We often think of animals as the only carnivores on the planet, but a unique set of plant species has also evolved to feed on flesh. Carnivorous plants are devoted to eating meat and extracting nutrients from prey through a variety of trapping mechanisms. Like other plants, they use the sun’s energy for traditional photosynthesis, but carnivorous species are tenacious and thrive in areas where other plants struggle, including low-oxygen environments called bogs.
With nearly 200 different subspecies, Sundews (Drosera) are one of the largest groups of carnivorous plants. Their glistening tentacles sparkle in the sunlight, and this morning dew appearance attracts passersby that get stuck in the sticky hairs. As the victim struggles to escape, the triggered tentacles secrete more mucus, and the plant eventually liquefies its meal within a few days. Sundews attract certain pollinating insects for reproduction and other prey to feast on, and the two rarely overlap.
Venus fly traps (Dionaea muscipula) are one of only two types of active carnivorous plants, as they use a snapping mechanism to capture prey. Unlike a household mousetrap, the Venus fly trap can actually count and tell time to efficiently catch and consume a meal. Instead of wasting energy on falling raindrops or other inedible objects, the trap’s trigger hairs must be struck twice by prey within a 20-second time frame for the trap to snap shut. Then, the plant tracks the number of times the insect trips its tiny hairs before activating its digestive juices.
Pitcher plants can be found in a variety of forms and variations. They get their name from their gourd-shaped leaves, which act like a primitive stomach. Color, nectar, and a delicious scent lure insects into their tubular traps, where acid and enzymes dissolve their bodies, allowing the plant to absorb precious nutrients.
- Carnivorous plants use their flowers as bait to attract a meal and pollinators.
- Most carnivorous plants selectively feed on certain prey, depending on availability and the type of trapping mechanism used.
- Species can be found on every continent except Antarctica.
- Although they mostly dine on insects and other arthropods, the tropical pitcher plant grows large enough to consume small mammals and birds.
- Even though a Venus fly trap can snap shut in the blink of an eye, it can take up to a week for it to digest prey.
- Charles Darwin was a fan of carnivorous plants, especially sundews. While working on his book Insectivorous Plants, Darwin wrote to a colleague, “I care more about Drosera than the origin of all the species in the world.”
If you’re looking to upgrade your plant collection with carnivorous species, here are a few basic care tips from our horticulture experts.
- Carnivorous plants thrive in full sun, so keep them by a bright window with optimal light.
- If you’re repotting, be sure to use a half peat, half sand soil mixture.
- Place your potted plant in a water tray with distilled water and keep the tray wet. The plant will wick up water from the bottom of the pot, so traditional watering is not necessary. Don’t let your tray dry out for more than a day, and don’t use tap water.
- Carnivorous plants go dormant from November until late March, so don’t worry when your plants look a bit sluggish during the lazy season.
- Fertilize your plants with a very diluted orchid fertilizer about once a month.
Stop by Garden Festival this weekend, and pick up a trap or two. You can also purchase certain species online or at your local nursery. If you just want to admire flesh-eating plants from afar, check out the Zoo’s Bog Garden, located in the Monkey Trails habitat.