Oddities at the UC Davis Botanical Conservatory

A few days ago, my friend Justin, whose garden I wrote about recently, was in town. Knowing what a plant nerd he is, I took him to the UC Davis Botanical Conservatory, and before we knew it, two and a half hours had gone by. That's what happens when you get sucked into a botanical vortex!

I could have taken hundreds of photos of the plants in the greenhouses, but I was far too busy yakking. Still, I managed to take pictures of some weird and wonderful oddities.

Huernia keniensis var. globosa. In contrast to typical huernias where the flowers open up completely, the petals on this variety form a globe-shaped corolla. Maybe this is to enhance the carrion smell that attracts the flies which act as pollinators? The flowers you see in the photo above definitely exuded a heady perfume of meaty putrefaction.

Alien-looking flowers on Dorstenia foetida, a caudiciform from Eastern Africa and Arabia

Same Dorstenia foetida flower from the front. Dorstenias have a distinctive reproductive structure called a pseudanthium, essentially a disc where the female flowers are sunken and the male flowers are scattered between them. The mature fruits (called drupes) explode to scatter the seeds far and wide.

Dorstenia gigas, one of the endemic plants the island of Socotra off the coast of Yemen is known for

Dorstenia gigas flowers

The cucumber tree (Dendrosicyos socotranum), another Socotra native, is actually related to cucumbers and squashes

Welwitschia mirabilis, only found in the fog belt of the Namib Desert, is arguably one of the strangest plants on Earth. Its taproot can go down up to 30 ft. in search of moisture. To accommodate the taproot, UC Davis grows their welwitschias in clay chimney liners.

A relic from the Jurassic, weltwischias are either male or female and reproduce through cones. Above, the photo on the left shows female cones and a paint brush used to transfer pollen from a male plant also in flower at the moment. I forgot to photograph it, but here you can watch a video of Ernesto Sandoval, the director of the Botanical Conservatory, hand-pollinating the female plant above. The photo on the right is of a female cone from last year.

A couple of other caudiciforms in the greenhouse

Stephania erecta, a vining tuberous plant from Thailand. The pea-like structures are immature seed pods. Here is an interesting article on how to grow Stephania erecta.

Pseudolithos (literally meaning “false stone”) is a small genus of succulent plants from Somalia, Yemen and Oman. These warty oddities only appeal to a hardcore group of plantaholics. Personally, I find them fascinating but also faintly repulsive.

Pseudolithos sp. on the left, the even stranger Pseudolithos cubiformis on the right—moldy ciabatta roll, anyone?

Theobroma cacao, the cacao tree, with fruits and flowers. The flowers emerge straight from of the trunk and older branches. Known as cauliflory, this form of flowering is also seen in jackfruit, coffee, some figs, and a number of other plants.

Nepenthes burbidgeae, aka painted pitcher plant. Native to the highlands of Borneo, it has a massive pitcher as well as markings so fine and detailed that you'd swear it's fake. Most Nepenthes attract insects, but large species are known to catch rats, lizards and the like. In 2011, a bird was found in a Nepenthes growing at a nursery in England.

Turk's cap cactus (Melocactus sp.) with its signature cephalium. It takes many years to grow a cephalium this tall.

This seed head of a Brunsvigia, a South African amaryllis relative, looks like fireworks—just in time for Independence Day

On that note, Happy 4th of July to everybody in the U.S.!

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  1. Sooo cool! Plants show so many adaptations to really challenging environments. I would take the moldy ciabatta plant any day. Can see how 2hours would go by so quickly. Happy July 4

  2. Being a relic from the Jurassic period makes Weltwischia the most fascinating for me; I watched the video of the hand pollinating process... amazing. Yakking away in a greenhouse with a like-minded buddy... the most fun ever.
    The massive pitcher plant from Borneo looks like blown glass!


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