Trees and plants always look like
the people they live with, somehow.
~ Zora Neale Hurston
Darwin wrote a book about carnivorous plants, Insectivorous Plants (1875), noting, “THIS plant, commonly called Venus' fly-trap, from the rapidity and force of its movements, is one of the most wonderful in the world” (CHAPTER XIII).
Mr. Jefferson was a bit obsessed with obtaining Venus flytrap seeds. On the Monticello website, there are eight letters cited showing Jefferson writing about or inquiring about the seeds.
Illustration from Curtis's Botanical Magazine by William Curtis (1746–1799)
Considering that I do not eat meat, it strikes me as a bit funny that I bought a carnivorous plant this weekend. Perhaps it was a case of nostalgia. I have not had a Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula), since I was a kid. When I saw them displayed at the greenhouse,
I added one to my cart.
The reason that Venus flytraps are so fascinating to young people (and people like Darwin, Jefferson, and me :p) is that these plants trap and eat bugs and flies. They’re native to the East Coast of the United States and you can find them in nature just south of here in the Carolinas. In fact, the Venus flytrap is the “State Carnivorous Plant” Of North Carolina. I’m not sure if my childhood experience of finding the little plants practically everywhere in the summer is a common experience for all kids in the U.S. or if it’s regional.
For starters, the reason that the plant eats bugs is because its native environment, the bogs, lacks both nitrogen and phosphorus. The consumption of insects helps balance the nutrients for the plants.
Its common name refers to the Roman goddess of love. The genus name, Dionaea or "daughter of Dione" refers to the Greek goddess Aphrodite. Muscipula is Latin for "mousetrap". From just a wee bit of research, I learned that early explorers were reminded of female genitalia when they saw Venus flytraps so this may have led to the naming of the plant. There are so many things I could say about this but I’m just going to leave it at that.
These little guys get even stranger. They actually tolerate fire and even depend on it to reduce the competition.
Wait! Even stranger, they, like some other carnivorous plants, have a blue glow. I am not making up this stuff, people! “The blue glow was revealed on the inner sides of Venus flytraps when scanned at UV 366nm. And distinct blue fluorescence appeared on the lids, interior pitcher tubes and peristomes (upper rims) of pitcher plants” (BBC Nature 2013).
They will digest human flesh, although it is not their food of choice so it isn’t like you’re going to lose a body part to these plants.
Aside from all the odd features of these plants, the Venus flytrap is at risk of extinction in the wild. Last year, there were fewer than 33,000 know plants in the wild. In 2014, North Carolina passed legislation to classify the theft of naturally growing Venus flytraps a felony in some counties. “Over the past decades The Nature Conservancy has managed to protect flytraps from development and fire-suppression schemes. Poaching, however, has remained a persistent problem.”
With the organization working to fight poachers, hopefully these plants will be around for many more generations to come.