Some floral forms make you wonder if they know something we don’t. Take Calceolaria uniflora for example.

When photographed at just the right angle, these slipper-shaped blooms look like the face of an alien wearing beats headphones and holding an empty white tray as a peace offering. Calceolaria is native to the southernmost portion of South America in Tierra del Fuego whose rocky alpine terrain could also be confused with an inhospitable planet in another solar system.

Cacleolaria uniflora Credit: Butterfly voyages serge Ouachée via Wikimedia

If it isn’t an orange alien, what exactly are we looking at? The stalk-like eyes are the stamens, which contain the pollen-producing anthers at the end. The petals of the flower are asymmetrical such that there is a large lower lip and a much smaller upper portion. The green sepals are even larger than the upper part of the petals giving the illusion of halo or headset. The lower lip of the slipper contains a prominent folded appendage in white, a striking contrast from the other features.

Calceolaria uniflora colony Credit: Thomas Mathis via Wikimedia

The purpose for this elaborate costume isn’t mimicry, it’s attraction. But they are phoning home for E.T., they’re setting the table for birds. Birds are a part of many plants’ reproductive strategies and it’s usually in the form of oil and nectar producing floral structures that entice hummingbirds and other small birds over for a drink. Even other Calceolaria species produce nectar for their bee pollinators, but not C. uniflora. In this case, the white tray and larger lower lip of the flower are edible. Birds eat the tray and slipper portion of the flower while the upper portion dusts the top of their heads with pollen. As the birds move from flower to flower, pollen is transferred as well.

Calceolaria uniflora with missing trays Credit: Javier Martin via Wikimedia

There are many other examples of plants using edible portions of themselves in their reproductive strategy. Seed dispersal by the animals that eat them is the whole point of fruit. However, the case of C. uniflora, where the plant offers up part of itself as a meal before seed production seems out-of-this-world risky to me.



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Dracula (Orchids)

Dracula radiosa Credit: Eric in SF via Wikimedia

If you thought we were done talking about plant costumes, you were wrong. While the title may lead you conjure images of vampires with fangs and dark cloaks, orchids of the Dracula genus look decidedly like something else- an adorable monkey face! I admit it’s a strange nexus of nomenclature and form; nevertheless, today’s post will be appropriate for all audiences.

Dracula simia Credit: Dick Culbert from Gibsons, B.C., Canada via Wikimedia

Dracula orchids won’t be found in Transylvania. These blooms are native to the cloud forests of Ecuador, growing in rainforests at elevations of ~3000 – 6500 feet. They were given their name by botanist Carlyle Luer in 1978. The name was inspired by the dark burgundy to black petals that curve up like the stiff collar of a vampire’s cloak. The petals also taper off into sharp points reminiscent of infamous vampire fangs.

Dracula vampira Credit: Eric Hunt via Wikimedia

But back to the real costume, why would a flower need to look like a monkey? If you’ve been paying attention to the last few posts, you can probably guess that the answer has something to do with pollination. However, it’s not quite as obvious as the Orphys bee orchid connection- these flowers are not trying to entice monkeys over for pollen transfer. From what scientists have been able to decipher so far, these flowers aren’t really wearing a monkey costume so much as they are wearing a mushroom costume. Take a closer look at the floral structure posing as the monkey’s snout. These lightly colored and highly ridged structures look very similar to mushrooms found nearby on the rainforest floor. Check out this link with images for a close-up comparison.

Yes, a perfectly good autotroph in mycological masquerade. It’s not just looks either. Again, orchids dig deep into their biochemical repertoire to create a specialized perfume to go along with the visual effect. All of these smells and visual cues serve to trick small flies into coming to their flowers for pollination purposes. The flies prefer real mushrooms as a food source and place to lay their eggs, but are fooled by the Dracula orchids.

Still, this botanical mushroom costume looks an awful lot like a small monkey’s face. I don’t think scientists have completely uncovered all of Dracula’s secrets when it comes to floral form. Investigations are still underway to tease apart the factors of shape, coloration, and scent. Of course, it’s still possible that the rest of the costume isn’t exclusively for the flies. The faces may serve to deter other would-be herbivores from eating the plants. If you were an insect or another small mammal, wouldn’t you think twice before walking over for a bite if that face was staring back at you? I know I would.

Dracula cordobae Credit: Javier Martin via Wikimedia

If you’re interested in learning more about the ecology of cloud forests and the scientists that study it, check out the link below for a trailer for the Cloud Forest Project documentary film.



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Corpse Flower: The Living Dead

Corpse Flower Credit: U.S. Botanic Garden via Wikipedia

Today’s plant costume is an odiferous disguise instead of a visual one. Its common name is also appropriate for the Halloween season- The Corpse Flower. It only pretends to be dead by giving off a rank odor of rotting flesh when it blooms. Again the reason is pollination. This horrible smell to us calls to every beetle and fly around that supper’s on. While they root around in the tight dark spaces of the bloom trying to find a decent place to feed and lay their eggs, they become covered in pollen. These pollen-covered insects then fly off to another bloom to pollinate another plant.

This species, Amorphophallus titanum*, is also a superphotosynthesizer in the plant world. As you may have noticed from the pictures and videos, the blooms can be as large as 10 feet tall. This makes the corpse flower the world’s largest inflorescence. Notice I didn’t say flower. Ah, botanical anatomy semantics! The images may look like a giant flower with burgundy petals surrounding a central stigma on steroids. Not so. The ‘petal’ portion of the flower is actually a bract structure called a spathe (plant biology word of the day). The tall central feature is called a spadix (bonus plant biology word of the day), and it is this structure on which the true flowers of the plant (separate male and female flowers) are arranged. The entirety of this plant reproductive structure is the inflorescence and there isn’t a bigger one in the plant world. The world’s record for a corpse flower bloom is nearly 11 feet tall. After flowering, the plant then makes the world’s largest leaf structure. It may look a tree in its own right, but developmentally, it’s just a compound leaf.


* Grossly translated as giant misshapen penis. Yeah. Well, you’ve seen the pictures. Stay classy readers!

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Psychotria elata

Psychotria elata

Psychotria elata

Voluptuous lips might not be something you’d expect on a plant science blog*, but today’s featured plant Psychotria elata has them. This small tree native to South American forests is commonly called the Hooker’s Lips plant after the unique shape of its flowers. Check out more images in the video below.

You have to admit that these puckers would rival those of even Angelina Jolie, Jessica Rabbit, Jagger and that guy from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Why would you have a flower shaped like a pair of hooker’s lips? As indecent as it may sound, it still comes down to sex. The distinctive shape and color of Psychotria elata’s flowers are perfect for attracting their pollinators. At this point you might be wondering ‘What kind of pollinator is attracted to that?’ Well, it isn’t lonely men; it’s hummingbirds and butterflies. The bright red color draws them in and the central pore is a perfect fit for their narrow beaks and proboscis.

It’s universal to wonder, ‘But are they real?’ As in Hollywood, in the botanical world, the truth is complicated. These red smackers are real plant structures, but they aren’t really flowers. The red lips are actually bracts or modified leaves like those of Poinsettias. They hide the much smaller true flowers within. Check out some of the last images on the video above or the links below. As the inflorescence matures, the mouth eventually opens up exposing the flowers inside like a tongue or uvula.**

Unfortunately, deforestation in Psychotria elata’s native range is threatening its survival. Let’s hope we won’t have to kiss this species goodbye.


*Well, recently on the blog we’ve had gumbo, drugs, interspecies bee-flower sex and now hookers. Admittedly not my most sophisticated week. Stay classy readers!

**The flowers themselves are quite small, pretty but not particularly memorable. It would be cooler if they were more hideous such that when the ‘mouth’ opened it would look like that scene from Aliens.

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Ophrys: Bee Costumes

Now, let’s really kick off the plant costume series with an easy one that you may have seen before- bee costumes. The bee form is a staple of Halloween costumes for all ages. There are adorable and rotund onesies complete with antennae’d hoodies for the 18 months and under set. At the other end of the spectrum there are ‘sexy’ bee costumes that get much tighter, leave little room for stripes and would otherwise lead one to believe Halloween is celebrated in July not October. Finally, let’s not forget this gem of a throwback from Blind Melon*:

Plants also dress up as bees as well. While the orchid genus Orphys may sound more like a Mardi Gras krewe, their specialty is their bee costumes. Take another look at some of these images. They’re not flowers with a bee rooting around for nectar in the middle- it’s just the flower. Don’t feel too bad if you were fooled, Orphys species fool actual bees too. You see, this is what a sexy bee costume looks like if you were designing it for a bee.

Orphys apifera by Hans Hillewaert via Wikipedia

Ophrys bomybliflora by Orchi via Wikipedia

Orphys fusca by Orchi via Wikipedia

Why would a plant wear a sexy bee costume? To attract unsuspecting male bees over to shake up some pollen. The technical term for this pollination strategy is pseudocopulation. If you haven’t connected the dots yet, the male bees have sex or try to have sex with the bee form of the flower becoming covered in flower pollen in the process. The frustrated bees can then move on to another orchid bearing an attractive female bee form. This transfers the pollen from the first orchid to the second thereby allowing sexual reproduction for the plants from the fake experience of the bees. Of course, the bees are not as likely to be fooled twice (shame on them, right?) so the actual pollination rate via this mechanism is estimated to be ~10%. The orchid makes up for this by producing about 12,000 tiny seeds.

Disguises are not limited to visual cues in the plant kingdom. In another devious trick, the orchids employ their extensive repertoire of biochemical tools to produce chemicals that mimic the smell of female bees. These alkene molecules released by the plant closely match the species-specific pheromones for their bee pollinators. It may look like a bee and smell like a bee, but it’s still just a flower.


*What do you know, another plant reference.

References and Links:×6046906/eucera_bee_pollinating_ophrys_scolopax_orchid

Marijuana disguised as okra. Wait, What?!?

This wasn’t the topic that I wanted to use to kick off the subject of plant costumes, but when plants make the national news, I really feel compelled to write about it. In a most unfortunate case of mistaken identity, a drug task force in Georgia raided a farmer’s property only to find okra. It seems that a helicopter fly-over mistook his okra for Cannabis plants. This information was used as the basis for a raid by law enforcement.

Upon realizing that it had dispatched officers to confiscate a popular gumbo ingredient, the Georgia State Patrol, which operates the task force, issued an apology, both to Perry and publicly.

The farmer did not appreciate being confronted at gunpoint over his choice of garden plants. However, common sense prevailed without any damage to humans or property (botanical or otherwise). As part of the news article on, the following graphic was used and now ranks among my favorite captions of all time.


Indeed. Pop culture has led me to believe the above plant is more suitable for dessert recipes. The corollary is probably also true- don’t try to smoke okra.

The reason for the mix-up lies in the following statement:

“It did have quite a number of characteristics that were similar to a cannabis plant,” Georgia State Patrol Capt. Kermit Stokes told WSB.

Really?!? Well, they are both green and have leaves and can grow to quite tall. Generally, the leaves of the two plants look nothing alike. Okra plants have broad leaves with 5-7 lobes on them, while Cannabis leaves are compounds leaves with 7-13 thin serrated leaflets each.

Okra by Federix via Wikipedia

Cannabis plant by Pavel Sevela via Wikipedia

So, there could be some overlapping features in terms of leaf shape. But the flowers are completely different and okra produces distinct fruit pods.

It seems that law enforcement groups could benefit from remedial botany classes.


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October Series: Plant Costumes

In honor of Halloween at the end of this month, I’m starting up a new post series for October- Plant Costumes. If you want to read about pumpkins or ghosts and monsters of the plant world, check out last year’s posts. The new series will be all about the disguises plants use to trick herbivores and treat their pollinators. These plants are the costume contest winners when it comes to floral forms that make heterotrophs do a double-take. There are lots of articles on the internet with slideshows of these flowers (alas, many of them never crediting the original photographer; see links below), but I hope to track down the reasons, if they are known, why these costumes are necessary. Surely, they’re not trick-or-treating around the rainforest. Yet, there must be some reason these species put such effort into such elaborate forms.

Psychotria elata

Psychotria elata