Deception & Trickery in Plants: 12 Masters of Disguise

How in the world could a plant know what rotting flesh looks like, what a skunk smells like or how to replicate the sex pheromones of wasps? Just like insects and other creatures have evolved to mimic their surroundings for reproductive advantages and survival, some plants have developed the amazing ability to engage in trickery and deception. From orchids that entice wasps to mate with them to opportunistic weeds that try to blend in with their more popular cousins, these 12 plants are masters of disguise.

Bee Orchid

(image via: full monte)

If you glanced at this photo and immediately assumed that it depicts a pair of flying bees, you’re not the only one. In fact, that’s exactly what this orchid – that’s right, orchid – wants you to think (if you’re a male bee). Found throughout Europe and the UK, the Bee Orchid doesn’t just rely on pretty colors and scents to draw pollinators in – it uses sex appeal, as well. The Bee Orchid tricks male bees into swooping down to attempt copulation – thereby furthering the spread of the orchid’s pollen.

Western Skunk Cabbage

(image via: wikimedia commons)

Hiking through the Pacific Northwest, you’re bound to pass quite a few of these pretty little plants with their big yellow blooms. But if you start smelling a skunk, the culprit is not what you think. Like other malodorous plants, the Western Skunk Cabbage emits a scent quite similar to that of skunk spray to draw in its predators – scavenging flies and beetles.

Rye

(image via: tatteralan)

Rye is the Jan Brady of the plant world, always jealous of its more popular relative wheat. While wheat was desired and cultivated, rye was left behind – until this weed began mimicking the qualities of wheat and even surpassing it in some areas through a phenomenon called Vavilovian mimicry. Once a perennial that cropped up unbidden in annual wheat fields, rye is now an annual as well and can even survive in harsher conditions.

Living Stone Plant

(image via: yellowcloud)

It’s easy to see why the Lithops plant is commonly called “living stone”.  These succulents thrive in dry deserts in rocky beds, and are often virtually undetectable from their surroundings. That makes it all the more amazing when they burst into bloom, with yellow flowers that seem as if they sprung from out of nowhere.

Dead Nettle

(image via: rx wildlife)

Stinging nettle may have a number of valuable medicinal uses, but it’s a nasty plant when touched. A plant in the mint family growing nearby seems to have noticed that predators leave stinging nettle alone, because Lamium albium – known as “dead nettle” – evolved to look just like it. It doesn’t have the same painful sting, but it gets the same benefits by association and often grows near its doppelganger.

Tongue Orchid

(image via: conservation report)

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The Bee Orchid is far from the only orchid that uses sexual deception to lure in pollinators. The male orchid dupe wasp is so attracted to the tongue orchid that it ejaculates right onto the flowers’ petals. Scientists say that flowers that can trick insects into ejaculating have the highest rates of pollination. “[The wasps] are perhaps not really educated about what a real female looks like, and they make a bad decision,” biologist Anne Gaskett told The New Scientist.

Passion Flower

(image via: morning-earth.org)

The passion flower vine isn’t a big fan of butterflies laying eggs on its leaves. So, it decided to develop a natural decoy: little yellow spots that look like Heliconious butterfly eggs, which convince female butterflies to look elsewhere so their offspring don’t have to compete with other caterpillars when they hatch.

Sundew

(image via: nikon small world)

How can insects resist the juicy looking dew drops on the Drosera plant, otherwise known as the Sundew? Unfortunately for the bugs drawn in for a quick sip, those enticing drops aren’t water at all – they’re a digestive enzyme, used to eat prey alive as soon as it lands on the plant. You might say the Sundew is omnivorous, since it only uses the insects to supplement its nutrition when it’s growing in poor soils.

Fly Orchid

(image via: annies pics)

Are orchids incredible or what? Much like the Tongue Orchid, the Fly Orchid (Ophrys insectifera) actually secretes sex pheromones that attract male digger wasps, which attempt to mate with the flowers. Once spent, the wasps fly off covered in the flowers’ pollen, helping it to reproduce.

Caladium steudneriifolium

(image via: red orbit)

Nearly everyone has faked being sick at least once in their lives, but it’s hard to believe that some plants can do it, too. German botanists have discovered a plant called Caladium steudneriifolium that actually pretends to be ill, designing its own leaf variegation patterns to resemble signs of disease. Scientists believe that the plant is mimicking the damage that mining moth larvae create when they hatch and begin to eat through the plant in an attempt to dissuade other moths from doing the same.

Stapelia asterias

(image via: martin heigan)

It doesn’t have a brain, but somehow the Stapelia asterias plant knows just what to do to attract beneficial insects: look and smell like rotting flesh. The flowers have hairy, wrinkled red petals that call to mind all too vividly the look of carrion left to decay in the sun. Found in South Africa, this plant emits a putrid stench to go with its less-than-pretty appearance.

Avonia papyracae

(image via: tropiflora)

From a distance, it looks like bird droppings. Look a little closer, and you’ll see that the strange Avonia papyracea actually has snake-like scales that protect it from predators. Both would seem to prevent it from being desirable as a meal, but that didn’t stop people in its native Africa from using it to induce fermentation in home-brewed beer.

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