by Whit Gibbons

February 26, 2017

I once was told that my newspaper columns had too few plant examples compared to animals. The person who told me was Joab Thomas, who died in March 2014.

Joab was an excellent botanist whose advice was worth listening to. Animals indeed tend to be action figures whereas most plants appear passive unless the wind is blowing. But plants have their own stories, and some of them are intriguing. At the time of Joab’s death, I dedicated my column to him. Parts of the following are from that column.

Plants 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 live in North America. Pitcher 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. With downward-pointing hairs around the lip of the column and digestive liquor at the bottom of the flask, pitcher plants mean certain death for many insects.

A bug tottering on the edge of the tube could soon become part of the plant world, as it is digested and absorbed. The most spectacular pitcher plants are from 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 fluid.

Some plants 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.

In the 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. Some skunk cabbages have been reported to raise their temperature 45 degrees higher than their environment.

Another 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.

Despite 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, which attracts pollinating flies.

One animal trait we are often interested in is size. How long is an anaconda? How tall is a grizzly standing on its back legs? How much does a largemouth bass weigh? What about plants – what is the biggest flower in the world? The answer: Rafflesia.

Found in Indonesian rainforests, this plant is truly distinctive because all you see is flower. It has no leaves, no limbs, no roots. In fact, Rafflesia does not even have chlorophyll. It is just a giant, eye-catching 3-foot-wide flower weighing 40 pounds. It has parasitic filaments that feed off the roots of a type of vine.

I first learned about all of these from a plant taxonomy course taught by Joab Thomas. All serve as superb examples of the diversity of life and the many plant secrets and mysteries that await our understanding.

He was an amazing individual who was chancellor of North Carolina State University and president of the University of Alabama and Penn State University. He was an outstanding botany teacher who made people realize that plants are exciting. I think of him at this time each year when flowers will soon be everywhere and all of the trees will have leaves.

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