5 Horrifying Ways Plants Can Fight Back

Most people probably consider plants to be nothing more than a lovely green backdrop to their lives—one that is constantly being eaten by even the lowliest of animals. These people are unaware that plants have been slowly plotting their revenge. While you sleep, even our very food crops are subtly planning ways to seek payback! Here is a quick listing of just some of the ways we might expect to meet our ends at the leaves of these photosynthetic psychopaths.

1. Cyanide Poisoning

Over 3000 different plants—including apples, cassava, spinach, and lima beans—have evolved a defense that causes the animals that eat them to choke on hydrogen cyanide (HCN) [PDF]. This compound is synthesized by plants in an attempt to dissuade herbivores from munching down on them. During the process, called cyanogenesis, hydrogen cyanide is attached to sugar or fat molecules and eventually stored. When an animal eats a part of the plant containing these cyanide laced sugars (cyanogenic glycosides) or fats (cyanogenic lipids), they are broken down in the digestive tract, releasing the hydrogen cyanide which disrupts cellular respiration, the process from which we are able to, you know, continue living.

But how does the plant keep from poisoning itself? It compartmentalizes the poison in specialized cells which only release the poison after being ruptured. So an average plant cell sequence may go something like this: delicious, delicious, delicious, deadly poison, delicious. And the reason that we don't die from eating things like apples is that the concentration of cyanide is much lower than in plants like cassava, which need to be soaked in water or cooked in order to leach out the cyanide compounds! 

2. Giving You Immediate Heart Attacks

Some plants want to cut right to the chase. Why give you time to slowly die from cellular death like cyanide when they can just go for the heart of the matter, literally? Plants like foxglove contain incredibly potent toxins that can stop the heart dead in its tracks. Digitoxin, the cardiac glycoside responsible for the poisoning and named after the foxglove genus Digitalis, is fatal in excess of 10 milligrams. Toxins such as digitoxin are certainly a good way to ensure that even if a potential herbivore takes a nibble of you, chances are they won’t be doing so again—namely because they’ll be too busy convulsing on the ground, dying.

People have been accidentally poisoning themselves with foxglove for years; its leaves look remarkably similar to the leaves of comfrey (Symphytum spp.) which is commonly made into a soothing, healing tea. Below is a comparison of the two leaves. 

3. Injecting You With Horrifyingly Painful Neurotoxin

Some trees just want to see you suffer. The Stinging Tree of Australia (Dendrocnide moroides), or Gympie Gympie, is certainly one of them. This relatively innocuous looking plant is covered in countless microscopic hairs, all of which are loaded with an incredibly potent neurotoxin. The hollow hairs get easily stuck in skin on contact and deliver the neurotoxin, which causes intolerable pain and, sometimes, death—this according to Dutch Botanist H. J. Winkler, who recorded such an event in the 1920s after an associate was stung by the plant. 

How intense is the pain? It’s apparently akin to being burned alive while being stabbed and can apparently last for months after the initial sting. It turns out, plants can really hold a grudge. Here’s a video of an Australian biologist brushing the plant with the back of his finger for barely a second.


4. Covering You in Innumerable Biting, Swarming Ants

Wikimedia Commons

Just like humans, some plants have turned to hiring bodyguards in order to protect themselves. The bull-horn acacia (Acacia cornigera) has evolved a mutualistic relationship with the aptly named acacia ant (Pseudomyrmex ferruginea): In exchange for housing—inside of its giant thorns, which can house many ants each—and food (the plant feeds them through special nectaries and even by producing little bag-lunches for the ants in the form of fat and protein-packed Beltian bodies), the ants viciously defend the tree. 

If a herbivorous insect even so much as touches the tree, it is immediately descended upon by the ants, who will eat the intruder or throw it off the tree.  Even large animals such as humans will be given no mercy by the ants, who will swarm and bite in order to defend their precious all-providing tree. In fact, many bull-horn acacias have reduced pollination rates as compared to other plants as even beneficial pollinating insects can barely approach the tree without having a hurricane of ants sweep them to their deaths!

5. Summoning Deadly Wasps from the Heavens

When you think of corn (Zea mays), you may think of warm summers, grilling with your family, and enjoying the ears at your leisure, slathered in butter. Rarely do people think of corn as a capable arcane wizard of a plant that can call down a torrent of wasps to annihilate would-be murderers. 

Corn, as well as many other plants, produces what are referred to as “green leaf volatile compounds” when its leaves are chewed on. These compounds are a cocktail of various chemicals, including terpenoids and phenolics, that are incredibly attractive to parasitic wasps. These wasps fly to the plant that is being eaten, find the culprits and, depending on the species, employ a few different protection strategies: some wasps, like digger wasps (genus Sphex), will actually pick up the host and put it somewhere else. Other wasps will lay eggs in the creature munching on the plant; those eggs hatch a la the Xenomorphs from Alien, often chewing their way out of the host’s body cavity within a day or two. 

This sounds like a long time if you're being eaten, but it takes a while for caterpillars or other insects to completely destroy a corn plant. Generally, the host is dying or near dead by the time the larvae emerge. So the next time you pick a fresh ear of corn, make sure you leave as quickly as possible—the wasps are probably already en route.

Additional Source: Lambers, H., Chapin F.S., Pons, T.L., Plant Physiological Ecology, Second Edition, Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, 2008, New York.

Charles Dickens Museum Highlights the Author's Contributions to Science and Medicine

Charles Dickens is celebrated for his verbose prose and memorable opening lines, but lesser known are his contributions to science—particularly the field of medicine.

A new exhibition at London’s Charles Dickens Museum—titled "Charles Dickens: Man of Science"—is showcasing the English author’s scientific side. In several instances, the writer's detailed descriptions of medical conditions predated and sometimes even inspired the discovery of several diseases, The Guardian reports.

In his novel Dombey and Son, the character of Mrs. Skewton was paralyzed on her right side and unable to speak. Dickens was the first person to document this inexplicable condition, and a scientist later discovered that one side of the brain was largely responsible for speech production. "Fat boy" Joe, a character in The Pickwick Papers who snored loudly while sleeping, later lent his namesake to Pickwickian Syndrome, otherwise known as obesity hypoventilation syndrome.

A figurine of Fat Boy Joe
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Dickens also wrote eloquently about the symptoms of tuberculosis and dyslexia, and some of his passages were used to teach diagnosis to students of medicine.

“Dickens is an unbelievably acute observer of human behaviors,” museum curator Frankie Kubicki told The Guardian. “He captures these behaviors so perfectly that his descriptions can be used to build relationships between symptoms and disease.”

Dickens was also chummy with some of the leading scientists of his day, including Michael Faraday, Charles Darwin, and chemist Jane Marcet, and the exhibition showcases some of the writer's correspondence with these notable figures. Beyond medicine, Dickens also contributed to the fields of chemistry, geology, and environmental science.

Less scientifically sound was the author’s affinity for mesmerism, a form of hypnotism introduced in the 1770s as a method of controlling “animal magnetism,” a magnetic fluid which proponents of the practice believed flowed through all people. Dickens studied the methods of mesmerism and was so convinced by his powers that he later wrote, “I have the perfect conviction that I could magnetize a frying-pan.” A playbill of Animal Magnetism, an 1857 production that Dickens starred in, is also part of the exhibit.

A play script from Animal Magnetism
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Located at 48-49 Doughty Street in London, the exhibition will be on display until November 11, 2018.

[h/t The Guardian]

Beyond Wanderlust: 30 Words Every Traveler Should Know

For those who travel, wanderlust is a familiar feeling. It’s that nagging voice in your head that says, “Yes, you do need to book that flight,” even if your bank account says otherwise. Regardless of how many passport covers this word may adorn, it doesn’t begin to cover the spectrum of emotions and experiences that can be revealed through the act of travel. Here are 30 travel words from around the world to keep in your back pocket as you're exploring this summer.


From the Latin vagari, meaning “to wander,” this 16th-century word originally meant a wandering journey. Nowadays, "vagaries" refer to unpredictable or erratic situations, but that doesn’t mean the old sense of the word can’t be invoked from time to time.


An Old English word that refers to something that’s both strange and marvelous. It's a great way to sum up those seemingly indescribable moments spent in an unfamiliar land.


Who hasn’t felt a strong desire to be somewhere—anywhere—other than where you currently are? That’s fernweh, or “farsickness," and this German word has been described as a cousin of wanderlust, another German loan word.


A busy street in Hong Kong

Anyone who has traveled abroad will recognize this feeling. The French word refers to the sense of disorientation that often sets in when you step outside your comfort zone, such as when you leave your home country.


Another gift from the French, this word literally translates to “drift,” but thanks to some mid-20th century French philosophers, it can also refer to a spontaneous trip, completely free of plans, in which you let your surroundings guide you.


To peregrinate is to travel from place to place, especially on foot. Its Latin root, peregrinus (meaning “foreign”), is also where the peregrine falcon (literally “pilgrim falcon”) gets its name.


Similar to peregrinate, this word essentially means to travel over or through an area by foot. So instead of saying that you’ll be walking around London, you can say you’ll be perambulating the city’s streets—much more sophisticated.


The Grand Canyon

This English word could appropriately be used to describe the Grand Canyon or the Northern Lights. Something numinous is awe-inspiring and mysterious. It's difficult to understand from a rational perspective, which gives it a spiritual or unearthly quality.


The young and the restless will want to incorporate this word into their lexicon. The adjective refers to those who are constantly moving from place to place—in other words, a nomadic existence. It stems from the Greek word peripatein (“to walk up and down”), which was originally associated with Aristotle and the shaded walkways near his school (or, according to legend, his habit of pacing back and forth during lectures).


You’re alone in a forest. It’s peaceful. The sun is filtering through the trees and there’s a light breeze. That’s waldeinsamkeit. (Literally "forest solitude." And yes, Germans have all the best travel words.)


In a similar vein, this Japanese word means “forest bathing,” and it's considered a form of natural medicine and stress reliever. There are now forest bathing clubs around the world, but you can try it out for yourself on your next camping trip. Take deep breaths, close your eyes, and take in the smells and sounds of the forest. Simple.


In those moments when you just want to run away from your responsibilities, you may consider becoming a solivagant: a solo wanderer.


This Japanese phrase literally translates to “a meal eaten sideways,” which is an apt way to describe the awkwardness of speaking in a foreign language that you haven’t quite mastered, especially over dinner.


A woman at the airport

You just booked your flight. Your heart starts racing. You’re a little nervous about your journey, but mostly you just can’t wait to get going. The anticipation, anxiety, and excitement you get before a big trip is all rolled into one word—resfeber—and you can thank the Swedes for it.


Taken from the French flâner, meaning to stroll or saunter, this word describes someone who has no particular plans or place they need to be. They merely stroll around the city at a leisurely pace, taking in the sights and enjoying the day as it unfolds.


This could be construed as the traditional English equivalent of flâneur. Likely stemming from the Middle English verb gadden, meaning “to wander without a specific aim or purpose,” a gadabout is one who frequently travels from place to place for the sheer fun of it. In other words: a modern-day backpacker.


Sometimes, no matter how amazing your vacation may be, you just want to come home to your bed and cats. This Welsh word sums up the deep yearning for home that can strike without warning. As Gillian Thomas put it in an interview with the BBC, “Home sickness is too weak. You feel hiraeth, which is a longing of the soul to come home to be safe.”


The karst peaks of Guilin, China

This Japanese word can be taken to mean “graceful elegance” or “subtle mystery,” but it’s much more than that. It's when the beauty of the universe is felt most profoundly, awakening an emotional response that goes beyond words.


Translating to “threshold anxiety,” this German word sums up the fears that are present before you enter somewhere new—like a theater or an intimidating cafe—and by extension going anywhere unfamiliar. The fear of crossing a threshold is normal, even among the most adventurous of travelers—but it often leads to the most unforgettable experiences.


Have you ever seen something so beautiful it made you cry? That’s commuovere in action. The Italian word describes the feeling of being moved, touched, or stirred by something you witness or experience.


This Danish word refers to a warm feeling of contentedness and coziness, as well as the acknowledgement of that feeling. Although not explicitly related to this term, author Kurt Vonnegut summed up the idea behind this concept quite nicely when he said, “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.'"


Here's one for those who have a beach trip coming up. Taken from Kwangali, a language spoken in Namibia, hanyauku is the act of tiptoeing across hot sand.


A patch of wild strawberries

This Swedish word translates to something along the lines of “place of wild strawberries,” but its metaphorical meaning is something along the lines of a "happy place." Whether it’s a hidden overlook of the city or your favorite vacation spot that hasn’t been “discovered” yet, smultronställe refers to those semi-secret places you return to time and time again because they’re special and personal to you.


This Old English word describes what might happen when you visit a place like Pompeii or a ghost town. While reflecting on past civilizations, you realize that everything will eventually turn to dust. A cheery thought.


In some Spanish dialects, the word vacilando describes someone who travels with a vague destination in mind but has no real incentive to get there. In other words, the journey is more important than the destination. As John Steinbeck described it in his travelogue Travels With Charley: “It does not mean vacillating at all. If one is vacilando, he is going somewhere, but doesn't greatly care whether or not he gets there, although he has direction. My friend Jack Wagner has often, in Mexico, assumed this state of being. Let us say we wanted to walk in the streets of Mexico city but not at random. We would choose some article almost certain not to exist there and then diligently try to find it.”


Backpackers and budget travelers, this one is for you: The Hebrew word lehitkalev translates to “dog it” and means to deal with uncomfortable living or travel arrangements.


Sun shining in the woods

This beautiful Japanese word is a good one to save for a sunny day spent in the woods. Komorebi translates to “sunshine filtering through the leaves.” Does it get any lovelier than that?

28. RAMÉ

This Balinese word refers to something that is simultaneously chaotic and joyful. It isn’t specifically a travel word, but it does seem to fit the feelings that are often awakened by travel.


Translating to a “lucky find,” this French word can be applied to that cool cafe, flower-lined street, or quirky craft store that you stumbled upon by chance. Indeed, these are the moments that make travel worthwhile.


Just in case you needed another reason to plan that trip to Yosemite, here's one last word for nature lovers. The Sanskrit word ullassa refers to the feelings of pleasantness that come from observing natural beauty in all its glory.


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