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The Sneaky Life of the World’s Most Mysterious Plant

It looks so ordinary, this vine. But it’s not. It is, arguably, the most mysteriously talented, most surprising plant in the world.

Photograph Courtesy of Ernesto Gianoli
Photograph Courtesy of Ernesto Gianoli

It’s called Boquila trifoliolata, and it lives in the temperate rain forests of Chile and Argentina. It does what most vines do—it crawls across the forest floor, spirals up, and hangs onto host plants. Nothing unusual about that.

Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich


But one day a few years ago, Ernesto Gianoli, a plant scientist, came upon a Boquila trifoliolata while walking with a student in the Chilean woods. They stopped, looked, and “then it happened,” Gianoli says. On the forest floor, they could see that the vine’s leaves looked like this, kind of stumpy and roundish:

Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

But once the vine climbed up onto a host tree, its leaves changed shape. Now they looked like this—much longer and narrower:

Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich


Both leaves came off of the same vine, but when the vine changed hosts, its newer, longer leaves matched its new surroundings. In Gianoli’s photograph below, the vine leaves are marked “V” and the tree leaves “T,” for “tree.” As you can see, it’s hard to tell them apart.

Photograph Courtesy of Ernesto Gianoli
Photograph Courtesy of Ernesto Gianoli

It’s almost as if the plant is camouflaging itself, changing shape to resemble its host.

As Gianoli walked along, he kept an eye out for Boquila vines climbing through the forest, grabbing onto tree after bush after tree, and it happened again! What he saw he found “astonishing.”

Photograph Courtesy of Ernesto Gianoli
Photograph Courtesy of Ernesto Gianoli

In this photo, the vine is on a different tree, and this time the tree’s leaves (marked “T”) are rounder, more like flower petals. And the vine (the leaf marked “V”)? Its leaves are now roundish too!

Woody Allen once made a film called Zelig, about a guy who takes on the characteristics of whomever he’s standing next to. The more Gianoli looked, the more Zelig-like this vine became, morphing over and over to look like one different host after another.

As my blog-buddy Ed Yong described it in 2014, when he wrote about this same plant, it has all kinds of moves: “Its versatile leaves can change their size, shape, color, orientation, even the vein patterns to match the surrounding foliage.”

On this tree, for instance …

Photograph Courtesy of Ernesto Gianoli
Photograph Courtesy of Ernesto Gianoli

… the tree leaf is jagged-edged, like a saw blade. (We’ve marked it with a “T.”) Our vine tries to create a zig-zag border (see the leaf marked “V”) and sort of pulls it off. Here’s a case, said Gianoli to Yong, “where Boquila ‘did her best’ and attained some resemblance but did not really meet the goal.”

Good try, though. It’s a crafty little vegetable.

But Why? How Does Mimicry Help This Vine?

The probable answer is that it keeps it from being eaten.

The forest is full of leaf-eaters. Imagine a hungry caterpillar wandering up to a tree:

Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

It loves eating leaves. It might find vine leaves extra tasty. But if our vine is hiding among the many, many leaves of the tree, each vine leaf has a smaller chance of being chewed on.

Or maybe the vine is assuming the shape of leaves that are toxic to the caterpillar. This is called Batesian mimicry, when a harmless species tries to look like a very bad meal.

Whatever the reason, mimicry seems to work. Gianoli and his co-author, Fernando Carrasco-Urra, reported that when the vine is mimicking its neighbors higher up, it gets chewed on less. On the ground, it gets eaten more. But what’s really intriguing about this vine is how it does what it does: It’s been called the “stealth vine” because, like the classified American spy plane, its inner workings are still a secret.

Learning Its Secret…

No plant known to science has been able to mimic a variety of neighbors. There are some—orchids for example—that can copy other flowers, but their range is limited to one or two types. Boquila feels more like a cuttlefish or an octopus; it can morph into at least eight basic shapes. When it glides up a bush or tree that it’s never encountered before, it can still mimic what’s near.

And that’s the wildest part: It doesn’t have to touch what it copies. It only has to be nearby. Most mimicry in the animal kingdom involves physical contact. But this plant can hang—literally hang—alongside a host tree, with empty space between it and its model, and, with no eyes, nose, mouth, or brain, it can “see” its neighbor and copy what it has “seen.”

How Does It Do This?

Gianoli and Carrasco-Urra think perhaps something is going on in the space between the two plants. They imagine that the bush or tree may be emitting airborne chemicals (volatiles) that drift across, like so …

Gif by Robert Krulwich
Gif by Robert Krulwich

… and can be sensed by the vine. How the vine translates chemicals into shapes and then into self-sculpture nobody knows. The signal could be written in light, in scents, or perhaps in a form of gene transfer. It’s a mystery.

“It’s hard for us to grasp that there are … ‘scents’ that we cannot smell, but which plants, noseless and brainless, can,” writes science journalist Richard Mabey in his new book The Cabaret of Plants. It’s against the rules to call a plant “smart” the way we might call a dolphin smart; brainless beings aren’t properly called intelligent. Intellect, we like to think, requires a nervous system like our own, which is an animal thing, except that, as Mabey writes, “[I]n being able to cope with unfamiliar situations, [this vine] is demonstrating the first principle of intelligence.”

Hmmm. A knock, knock, knocking on the animal kingdom’s door? Or do plants have their own secret ways of reckoning, totally unknown to us? If Boquila can do this, surely there are others.

This little vine is sitting on a gigantic secret. I can’t wait to find out what it’s doing, because whatever it is, it’s whispering that plants are far more talented than we’d ever imagined.

To find out more about Boquila trifoliolata, you can start where I did, with Ed Yong’s wonderful post from a couple of years ago, then go on to geneticist Jerry Coyne’s post, which asks a barrage of provocative and stimulating questions, and finish up with Richard Mabey’s short essay in The Cabaret of Plants. Or you can check out the science paper from Gianoli and Carrasco-Urra that started it all.

25 thoughts on “The Sneaky Life of the World’s Most Mysterious Plant

    1. Interesting, Miki, very interesting…but this politician doesn’t kiss, touch, hug or yak with its audience, it just morphs.

      1. True, but plants are more efficient than humans. The whole point of the actions you mention is to show how well the politician fits in, while the vine just quietly morphs so perfectly that the host doesn’t even notice.

  1. Seems to me that the most likely explanation is that the vine performs a rapid mini-natural-selection scenario, possibly with some element of “directed evolution” (this wouldn’t be genetic selection as you’ll see as I continue, but the idea is similar).

    As the vine crawls up from the ground, the leaves don’t match the surrounding leaves. They get eaten. When stressed by having its leaves eaten, it probably triggers the diversification of leaf types on the growing vine. As some leaves are eaten (because they stick out) the plant withholds that type as the growth continues. Whichever leaves don’t get eaten (because they mimic well) remain on the vine, and perhaps even trigger the vine to produce more of the uneaten pattern as well as producing less of the patterns that keep getting eaten.

    That’s my hypothesis anyway. Should be pretty easy to test in a careful experiment.

    1. Plants don’t grow like that. They can’t grow an infinite number of leaves in a node. In any case, you would notice multiple leaf scars. And, probably, there would be many nodes with multiple leaves of different shapes. So, this hypothesis is very easy to verify or refute.

  2. I’ve seen morning glory in the western US do something similar, changing size of leaves to be more similar to the leaves of other plants around it. I’ve also seen it get greener or yellower depending on the plants that it is next to. The change isn’t as dramatic as mentioned above, but it’s pretty close.

  3. Could it be that the vine initially produces a variety of leaf shapes, and the ones which don’t match the “host” plant are more apt to be consumed by insects. All the leaves shown are mature leaves – no immature leaves are shown.

  4. Seems to me that nature’s foot soldiers might be molecular transporters…

    Insects of course.

    There seems to be a few of those in the described environments.

    1. Rudy — It’s curious to me, but the Chilean team is focusing not on the animal-to-plant connection, but the plant to plant connection. I gather they are bagging the vine with a variety of host plants and looking to see what sorts of volatiles (air-borne molecules) are drifting from one to the other. The deeper question, though, is what could be going on inside the vine that would allow it to copy something that stays at a distance. That’s the deeper mystery.

  5. I’ve seen this vine on my grandparents’ grapefruit trees and in other fruit trees. the grapefruit with the vine in it, has a sweeter fruit…i don’t know why…the tree was actually even being overtaken by the vine.so i used like the fruits on that tree with the vine than the other without.

  6. Assume it has to do something with photosynthesis, possibly the the vine can sense the area of photosynthesis in neighborhood, (CO2 absorption or Oxygen release) and develops it’s leaves shape accordingly;

  7. Here in Louisiana we have wild blueberry bushes we call “Huckleberries”.
    As young wildmen my friends and I would eat them. There is a vine called
    “Soapberry” that sneaks up into the Huckleberry bushes and produces a
    berry that looks almost identical to the Huckleberry. The Birds probably
    dont care which one they eat but the wildboys did. Soapberries have a taste
    that will make you be more attentive. I still eat Huckleberries and I’m still

  8. The spiritual side of the vine and all plants is run and ruled by the often ignored or decried devic kingdom of spirit elves and dwarves that oversee growth and interactions in nature.

  9. Nos sens sont formes les frontières de notre imagination, elles ne doivent pas nous empêcher de toucher les organes de sensibilité qui nous sont étrangers, à priori, … et il y en a tant !

    Eat some Salvia divinorum in the presence of Boquila trifoliata, and you will maybe touch the deepest understanding of the plant’s mysteries, secrets, and biological history, If you behave like a gentleman in her divine presence … but you will wander why you have been so far from the understanding of plant intelligence, such an evidence … organisms much closer than what is commonly accepted, …

    We shall not forget, facing plants, that we are of inferior genetic complexity ! 😉

  10. You are right about there being more of these guys around. In the Caribbean there is one vine we refer to as ‘Bird Vine’ it however does not grow from the ground up. The seeds are excreted via birds feeding on the fruits of various trees citrus and mangoes are heavily targeted. There are some cases where birds live in the trees and not feed on the fruits e.g. Bael ‘Aegle marmelos’. What this bird vine does is grow toward the new branches that are forming and develops small roots that attach themselves to the young branch. The vine then grows sapping nutrients from the tree and actually grows as it is a branch of the tree. The leaves are so similar that many only notice it when it begins to seed which is a rust brown colour when young and red when ripe. I don’t know if there is any research done on it but they really are stealthy and sneaky.

  11. Perhaps if we could grow some of these vines in isolation we could see if it produced a variety of leaf shapes.
    I love growing plants from seed, Can anybody send some seed?

  12. I would be surprised if caterpillars could recognise subtle leaf shapes. Insects usually recognise food plants by their chemistry or colour.

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