There are parts of the planet that people simply cannot survive. Our planet is filled with these nearly uninhabitable places, from the highest mountaintops to the driest deserts to the deepest oceans, and despite the challenges, things manage to find a way to exist.
We have uncovered five plants that have the extraordinary ability to not just live, but thrive in places that other life simply cannot survive.
Yucca: Beating the Heat
If you made a list of the environments most conducive to sustaining plant life, the desert would likely be the near the end of your list. The desert is an extremely hot and harsh environment with its sweltering midday heat and dry, moisture-less atmosphere. Very few can call the desert home due to the ruthless conditions, but the Yucca is one of the few that thrives in this unforgiving environment.
The Yucca is astoundingly effective at retaining water and holding onto it for long periods of time, making it one of the hardiest and drought-resistant plants in the world. They are specifically adapted to the desert climates and will die from overwatering. Part of what makes the Yucca so successful in its dry habitat is its root structure. The roots of the Yucca are shallow and sprawling so they can quickly and effectively absorb every drop of water that becomes available.
With its sword-like leaves and spiny shrub-like appearance, the Yucca is an unmistakable icon of the North and South American deserts, and are known for their ability to survive intense drought conditions. Like cacti and other desert plants, the Yucca have sharp, dagger-like leaves that contributed to a few of the Yucca’s many nicknames such as “Spanish Bayonet” and “Spanish Dagger.” These sharp leaves are adaptations that help to protect the plant’s water reserves from thirsty animals wandering the desert.
Ponderosa Pine: In the Line of Fire
They say if you play with fire, you get burned. This is only partially true of the Ponderosa Pine, a species of evergreen tree that is resistant fire. When confronted with fire, most trees have no defense and are easily burned, but the Ponderosa Pine is different than most trees in that it’s adapted to its environment, and has benefited greatly from it.
For thousands of years, the Ponderosa Pine has lived in environments that are prone to fire, most notably the West from Washington state to New Mexico, California, and parts of western Canada. These areas are extremely susceptible to wildfires, which led the Ponderosa to grow a thick protective layer of cork-like bark that can stave off the flames. Other fire-resistant adaptations include:
- Deep root system to prevent root damage
- Exfoliating bark that peels off when on fire
- Fire-resistance buds to quickly regrow needles
From an early age, Ponderosa saplings are able to handle low-intensity fires and the more they mature the more effective they become at surviving low and moderate intensity fires. In fact, the trees actually benefit from their environments catching on fire as it replenishes the soil with nutrients to help the trees grow. It also prevents a buildup of bark and “mulch” from the base of trees that accumulate and when burned during a fire, can harm the tree by smoldering for days, preventing the tree from healing properly. It’s strange, but this tree has developed a symbiotic relationship with one of its species most notorious adversaries.
Glacier Crowfoot Buttercup: Ascending to New Heights
The Yucca and the Glacier Crowfoot Buttercup, also known as Ranunculus glacialis, are the only two plants on our list that have flowers. But aside from their flowers, the two couldn’t be more different. The Glacier Crowfoot Buttercup’s claim to fame is that it can grow at higher altitudes than any other flowering plant in the world. These plants thrive in some of the most inhospitable, rocky, and snowy regions of the world and have been seen at altitudes as high as 14,100 feet above sea level – to put that into perspective, it’s growing and flowering almost 2.7 miles up.
Although they aren’t very large, these yellow flowers are as tough as any plant on the planet. They choose to live on the slopes of highest mountains on the planet and are regularly exposed to freezing temperatures, brutal winds, low oxygen levels, and hefty amounts of ice and snowfall. The Glacier Crowfoot Buttercups are found predominantly in Northern Europe and the Alps but have been found as far as the Himalayas.
Seagrass: Defender of the Deep
Plants live in many places, but for the most part, they’re usually above ground where they have ample access to oxygen and sunlight. This is not the case with Seagrasses. Not to be confused with Seaweed, which is actually a type of algae, Seagrass has leaves, roots, and veins just like other plants, except they grow and flower underwater. Despite being anatomically similar to every other plant, Seagrasses have one thing that other plants do not – the ability to grow and thrive while completely submerged under salt or brackish waters. Saltwater kills most plants, but these grasses have adapted to their environments by absorbing nutrients directly from the water through their roots and leaves.
Large fields of grassy underwater plains exist all over the world from the tropics to the arctic but are highly concentrated in areas around the Gulf of Mexico, the Philippines, and off the coasts of Australia. These regions are typically bursting with marine life due to the many benefits of sea grass on marine ecosystems such as:
- 1 square meter of Seagrass can create 10 liters of oxygen
- Creates “nursery habitats” that provide shelter for myriad marine species
- Improves water clarity and quality
- Reduces seafloor erosion
- Helps buffer coastlines against hurricanes and coastal storms
Although most seagrasses live in shallow areas where the sun can easily penetrate and sea oxygen levels are generally higher, a species of seagrass known as Halophilia stipulacea was discovered around 1970 at 482 feet (147 meters) underwater off the coast of Cyprus. It’s the deepest living plant known today.
Great Basin Bristlecone Pine: The Oldest Living Thing
It’s older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Giza, stands nearly 30 feet tall, and clocks in at 5,067 years old. What is it? If you guessed the Great Basin Bristlecone Pine, then you’re correct! The Great Basin Bristlecone pines are the oldest living individual organisms on the planet, and two of these trees are known to predate many of the oldest man-made structures.
The secret to their longevity isn’t a fountain of youth, but a combination of extreme drought-resistant adaptations and their ability to live in desolate and unforgiving environments. According to researchers, living in barren, mountainous regions that receive little rainfall and are known for their brutally cold winters, presents certain evolutionary advantages for the Bristlecone. For instance the lack of surrounding vegetation prevents other plants from stealing the much-needed nutrients from the soil, and the rocky landscape acts as a natural barrier protecting the trees from wildfire.
There are many species of Bristlecone Pines, but the oldest living of these reside predominantly in California’s White Mountains just north of Death Valley, but can also be found in Great Basin National Park and surrounding mountains. This is where two of the oldest living Bristlecone Pines live, but their exact locations are kept a secret because of their age and vulnerability to vandals.
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