Weird and Wonderful Plants Around the World

Illustration by Lucille Clerc

We often take plants for granted, but the trees and flowers around us have all kinds of unusual qualities—from those that grow in our backyards and parks to more exotic ones on riverbanks and in deserts on other continents. Indulge in a trip around the world by exploring new plants and all their colors, scents, uses and survival techniques: from the plants that give us products like henna ink and absinthe, to hardy ones resilient enough to survive harsh desert conditions, to those covered in fragrant flowers and vibrant leaves that provide beauty and perfume. Stop and smell the roses.

Saguaro Cactus
Southwest United States

Illustration by Lucille Clerc

This icon of the American Southwest can weigh 10 tons and grow to heights of 50 feet over a 200-year lifespan. It only opens its pores to absorb carbon dioxide in the cool of the night to conserve water. Despite its protective spines, Gila woodpeckers still break into the cactus to make nesting holes.

Blue Agave

Illustration by Lucille Clerc

Known for taking decades to bloom, when this species is finally ready to flower, it sends up a shoot as high as 20 feet that erupts with yellowish-green flowers. Following its impressive flowering, it dies.

Giant Waterlily

Illustration by Lucille Clerc

The national flower of Guyana has the largest leaves of any aquatic plant, growing up to 10 feet across. Microscopic pockets of air on the undersides of its leaves keep it afloat in lakes along the Amazon basin. Beetles eating the flowers' nectar get trapped as the blooms close in the evening; the next morning, the insects escape covered in pollen.


Illustration by Lucille Clerc

Wormwood is an herb that has long been used for various medicinal and practical purposes. In the first century A.D., it was added to ink to keep mice from nibbling on books. It also forms the base for the alcoholic drink, absinthe—originally marketed as a preventative medicine to fight off fevers and worms.

Quiver Tree

Illustration by Lucille Clerc

The quiver tree is one of the world's largest aloe species, and it can grow in semi-arid regions and even deserts. In these harsh habitats, it can resort to amputating its limbs during especially dry periods to conserve resources.


Illustration by Lucille Clerc

This Mediterranean plant has lettuce-like leaves, small round fruit and lots of myths and superstitions about it that stretch back to ancient times. It came to be associated with witches and magic, probably because it contains chemicals known for inducing sleep and relieving pain, but also for causing hallucinations, delirium and even coma and death.


Illustration by Lucille Clerc

These graceful, thin plants grow in shallow fresh water in central and eastern Africa. Each stem is topped with a burst of thin stalks. Essential to ancient Egyptian culture, the plant—which can grow up to 16 feet in height—was used to make ropes, baskets and nets, and the white pith inside was used to make the only source of paper in the region until about 900 A.D.


Illustration by Lucille Clerc

This rugged tree has waxy leaves and thorns for protection. When its bark is damaged, it produces a blend of gum, resin and oil to seal the wound. After hardening into reddish-brown lumps, the resin becomes the myrrh of legends that is used in perfumes, incense and even mouthwashes.


Illustration by Lucille Clerc

This shrubby tree is native to the arid Middle East and southern Asia. Its small white or pink-tinged flowers provide an expensive extract used in perfumes, and its leaves—once crushed and mixed with water and lemon—offer a distinctive orange-brown cosmetic that women have used to decorate their skin, nails and hair since ancient times.


Illustration by Lucille Clerc

Revered for its longevity, the ginkgo tree can live for over 1000 years. Its bright, vibrant green leaves turn to a glowing yellow in the autumn. The only surviving species of Ginkgophyta, an entire division of plants that is otherwise extinct, it is sometimes called a "living fossil."

Western Australian Christmas Tree

CUL_Map_Plants_western Australia Christmas tree
Illustration by Lucille Clerc

Each December, this tree, also known as Moojar, fills with orange blooms so bright they are almost neon. Its secret to thriving in the infertile soil of southwest Australia is that it is parasitic—it gets most of its water and nutrients by hijacking neighboring root systems.


CYL_Map Book_Cover- USE This one
Illustration by Lucille Clerc

Around the World in 80 Plants by Jonathan Drori (Laurence King Publishing, 2021) brings to life the history, uses and botanical properties of weird and wonderful plants from across the globe.