How to Grow Carnivorous Plants

Are you a plant geek? Check out these little-known facts and growing tips about the puzzling behavior of carnivorous plants.


| March 2012



Western Australian Pitcher Plant

Western Australian pitcher plant (Cephalotus follicularis) growing on a seepage cliff in southwestern Australia.


Photo by Larry Mellichamp, courtesy Timber Press (c) 2010

Take a fascinating botanical journey beyond garden favorites such as the tulip, lily or pansy and into the realm of weirdly wonderful carnivorous plants. In this excerpt from Bizarre Botanicals (Timber Press, 2010), authors Larry Mellichamp and Paula Gross offer tips and tricks on how to grow your own carnivorous plants at home and how to and observe their digestive mysteries.   

If one group of plants is across-the-board weird and fascinating to the greatest variety of humans—young and old, plant-loving and plant-indifferent—surely it is the carnivorous plants, which “feed” on flesh. Widely grown, often misunderstood, they seem to defy explanation.

Why are they so universally intriguing? Because their lifestyles violate what seems like a fundamental rule of life on earth: plants don’t eat meat—in fact, they don’t eat at all! They make their own food and form the base of the food web. Everything else eats plants (or other creatures which themselves eat plants). A plant is for food and making oxygen, for creating habitats and providing fuel, fiber, and spices. Even if we don’t often consider those “nurturing” qualities of plants, we at the very least think of plants as passive scenery. Carnivorous plant behavior is so fundamentally unplantlike, it flies in the face of reason (pun intended). No one expects a plant to turn the tables and actually capture and kill the insects that come seeking to graze upon its green bounty. A plant grabbing a bug and eating it? Agh! What’s next? If a plant can eat a fly, maybe there is a plant out there that could eat me. Our imaginations run wild from there.

Even rational scientists with their fantasies in check are captivated by these amazing plants. Charles Darwin considered carnivorous plants fascinating, especially sundews and Venus flytraps, and studied them much of his life. In his 1875 book Insectivorous Plants, the first treatise devoted to these plants, he reported his detailed experiments on their movements in capturing and digesting prey. He found, for example, that a pebble would cause a flytrap to close but not seal tightly, and the plant would simply reopen the next day. Add some protein, however, like egg albumen, and this would trigger the tightening of the trap and the release of digestive enzymes. The plant could tell when it had caught a real meal.

So why does a plant that can make its own food by photosynthesis need to eat meat? The short answer is, to supplement its nutritional needs and allow it to compete and grow in nutrient-poor habitats. The next logical question is, “How does it manage to eat?” (with no teeth, stomach, or intestines). Before we reveal those secrets, let’s take a quick look at who makes up this rogue’s gallery of plants with a taste for prey.

More than 600 species of carnivorous plants have been recognized in the world, yet most of them can be divided into basically five different types—pitcher plants, sundews, butterworts, bladderworts, and the one and only Venus flytrap. Pitcher plants are the largest carnivorous plants and have tubular leaves that form pitfall traps. Sundews have variously shaped leaves that are absolutely covered in glistening, sticky hairs that act like flypaper, engulfing small insects in a mucilaginous mire. Butterworts have rosettes of broad, slimy leaves for insects to stick to. Bladderworts grow in water or waterlogged soil and bear many tiny, bladder-shaped leaves that quickly inflate to suck in miniscule prey. Because these leaves are so small and grow underwater or in the soil, they are not easily observed, and we do not cover them in this book. Last but not least is the international poster child for carnivorous plants, the Venus flytrap. Only one species is recognized from one area of the world, the coastal Carolinas. Its rapid-action and bear-trap-type leaves seem the ultimate in plant-turned-predator innovations.

carol
7/13/2015 2:21:35 PM

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