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Carnivorous Plants

Updated on March 3, 2015

Carnivorous plants are products of evolution

Carnivorous plants have turned the tables on the insects and small mammals that preyed on them by eating them. Faced with inhospitable environments with soil low in nutrients, these plants have evolved and developed ingenious adaptations to trap, dissolve their prey with digestive enzymes and absorb the resulting nutrients. The Venus Flytrap gets its dinner in a snap, the pitcher plant drowns its prey, the bladderwort sucks in its watery victims and sundews never fail to get insects in a sticky situation.

It is not surprising that these seemingly murderous carnivorous plants are often viewed with endless fascination and curiosity, collected by carnivorous plant enthusiasts worldwide and made subjects of popular fiction.

How do starving carnivorous plants capture their prey in order to survive? The traps are really modified leaves which evolved in time. As Plato had said "Necessity is the mother of invention." Let us visit the basic trapping mechanisms used by different genera of carnivorous plants.

Photo source:wikipedia

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Modified leaf traps come in six models:

the pitfall trap (pitcher plants), lobster-pot trap (one species of pitcher plant), eel trap (corkscrew plant), flypaper traps (sundews and butterworts), snap traps (Venus flytraps and the waterwheel plant), and suction traps (bladderworts).

1. Pitfall trap of Pitcher plants

Genus: Sarracenia

Pitcher plants are carnivorous plants that have a prey-trapping mechanism which features a deep cavity filled with liquid known as a pitfall trap. The pitcher is actually a modified seamless rolled leaf. Nectar produced at the rim lures insects to crawl into the pitcher and as the insect wanders deeper into the cavity, downward pointing hairs on the inner walls makes escape almost impossible. The prey tumbles to the bottom of the pitcher and drowns in the digestive enzymes produced by the plant. The pitcher plant then absorbs the nutrients which are byproducts of the dissolved insects.

The Northern Pitcher (Sarracenia purpurea) have leaves modified into pitchers. The inner walls of the Northern pitcher has downward-pointing hairs which makes it slippery and difficult for insects to turn around and crawl out. The plant contributes very little to the digestive process and it is the liquid pool which contains symbiotic bacteria that produce the digestive enzymes.

Carnivorous Purple Pitcher Plant

Sarracenia purpurea

3" Pot

Read more on the American Pitcher Plant - Sarracenia

Pitcher Plants or Monkey Cups

The Nepenthes are a genus of carnivorous tropical plant also known as the monkey cups as these primates have been observed to drink from them. Some pitcher plants have been called the toilet plant. But that is another story. This is in fact the stunning Nepenthes madagascariensis with a mottled jug and an attractive matching lid. The lid keeps the rainwater from diluting the fluid inside the pitcher and also serves as a convenient landing pad for insects. The underside of the lid is coated with nectar which lures the prey to hang around and then wander around the lip, called the peristome, causing the wandering insects to lose their footing and fall into the pool of digestive enzymes in the pitcher. Escape is made impossible by the slick waxy coating inside the the walls of the trap. As the insects struggle to escape, the water movements stimulates the glands in the walls to secrete digestive enzymes. These powerful acid can break down a mosquito within a few hours. The nutrients from the insect are reabsorbed by the pitcher plant.

Carnivorous Purple Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia Purpurea Venosa) 3.75 inch pot
Carnivorous Purple Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia Purpurea Venosa) 3.75 inch pot

This colorful and hungry pitcher plant comes live in its own pot and ready to amaze and be admired in your home. Just put a saucer under the pot to catch any drips as well as keep the plant moist.

 

Nepenthes

The word Nepenthes comes from Greek mythology and literally means "without grief," referring to Homer's Odyssey, in which Helen was given the Nepenthe drug in order to make her sorrows go away.

Nepenthes Rajah - largest pitcher plant in the world

In acute danger of extinction

Photo Source: wikipedia commons

The Nepenthes Rajah is the largest carnivorous pitcher plant in the world which can only be found in the highland rainforests (4700 and 8400 ft.) of Mt. Kinabalu in Borneo. It was named after Sir James Hook, the first white rajah of Sarawak in 1859 and is also called the Giant Malaysian Pitcher Plant. Nepenthes Rajah is a scrambling vine and the stem grows along the ground and will attempt to climb and cling to whatever that can support it. The pitcher can grow to the size of a football and hold up to a gallon of water and digestive juices. Insects and small vertebrates, like mice, lizards, snails, scorpions, frogs are common victims of the monstrous pitcher plants.

The Nepenthes Rajah grows in high elevations with daytime temperatures of 80's and nighttime temperatures of 50's and is a challenge to grow. The first seed to the first flowering takes 10 years. The high demand for the Nepenthes Rajah has brought it to the brink of extinction.

The large lid of the Nepenthes serves as a canopy to shelter the pitcher from being saturated with rainwater. The lid also produces nectar which drugs insects, lizards, frogs, mice to fall and drown in the pool of digestive fluid.

What's the scoop on the poop?

Pitcher plants used as toilets - Mutualism between plant and animals

A pitcher plant does not always eat every moving thing that crosses its path. The Hardwick's Wooly Bats are known to use Nepenthes rafflesiana elongata pitcher plants as free sleeping quarters and then conveniently poops in the large mouth. The nitrogen from the bat feces supplements the poor nutrients in the soil and helps the pitcher plant grow. This symbiotic relationship is beneficial to both the plant and animal.

Toilet lid up or down

The great toilet seat lid debate

This attractive pitcher plant looks like a designer commode for the next bathroom remodel. The lid closes when the plant is recovering from shock or is preparing to die back. New pitchers will grow and replace the withered ones. Nepenthes usually keep their pitchers for 3-4 months.

Pitcher plant gets its meal - variety is the spice of life - Snail, cricket, hornet, wasp, fly, ant

2. Lobster pot or eel traps

Genus: Darlingtonia

Darlingtonia Californica, also called Cobra Lily, are native of Northern California and Southern Oregon. The Darlingtonia produces a pitcher that resembles the head of a cobra. It lures its prey with nectar glands. The Cobra Lily has transparent windows at the top which illuminates the interior of the bulbous pitcher. A circular hole at the bottom of its puffed hood has a red forked leaf attached to it, serving as the ramp to the chamber of death. The light coming through the windows lures the insects to wander inside, and once inside, the insect slips down the slick tube lined with downward pointing hairs. Bacteria and other microorganisms help to break down the insect.

Darlingtonia

The Darlingtonia is an American pitcher plant that does not trap rainwater in its pitcher. It also hides the tiny exit hole from trapped insects by curling it underneath and offering translucent false exits.

Cobra Lily or Darlingtonia Californica traps beetle

The lobster trap

Genus: Genlisea

The Genlisea or corkscrew plants are small herbs growing from a slender rhizome and specialize in aquatic protozoa. A Y-shaped modified leaf allows prey to enter but not to exit. The inward-point hairs guide the prey to move into a spiral entrance coiled around the two upper arms of the Y and into into the stomach in the lower arm of the Y, where they are digested.

Carnivorous Plant

(Drosera Roraimae), Venezuela Photographic Poster Print by Ch'len Lee/Minden Pictures, 18x24

Some carnivorous plants are not just colorful and attractive, but have leaves and stems covered in stalk glands glistening with sticky mucilage. The stickiness is a form of defense mechanism against invaders but also acts like a flypaper in trapping insects. When an insect adheres to the sticky leaf, the Drosera plant will bend and embrace the captured prey. The sticky traps produce digestive enzymes which help dissolve the dead insect from which the plant absorbs the nutrients it needs to survive.

Drosera Roraimae is a species of sundew which grows only in the Guiana Highlands of South America.

Read more on Drosera and see the amazing photos

Sundew

The flypaper trap of the sundew leaves undergo rapid acid growth which allows the tentacles to bend, retain and digest its prey.

Drosera Capensis in action - Watch how the sticky tendril rolls over the victim like a sushi

Photo Credit: vacationtime

The Pinguicula are small plants which grow in a rosette fashion similar to succulents. The leaves of the pinguicula has tiny hairs which secrete a sticky glue to trap unsuspecting insects. Enzymes and acids secreted by the plant dissolves the insect and the nutrient-rich fluid is reabsorbed by the plant.

Read more on Butterwort - Pinguicula

4. Suction traps - internal vacuum mechanism

Found only in the genus Utricularia

Suction traps are as small as pin heads or a small fingernail unique to bladderworts.These flexible pouches are modified leaves shaped like a bladder with a hinged door lined with trigger hairs. These deflates and pumps out the water and waits for its prey. When an insect steps into the tiny hairs at the end of the bladder, this triggers a trap door to open, causing water to rush in, sucking in the insect to its watery grave.

Read more about Bladderworts - Utricularia: Light, soil, water, humidity, climate

Underwater View of Bladderwort Showing its Bladders Used to Capture Prey, Utricularia, Central USA Photographic Poster Print by Gary Meszaros, 12x16

Uticularia pinhead size traps unwary prey

5. Snap trap, bear trap or spring trap

Genus: Aldrovanda

The snap traps of the Venus Flytrap and Waterwheel plant are very similar. Both use rapid leaf movements that snap shut when trigger hairs are touched. The Waterwheel plant (Aldrovanda vesiculosa) is a rootless (or ruthless) free-floating aquatic plant with a single whorl of leaves. Each leaf in a whorl ends in a clam-like trap similar to the Venus Flytrap. When stimulated, the traps snaps shut and captures its prey. A new whorl is produced once or more each day as one end of the stem dies off.

Dionaea Muscipula

The Venus Flytrap can only digest three meals and then the leaf withers and grows another one.

The famous Venus Flytrap

Genus: Dionaea

The Venus Flytrap (Dionaea muscipula) has two wide-open toothy lobes waiting for unsuspecting prey to wander in. When a spider, beetle, bee or fly steps into the trap, it is most of the time curtains. The movement of the insect stimulates the almost invisible hairs on the walls of the traps causing the walls to slowly slam shut. The trapped insect panics and struggles to get out only to trigger the the plant leaf to tighten, seal, and release digestive enzymes. The prey dies by suffocation. The Venus Flytrap will stay closed for 8-10 days. After the nutrients are absorbed, the trap opens and the dried up exoskeleton of the insect is blown away by the wind.

Venus Fly Trap Video - Catch of the Day

So what's on the menu for the Dionaea muscipula or better known as the Venus Fly Trap. These videos show innocent insects being lured by the colorful death traps which include a bee, cricket, slug and a sow bug. The tiny hairs inside the lobes are stimulated by the moving insects and trigger the traps to slam shut.

Becoming endangered

The Venus Flytraps live only in the boggy areas in North and South Carolina. Because of people's fascination with these plants, the flytraps are becoming endangered. Today these are grown in greenhouses.

Learn about carnivorous plants and how to grow them

Learn from the one who knows carnivorous plants best - For experts and beginners alike

THE SAVAGE GARDEN is the 1999 winner of the American Horticultural Society Book Award and 1999 Quill & Trowel Award from the Garden Writers Association of America.

The Savage Garden: Cultivating Carnivorous Plants
The Savage Garden: Cultivating Carnivorous Plants

This book is written by Pete D'Amato, one who has raised and grown carnivorous plants for three decades. He owns California Carnivores, the world's largest collection of flesh-eating flora and knows carnivorous plants like the back of his hands. A colorful and practical guide, packed with details and information on everything there is to know about carnivorous plants--how to care and grow them. Chapters are broken down according to species, well-organized reference, and the humor will tickle your funny bone.

 

Before you escape, do leave your thoughts about the bug-biting plants - Did you learn something new?

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    • profile image

      TanoCalvenoa 4 years ago

      I had two tropical plants and my cat killed them by, well, relieving himself upon them. Then we had another one and my toddler daughter ripped it out and killed it. Sigh...

    • norma-holt profile image

      norma-holt 5 years ago

      Another fantastic lens in your collection. Used to sell carnivorous plants in my shop years ago and they are incredible plants. Featured on Blessed by Skiesgreen 2012-2 and also on 7 Ways to Save Planet Earth. Hugs.

    • profile image

      julieannbrady 5 years ago

      Now, this is the answer to annoying bugs and other such small critters ... I'd heard of the Venus Fly Trap, but that Nepenthes Rajah is out there in a class of its own. Awesome pics!

    • craigmitchell profile image

      craigmitchell 5 years ago

      Definitely did! Very scary :D

    • Rangoon House profile image

      AJ 5 years ago from Australia

      Your pictures do highlight the beauty of these plants. Spring Blessings.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Congratulations for being featured on Squidoo's 2012 Spring Gardening Showcase and Blessed by a fellow Gardener and Squidoo Angel

    • Anthony Altorenna profile image

      Anthony Altorenna 5 years ago from Connecticut

      I had a very nice pitcher plant, but it does not appear to be coming back this year at the winter dormancy. Congratulations on a great lens! This article on Carnivorous Plants is very interesting and informative, and the collection of photos is impressive.

    • LizMac60 profile image

      Liz Mackay 5 years ago from United Kingdom

      I don't own one but I am looking after two of them for my neighbour while she is away. I think they are pitcher plants. Blessed

    • Einar A profile image

      Einar A 5 years ago

      Very interesting learning more about some of these very unique plants!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      After reading this lens I have a strange urge to eat a beetle or two with a nice fly for desert!

      ha

      Very interesting and informative lens!

    • jlshernandez profile image
      Author

      jlshernandez 5 years ago

      @MelonyVaughan: So glad you enjoyed the bug-biting plants. I have rafflesia featured in my other lens about Spooky Plants. It is supposed to be the largest flower in the world. Thanks for stopping by.

    • MelonyVaughan profile image

      MelonyVaughan 5 years ago

      Love the carnivorous plants! I've always been fascinated by rafflesia - the largest flower and parasite in the world. It's only found in the rainforest. Great lens and loved the videos!