They say the truth is stranger than fiction and while that may not always be true, sometimes the real world is more than willing to throw a few curveballs our way. As an example, look no further than nature. Even something as simple as plantlife can become exceedingly bizarre and downright creepy when you start looking into it.
10. The Vampire Tree
Have you ever been taking a walk through the woods and noticed a decrepit old tree stump just sitting there looking old and rotten? It happens all the time. But what you may not be aware of is that there’s a chance that dead tree isn’t dead at all.
Researchers in New Zealand found the stump of a kauri tree in a forest and while the top looked dead, underground life was still stirring. The tree had long ago grafted its roots into a massive network of other roots that likely belonged to dozens, if not hundreds, of other plants and trees. Effectively creating a subterranean superorganism, this root network shared nutrients among all parts. Even though the tree had been destroyed and no longer had leaves by which to survive thanks to photosynthesis, the other trees in the network were able to share nutrients and keep that stump alive.
Though in an ideal situation, every member organism would contribute resources, the almost dead kauri tree had become a parasite, like a vampire, living beyond death by draining life from its companions. But it may also be contributing, allowing the flow of nutrients between all members to the benefit of the whole.
9. Kudzu Smothers Everything
Most of us would never look twice at kudzu. It’s a leafy green vine that looks like any other plant you might expect to find in the background. But it doesn’t stay in the background for long. Kudzu is an invasive species that grows at an incredible rate. It came to the US in the late 1800s as an ornamental plant and has also been used for erosion control. It’s well suited for that jib because kudzu can grow up to a foot per day. Vines can reach 100 feet in length.
When kudzu spreads, it covers everything. Soil, cement, walls, telephone polls, other plants. It covers everything as it takes over. And with any given vine growing one foot per day, it doesn’t take long. But it gets worse. Kudzu produces isoprene and nitric oxide. When those come into contact with nitrogen, which makes up most of our atmosphere, it makes ozone.
Ozone is a dangerous chemical at ground level, and it can kill off other plants, not to mention animals. Kudzu causes a 50% increase in the number of days each year when ozone levels are considered unsafe by EPA standards.
8. Acacia Trees Communicate Danger
Most of us know acacia wood from furniture or decorative wood items. It’s even used as a food additive sometimes. But there’s more going on inside acacia trees than you might think at first glance.
German forester Peter Wohlleben has proposed a controversial idea in 2015: trees can talk. As we mentioned with the vampire tree, there is evidence that trees actually do function in groups, not as lone organisms. They share resources and are able to support each other. Tree roots connect with fungus underground and share signals between organisms. It’s theorized this includes things like warnings about insect attacks, for instance. Chemical signals from one tree to another can alert members of the greater colony. Nutrients are shared, which is how saplings, too small to reach the sunlight under the canopy of larger trees, are able to survive. But there’s much more.
If a giraffe starts eating the leaves of an acacia tree, the plant produces ethylene gas. This gas, when it reaches other acacia trees, causes them to start producing tannins in their leaves. Large quantities of tannins will make the giraffe sick. It could even kill it, so the giraffe is forced to stop eating. All because one tree was able to signal other trees. Even more bizarre is that giraffes know this. They graze with the wind, and walk ahead of the gas clouds because they have evolved to be aware that acacia trees do this.
7. Fire Coral Fungus
There are thousands of species of mushrooms in the world and while some are edible and delicious, many are incredibly toxic. The symptoms can vary from mushroom to mushroom and often include things like vomiting, stomach pain, and diarrhea. Severely toxic mushrooms will cause organ failure and death. In that regard, fire coral fungus is like many of its mushroom cousins. But fire coral fungus can get much, much worse.
Most mushrooms need to be ingested to cause damage. Not so with fire coral. The mycotoxins it produces can be absorbed through the skin. And the damage it causes when eaten goes to a level far beyond most other mushrooms. Sure, there’s the unbearable pain and vomiting, but then there’s also hair loss, peeling of the flesh and even shrinking of the cerebellum. This can cause impaired movement, speech, and perception. If enough has been consumed, the victim can also expect to potentially suffer from necrosis and finally death as a result.
Progression of symptoms is also a mixed bag. Some people showed no symptoms at all for weeks after eating the mushrooms before it hit them.
6. Shiinotomoshibitake Mushrooms Glow
Don’t feel out of the loop if you’ve never heard of Shiinotomoshibitake mushrooms, because almost no one has. If you head to Mt. Yokogura in Japan between May and July, you may get a chance to see them for yourself, though. They’re hard to spot during the day because they only grow a few centimeters in length. So if you really want to experience them, try hunting them down at night.
It turns out that the elusive Shiinotomoshibitake mushrooms emit light. At night they can glow a vibrant green color. They live on decaying tree trunks and will only glow during that certain time of year, so tracking them down isn’t all that easy, but it’s clearly worth the effort if you’re a fan of otherworldly vegetation.
5. Little White Mushrooms
It seems like something called a Little White mushroom has no business being dangerous and yet it’s been blamed for a massive number of deaths in China. If you include mold and yeast, there are over 50,000 kinds of mushrooms in the world and science has just not been able to study them all. That’s why the Little White mushroom is relatively unknown.
In the Yunnan province of China, there had been an ongoing mystery for 30 years. Every rainy season, people would die of cardiac arrest in numbers beyond what should be expected. The deaths were incredibly sudden, sometimes occurring right in the middle of a conversation. The government investigated for five years before they stumbled on an answer.
Researchers looking into what they dubbed Yunnan Sudden Death Syndrome noted that many of the victims had the same mushrooms in their homes. After determining the mushroom was the likely cause, locals were warned to stop eating it. The number of mysterious deaths then dropped to none.
Oddly enough, studies showed that, while the mushrooms were toxic, they were not toxic enough to kill. It’s believed something else, perhaps barium in the water, worked in conjunction with the mushrooms to kill.
4. Toxic Black Walnut
Walnuts may not have the cache of an almond or a cashew, but they’re still fairly popular. And this despite the fact that walnuts want you and everything around you to die miserably.
If you’ve ever seen a walnut in the wild, you know that the nut itself comes off the tree encased in a green husk. The moment you begin to peel that husk to get the nut inside, an unpleasant smelling fluid emerges that turns brown fairly quickly. This is called juglone.
Inside the walnut, and the tree, juglone is called prejuglone. It’s clear and perfectly safe. But the moment it hits the air, it oxidizes and becomes toxic. The toxic juglone can kill both plants and animals. Very few animals can ingest it safely, and even plants that grew near a walnut tree will die as the roots of the tree leak the fluid, not to mention any leaves or nuts that fall from its branches.
Sensitivity to juglone varies, but it can be quite bad for some victims. Even contacting dust from walnut wood being cut near you can cause rashes and welts on the skin. Breathing it in can cause respiratory issues and eating it can cause symptoms similar to cyanide.
3. Chernobyl Mushrooms
By now, everyone knows the basics of what happened at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. There was an explosion in 1986 and it proved to be one of the worst disasters in human history. There remains a 1,000 square mile exclusion zone around the site. Many animals and plants returned to the area with no humans around, but their radiation levels remain high as a result. Among the wide variety of wildlife found in the area are a unique species of fungus.
What’s been called dark fungi has been known to grow in radioactive areas for some time. This mushroom, colored by melanin, doesn’t need the sun to provide energy. Instead, it seems to feed on the radiation, absorbing it and feeding on it in much the same way a green leafed plant would turn energy from the sun into energy to grow through photosynthesis.
The melanin seems to shield the mushroom from the harmful effects of radiation and convert it to usable energy To test whether this was true, researchers bombarded fungus with gamma rays at 500 times the level they’d normally be exposed to. The fungus grew three times faster than normal as a result.
2. Japanese Knotweed
If you’ve ever seen a plant growing out of a crack in the pavement, you may have paused to wonder how it accomplished that task. You might assume that the pavement cracked due to weather or shifting earth and the plant took advantage of the opening. But that isn’t how Japanese Knotweed works. This plant can grow almost anywhere and will break through cement and stone along the way.
Knotweed can live for up to 20 years in places with no light. It can sprout under paved roads and burst through and even grow in stone walls. It’s already causing about $212 million per year in damages and will probably only get worse in the future.
The plant is native to volcanic areas in Japan. It evolved to survive being smothered by volcanic rock, able to continue to grow in the dark and trapped by stone. When you try to remove it, the plant actually becomes more aggressive, growing even faster as a result. The roots can grow up to 10 meters from the stem, making it nearly impossible to kill.
1. The Piranha Plant
There aren’t a lot of famous plants in the world. Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors qualifies. And maybe The Giving Tree. And if you’re a gamer, you surely know about the Piranha Plant from the Super Mario series of games. Turns out we have one of those in the real world, too. Or at least a visually similar cousin.
The plant reproduces by luring in insects that eat dung. They are attracted to the smell, go inside and get trapped. The flower then releases pollen and sets the bugs free, covered in pollen, to spread its spore around town.
Known as hydronora africana, this parasitic plant can look like the piranha plant or just an alien mouth if you catch it at the right phase of its life. According to scientific sources, the plant has an unpleasant odor. According to less scientific sources, it smells like poop. It also produces edible fruit, which is said to taste like a potato.