Plants don't get a lot of respect, because frankly, they don't do shit. They just kind of sit there waiting to be eaten, right? They can't move or think or make their plans against us.
Actually, that's just what they want you to think. It turns out that plants are capable of some pretty sophisticated, even downright nefarious schemes. For instance ...
#8. Eucalyptus Trees Napalm Their Enemies
For most trees, fire is kind of a bad thing. Nothing burns better than a nice dry hunk of wood, and a tree is in no position to stop, drop and roll when you light a bonfire under it. The Australian eucalyptus tree takes advantage of this weakness in the same way as Schwarzenegger takes advantage of his enemies' vulnerability to bullets.
Koalas are endangered because eucalyptus has an anger-management problem.
Just like animals, plants compete with each other for space and territory, though most have only a limited ability to retaliate against some asshole fern setting up camp on their lawn. But when it comes to protecting their territory, eucalyptus trees have a scorched earth policy -- they not only are immune to forest fires, but also actively encourage them.
You see, the eucalyptus itself is designed specifically to be the only tree standing after a fiery apocalypse -- they have stems hidden deep inside their trunks, ready to spring out once the smoke clears. So it basically spends its life throwing around gasoline, waiting for a spark.
"I love the smell of us in the morning."
And we're not exaggerating -- eucalyptus contains a kind of oil that is so flammable that the trees can actually explode when they catch fire, like someone uttering a one-liner before flicking a cigar into a gas station. The leaf litter from eucalyptus trees is so full of toxic napalm that bugs and fungus don't break it down -- it just dries out and covers the ground like a super-flammable carpet. If that weren't enough, the trees produce a bluish-gray cloud of evaporated gas that can go up like a fireball with one lightning bolt or thoughtlessly discarded cigarette butt.
An ill-advised plantation of eucalyptus has been blamed for the 1991 firestorm in California that destroyed 3,000 homes, and it's no wonder -- eucalyptus is like that pyromaniac kid you knew in school who never left home without his matches. You know exactly who to blame when shit starts burning down in your neighborhood.
Eucalyptus: Nature's leafy arsonist.
#7. Plants That Command Insects
Think about this the next time you take the shears to that dinosaur-shaped hedge in your backyard: science is discovering that some plants have the ability to summon and command insects like some lesser known X-Men character.
The other kids tend to give Bugneto a wide berth on the playground.
Take the common tomato, for example. If a caterpillar is chewing on it, experiments show that the humble tomato can throw up a chemical smoke signal that summons an army of parasitic wasps to come fight them off. Tobacco, too, calls for help from nearby predators to fend off the caterpillars of certain hawkmoths, leaf bugs and other pests. And just to be clear, it doesn't just randomly send out a chemical dog whistle for whatever carnivorous bug happens to be in the neighborhood -- it actually summons specific predators according to whatever kind of pest it's trying to deal with. Whatever is attacking it, it can summon that particular pest's predator.
Wait. How is that even possible? These are freaking plants, they don't even have the rudimentary brains of insects. How do they even know that they're being eaten, much less differentiate between who's eating them?
"Yeah, that's right, bitch. Pollinate my gooey sweetness.
Scientists believe that plants can sense the digestive substances that the invading insects have in their oral secretions. Different bug drool sets off different chemical alarms, which call out to specific species of vicious wasps or mites or nematodes, whatever the job requires.
"INSECT SLAVES, ATTEND THE MIGHTY TOMATORG!"
But it's not just about violence. Plants can also manipulate insects for sweet, sweet loving. Orchids in particular have had 85 million years to decipher the chemical signals that insects employ for communication, and they use these scents to basically trick them into becoming couriers for their plant-sperm. For example, many orchids can produce the scent of a female bug in heat. The purpose is to lure the male in and coat him in pollen. However, some orchids, like the Australian tongue orchid, recreate the scent so well that the male bugs end up humping the flower to completion.
So ... that plan sort of backfired, we guess.
#6. The Javan Cucumber Masters the Mechanics of Flight
Sure, lots of plants use some kind of system for spreading their seeds far and wide using the wind, because it doesn't make sense for a tree to have to share the same patch of ground with multiple generations of offspring. So, the seeds will have some aerodynamic shape that lets them float through the air for a while. You've seen them. But all of them will still fall straight down if there's no wind.
Well, the Javan cucumber has crossed that hurdle.
Above: The Javan cucumber, as well as a rotten apple and Cthulhu's poop.
The seeds of the Javan cucumber have wings. Not wing-like protrusions that kind of help catch the wind. Not oddly shaped petals that just happen to provide lift. They've developed actual wings that can fly up to 100 meters with absolutely no wind, and much farther if there's a breeze.
The seed moves through the air in the same way as a butterfly flies, utilizing air currents, stalls, dips and glides to carry itself for miles. Just a reminder: It is just a seed.
BBC Earth News
And a distant cousin to the Batarang.
In fact, these seeds fly so well that they were the templates for some of the world's first airplanes. Igo Etrich, an Austrian, and one of the pioneers of aviation, based his glider designs on the shape of this family of seeds. Mankind's baby steps along the path of air travel were aided by a plant with wings.
#5. Plants that Communicate and Cooperate
As we mentioned, plants typically don't like to share their neighborhood with freeloaders. But when it comes to family, some plants will really stick up for their bros. When the common jewelweed is placed in a pot with an unrelated plant, the two will grow as quickly as possible, each trying to wrestle as many nutrients and minerals as possible away from the other. But when siblings are stuck together, they actually rein in their normal root development.
And they called us crazy for believing in the Plant Mafia.
It's not just that they don't murder each other -- they actually grow less than they normally would. Some plants can recognize their relatives and care enough about them to share food.
If it wasn't bad enough that plants are capable of telling their friends from their enemies, they can apparently collaborate with each other, too. When a willow tree is being eaten by caterpillars, it produces chemicals that the bugs have trouble digesting. But then nearby trees that haven't even been touched will also start producing that chemical. It's been discovered that once a willow gets chewed on, it releases pheromones into the air that other willows in the area can detect so that they can ramp up their own defenses.
But that's not all. Plants can also signal each other when it's time to bloom. If they throw up their blossoms randomly, herbivores can pick them off one by one, but if they coordinate, they can overwhelm the leaf munchers with sheer volume.
But perhaps even more amazingly, or terrifyingly, tobacco plants can communicate with totally different species. To test this, scientists tortured sagebrush plants and found that nearby tobacco plants started producing their own chemical defenses. If there's anything more terrifying than a horror movie becoming reality, it's the idea that the movie might be The Happening.
Now that's a twist.