As kids, we’re all taught that plants eat sunlight through a complex process called “Photosynthesis.” This is one of the many things that, as humans, make plants a little hard to relate to. If you’re feeling disassociated from plants, here’s something to make you feel better – some plants eat meat! Yum.
Carnivorous plants are rare and fascinating organisms. They have adapted to low nutrient levels in their environment by drawing in insects (some may eat small amphibians and mammals!) and digesting them. Habitats low in nitrogen and phosphorus that still have other environmental requirements, like high moisture and sunlight, are hard to come by and habitat destruction of bogs and wetlands are making these plants exceedingly rare.
If you are lucky enough to come across one in the wild (or a local plant nursery), take a moment and observe them! There are a whole variety (at least 600 species!) of carnivorous plants that have different adaptations to attract and trap insects.
Some, like the pitcher plant, have Pitfall traps. The leaves of this plant are folded to create a deep pool of water and digestive enzymes. When an insect comes to check out the odor that this plant emits, it falls in and can’t get back out. Pitcher plants can either hang or sprout up from the ground. The ones that hang inflate themselves with air to look like large, oblong balloons. These balloons then fill up with the digestive liquid. The sprouting ones catch rainwater and secrete digestive enzymes to help make it attractive. This plant is great at ensnaring unwitting fruit flies as I have one next to a sunny kitchen window AND my compost bucket.
Others, like the Venus Flytrap, have hinged leaves that snap shut when tiny, sensitive hairs on the inside of the trap are touched. The teeth of the trap prevent unwitting prey from escaping. This isn’t an adaptation that the plant can keep doing forever. After 7-10 snaps, even if they’re not closing on prey, the trap turns black and die. There are multiple traps per plant system which allows the plant to continue living. NEVER force a trap to close by teasing it just to watch this adaptation. You don’t want to kill it! This is a common houseplant, so click here to learn more about caring for your green friend!
Flypaper is another form of trap. This type is common to sundews, the beautiful plant that appears to sparkle in the light. Flypaper traps are just like the white, paper traps that many put in their house or porch to get rid of flies. On a sundew, the “dew” part of the plant is actually sticky, digestive enzymes that cover glands on a stalk. Once prey touches those sticky glands to figure out, again, what that yummy odor is, the plant will curl itself up and those stalks will be similar to the teeth of the Venus Flytrap and ensnare the prey.
If you’re interested in having these fascinating plants in your house, but don’t want to worry about the bizarre and strict plant care! Sundews are my favorite as the light does bounce off of the “dew” of the plant.