A Plant That Isn't


Every once in a while a story so silly makes it through some of the larger news organizations that it just makes you want to slap your forehead so hard that you knock yourself out. A few years back a story broke and spread like wildfire. Apparently a Chinese nun discovered a legendary Buddhist flower growing under her washing machine. The story took the world by storm. Everyone seemed to be talking about it. But just as quickly as it came, it was gone, which was probably for the better. These Buddhist flowers are referred to as "Udumbara" and there are a lot of historical references to them throughout religious texts. However, like aliens, Bigfoot, and the Loch Ness Monster, from time to time these pseudo-scientific trends get out of hand.

There are so many botany fails when it comes to the idea of Udumbara that you really wonder what kind of reality some people exist in. For starters, Udumbara is said to only bloom once every 3,000 years. Oh really? Who keeps track of these events? Evolutionarily speaking, what could possibly be the benefit to a strategy like this? Second, every supposed picture of an Udumbara depicts a plant with no chlorophyll and no roots. They seem to grow on some pretty strange surfaces as well. Whereas there are many examples of achlorophyllous plants in nature, they are still readily recognizable as plants. Also, they all have intricate and specific adaptations to be able to live this way. Some tap into the roots of a host plant while others steal nutrients from mycorhizzal fungi. Okay, so perhaps the latter is what Udumbara does... Not so fast. The extreme differences in the supposed locations that they are found would seem to suggest that a possible fungal symbiont is quite a generalist. If that is the case, why aren't Udumbara more common? Finally, if the discoverers of these "plants" are so adamant about their existence then why have none ever made it into the hands of a competent botanist for a more thorough study?

There are numerous blog posts claiming that the denial of the existence of the Udumbara flower is some sort of mass botanical cover-up conspiracy (yea, such a thought exists). There are plenty of others that claim "irrefutable proof" via macro shots of some blurry structures which, to the authors, seem to show actual floral anatomy. Though I am not writing this post to bash on religious beliefs, I am making an attempt to attack the perpetuation of pseudo-scientific dogmas that are still painfully abundant in otherwise modern times. The real explanation for Udumbara is most likely lacewing eggs. Lacewings lay their eggs on the ends of long strands of silk to help hide them from predators like ants. Many of the reported pictures of Udumbara flowers depict exactly that. Other pictures depict what more closely resembles the fruiting bodies of some slime molds which take up that morphology once they mature.

As far as I am concerned I have yet to see anything remotely convincing that these Udumbara "flowers" are anything other than lacewing eggs or slime mold. To claim that the botanical community is conspiring against the true identity of these "flowers" is to be completely naive to how botanists tick. To think that any botanist would turn down an opportunity to admire and study a plant previously unknown to science is just plain silly. The internet can be such a wonderful tool for research and broadening horizons but it is also a cesspool of misinformation and one wrong turn can send you spiraling into the realm of crazy. Be careful of where you get your information. It's okay to be open minded but don't be so open minded that your brain falls out. Question everything and embrace the discipline that is scientific thought and reasoning.

Photo Credit: Be Zen

Further Reading: http://naturelap.wordpress.com/2010/03/04/udumbara-flower-that-blooms-every-3000-years/