Students of Ethnobotany: Feed me, Seymour!

Audrey2_biggest_version

Feed me Seymour! Audrey2. Image from Wikimedia Commons by KaiMartin.

This man-eating penultimate edition of Students of Ethnobotany comes from the fascinated Yvette Beesley.

When I was in my teens my parent were large supporters of the Arts and took me to this play called “The Little Shop of Horrors”. It was amazing, with a singing and dancing plant called Audrey2 that needed blood to survive.

With the help of his friend Seymour, Audrey 2 at first lived off his blood, and later people. Audrey2 grew to an extraordinary size and I was completely enthralled. It was one of the best plays I had ever seen. I had known of Venus Fly Traps, which Audrey2 was based on, but could a plant be truly carnivorous. It’s hard to believe but such plants do exist, eating insects, frogs, and sometimes even small rodents. When you think of a carnivorous plant, you tend to imagine that these plants would come from far and exotic places. Where the tropical jungles are isolated and you find wildlife and flora like nothing you have ever seen before, or that they are the result of someones imagination such as Audrey2. But amazingly enough these plants can be found on every continent except for Antarctica. They have evolved separately on five different occasions, and  there are over 600 species. But why become a carnivore? I guess the most obvious reason would be that these plants have had to adapt. Carnivorous plants tend to be found in nutrient poor soils, bogs and swamps where there is an abundance of water and light, but lacking in nutrients. Carnivorous plants still use photosynthesis for energy but have supplemented their diets by evolving mechanisms that trap and digest, mainly insects, to gain the nutrients that are often lacking in their native habitats.

Carnivorous plants have evolved some pretty amazing adaptations to acquire nutrients, not only do these plants have beautiful colorful flowers or leaves to attract their prey, but the leaves have been modified to trap as well.  There are five main traps.

The First: The Pitfall Trap: These traps are found mainly in pitcher plants, where the modified leaves have folded into hollow slippery tubes. These tubes contain nectar-producing glands, which lure in the prey and then become trapped because of the slippery sides of the tube. Glands inside of the tube secrete digestive enzymes that then break down the prey for their nutrients. One plant  was found in the Philippines that is large enough to eat rats and amazingly enough these type of plants can be found all over North America. One such plant is the North American Pitcher plant or the Sarrencia species, this is the only species Native to Canada. Sarrencia purpurea is actually the provincial flower of Newfoundland.  When I found this out I couldn’t believe it, not only can you find carnivorous plants in Canada but it’s actually one of Canada’s national flowers! Who knew? You’d think growing up as a child in Canada that I would have heard or learned of this some where along the way.

Sarracenia_purpurea_-_Sentier_de_la_Tourbie_re_-_Parc_de_Frontenac_-_Juillet_2008

Sarracenia purpurea. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Boreal.

The second type is the Flypaper Trap: this is a sticky or adhesive type of trap. Here glands on the leaves, or tentacles off-shooting from the leaves secrete sticky mucilage. Due to this secretion the prey sticks like glue. Different glands then secrete digestive enzymes to absorb the nutrients from the prey. This type of trap is commonly found in sundews, the Drosera species, or in butterwarts, Pinguicula species. Sundews actually make great houseplants, a terrarium can be made from old incandescent light bulbs and placed on windowsills. The Sundew needs the warmth of the terrarium, but once grown the sundews look amazing because the flower looks like a sunburst, and takes up the space of the bulb.

600px-Round-leaved_Sundew_(Drosera_rotundifolia)_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1058762

Drosera rotundifolia. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Lairich Rig.

The third is the Snap Trap: Probably the most famous of all traps due to the notoriety of Audrey 2. (“Feed me Seymour”). Here the trap resembles that of a bear trap, the leaves have modified to form a hinged trap with teeth-like barbs. On the inside of the trap nectar-secreting glands lure the prey into the trap, when the prey touches the teeth or barbs the trap closes in less than a second trapping the prey.  Digestive enzymes are secreted to break down the prey, which can then take up to a week. Venus flytraps are actually native to North and South Carolina and can also make wonderful houseplants.

Venus Fly Trap

Venus Fly Trap. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Tristan Gillingwater.

The Fourth mechanism for trapping prey is The Suction or Bladder Trap: these traps are only found in the genus Uticularia or bladderworts, this trap is found in very wet environments such as bogs or swamps. The trapping mechanism is usually found under the surface and cannot be seen. Here the prey is sucked into a bladder where a vacuum has been created by osmotic mechanisms. The trap contains a door that has hairs, when the prey makes contact with these hairs the trap door opens, the prey is sucked in, and then digested.

450px-Utricularia_vulgaris

Utricularia vulgaris. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Hans Hillewaert.

The Final type of Trap is the Lobster Pot Trap: These plants have twisted tubular channels usually found underground in very wet soils like swamps. They feed mainly on protozoa found in the water. The tubular channels are lined with nectar secreting glands that lure in the prey, the hairs in the channel then direct the prey further into the trap. Just as in a true lobster trap, or like getting caught in a maze, it is easy for the prey to find the entrance but difficult to find the exit. Once caught digestive enzymes consume the prey. This style of carnivorous plant can be seen in the Genlisea family. Some species of Carnivorous plants have actually been shown to posses anti-fungal agents in their secretions and studies are being done as to the viability for commercial or medicinal use.

800px-Genlisea_violacea

Genlisea violacea. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Denis Barthel.

Keeping a carnivorous plant is not as hard as one might think, although you must understand their species specific native habitats, which is usually quite wet, carnivorous plants can be grown indoors and out. In Vancouver there is a man who has sunk kiddy pools into his back yard simulating a bog, where he grows Pitcher Plants. Humidity can be simulated with spray bottles with the understanding that the water used, must usually be distilled, or rain water(which there is plenty of here in Vancouver).  Tap water often contains added nutrients, and has a pH content that carnivorous plants are not used to. A person can quite easily maintain these plants indoors or out.

Most carnivorous plants won’t die if they don’t get the nutrients from their prey, they just won’t grow as lush or sometimes propagate due to the lack of nutrients, but  freeze dried crickets from the pet store can do the trick. Ivan Snyder or aka Dr. Frankensnyder of the Los Angeles Carnivorous Plant society actually loves to study the feeding habits of Carnivorous plants, He feeds his plants fruit flies but he says that “theoretically you can raise carnivorous plants entirely on human blood” (Alimurong, 2013) to survive. Most Carnivorous plants go through a dormancy period, like many other species , that helps the plants to survive through some possibly chilling winters, which shows that carnivorous plants are actually quite hardy. It’s amazing to think that there are over 45 species native to North America, and that some of these grow quite well here in British Columbia.

Carnivorous plants look wondrous and possess  beautiful, colorful flowers and leaves that can add to the beauty of your home or garden. So maybe the next time you have a small rodent or insect problem you can use these natural, pesticide free, pest-controlling plants to get the job done. And, if all else fails you could always pop open a vein to help the little suckers out.

Works Cited:

(n.d.). Retrieved 11 30, 2013, from Wikimedia Commons: http://www.commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Main_Page

Alimurong, G. (2088, 08 10). Feed Me! Carnivorous Plants and the Bloody-Fingered People Who Love Them. Retrieved 12 8, 2013, from LA Weekly: http://www.laweekly.com/2008-09-11/la-life/feed-me-carnivorous-plants-and-the-bloody-fingered-people-who-love-them/full/

Brittnacher, J. (2013). What are Carnivorous Plants. Retrieved 11 30, 2103, from International Carnivorous Plant Society: http://www.carnivorousplants.org/cp/WhatAreCPs.php

Carnivorous Plants / Insectivorous Plants. (2013). Retrieved 11 30, 2103, from Botaniacal Society of America: http://www.botany.org./Carnivorous_Plants/

Carnivorous Plants. (2013). Retrieved 11 30, 2013, from Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia: http://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carnivorous_plant

Handini7. (2013, 08 03). MHow to make a Carnivorous Plant Terrarium inside a Light Bulb. Retrieved 12 8, 2013, from Carnivorous Plants: http//www.wn.com/carnivorous_plants

Hawaiian Botanicals. (2013). Retrieved 11 30, 2013, from Hawaiian Botanicals Website: http://www.hawaiianbotanicals.com/index.html

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