I have fond early memories of growing the Sensitive Plant from seed, eager to test out the recoiling foliage with my grubby little fingers. In case you didn’t know, this fab plant is Mimosa pudica, and it protects itself by folding up its leaves when it is touched or brushed past.
I also took great joy is raising Living Stones (Lithops) from seed, which is actually super easy. I watched and waited patiently as they became bigger and bigger, photosynthesising through the top solar panels and mimicking real stones, until eventually one day they gave their infamous show-stopping daisy blooms. Cacti are equally joyful to raise from seed, and you can watch them go through puberty before your very eyes…!
During my childhood, I spent hours in my grandparents front room, poring over plant encyclopaedias and leafing through photo albums, marvelling over such exotics as the torch ginger (Etlingera) and bird of paradise flower (Strelitzia), not realising I’d grow up to see them growing in their natural habitats. My plant geekiness did not subside through my teenage or college years either, with the introduction of the internet giving me even more to salivate over, and to purchase to grow at home.
Wind all that forward 20-odd years, and I’ve just spent the whole season delivering my new presentation, The Weird and Wacky Plant Show, to audiences around the world…!! This hour-long celebration of plants wows audiences with the biggest and smallest, the smelliest, the unluckiest and the darkest, as well as discovering plants that move, plants that ignite and plants that capture animals. Audiences have also been testing out the Miracle Berry, with its mouth-changing miraculin molecule, adjusting flavours from sour to sweet. Wow!
Here’s a snapshot from my presentation, as we take a journey through the human senses, and how that is reflected in the plant world.
Taste-Miracle Berry (Synsepalum dulcificum)
A tricky one to grow in the UK climate, but one that can be experienced thanks to the ‘flavour-tripping’ party packs on amazon and eBay, this is the fabled Miracle Berry. Originating in West Africa, these large shrubs demand a rich, acid soil and an insatiable warm climate. The small red berries hold a secret though, they contain the molecule miraculin, which coats the tongue, changing sour flavours to sweet. Lemons become candy, vinegar becomes honey, pickles become potatoes, hmm, and so on! If even works on sweet foods too, chew a berry and then pop a strawberry, and the flavour will be amazingly high resolution!
Smell – Peanut Butter Bush (Clerodendron trichotomum)
Peanut butter lovers, listen up! Here’s your next fix…! Often called Glory Bower, this small tree has the most lovely bridal garlands of flowers, followed by decorative seed, and always loved by bees and butterflies. But, get up close and crush a leaf. the fragrance is just like peanut butter! Actually hardy in the UK, making a handsome specimen tree for late season interest.
Sight – Flying Duck Orchid (Caleana major)
Whilst some flowers design themselves to attract pollinators (and sometimes even encourage them to copulate with the flower, and hence fertilise it…!), other lookalikes occur by chance. This diminutive little orchid is native to the grassland beneath Eucalyptus forests in South Australia and excruciatingly difficult to spot in the wild, and nigh impossible to grow in captivity. Alas, we can enjoy the photos though, and it looks a lot like a duck in flight, don’t you agree??
Touch – Gympie Gympie Plant (Dendrocnide moroides)
You may NOT want to touch this one, in fact you’d better not because it’s super dangerous. Perhaps one of the most dangerous plants in the world, the Gympie Gympie Plant is covered in stinging neurotoxin hairs, which can inflict a pain that lasts for anything up to a year. The pain can be agonising, and your only option is to remove the hairs carefully, individually. Thankfully, it isn’t a plant we come across often, as it’s native to East Australia and the only plant I know of in Europe is safely behind glass in Leiden Botanic Garden in The Netherlands!
Sound – Sandbox Tree (Hura crepitans)
This Amazon rainforest tree looks like a bit of a monster, and makes a bit of a noise too… The seed capsules can be launched at 70 metres per second, bouncing off fellow tree trunks or against unlucky animals…! The catapulted seeds can travel 100 metres or more, and as the ripe fruit splits, it can be heard cracking. Could this be the world’s noisiest plant….??
The Weird & Wacky Plant Tour continues throughout October, with dates around the UK. Check if it’s coming to a town near you here .