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STANDARDS

NGSS: Core Idea: LS4.C: Adaptations

CCSS: Reading Informational Text: 9

TEKS: Science: 3.10A, 4.10A, 5.10A, 6.2B; ELA: 3.13, 4.11, 5.11, 6.10

World's Wildest Plants

These five plants climb, compete, and deceive to stay alive

A cluster of flowers grows in a meadow. From far away, they seem like normal plants. But step closer, and you might notice something. Each blossom looks exactly like a tiny, buzzing bee! This puzzling organism is called a bee orchid. It’s just one of Earth’s many wild and wacky plants.

“Plants are the foundation of all ecosystems,” says J. Phil Gibson, a plant biologist at the University of Oklahoma. Many animals eat only plants, and other species eat those animals. “Plants keep everything else alive,” says Gibson.

A cluster of flowers grows in a meadow. They seem like normal plants from far away. But step closer. You might notice something. Each blossom looks exactly like a tiny, buzzing bee! This weird plant is called a bee orchid. It’s just one of Earth’s many wild and wacky plants.

“Plants are the foundation of all ecosystems,” says J. Phil Gibson. He’s a plant biologist. He works at the University of Oklahoma. Many animals eat only plants. And other species eat those animals. “Plants keep everything else alive,” says Gibson.

But plants have their own needs too. They require water, air, and energy from sunlight. These are the ingredients for photosynthesis, the process by which plants make their own food. Plants also use nutrients from soil to grow.

Some plants have especially strange ways of meeting their needs. These unique adaptations help them grow and reproduce. Here are five plants that go to amazing lengths to stay alive.

But plants have their own needs too. They need water, air, and energy from sunlight. These are the ingredients for photosynthesis. It’s the process plants use to make their own food. Plants also use nutrients from soil to grow.

Some plants have strange ways of meeting their needs. These special adaptations help them grow and reproduce. Here are five plants that go to amazing lengths to stay alive.

iStock/Getty Images

Jungle Climber

If you’re ever in a tropical rainforest, look carefully at the trees. What you think is a trunk might be the tall roots of a banyan tree. These giant trees start growing high up in the forest—right on top of other trees!

All the plants in a rainforest compete for light. To get a leg up, banyans start their lives far off the ground, on the branches of other trees. This helps them absorb sunlight that doesn’t reach the shady forest floor. 

To anchor themselves and absorb water, banyans stretch their roots all the way to the ground. These hanging roots can get so long and thick that they smother the tree underneath! The dead tree rots away, leaving the banyan’s roots standing tall.

Look carefully at the trees if you’re ever in a tropical rainforest. You might think you see a trunk. But it’s really the tall roots of a banyan tree. These giant trees start growing high up in the forest. They grow right on top of other trees!

All the plants in a rainforest fight for light. Banyans start their lives far off the ground. That helps them get a leg up. They grow on the branches of other trees. This helps them absorb sunlight. It often doesn’t reach the shady forest floor.

Banyans stretch their roots all the way to the ground. That lets them anchor themselves and soak up water. These hanging roots grow long and thick. They can smother the tree underneath! The dead tree rots away. That leaves the banyan’s roots standing tall.

Alex Hyde/NaturePL

Un-bee-lievable Flower

Despite its appearance, this isn’t an insect. It’s the flower of the bee orchid, which grows in Europe and the Middle East. Its flowers look—and smell—exactly like female bees. 

The flower’s disguise helps the plant reproduce. To make new seeds, plants need to share pollen with each other. Many get insects such as bees to help. Most flowers attract insects with bright colors and sweet nectar. But the bee orchid tricks them instead.

Real bees land on the flowers thinking they’ll find a mate. Instead, clumps of pollen stick to their bodies. When they move on to other flowers, the pollen rubs off, and the orchid can reproduce. 

This may look like an insect. But it isn’t. It’s the flower of the bee orchid. It grows in Europe and the Middle East. Its flowers look just like female bees. They smell like them too.

The flower’s disguise helps the plant reproduce. Plants need to share pollen with each other. That’s how they make new seeds. Many get insects such as bees to help. Most flowers attract insects with bright colors and sweet nectar. But the bee orchid tricks them instead.

Real bees land on the flowers thinking they’ll find a mate. Instead, clumps of pollen stick to their bodies. The pollen rubs off when they move on to other flowers. Then the bee orchid can reproduce.

iStock/Getty Images

Rock Replica

This might look like a bunch of rocks. But there are plants in this photo too! Pebble plants, which grow in the deserts of South Africa, disguise themselves as speckled stones. This keeps them safe from animals that might eat them.

Like many desert plants, pebble plants store precious water. They swell when it rains and use the liquid over time. But that makes them a target for thirsty animals.

The rock-like coloring serves as camouflage. A passing animal might think the plant is just another stone. If the trick works, the plant survives another day. 

This might look like a bunch of rocks. But there are plants in this photo too! Pebble plants grow in the deserts of South Africa. They disguise themselves as stones. This keeps them safe from animals. They might try to eat them.

Many desert plants store water. And so do pebble plants. They swell when it rains. They use the water over time. But that makes them a target for thirsty animals.

The rock-like coloring serves as camouflage. A passing animal might think the plant is just another stone. The plant survives another day if the trick works.

DPA Picture Alliance/Alamy Stock Photo

Very Large Lily

No, this isn’t a big green raft. It’s the leaf of a Victoria water lily, which is native to the Amazon rainforest. The plant’s leaves can grow as large as a kiddie pool! 

The roots of the Victoria water lily grow underwater, so the plant never goes thirsty. But it also needs sunlight and air to survive. It sends long stems to the surface of the water and unfurls giant pad-like leaves. The leaves can grow to be more than 1.5 meters (5 feet) across. 

The enormous leaf pads soak up air and sunlight. The bigger the leaves, the more food the plant can make through photosynthesis. A single Victoria water lily can grow 10 huge pads at once!

No, this isn’t a big green raft. It’s the leaf of a Victoria water lily. It lives in the Amazon rainforest. The plant’s leaves can grow as large as a kiddie pool!

The roots of the Victoria water lily grow underwater. That way the plant never gets thirsty. But it also needs sunlight and air to survive. It sends long stems to the surface of the water. Then it unfolds giant pad-like leaves. The leaves can grow to be more than 1.5 meters (5 feet) across.

The huge leaf pads soak up air and sunlight. The bigger the leaves, the better. That means the plant can make more food through photosynthesis. A single Victoria water lily can grow 10 huge pads at once!

Potty Plant

Most plants get nutrients from soil. But in the forests of Borneo where the Low’s pitcher plant lives, the soil isn’t rich enough. So the plant has another source of nutrients. It lets tree shrews use it as a toilet! 

The pitcher plant has jug-shaped leaves with an open lid on top. The lid is lined with nectar, which attracts hungry tree shrews. As a shrew sits on the jug to lick the nectar, its droppings fall into the plant. The plant gets nutrients from the poop.

The plant is just the right shape for a shrew to reach the nectar without falling in, says Jonathan Moran, an ecologist at Royal Roads University in Canada. “It perfectly matches the distance between the shrew’s snout and bum.”

Most plants get nutrients from soil. But in the forests of Borneo, the soil isn’t rich enough. That’s where the Low’s pitcher plant lives. So the plant has another source of nutrients. It lets tree shrews use it as a toilet!

The pitcher plant has jug-shaped leaves. They have an open lid on top. The lid is lined with nectar. The sweet juice attracts hungry tree shrews. They sit on the jugs to lick the nectar. The animals’ droppings fall into the plants as they eats. The plant gets nutrients from the poop.

The plant is just the right shape. A shrew can reach the nectar without falling in, says Jonathan Moran. He’s an ecologist. He works at Royal Roads University in Canada. “It perfectly matches the distance between the shrew’s snout and bum.”

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