Awww, it’s a girl tarantula!
Why we love it: With regular water and fertilizer, it can grow several inches each year, making this tarantula more fun than horrifying.
Black tree aeonium
(Aeonium arboreum ‘Zwartkop’)
Tight rosettes of leaves high atop narrow, gently crooking stalks: Even without the murky coloration, the black tree aeonium smacks of the Gothic. But this perennial craves bright light and warmth, so be prepared to bring it in for winter.
Why we love it: Black tree aeonium doesn’t bloom easily, but when it does, the breathtaking contrast of yellow flowers against the dark leaves makes all the effort worthwhile.
It starts out innocently enough, a 2-foot-tall plant with elegant lobe-shaped, gray-green leaves. Then—bam!—bright, nasty spines start popping up through those leaves. The leaf tops, the undersides, the stems and even the fruit sport these pointy prickles.
Why we love it: Petals usually get all the points for prettiness, making devil’s thorn a lovable, although far from huggable, underdog.
Like the coneflower, sea holly is a relatively hardy perennial (Zones 5 to 8) sporting a central head ringed with a ruff of “petals.” Except these aren’t petals, but bracts that also sprout out along the stem. And the cone is covered with individual, fully functioning flowers, complete with male and female parts.
Why we love it: Sea holly is the Dr. Jekyll to coneflower’s Mr. Hyde, with its spiky bracts and eerie metallic hue.
Leave the Venus flytrap for the kids: Butterwort has all the carnivorous action without the creep factor. Rather, showy petals and curvaceous rosette leaves lend a charming sophistication to this Zone 7 perennial.
Why we love it: Sticky mucilage on the leaves traps small insects, and nutrients are absorbed throughout the plant in a matter of few hours. Icky, yet fascinating.
Carnivores of the Plant World
Carnivorous plants are the famous villains of the botanical world. There are more than 600 species of them, but they fall into just five basic categories: pitcher plants, sundews, butterworts, bladderworts and the notorious Venus flytraps (left). Pitchers, sundews and butterworts do their work passively, with glistening, sticky surfaces. Bladderworts, which grow in water or waterlogged soil, inflate their leaves to suck in minuscule prey. And a Venus flytrap’s lethal leaves are as distinctive as they are effective.
Yet not all plants that kill are carnivores. Some species trap small
insects in sticky hairs as a means of self-defense against hungry pests.
To be a true botanical carnivore, a plant must not only attract and capture prey, it must also absorb nitrogen and phosphorus from its victims. Table manners, of course, are entirely optional.