It’s not just people who can fool others, nature has it’s own fair share of tricksters. Many plants have developed complex chemical defences to avoid being eaten by animals or insects. Plants such as herbs and spices have developed strong flavours to avoid being eaten – but sometimes plants want to attract insects rather than defend against them. Flowers have developed various ways to lure bees and moths with shapes, colours and patterns (some of which can only be seen in the ultra-violet spectrum) rather than just rely on the promise of tasty nectar.
To mark April Fools Day, here are a few of the best tricksters nature has to offer, the plants that fool everything around them, everyday of the year.
The Corpse Flower – Amorphophallus titanum
How could a plant know what rotting flesh looks like? The Titan Arum, or Corpse Flower, has managed to work it out. This plant grows so large that it can take a year or more to store enough energy to bloom and even then, the plant can only sustain its bloom for a couple of days. The plants are located so far apart from one another and bloom so infrequently, they need to attract as much insect attention as possible to ensure pollination. So the flower uses its smell to attract sweat bees and beetles looking to lay their eggs, and pollinating the plant as they do so.
Venus Flytrap – Dionaea muscipula
Carnivorous plants are a bit more aggressive in their deception. The Venus Flytrap lures unsuspecting insects with the promise of food and then traps them to digest them for their nitrogen content. Carnivorous plants live in nitrogen starved areas, usually sphagnum moss bogs that are high in acidity, making nutrients hard to come by.
Sundew – Drosera
How can insects resist the juicy looking dew drops on the Sundew plant? Unfortunately for insects, those enticing drops aren’t water at all but digestive enzymes used to eat prey alive as soon as it lands on the plant. However, the Sundew will only resort to eating insects to supplement it’s nutrition when growing in poor soils.
Bee Orchid – Ophrys apifera
Found throughout Europe, the Bee Orchid doesn’t just rely on pretty colours and scents to draw it’s pollinators in – it uses sex appeal. The orchid tricks male bees into landing on the flowers to attempt to mate with the petals. As they land on the velvet-textured lip of the flower, the pollen is transferred and the poor bee is left frustrated.
Moth Orchid – Phalaenopsis
The flowers of some of the species within Phalaenopsis genus are said to resemble moths in flight, which explains their common name – Moth orchids. As with many other flowering plants, the petals of the Phalaenopsis orchid are designed to attract pollinating insects, but they also have another function. After pollination, the flowers escape a programmed death by producing chloroplasts, they turn green, become fleshy and begin to photosynthesise just as regular leaves do.
Pitcher Plant – member of the Nepenthaceae family
Foraging, flying or crawling insects, such as flies, are attracted to the Pitcher plant’s cavity formed by the cupped leaf. The rim of the pitcher is slippery, especially when moistened by condensation or nectar, causing the insects to fall into the trap. The liquid solution within the pitcher drowns the insect and the body is gradually dissolved and converted into a solution from which the plant obtains its mineral nutrition (particularly nitrogen and phosphorus). Like all carnivorous plants, they grow in locations where the soil is too poor in minerals and/or too acidic for most plants to survive.
Fly Orchid – Ophrys insectifera
Much like the Tongue Orchid, the Fly Orchid (Ophrys insectifera) actually secretes sex pheromones that attract male digger wasps. The wasps then attempt to mate with the flowers and eventually fly away covered in the flowers’ pollen, helping it to reproduce.
Dove Orchid – Peristeria
Found across much of South America as well as in Panama, Costa Rica and Trinidad, the Dove Orchid or Holy Ghost Orchid produces delicately marbled white flowers that, if you look closely, look like they have a small dove with open wings perched inside. Unfortunately, this orchid is so highly-sought and over-picked that it is classified as endangered in its native country.
Tongue Orchid – Cryptostylis
The Tongue Orchid species are pollinated by the ichneumon wasp known as the orchid dupe wasp (Lissopimpla excelsa). The male wasp mistakes the flower parts for a female wasp and attempts to copulate with it. The Cryptostylis orchids are unusual in that several species are pollinated by the same wasp species, whereas, other orchids which mimic insects are often species-specific. The flowers have no smell detectable to humans, but have been shown to have an odour which attracts the orchid dupe wasp.
White Nettle – Lamium album
Part of the mint family, the White Nettle plant seems to have noticed that predators leave stinging nettles alone, and has managed to evolve to look just like it. It doesn’t have the same painful sting, but it does get the same benefits by association and often grows near its doppelgänger.