Feed Me, Seymour: A Plant Trap Close-Up

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Carnivorous pitcher plants thriving at Duke Gardens in Durham, North Carolina

I was crossing a wooden footbridge in the H.L. Blomquist Garden of Native Plants at the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, and there it was. The sign. …And them: the busy eaters.

To my right and to my left, tubular plants swayed in the gentle Autumn breeze, their throats opening toward the Carolina blue sky. Alongside them, low-lying plants with lobular leaves lay in wait, their prickly protrusions—teeth of sorts—a testament to their craft. Pitcher plants and Venus flytraps, they were.

“Carnivorous plants busy eating,” I murmured as I leaned in for a closer look. But not too close. After all, the sign had warned, “Please do not touch.”

Carnivorous plants are plants that eat meat—insects, mostly. In unusual cases, if online reports are to be believed, they can even devour frogs and mice.

But for now, we’ll stick to the facts…and some photos.

Carnivorous plants thrive in low-nutrient, acidic soil. While most plants obtain much-needed nitrogen from the soil, carnivorous plants, on the other hand, absorb nitrogen from their prey.

The Venus flytrap grows natively in the bogs and coastal plains of North Carolina and South Carolina.

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A Venus flytrap awaits its unsuspecting prey: Hairs on the outside of the trap close quickly when an insect brushes against two or more of them. The trap snaps shut in less than a second, but at this point not fully. When the plant has determined that the food is worth eating, the trap seals completely. Once the insect is digested, the leaf opens back up. — Duke Gardens, NC

Research has shown that the trap can only open and close about seven times before the leaf turns black and dies, and a trap can only catch about three prey before it dies. (Remember, not every time that the trap closes is a prey actually digested.) This rather short lifespan likely explains the “no touching” sign that I encountered at the Gardens.

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The lid of the pitcher plant is lined with fine hairs that point downward and guide prey toward its mouth. Enticing nectar along the lip of the pitcher, combined with the plant’s appealing color, further attract prey toward the opening. Inside, the long tube of the plant contains coarse hairs that trap the prey, while bacteria and digestive fluids absorb nutrients released from the insect. — Duke Gardens, North Carolina

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“Don’t do it!” I found myself advising this ant. But nature operates by sovereign care, and what was about to happen must happen. I watched with guilty interest as the smell of sweet nectar lured the ant up the stem and into the opening of the pitcher. — Duke Gardens, NC

Carnivorous plants are rare and protected in the state of North Carolina. If you come across them in the wild, resist the urge to pluck them out of their natural habitat. (Not because they’ll eat you—that only happens in horror movies—but because it puts them at risk of endangerment.) If you’d like to try your thumb (er, hand) at growing them, purchase don’t poach! Also, be sure that the plants are coming from a reputable supplier who has followed the proper, legal guidelines for conservation and sale.

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