18 October 2019

Plants that look like something else

Take a look at these surprising plants that look uncannily like other things, from animals to human body features.

By Katie Avis-Riordan

Collage of red pagoda plant and Kew's Great Pagoda

Naked man orchid (Orchis italica)

No prizes for guessing the reason behind this orchid species' common name. 

Native to the Mediterranean, its cluster of violet flowers look like cute little human figures – though not completely naked. These characters also appear to be wearing helmets, which are formed from the sepals and petals.

Close up of naked man orchid (Orchis italica), a flower that looks like a human figure
Naked man orchid (Orchis italica) © Lumbar/Wikimedia Commons

Bee orchid (Ophrys apifera)

The flowers of the Ophrys apifera mimic the appearance of a bee. The large lip resembles the main body of the flying insect, while two inner tepals look like antennae.

But the similarity is not always coincidental. Natural selection has favoured some Ophrys species that resemble their insect pollinators as their appearance cleverly boosts their pollination.

Close up of a bee orchid (Ophrys apifera) which looks like a bee
Bee orchid (Ophrys apifera) © Hans Hillewaert/Creative Commons

Dracula orchids

Several species within the Dracula genus of orchids resemble a monkey face, including Dracula simia and Dracula benedictii (no vampires here). 

Close up of monkey orchid (Dracula simia) being held in hand
Monkey orchid (Dracula simia) © Dick Culbert/Wikimedia Commons
Close up of the monkey-like orchid Dracula benedictii
Dracula benedictii © Orchi/Wikimedia Commons

White egret flower (Habenaria radiata)

Pretty and dainty, this beautiful orchid is the spitting image of a flying egret, the elegant bird with white plumage and a long neck.

White egret flower (Habenaria radiata) which looks like a flying white bird
White egret flower (Habenaria radiata) © Sunoochi/Wikimedia Commons

Snake-like cacti

In the desert region of our Princess of Wales Conservatory you'll come across some wriggly-looking cacti.

The species Cleistocactus samaipatanus and X Cleistopsis are so snake-like they appear to be squirming out of the ground.

Close up of snake-like cacti, Cleistocactus samaipatanus
Cleistocactus samaipatanus, Katie Avis-Riordan © RBG Kew
Snake-like cactus X Cleistopsis in Princess of Wales Conservatory
X Cleistopsis, Katie Avis-Riordan © RBG Kew

Hot lips (Psychotria elata)

Pucker up! Psychotria elata is a tropical plant with a very distinctive feature.

Its bracts (the modified leaves that are often different from foliage leaves) are bright red and look like a pair of puckered human lips.

Red flower that looks like lips called Hot lips (Psychotria elata)
Hot lips (Psychotria elata) © IROZ/Wikimedia Commons

Bird of paradise (Strelitzia reginae)

Grown in the Temperate House, the striking inflorescence (flowering head) of Strelitzia reginae resembles the crest on an exotic bird's head.

Kew's first unofficial director, Sir Joseph Banks, named the species in honour of Queen Charlotte, the wife of George III and Duchess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. She lived at Kew for many years.

Close up of colourful bird of paradise (Strelitzia reginae) flower
Bird of paradise (Strelitzia reginae), Andrew McRobb © RBG Kew

Living stones (Lithops)

Which one's a stone and which one's a plant? It's hard to tell when looking at succulents within the Lithops genus.

Our selection in the Princess of Wales Conservatory show how uncanny the similarity is between these 'living stones' and actual stones.

Living stones (Lithops), succulent plants that look like stones
Living stones (Lithops), Katie Avis-Riordan © RBG Kew

Red pagoda (Crassula capitella)

As its name reflects, the red pagoda succulent plant looks like a colourful tiered tower.

How much do you think this species, native to South Africa, looks like our very own Chinese-style Great Pagoda here at Kew?

Close up of red pagoda (Crassula capitella)
Red pagoda (Crassula capitella) © Eric Hunt/ Wikimedia Commons
The Great Pagoda at Kew Gardens
The Great Pagoda © Jeff Eden/RBG Kew

White baneberry (Actaea pachypoda)

Some may find the fruit of the white baneberry slightly creepy.

The round white berries with black 'pupils' on red stalks give the species its other common name; doll's eyes.

White baneberry (Actaea pachypoda) with fruit that look like doll's eyes
White baneberry (Actaea pachypoda), Zoe Stewart © RBG Kew

Golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii)

Like a big pin cushion, the golden barrel cactus' yellow spines look like pins stuck into the barrel-shaped stem of the plant.

Golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii)
Golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii), Katie Avis-Riordan © RBG Kew

Bleeding heart (Lamprocapnos spectabilis)

The native range of Lamprocapnos spectabilis is central and north China to Korea.

Its pretty hanging flowers are distinctively heart-shaped. But at least they look like the symbolic romantic kind rather than the human anatomy kind.

Heart-shaped flowers of the Lamprocapnos spectabilis
Lamprocapnos spectabilis © Roozitaa/Wikimedia Commons
The Arboretum at Kew Gardens

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