Botanical Oddities: Examining Plant Curiosities from Four Different Environments

By Susan Morgan

Therapeutic horticulture practitioners gain inspiration for activity planning from a variety of sources. These include attending conferences, sharing ideas with other practitioners and allied professionals, perusing social media feeds, reading magazines and books, and many other sources. Inspiration may also come directly from the garden and client responses within that setting.

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Sansevieria ‘Starfish’

Or, a walk through your local greenhouse and garden center may inspire something different and out of the norm. During one of these information gathering trips, you may discover an unusual houseplant that you haven’t seen before (like the ‘Starfish’ Sansevieria), a new introduction of a garden staple (think, the grafted non-GMO ‘Ketchup ‘n’ Fries’™ tomato/potato plant), or the multitude of fragrances that mints have to offer (grapefruit, apple, strawberry, and chocolate, oh my).

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North American pitcher plants (Sarracenia)

Here is a collection of interesting and unusual plants that grow in a variety of habitats – bogs, tropical rainforests, deserts, and aquatic environments – around the world.

Carnivorous Plants. Naturalist Charles Darwin examined carnivorous plants as part of his studies related to the theory of natural selection and wrote about how these plants have adapted to growing in challenging conditions in his book Insectivorous Plants, published in 1875. Carnivorous plants typically grow in conditions where the soils are nutritionally poor, such as bogs and rocky ledges. As such, they have adapted methods to lure, trap, and consume prey, typically insects, to supplement some or most of their diet. Most people are familiar with the Venus fly trap (Dionaea muscipula), which is native to the Carolinas in the southeastern United States. However, there are other lesser known carnivorous plants – but equally interesting – from around the world, including sundews (Drosera), tropical pitcher plants (Nepenthes), and native pitcher plants (Sarracenia).

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Venus Fly Trap (Dionaea muscipula)

Though the various mechanisms with which these plants trap their prey are somewhat ruthless if you are the prey, closer study of these plants can reveal their interesting stories of survival. Considering the challenges of their growing conditions, these plants may share similar or different coping strategies for surviving and thriving in their environments. Clients may draw upon these metaphors in how one may adapt to personal struggles or challenging environments. Or, clients can marvel at the diversity of plants in nature, transitioning one’s ruminating thoughts from self to the greater world around them, and research how to cultivate carnivorous plants indoors or an outdoor garden space. Compare the growth habits and adaptations of carnivorous plants to other plants that grow in similar and different environments around the world, such as air plants, living stones, and marimo.

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Spanish moss (Tillandsia usenoides)

Air Plants. Members of the Bromeliad family, air plants (Tillandsia) grow in humid tropical areas to arid environments around the world, notably the southern United States, Central America, and South America, among other places. Most are epiphytic, meaning that they can grow in tree canopies and rocky outcroppings, rather than in soil, and have modified leaf parts that allow them to absorb moisture and nutrients from the air. With its silver curly hairlike tendrils, Spanish moss (T. usenoides) is a more recognized type found hanging from live oak and bald cypress trees in the swampy Deep South U.S. Many Tillandsia appear to be missing roots, as compared to terrestrial plants, but if you look closer, they may have roots, which primarily serve to anchor plants to their growing site. Clients may note the similarities and differences of these plants to “traditional” plants and their varied adaptability in the landscape.

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Living stones (Lithops)

Living Stones. Most think about succulent plants, like cactus, agave, or sedum, growing in the hot desert and other dry environments. Yet there is a diversity of other lesser known succulents, including living stones (Lithops). Native to the southern region of Africa, this pint-sized, primitive-looking succulent resembles pea gravel resting on the desert floor and typically has one (sometimes more) pair of fused leaves. Though they appear to be brown or gray in color, the tops of the fused leaves are somewhat translucent, acting as a skylight to allow the inner tissues and other plant parts “hidden” underground to perform the functions of the plants, including photosynthesis. This provides a metaphor for finding deeper meaning or the layers of the self and the various roles we play in our social connections with others. The unusual look and growth habit of living stones also provides a natural conversation starter for clients and invites them to try their hand at growing these “rocks.”

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Marimo (Aegagropila linnaei)

Marimo. Meaning “ball seaweed” in Japanese, marimo (Aegagropila linnaei) is a novelty that looks like a velvety green ball of moss growing in water. Native to freshwater lakes in Japan, Iceland, and a handful of other areas around the world, marimo is actually a form of algae, which starts first as filamentous strands of algae until, eventually after being tumbled by water currents, it forms into balls of various sizes. As the water currents tumble them around, they remain green on all sides of the “ball,” where the presence of chlorophyll allows them to continue photosynthesizing no matter which way they turn. Marimo can be purchased online or in the aquarium section of pet stores. During a therapeutic horticulture program, marimo is engaging for sensory stimulation with its soft, fuzzy texture and the water in which it resides. Clients can try their hand at growing marimo in a community fish tank or a vase or other container of water.

Consider using one or more of these unique plants in your therapeutic horticulture programming. Perhaps their unusual plant features or adaptability to their surroundings may inspire conversation and reflection on life lessons or cultivate newfound senses of curiosity and discovery for clients.

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