Some of the strangest space creatures in the Known Universe grow right here on our own planet, including in Mississippi.
Several years ago, I learned that the first plant to be successfully grown from seed to flower in space was one of my garden favorites, a tidy bush zinnia called Profusion Orange. Heat-and-drought-tolerant, non-stop flowers, covered with butterflies … and able to do the zero-gravity thing as well.
But I’m more fascinated with the weirdos right here on terra firma. Not talking about bizarre fungi, which blow me away with their “fruiting bodies” descriptively called mushrooms, toadstools, puffballs, stinkhorns and shelves. Those “saprophytes” feed on decaying organic matter like found in rich soils or rotting wood.
And the huge variety of unusual but mostly green mosses carpeting hard-packed acidic soils in shaded gardens or moist sites are trending as actual lawn substitutes in heavy shade, in need of only occasional weeding and leaf blowing, and maybe a little garden sculpture, rock or old log to give the eye something to focus on.
I can wax poetic about lichens found on old plants, boulders, iron or concrete bridge rails, and even tombstones. They are a combination fungus and algae which help one another grow into fantastic flat, frilly or scaly shapes. The most common are gray-green, but I’ve photographed yellows, reds and oranges as well.
Most people who ask about them are seeking a control because it looks like they are killing plants. Often starting as flat patches, they can expand and completely encrust limbs and branches and really do look like diseases.
But they don’t harm plants — they are symptoms, not causes (remember, they grow on rocks, too). Actively growing plants shed larger patches, but old, weak or otherwise slow-growing plants get covered quickly. If you find lots of lichens on a plant, prune or fertilize to invigorate the plant, and learn to love the lichens. By the way, reindeer eat them; never know when Santa’s team will need a quick snack.
A couple of other groups of plants with the similar habit of living on, not in, other plants, are orchids and bromeliads. These “epiphytes” get their moisture and nutrients from rainfall and dissolved dust and plant debris. Our native Spanish moss is one of the latter; and the old pass-along night blooming cereus cactus is an epiphyte native to tropical trees and cliffs, which is why it is so tolerant of neglect in small pots indoors.
But the spookiest plants are “parasites” that actually grow roots into and feed off other plants. Mistletoe is one and is very hard to control without killing the limbs, too, because its roots wrap around underneath the bark. Best thing to do is ignore them; I have seen very old mistletoe balls three feet in diameter on ancient oaks in England, without doing serious harm to the trees.
There are many other unconventional plants, from those that sprout little plantlets on the ends of their leaves to wetland-native pitcher plants that get nutrients from dissolved insects trapped in their tubes. Just weird.
To me the most peculiar plant of all is dodder vine, which looks all the world like orange vermicelli draped over shrubs, roadside shrubs and perennial wildflowers and sometimes even annuals in flowerbeds. It twines around and inserts root-like structures into stems; the only good control, other than repeated pulling, is to remove the infested plants.
Or just enjoy them as space oddities found on this spinning planet. No science fiction writer could come up with creatures so weird.
I’ve posted photos of all these on my felderrushing.blog.
Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of “The Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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