Giant cacti that can store 5,000 litres of rainwater; 12,000-year-old creosote bushes that grow less than an inch in four decades; a tobacco plant that summons predators to protect itself from hungry caterpillars; meat-mimicking starfish flowers that sucker flies into pollinating them. We were treated to the full panoply of the weird and the wonderful in the latest episode of The Green Planet, presented with his usual aplomb by Fauna & Flora vice-president Sir David Attenborough.
But one desert denizen was notable by its absence. I’m talking about the otherworldly welwitschia. Found only in the Namib Desert, this bizarre plant surely merits an honourable mention.
Welwitschia produces just two strap-like, leathery leaves, which become twisted and frayed during a lifespan that may exceed 1,500 years. Buffeted by desert winds, these leaves usually end up in a tangled heap, but are actually up to 20 metres long. A distant cousin of conifers and cycads, the plant survives by collecting morning dew, which it channels underground and stores in its massive tap root.
The weird and wonderful welwitschia is endemic to the Namib Desert. Credit: Nicky Jenner
Welwitschia was the first named plant to be granted international protection. And we should know. Fauna & Flora played a pivotal role in brokering that historic agreement, which also benefited less well-known animals such as the pygmy hippo. The London Convention of 1933, as it came to be known, provided a blueprint for all future wildlife conservation agreements throughout the world.
Here are four more amazing plants that you may never have heard of. Several of them share their habitat with charismatic animals that are closely associated with Fauna & Flora success stories, but they are all worthy of attention in their own right.
Deep in the Sumatran rainforest lurks a sleeping giant that only rarely rears its monstrous head. The titan arum, Amorphophallus titanum, is seldom seen, even by the Sumatran tiger protection teams who routinely patrol one of its strongholds, Kerinci Seblat National Park. In flower, it is even more spectacular than rafflesia, another giant bloom that shares both its habitat and its colloquial name of ‘corpse flower’.
In most years, the plant sends forth a single leaf blade from its bulbous underground corm. This leaf takes on the appearance of a small tree that grows to a height of six metres before dying back annually. Every few years, the titan arum produces a flower instead or, strictly speaking, a mass of small flowers called an inflorescence. As anyone privileged enough to have seen one will agree, it’s a flower that almost defies belief: The Day of the Triffids made flesh.
The spectacular, super-sized and endangered titan arum shares its forest habitat with the Sumatran tiger and, like its feline counterpart, is found nowhere else in the world. Credit: Jeremy Holden/Fauna & Flora
And it really is just a day. At a given moment, the three-metre-high bud unfurls its burgundy-coloured spathe to reveal a phallic yellow flower spike. The flower emits a powerful stench of decaying meat, which acts like a magnet to pollinating carrion beetles and flies, before it withers and dies overnight – here today, gone tomorrow. The pollinated plant produces berry-like fruits, transforming the flower spike into a giant red corn-on-the-cob that stands as tall as an adult human.
Three-quarters of Cape Verde’s endemic plants are threatened with extinction. One of only five (yes, five) trees native to this remote archipelago, the Cape Verdean dragon tree is arguably the most charismatic. This dagger-leaved tree with the evocative name and blood-red sap has been haemorrhaging numbers thanks to a complex web of threats that could be exacerbated by climate change in the near future.
According to Greek myth, dragon trees sprouted from the blood that flowed across the land after Hercules slew a hundred-headed dragon. Credit: Miniloc/AdobeStock
Fauna & Flora has joined forces with plant-focused NGO Biflores on Brava, one of the six islands where the dragon tree occurs, in order to combat the threats to this and other native species. Conservation measures have included removal of invasive alien plant species encroaching on the trees, trials of grazing management in collaboration with the local community and a variety of outreach events aimed at building an appreciation for Brava’s unique flora. Known as the island of flowers, Brava boasts some of the best-preserved habitats in the entire archipelago, due to its isolation and low levels of tourism.
Trek to the summit of Mt Muhabara in the Virunga Massif, the chain of volcanoes where Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo collide, and you will come face to face with an afro-montane giant. If you think I’m referring to the mountain gorilla, think again. We’re focusing on flora, remember – in this case the botanical equivalent of Africa’s big game.
The giant lobelias and groundsels that dominate the mountain slopes are perfectly adapted to life at 4,000-5,000 metres. Like their close cousins on Mt Kenya, they are capable of coping with freezing temperatures at night and searing daytime heat. Their rosettes of robust leaves retain moisture but can close up to shield the delicate buds from deadly frost. The densely packed flower stem that rises from the centre of the giant lobelia is protected from temperature extremes by a thick fur coat of long, thin modified leaves.
Giant lobelias and groundsels near the summit of Mt Muhabura, Uganda. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/Fauna & Flora
Although perfectly adapted to their afro-montane environment, these botanical behemoths are extremely vulnerable to climate change. They may look hardy, and they have indeed evolved remarkable survival strategies. But evolution is, by definition, a gradual process, and giant lobelias – literally rooted to the spot – cannot keep pace with the rapid changes in climate that we are now experiencing.
The beleaguered baobab trees that are taking a battering from thirsty African elephants in Zimbabwe are by no means the only endangered members of this extraordinary tree family. The island of Madagascar, famed for its endemic lemurs and the inspiration for a lucrative film franchise, is home to six species of baobab that are found nowhere else in the world.
The most familiar of these so-called upside-down trees, Grandidier’s baobab, has no elephants to contend with but is threatened by overgrazing, agricultural encroachment, overexploitation of its fruits, seeds and bark and, increasingly, by our changing climate.
Grandidier’s baobab trees at sunset, Avenue of the Baobabs, Madagascar. Credit: Fotosebek/Bigstockphoto
At first glance, the tree affectionately known as the mother of the forest appears to be indelibly imprinted on the landscape, and it is all too easy to take its reassuring presence for granted. But the harsh reality is that the iconic Grandidier’s baobab is struggling to regenerate naturally, as evidenced by the notable absence of smaller trees. And it is not alone. The equally endangered Diego’s baobab and the critically endangered Perrier’s baobab are among the other species of conservation concern.
Working with our long-term partner, Madagasikara Voakajy, Fauna & Flora is helping local communities to safeguard the future of these economically and culturally crucial trees through a programme of measures that includes replenishing the wild population with nursery-grown seedlings.
Open your eyes
It’s time to acknowledge that dragon trees deserve the same conservation attention as Komodo dragons. We wander blindly past welwitschia while we’re following hoofprints in the Namib desert sand in the hope of catching a glimpse of the glorious gemsbok. While we’re busy protecting the world’s smallest tiger from human-wildlife conflict on the fringes of Sumatra’s flagship national park, it’s easy to forget that the world’s largest flower is often destroyed by those same communities due to the misconception that it is dangerous. By all means, marvel at the balletic grace of lemurs leaping through the trees, but let’s also appreciate the importance of that forest backdrop. As with so much of this green planet’s breathtaking biodiversity, we neglect these amazing plants at our peril.