The author lives in a quiet seaside community in Puna on the Big Island of Hawaii. He's an avid gardener, traveler, and photographer.
Tropical plants and flowers are known for their exceptional beauty. However, there are a few species that look quite the opposite!
Their peculiar shapes, sizes, and colors defy imagination. Some look nightmarish; others appear as if they come from another planet!
Here’s a collection of the odd, the ugly, and the bizarre! Whether they make your skin crawl or fill you with awe, enjoy these unique creations from Mother Nature.
Note: The flowers and plants featured in this article are from the author’s garden in the lower Puna district (USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 12b) on the Big Island of Hawaii. All pictures are photographed by the author.
Anthurium (Anthurium sp.)
Anthurium is one of the most beautiful and popular tropical ornamental plants. The colorful part of an anthurium blossom is not a petal, but a type of leaf called the spathe. The actual flowers are tiny, arranged in tight spirals along the spadix – elongated, spike shape structure at the center of each spathe. As the flowers mature, they develop into round lumps or "berries" along the spadix. Birds eat these berries and scatter the seeds. Anthurium is highly adaptable and can do quite well indoors a houseplant.
Night-blooming Cereus (Selenicereus sp.)
This nocturnal flowering plant belongs to a large family of cacti. It produces highly fragrant, gigantic blossoms (up to 1-foot diameter) that last only one night! The short-lived flower looks quite enchanted, except for the stigma – reaching out from the stamens – it resembles an octopus with dozens of waving tentacles! Some varieties produce yellow or magenta scaly fruits (aptly called the dragonfruits), which taste crunchy and juicy. Most Cereus species need trellises or fence posts for support. They prefer full sun and well-drained, humus-rich soils.
Soursop (Annona muricata)
Soursop is a fruit tree native to the tropical regions of South America. It produces delicious edible fruits which taste like a combination of pineapple, strawberry, and banana. The fruit itself looks pretty bizarre, with dark green skin and spiky thorns. The flower buds are green, hanging in clusters along the tree trunk and branches. When they are ready to bloom, the buds abruptly unfurl their thick petals – reminiscent of those terrifying pods in the 1979 sci-fic horror 'Alien'!
Rattlesnake Ginger (Calathea crotalifera)
Rattlesnake Ginger is native to South and Central America. It produces an inflorescent bract that looks like a rattlesnake’s rattle! The upright bracts are 8-10 inches (20-25 cm) tall and come in red, green, or pale-yellow colors. This plant grows from underground rhizomes and is a distant relative of the culinary ginger root. In Hawaii, Rattlesnake Ginger spreads prolifically in wet areas along streams and waterfalls. It is popular in flower arrangements due to its exotic look and long-lasting vase life.
Lipstick Bixa (Bixa orellana)
This large evergreen shrub is native to Central and South America. It is the source of the well-known annatto pigment, which comes from the seeds inside the hideous thorny pods! When dried, the pods split open and reveal the reddish-orange seed capsules inside. People in Peru, Mexico, Belize, and the Caribbean ground the seeds into a paste and use it as a cooking condiment. Commercially, the annatto pigment is used as a natural, non-toxic dye to add red/yellow/orange colors to foods (cheese, spice), cosmetics (lipstick, nail polish), and pharmaceutical products.
Noni (Morinda citrifolia)
Also known as Indian mulberry, Noni grows widely in the Pacific Islands, Southeast Asia, and many other tropical regions. This shrubby tree bears fruits and flowers year-round. The tiny white flowers sprout directly on top of the green fruits. Ripe fruits turn translucent white, become soft and mushy, and have an unpleasant pungent odor similar to the smell of vomit or moldy cheese! Noni is reportedly to have a myriad of medicinal benefits. Noni juice is a popular herbal drink believed to boost immune system and provide lots of antioxidants.
Beehive Ginger (Zingiber spectabile)
Also called Ginger Wort or Malaysian Ginger, this plant has a strange floral structure resembling a small beehive. Each "beehive" perches on top of a 2-3 feet (60-90 cm) tall stalk. The overlapping bracts (look like human lips!) can be yellow, orange, or reddish maroon. As the bracts mature, their color and size change. The actual flowers are small, usually white with purple spots, poking out of the bracts, like pointy little tongues!
Spider Orchid (Brassia spp.)
Spider Orchid belongs to the Brassia Orchid family, producing spectacular flowers with extra-long, thin sepals (a type of petal) that resemble creepy spider legs! Some of the sepals are more than 12 inches (30 cm) long, usually in pale-green or bright yellow color with brown spots. Each spray can have up to a dozen flowers lining along the main stem, giving the appearance of an army of spiders on parade! Like most orchids, Brassia Orchid prefers high humidity and shady areas.
Giant Pelican Flower (Aristolochia grandiflora)
Commonly called Brazilian Dutchman's Pipe, this unique climbing vine is native to the humid rainforests of Costa Rica, Panama, and Brazil. The enormous flowers can measure up to 2 feet long and 1 foot wide, in burgundy red with distinctive white veins, resembling a slab of raw beef! As the flower ages, it emits a terrible stinking odor that attracts carrion flies which crawl inside the flower's throat and thus inadvertently pollinate it. Caution: All parts of this vine are toxic to humans and pets.
Golden Plume (Schaueria flavicoma)
Native to the tropical regions of South America, this shrubby flowering perennial is known for its peculiar yellow feathery panicles. The actual flowers are small, resembling white little birds peeking out from their golden “nest"! This low-maintenance, easy to care for plant thrives in shade to partial shade areas, and blooms year-round in warm tropical climates. In cooler climates, it makes an attractive houseplant and will produce flowers indoors, as long as it gets plenty of water and light.
Bat Flower (Tacca integrifolia)
True to its common name, this strange flower looks like a bat in flight with outspread wings! The two "wings" can be deep purple or white, hovering over a cluster of seed pods (baby bats!) underneath. However, the most bizarre part is the numerous dangling “whiskers” or filaments which can measure up to 2 feet (60 cm) long! Bat Flower plant thrives in rich, moist soils and requires year-round warm temperatures. It is somewhat challenging to grow, but once established in the garden, it will bloom prolifically!
Turk’s Turbin (Clerodendrum indicum)
Native to Southeast Asia, this Clerodendrum species is known for its fragrant, tubular-shaped creamy white flowers. However, when the lovely flowers mature into seeds, they morph into little aliens! The green calyx at the base of each flower swells up and turns bright red, resembling an otherworldly creature with five arms or legs and a dark blue head! From a distance, the fruiting clusters look like red flowers. This plant is easy to grow, and when in bloom, it attracts hordes of butterflies and bees!
Blue Jade Vine (Strongylodon macrobotrys)
Also called Jade Vine or Emerald Vine, this woody climber is native to the lush tropical rainforests of the Philippines. Best known for its showy, cascading clusters of flowers in iridescent turquoise – a color which is quite rare in the botanical world! Each dangling cluster can be 3-4 feet (1.5 meters) long and contain up to 70-80 flowers! The claw-shaped flowers look vicious, but they are quite delicate and harmless. This spectacular vine needs an arbor or pergola to climb on and spread its rambling branches.
Lady’s Slipper Orchid (Cypripedium spp.)
This one-of-a-kind orchid is a favorite among orchid enthusiasts and collectors around the world. The odd-looking blossom features a prominent slipper-shaped pouch called labellum. This brilliantly colored organ is apparently irresistible to insects! Some species of Lady’s Slipper Orchid grow in cool, temperate, non-tropical regions across Europe, Africa, Asia, and North America. They thrive in forests, meadows, prairies, or swampy areas. Sadly, many of them are now considered extremely rare or endangered species due to habitat loss, pollution and urban development.
Black Orchid (Monnierara Millennium Magic ‘Witchcraft’ FCC/AOS)
The color of this rare orchid is as close to black as nature would allow! A hybrid from three different orchid genera Catasetum, Cycnoches, and Mormodes, Black Orchid has robust root systems and does well in an orchid pot. After blooming, it will go dormant for a month or two, with all the leaves turning yellow and dropping, leaving just the bare pseudobulbs. Eventually, two to three new flower shoots emerge, each having about a dozen flower buds. The fragrant flowers last a very long time and look mysteriously like a witch with big nose, black cape and hat!
Passionflower Vine (Passiflora sp.)
Passionflower looks exotic and possesses an equally seductive, exotic scent! There are dozens of varieties, growing mainly in the tropical and sub-tropical regions around the world. In Hawaii, the common white and purple liliko’i passionflowers resemble beautiful sea anemones. Their flower buds, however, look like the man-eating monster from the classic 'Little Shop of Horrors' musical! Many varieties produce edible fruits which are filled with tangy, juicy pulp and crunchy black seeds. The pulp tastes delicious; the black seeds, however, are not for the faint of heart!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Viet Doan