THOMAS MADE PLANTS FASCINATING
Thomas, who died on March 3 at the age of 81, was an excellent botanist
whose advice was worth listening to. He once told me that my newspaper
columns on ecology had too few plant examples compared to animals. That's
because, on the whole, animals tend to be action figures whereas plants
are mostly inert unless the wind is blowing. But intriguing plants do
exist, and I dedicate this column to Joab.
kill and eat millions of animals every year. In addition to having a
wide diversity of insects on the menu, carnivorous plants eat other
animals, including small birds, frogs, and mammals. Plants that capture
and digest animals occur in many parts of the world, and several kinds
can be found in North America.
plants, in which insects fall into a highly effective pitfall trap,
are among the best known. In some, the column, or "pitcher,"
is only a few inches high, but it can be almost 3 feet tall in the yellow
trumpet pitcher plants.
hairs around the lip of the column and digestive liquor at the bottom
of the flask, pitcher plants mean certain death for many insects. The
bug that makes a misstep over the edge of the tube will soon become
part of the plant world, as it is digested and absorbed.
spectacular pitcher plants are from Mount Kinabalu National Park in
Borneo, a region with the greatest concentration of pitcher plant species
in the world. One of these, the rajah pitcher plant, has tubular flasks
large enough to capture rats, and it can hold more than a quart of digestive
produce their own heat internally, a trait usually reserved for birds,
mammals, and a few other animals. Perhaps the best known U.S. plant
with heat producing properties is the eastern skunk cabbage.
Northeast, skunk cabbages are among the earliest plants emerging in
the spring, often pushing directly up through a covering of snow that
is melted by their generated heat.
cabbages have been reported to raise their temperature 45 degrees higher
than their environment.
heat-producing plant is the voodoo lily, a tropical species of Southeast
Asia. With a beauty typical of other lilies, the voodoo lily has a striking
purple flower and reaches a height of almost 3 feet.
their ornamental appearance, voodoo lilies have a trait that might diminish
their popularity in the garden. During the period of pollination, the
flowers heat up. Temperatures inside a flower in the cool shade can
reach 110 degrees F, at which time, the plant smells like rotting meat.
trait we are often interested in is size. How long is a python? How
tall is a polar bear standing on its back legs? How much does a largemouth
bass weigh? What about plants - what is the biggest flower in the world?
Rafflesia. Found in Indonesian rain forests this plant truly qualifies
as bizarre, because all you see is flower. It has no leaves, no limbs,
Rafflesia does not even have chlorophyll. It is just a giant, eye-catching
flower that can be more than 3 feet in diameter and weigh more than
40 pounds. It has parasitic filaments that feed off the roots of a particular
species of vine.
learned about all of these plants when I took a course in plant taxonomy
from Joab Thomas. All serve as superb examples of the diversity of life
among plants and the many secrets and mysteries that await our understanding.
an amazing individual. Having been president of the University of Alabama
and later at Penn State, he became best known to many as the only person
to have been the boss of both Bear Bryant and Joe Paterno.
he was known to me and many colleagues as an outstanding botany teacher
who could actually make people realize that plants are exciting.
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