Weird and wonderfully wacky plants

Sarah Mankelow —  10/05/2010
Our staff botanist came barrelling into our office one day with a plastic bag filled of plant material, to be added to the local arboretum collection.

“Get a load of this,” he said while shoving the bag under my nose.

“Urggg “- and that was my first introduction to Chenopodium detestans, a.k.a the fish-guts plant.

Only found here in the South Island, the fish-guts plant smells just like – you guessed it – rotten fish. With grey-green branches and flowers, a touch of red to the stems and leaves, it’s not a particularly attractive plant visually, as well as orally. But yet, it’s an important piece of the botanical puzzle that makes up the big picture of our unique plant life. DOC staff in Twizel are monitoring the progress of this annual herb when it raises its head on the shores of Lake Tekapo each year.

But it got me to thinking – New Zealand is pretty well-known for its strange and unusual animals – nocturnal parrots that boom (kākāpo), the only bird with nostrils on the end of its beak (kiwi), a bat that forages on the forest floor (short-tailed / pekapeka)- but what about its wacky plant life!

The most obvious suspects of course, are plants that eat animals and we have our fair share of those.

Bladderwort flowers

Carnivorous plants are among the most bizarre and fascinating life forms ever produced by the plant kingdom and there are many myths surrounding them. Fair Aotearoa has two rather delightful bog plants that like to dine on insects – sundews (Drosera sp.) and bladderworts (Utricularia). Sundews use the ‘fly-paper’ method to catch their lunch. Glistening drops of dew are secreted from the tips of numerous hairs covering the leaf’s surface which may even attract insects to their doom by sending little rainbows their way. Bladderworts, as their name would suggest, use tiny bladder-like traps below the surface of the water, to snare their prey.

Then there are those plants that have what we might call a quirky appearance. The shrubby tororaro (Muehlenbeckia astonii Petrie) is easily recognised by its zig-zag branches that interlock into a springy shrub, with heart-shaped leaves safely locked on the inside. This living cage has proved a popular home for many plants and insects. Described by one entomologist as “the scab that heals areas of natural and human disturbance”, it’s often among the first to re-colonise cleared areas and lately has proved a popular choice for roundabouts.

Then there are those plants that prove peculiar by their choice of habitat – some of our threatened coastal cresses spring to mind. One – Cook’s scurvy grass (Lepidium oleraceum) – holds a place in local folktales as the plant that Captain Cook gathered in large quantities to help prevent scurvy amongst his sailors. It is usually found in the fertile soil amidst bird colonies above the high tide mark, or amidst decomposing material. Yes, it likes to live in guano; i.e. bird shit.

Finally, even a short synopsis of weird plants would not be complete without New Zealand’s only fully parasitic flowering plant – Dactylanthus (Dactylanthus taylorii).

Dactylanthus (Dactylanthus taylorii)

Also referred to as the wood rose, the Māori name for this plant is pua o te reinga meaning flower of the underworld because, yes this plant grows underground. Dactylanthus has no green leaves or roots of its own. Instead it attaches itself to the roots of a native tree or shrub and gets all its nutrients from its host. It is the only plant in the world that flowers at ground level and the only one pollinated by bats! In the absence of native ground-dwelling mammals the short-tailed bat adapted to feeding at ground level and evolved a mutually beneficial relationship with dactylanthus. Sadly both bat and plants have declined in numbers and there are very few places left where they still co-exist.

You can find out more about these and other fascinating plants under the conservation section of the DOC website.

Sarah Mankelow


A North Island defector, I came south to go to Lincoln Uni and never looked back. My first ‘serious’ job with DOC was in Arthur’s Pass. I've been based in Christchurch since the turn of the century!

3 responses to Weird and wonderfully wacky plants


    Interesting stuff.
    I’ve written about the titan arum flower, said to smell of rotting meat, in my latest blog post. Behind the scenes at Kew Gardens:


    The links to shrubby tororaro, coastal cress, etc are broken. You might like to fix them?