6 Plants That Are Masters of Disguise

Ernesto Gianoli and Fernando Carrasco-Urra
Ernesto Gianoli and Fernando Carrasco-Urra / Ernesto Gianoli and Fernando Carrasco-Urra

1. Boquila trifoliolata vine

Researchers are a bit baffled by a vine that acts more like a chameleon than a plant. The Boquila trifoliolata vine, which is found in the rainforests of Chile and Argentina, has the remarkable ability to disguise itself by shapeshifting to mimic its surroundings. As it climbs, it morphs itself into an uncanny imitation of its host plant. It can change its size, shape, color, and even vein pattern to fit in. And “if a single Boquila vine extends across two trees, it can mimic both at the same time,” Ernesto Gianoli, Associate Professor in the Department of Biology at the University of La Serena in Chile, told Mental_Floss.

Gianoli and his associate, Fernando Carrasco-Urra from the University of Concepción, discovered the plant’s mimicking abilities. Their findings are detailed in the journal Current Biology. “Perhaps the most amazing evidence was that the study species (Boquila) shows a spiny tip when climbing onto a shrub whose leaves show spiny tips (and only in this case, otherwise Boquila has no spines).” How the vine identifies its host isn’t entirely clear, but researchers say it could be sensing airborne chemicals or even “borrowing and using genes” from hosts. It’s all in the name of staying safe from plant-eating herbivores, they think.

2. Drosera Plants 

Drosera plants, more commonly called Sundews, often grow in soil that lacks nitrogen. But that's not a problem for these carnivorous plants, which get the nutrients they need from bugs lured in by the succulent droplets hanging from the plant’s arms. They’re irresistible for thirsty bugs looking for sweet nectar, but their thirst is their downfall: The dew is in fact a very sticky substance that traps the insect upon contact. The more the bug struggles, the more the plant closes in around it, slowly suffocating it, then devouring it over days.

3. Caladium Steudneriifolium

Wikimedia Commons

We've all faked being sick to avoid a day of school, but for one plant, pretending to be under the weather is a survival tactic. Caladium steudneriifolium, found in a rainforest of Ecuador, is a tasty meal for mining moth caterpillars. These moths lay larvae in the leaves, and when they hatch, the caterpillars eat through the plant, leaving behind white, winding trails known as variegation. Researchers discovered that the plant has learned to deter the moths by purposefully pretending it has already been eaten, and it works. The plants that put on the disguise were far less likely to become a meal.

4. Bee Orchid

Hans Hillewaert

Flowers depend on bees to help spread their pollen. Instead of waiting around hoping a bee will drop by, the aptly named “bee orchid” takes things into its own petals. To lure in male bees, this flower looks (and smell) remarkably like a female bee. The males drop in to say hello, are covered in a layer of pollen, and then buzz off to pollinate the next orchid.

5. Lithops

Lithops, commonly known as “living stones,” are native to the dry climates of southern Africa. To prevent themselves from becoming a meal for thirsty passersby, the plant has evolved to disguise itself by resembling the stones of its surroundings. Its leaves are not green, but grey or brown and covered in odd stone-like patterns. But there’s no hiding these plants once they bloom—their flowers are bright and beautiful.

6. Lamium Album Plant

Coyau via Wikimedia Commons

If you’ve ever encountered stinging nettle, you know it’s an unpleasant, painful experience. Its leaves are covered in sharp needle-like hairs that irritate the skin. It seems the Lamium album plant, which goes by the name of white dead-nettle, also knows this, and has learned to mimic stinging nettle to ward off would-be predators. It doesn’t pack the same painful punch as its look-alike, but it benefits from appearing as such.