From bloody mushrooms to leaves that might kill you, here are some of the most unusual plants, fungi, and microorganisms on the planet.
Just as unusual animals can inspire awe and a deeper appreciation of nature, there are some equally enigmatic plants, fungi, and microorganisms that don’t fit the “mold” (get it?) of what you expect non-animal life to be. These otherworldly organisms look or behave oddly—they move, glow, stink, sting, and even bleed.
While many of these unusual plants and organisms can be spotted in botanical gardens and captive environments around the world, others can only be seen in the wild. Watch for (or watch out for!) these weird plants and other species on your next trip.
Gympie-Gympie (Dendrocnide moroides)
WHERE: Queensland, Australia
While Australia is known for dangerous animals, even Aussie plants can “bite.” The gympie-gympie, or “giant stinging tree,” is one of the world’s most venomous plants. The fuzzy-looking leaves are anything but soft—touching or rubbing against one releases a potent neurotoxin that can cause extreme pain, like a splash of hot acid. If a large area of the body is exposed, it is said to be painful enough that it could either provoke a heart attack or make the victim want to die (another common name is the “suicide plant”), though there are no officially documented cases of this. If that isn’t enough reason to keep you from wandering off-trail, the toxin remains in dry leaf litter and can sting you even after the plant withers and dies. Though it’s painful to humans and other mammals, some species of native marsupials and birds have adapted to eat the leaves.
This stinging plant is common in Queensland rainforests, especially Daintree National Park and the Atherton Tablelands region near Cairns. To see these and other curious native species, book a rainforest tour and let your guide point them out.
Pale Pitcher Plants (Sarracenia alata)
WHERE: U.S. Gulf Coast and Southeast
While most plants use chlorophyll to create energy from the sun, other plants get their energy as many humans do—by eating animals. These carnivorous plants capture insects like ants, wasps, or flies and break them down using a digestive enzyme while they are still alive.
The pitcher plant is named for the curvaceous, leafy cavity that captures their unsuspecting insect prey. Pitcher plants are found in tropical wetland ecosystems around the world, but in the U.S. they are especially prevalent in the Gulf Coast and Southeast. One place where you can find them in large numbers is Big Thicket National Preserve, a federally protected open space and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve near Beaumont, Texas. This park sits at the convergence of nine different ecosystems and has an eclectic mix of plants and wildlife. Four out of five of the carnivorous plant species found in the U.S. can be spotted here: pitcher plants plus the odd-looking (and odder-sounding) bladderworts, butterworts, and sundews. Visit in the spring to see the pitcher plants in bloom, each plant sends up a tall scape capped by a yellow flower.
Candy Cap Mushrooms (Lactarius rubidus)
WHERE: Northern California and U.S. Pacific Northwest
If you make an ice cream stop on any Northern California coastal road trip, you might find one unexpected flavor—mushroom.
Candy cap mushrooms grow wild in Northern California and Pacific Northwest coastal oak and pine forests. They have a sweet fragrance and a flavor similar to an earthy maple syrup when cooked. Several local bakeries and ice cream shops use this unexpectedly sweet fungus to flavor ice cream, cookies, and other desserts. Because mushroom foraging has risks—the obvious one to your health, but also because it’s not legal to harvest wild mushrooms in many parks—it’s best to only go foraging with an expert guide. San Francisco-based company forageSF offers Wild Mushroom walks in Sonoma County and the Santa Cruz Mountains, as do regional mushroom enthusiast groups like the Sonoma County Mycological Association and the Santa Cruz Fungus Federation.
Bioluminescent Dinoflagellates (Pyrodinium bahamense)
WHERE: Puerto Rico and Jamaica
Dinoflagellates are single-celled aquatic plankton and are bioluminescent, giving off a magical glowing light due to a chemical reaction. While these organisms are found in low concentrations around the world and are rarely visible to the naked eye, there are a few places where they exist in large numbers. These so-called bioluminescent bays glow blue from the light of millions of these glowing organisms when the water is agitated by your hand, the movement of an oar, or when a wave crashes into the shore.
Two of the best places to see this phenomenon are in the Caribbean—Mosquito Bay on the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico, said to be the brightest bioluminescent bay in the world, and Luminous Lagoon, near Falmouth, Jamaica. At either destination, you can book a nighttime boat or kayak tour to get out on the water. The experience is best when the sky is dark, so try to plan your outing during the new or crescent moon.
Sensitive Plant (Mimosa pudica)
WHERE: South and Central America
This plant has an unusual habit of closing its leaves inward and “playing dead” for a few minutes after being touched. It’s also called the Shame Plant and the Shy Plant for the way it slinks away when touched. While the plant grows native in South and Central America, it was introduced to many other regions as a quirky, ornamental plant and started growing wild. It is now considered an invasive species in many tropical environments.
The plant exhibits some other unexpected characteristics—learning and memory. At London’s popular Kew Gardens which gets more than 2.1 million visitors a year, their sensitive plants have stopped closing, having understood, through a primitive learning process biologists call habituation, that these touchy-feely guests are annoying but nothing to fear.
Flower of Stone or Resurrection Plant (Selaginella lepidophylla)
WHERE: Southwestern U.S. (Texas and New Mexico) and Northern Mexico
This species of desert plant is known for its ability to dry out almost completely and survive for several months or even years without water. During extremely dry weather and long stretches of drought in its hot, native climate, the stems curl into a tight ball, dry up, and look leathery and brown. But it’s not dead, it’s in a state of dormancy, pausing photosynthesis and all growth functions. Once it is finally exposed to moisture again, even just elevated humidity, the plant starts to “resurrect” itself, uncurling, and regaining its green color.
One place where you can explore the Chihuahuan Desert and see the Resurrection plant is at Big Bend National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in West Texas.
Titan Arum or Corpse Flower (Amorphophallus titanum)
WHERE: Sumatra, Indonesia
This plant’s scientific name, Amorphophallus titanum, is derived from Greek words that mean “giant misshapen penis” due to its large—up to nine feet tall—and phallic central cluster of flowers. It blooms every five to ten years, and then only for about 48 hours at a time. In bloom, it gives off a putrid smell of decaying flesh, which inspired its common name, the “corpse flower.” The flower produces its own heat to help the smell carry further and attract pollinators.
The corpse flower is endemic to the rainforests of Western Sumatra, Indonesia and is threatened due to habitat destruction. Some Sumatran eco-tours take you to see the plant in the wild, but because it rarely blooms, you’re most likely to catch the flower closer to home by following the social media accounts of botanical gardens that have one.
Stinking Corpse Lily (Rafflesia arnoldii)
WHERE: Sumatra, Indonesia and the Island of Borneo
While its Sumatran neighbor, the corpse flower, is one of the tallest inflorescences (or cluster of flowers) in the world, the stinking corpse lily is considered to be the largest single flower. These massive red blooms can be 3 feet in diameter and weigh as much as 25 pounds. In bloom, they give off the smell of rotting flesh.
The stinking corpse lily grows wild in Sumatra, Indonesia and the Island of Borneo. Like the corpse flower, local guides can take you to see the plant in the wild, but because it rarely blooms you’re most likely to see it flowering at a local botanical garden.
Bleeding Tooth Fungus (Hydnellum pecki)
WHERE: U.S. Pacific Northwest, Europe, and Korea
When young, this forest fungus can look terrifying. A dark red pigment oozes out from the smooth surface, which makes it look like bleeding human skin. The sap actually has antibacterial and anticoagulant properties, similar to pharmaceutical blood thinners. The fungus grows symbiotically on the roots of the trees it grows beneath, helping to improve the host plant’s mineral absorption. Despite the scary appearance, it’s not toxic, but is very bitter and considered inedible.
This fungus is found among moss and pine needle litter in coniferous forests around the U.S. Pacific Northwest, Mountain West (including Yellowstone National Park), Europe, and Korea.
Jackal Food (Hydnora africana)
WHERE: South Africa and Namibia
This bizarre parasitic plant lacks leaves or chlorophyll and lives mostly underground, drawing all of its nutrients from the roots of another plant. A pink, fleshy flower that some say looks like a “toothed vagina” is the only part of the plant above ground. To attract the dung beetles and carrion beetles that pollinate it, the flower gives off a smell similar to feces. When the flower first opens, the beetles are drawn in through small gaps in the sepals that trap them inside temporarily to ensure pollination.