for National Geographic News
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Some smell like putrefied meat, others have stalks reminiscent of male anatomy, and others are outrageously big, or black, or carnivorous, or explosive. The world is full of weird plants and more and more people are encouraging them to take root in their gardens.
In 1999, after being disappointed by the poor selection of plants sold at the big garden centers in the United Kingdom, Diane Halligan created The Weird and Wonderful Plant Company in East Lothian, Scotland, to source, produce, and promote plants that are different than the ordinary. She reports solid business.
"Any keen gardener with a bit of rebel in themincluding meis driven mad by the rows upon rows of pastel colored bedding plants offered by garden centers and some nurseries," she said. "In today's society when land is at such a premium, gardeners want to grow something a bit more special in their borders."
Marty Harper, co-owner of the Weird Dude's Plant Zoo in Staunton, Virginia, also reports robust business. He started his company in 1998 to fill a growing niche in the unusual. Many of his clients are recently retired baby boomers who have given up their fancy threads and skyscraper offices for gloves, a trowel, and a garden in the country.
"Some are retired CEOs trying to wind down and enjoy life," he said. "They can afford to spend $50 to $100 on plants."
Weirdness in plants is relative, explained Harper. For people in the United States, the weirdest plants are ones that grow in faraway places like the island of Madagascar off the east coast of Africa, or China's Yunnan Province. As a result, they cost more than the roses and petunias found at big-box home improvement stores.
Harper said the largest collection of weird plants is found in Madagascar, where plants have evolved for millions of years in isolation from the rest of the world. Succulent palms from the island belonging to the Apocynaceae family are becoming popular with gardeners in hot and dry climates like Arizona.
Borneo, an isolated island in the South Pacific Ocean, is another place to find a collection of strange plants. The weirdest plant Harper has come across there is Raffelesia arnoldii.
"It is a parasitic plant that has the world's largest bloom, over three feet (one meter) across, has a fleshy spotted color, it smells bad, and has a hole in the center that holds six or seven quarts (about six liters) of water," he said.
The parasite has no leaves, stems, or roots. Rather it lives on the Cissus angustifolia vine, a member of the grape family that grows only in primary rain forest. The blossom is pollinated by flies that are attracted by its offensive smell: rotting flesh.
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