The Cambodian government recently asked people to stop plucking a rare carnivorous plant that, from a certain angle, closely resembles human male genitalia.
Cambodia’s environment ministry shared images on Facebook of three women snatching pitcher plants and posing with them, and ministry officials asked members of the public to leave the rare plants alone, Cambodian news website the Khmer times reported.
“What they are doing is wrong and please don’t do it again in the future!” The Ministry of the Environment wrote on May 11 in the Facebook post† “Thank you for loving natural resources, but don’t harvest so it goes to waste!”
Some news websites have reported that this plant is Nepenthes holdenii, but it is actually a closely related species called Nepenthes bokorensisJeremy Holden, a freelance wildlife photographer who first discovered N. Holdeniiand François Mey, a botanical illustrator who described both species, separately told Live Science.
Related: This is how plants became carnivores
N. holdenii and N. bokorensis are similar in appearance and both occur only on nearby mountain ranges, which may explain the confusion. However, N. holdenii is the rarer of the two species and only a few researchers know where to find them.
“My plant [N. holdenii] grows in a few secret locations in the Cardamom Mountains,” in southwestern Cambodia, Holden said.”Bokorensis takes place on the much more accessible Phnom Bokor, which has undergone major development in recent years.”
The Environment Ministry’s Facebook post and photos responded to a video filmed on May 11 that showed the women picking the plants, according to news flare, a website that buys and licenses videos. This isn’t the first time the government has issued a warning against damage to the phallic and photogenic plants; senior ministry officials asked tourists not to pick N. bokorensis and N. holdenii in a statement in July 2021, as the activity could drive the plants to extinction.
Nepenthes plants survive in nutrient-poor soil by supplementing their diet with live insects, using their nectar and sweet scent to attract prey. “If you smell a bokorensis pitcher, it smells sweet — just like a candy,” Mey said.
Insects feed on nectar around the mouths of the plants’ modified leaves which, when mature, resemble pitchers. When insects fall into the pitchers, they drown in digestive fluids and the hungry plants absorb their nutrients. The phallic resemblance of a pitcher plant is most pronounced when: Nepenthes’ leaves are still developing and the jug is closed.
Cambodia’s natural habitats of carnivorous pitcher plants have declined due to agricultural expansion on private lands and the growth of the tourism industry into protected areas, according to a 2021 study in the Cambodian Natural History Diary†
Mey noted that while the plants’ phallic appearance is “nice,” picking them can jeopardize their survival.
“If people are interested, even in a funny way, to pose, to take selfies with the plants, that’s fine,” he said. “Just don’t pick the pitchers because it weakens the plant, because the plant needs these pitchers to feed.”
Originally published on Live Science.