Visit Savage Garden for a glimpse at some of nature’s nastiest plants

In case you thought plants were not much more alive than a rock, think again! As David Attenborough pointed out in his wonderful series, The Private Life of Plants, plants have many behaviors as complex and interesting as those of animals. The problem is, plants move much more slowly, making their behaviors and reactions harder for us to appreciate.

During the month of October, the Cockrell Butterfly Center is celebrating Halloween with Savage Garden, bringing attention to some interesting things plants do. If you visit during that time, be sure to check out the map at the entrance and look for the purple signs scattered throughout the main floor of the rainforest.


You’ll be introduced to plants much older than the dinosaurs (Ancient Plants),


plants that protect themselves with spines, thorns, and prickles (Spiky Plants),


plants that defend themselves chemically (Delicious, or Deadly?), plants that heal us (Medicinal Plants), plants that use ants as bodyguards (Ant Plants),


plants that eat insects (Carnivorous Plants),

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plants that come back from the dead (Resurrection Plants),


plants with really putrid flowers (Stinky Plants),


and last but not least, a Miracle Berry plant (False Sugar). 

This is only a small slice of the interesting things plants can do. They have all sorts of adaptations to make more of themselves (via pollination and seed dispersal) and to move from one place to another (seed dispersal and crawling vines, etc.). Some of them can travel through time, with seeds that remain dormant for dozens or even hundreds of years. The protective chemicals of some toxic plants don’t necessarily have to be eaten, either – think about poison ivy. Urushiol (the chemical that causes the extremely uncomfortable blisters in some of us) is a powerful deterrant to humans. Yet birds gobble poison ivy berries with no ill effect!

Even stranger than the above behaviors is the discovery of inter-plant communication. Ecologists have known for a while that plants can “tell” other nearby plants of the same species that they are being attacked by insects via airborne chemicals, and the “listening” plants can then beef up their own chemical defenses. But according to recent studies, plants have other means of communication, some using underground networks of mycorrhizal (fungal) connections that network plants of many different species, and others apparently even making sounds! Check out this interesting article on “Plant Talk” by Dan Cossins in The Scientist

We don’t have any of these “talking” plants (that we know of) in the Butterfly Center, but please visit us in October to learn more about some of the other totally wicked things plants do in Savage Garden! #ChillsAtHMNS

What’s Blooming Now in the Butterfly Center?

Lois’ flower has died back, but the Cockrell Butterfly Center still has many amazing flowers blooming right now!

Although not all as rare as the corpse flower, the rainforest in the butterfly center is made up of hundreds of hard-to-find tropical plant species, most of which (but not all) come from Central and South America. We have many different varieties of orchids and bromeliads that bloom at different times of the year, so there is always something new to see at the Cockrell Butterfly Center!

What’s Blooming Now?

Bromeliad – Billbergia nutans
Bromeliads are a very diverse family of plants. We currently have nine different genera, and many different species, of bromeliads growing in the butterfly center. Most of them are epiphytes but we do have a few terrestrial genera including, everyone’s favorite, Ananus comosum, aka pineapple.

Bromeliad - Billbergia nutans [Cockrell Butterfly Center]
Billbergia nutans

The Orchid family is the second largest family of flowering plants, consisting of around 25,000 species. Different orchids bloom at different time through out the year, so no matter what season you are sure to see at least a couple species of orchids in bloom at the Cockrell Butterfly Center. Also, keep an eye out for our vanilla orchid, not in bloom right now, but still a fascinating vine.

Cattleya [Cockrell Butterfly Center]
Cymbidium [Cockrell Butterfly Center]
Oncidium [Cockrell Butterfly Center]
Phalaenopsis [Cockrell Butterfly Center]

The butterfly center has many different species of ginger, most of which stay in bloom all year round. However, the Torch Ginger, Etlingera elatior, only occasionally flowers, and right now it is putting up three flower spikes, the tallest is over SIX FEET tall.

Torch Ginger Flower [Cockrell Butterfly Center]
Etlingera elatior

Other Amazing Flowers

Medinilla is an epiphyte, meaning it attaches itself to trees or branches in the wild. From afar the flowers look like clusters of tiny pink grapes.

Medinilla [Cockrell Butterfly Center]
Medinilla [Cockrell Butterfly Center]

Although not a flower, Nepenthes or Pitcher Plants are definitely a sight to behold. We currently have four species of pitcher plants, each with a slightly different color, size, and shape.

Nepenthes are carnivorous plants that eat mostly small insects such as ants and flies. For more information about pitcher plants refer to my previous blog: Beautiful, but Dangerous: the Fascinating Pitcher Plant.

Nepenthes [Cockrell Butterfly Center]

Warszewiczia coccinea
And we can’t forget about the butterflies favorite tree, Warszewiczia coccinea or Pride of Trinidad. This tree remains in bloom almost all year at the butterfly center, but it is putting on a fresh set of flowers right now, meaning the color is at its most vibrant. This tree is the butterflies’ favorite because each inflorescence actually contains hundreds of small yellow flower, each containing nectar for them.

Warszewiczia coccinea [Cockrell Butterfly Center]
Warszewiczia coccinea

And the list goes on! These are just a few of the amazing plants we have blooming in the Cockrell Butterfly Center right now. So come on down to HMNS and get a taste of a South American rainforest here in your own back yard.

Interested in learning more about plants? Read more of Zac’s posts and make sure to check out our live webcam feed tomorrow as Zac replants Lois, the famous corpse flower.

Beautiful, but Dangerous: the Fascinating Pitcher Plant

Nepenthes miranda at the CBC

I was watching Life on the Discovery Channel, and was happy to see that their special on plants talked quite a bit about carnivorous plants and how they have evolved. I find it fascinating that even in areas where plants are unable to get the nutrients necessary for life from the soil, some species have found a way to flourish by evolving specialized means of catching prey to supplement their nutritional needs.

One plant family in particular that has developed a specialized method of catching prey is the Nepenthes, also known as the tropical pitcher plant family. Shown in the picture on the right, they use their extravagantly colored pitchers, along with nectar glands on the underside of the pitcher lid, to attract insects, who then fall in and are quickly digested by the plant. Although insects make up the majority of the Nepenthes’ diet, they have also been known to digest reptiles and small mammals such as mice and rats.

Unopened Pitcher

Nepenthes are native to the Old World tropics, specifically the Malay Archipelago, and have their highest diversity of species in Borneo. They are typically liana-forming plants that climb in the trees and have a very shallow root system, making it hard for them to take up the nutrients they need to survive. So, over time the pitcher plant has developed what is called a pit-fall trap at the tip of each leaf.

The Trap is Set

It is believed that the characteristic pitcher started out as a simple curl at the tip of the leaf which collected dead leaves and insects, and over many generations has turned into the pitchers we are so fascinated with today. The pitchers form at the tip of each leaf, and once mature, the lid of the pitcher, or operculum, opens to begin catching it’s prey. The newly opened pitcher is already filled with a syrupy liquid, made by the plant, which is a combination of water, a biopolymer (to help trap and drown the insects) and digestive enzymes that are acidic enough to digest a large fly in a matter of a couple days. The pitcher walls are also coated with a slick wax, and sometimes a grooved pattern that makes it nearly impossible to escape.  One species, Nepenthes bicalcarata, has even developed fangs on the under side of the pitcher lid to snag any would be thieves trying to steal their daily catch.

If you would like to see some of these amazing plants up close and personal, come by and see the newly added Nepenthes display inside the Cockrell Buterfly Center rainforest. We have three varieties – Nepenthes miranda, Nepenthes ventrata and Nepenthes merrilliana, and if you’re really lucky you may catch these fascinating pitcher plants at feeding time!

Insects and Orchids: An Evolutionary Journey

I absolutely love orchids! I mean who doesn’t, really? They are my very favorite flower in the whole world. I can literally stare at them for hours and not get tired of them. I love to photograph them; I even had them in my wedding! I love their colors, their shapes, there is really no flower quite like the orchid.

Well, if you love these flowers as I do, I’ve thought of another reason for you to love insects! We would not have the amazing shapes, the striking colors, or the unique fragrances from orchids if it weren’t from our amazing little friends!

Orchids are an ancient flower – appearing some 80 million years ago, during the time of the dinosaurs – much older than scientists first believed. They flourished, as many organisms did, after the big extinction and began to figure out how to best survive in this new world. They can grow on every continent except for Antarctica and in almost every type of habitat. They can grow as epiphytes, attached to trees or shrubs, lithophytes, attached to rocks, or they can be terrestrial like most other flowers. They also figured out, because plants are very smart you know, that cross pollination, as opposed to self pollination, is the best way to survive. What is the best way to cross pollinate? With insects of course. So began an intricate process of co-evolution between these amazing flowers and their insect counter-parts.

Co-evolution can be defined simply as the change of a biological object over time that is triggered by the change of a related object. So, as the insects changed, so did the orchids which were dependent upon them. This has led to an incredible amount of diversity in the 25-30,000 species of orchids that exist today. Charles Darwin studied orchids and their relationship with insects; he developed this theory of co-evolution based on his findings. He introduced the theory of plant and insect interactions in his book, On the Origin of Species. Later, he published Fertilisation of Orchids, which explained in detail the complex relationships between these flowers and the insects that pollinate them and how this led to their co-evolution.

A Cocytius antaeus, the new world equivilant of the
Xanthopan morgani.

Today, this can be seen more than ever with some extremely unique orchids and their very interesting, and sometimes weird, ways of attracting insects. One of the most compelling pieces of evidence of this co-evolution is Angraecum sesquipedale or, Darwin’s Orchid in Madagascar. Darwin noticed that this orchid had an extremely long spur, so long that only an insect with a very long proboscis could reach the nectar inside. He actually predicted that there was an undiscovered moth out there with a foot-long proboscis that could pollinate this orchid. Well, he was right, and now we have Xanthopan morgani or the Morgan’s sphinx moth. This incredible moth was not discovered until 1903, but proved Darwin’s theory and was originally named Xanthopan morgani praedicta in honor of his prediction. The moth has an unbelievably long proboscis which can reach down into the flower to retrieve the precious nectar. In doing so, the moth rubs its head against the pollen producing organ of the plant and transfers the pollen to the next flower it drinks from.

(un)natural encounter
Creative Commons License photo credit: avmaier

Many other orchids use specific fragrances to lure insects. Some use sweet fragrances to attract certain bees and wasps, and others, putrid smells to attract flies. These happy insects are rewarded for their pollination with yummy nectar. Others use striking colors that flying insects can’t resist. Still others, about 1/3 of all orchids, produce no nectar. These have come up with some pretty tricky methods of attracting insects. These are some of the most specialized orchids of all. Some mimic the smell of food. Flying insects approach the flower and crawl all over it looking for the nectar. It is not until they are covered in pollen that they give up and move on to the next one, transferring the pollen in their search for food.

Even more deceiving are the orchids that use sex pheremones to attract unsuspecting pollinators. These orchids are amazing. They actually mimic the female bee or wasp visually, often using the same colors and tufts of hair. They give off a chemical that smells identical to the pheremone that the female insect would give off. The poor males climb on the flower, actually try to mate with it (sometimes leaving behind sperm) and move on to the next, spreading the pollen. What a smart flower! Watch this video to see a great example of this type of orchid.

Stemless Lady-slipper
Creative Commons License photo credit: *Micky

One last amazing orchid/insect relationship. The lady’s slipper orchid is a very unique looking flower. With a pouch-like structure, it resembles a pitcher plant, which is a known insect-eating plant. The pitcher plant uses its pouch to lure in insects which fall in and are digested inside. The slipper orchid, however, has a much more benevolent agenda. The pouch does lure insects, they do fall down inside, but they do not meet their doom there. The pouch is too small for the insect to stretch its wings so they cannot fly out. The only way out is to climb a ladder of hairs on the back. The insect must squeeze past where the pollen is kept to get away. They either leave with the pollen, or leave another plant’s pollen there, tricky tricky!

So, you see, if you’ve never thought of plants as intelligent, you may want to think again. Exquisite, exotic, luxurious, stunning, elegant, whatever term you use to decribe orchids, you can now add intelligent and highly evolved. I hope this gives you a whole new respect for these famous flowers, and the bugs that make them what they are!

If you like orchids and want to learn more about them, don’t miss the Houston Orchid Society’s upcoming Show and Sale, which will be held at the museum this year. It’s free! Saturday and Sunday only, April 17 & 18. For more info, visit our web site.