What are carnivorous plants? Are they man-eating plants to be avoided or can they make an attractive and useful addition to your garden or interior? Well, you can breathe a sigh of relief, because no human or pet animal has yet been swallowed alive by a carnivorous plant. In fact, when you get to know them a little better, you may find that you want to have some carnivorous plants in and around your home.
What are Carnivorous Plants?
The definition of a carnivorous plant can be a little frightening. They are "carnivores" (meat eaters) and larger varieties of carnivorous plants that exist in ideal climates can and do eat animals as large as rodents and lizards. However, most of the varieties available in Australia thrive on the insects we could use a lot fewer of, such as flies, mosquitoes and the occasional spider.
Three characteristics define carnivorous plants:
- They capture and kill prey.
- They have a means of digestion.
- They extract nutrients from their captured prey.
Since they cannot chase their prey like an animal can, carnivorous plants have to attract prey to them and/or have some sort of mechanism that captures any insect or animal that accidentally decides to use them as a perch. Some have brightly coloured leaves that lure insects, others lure them with their nectar while still others have trapping mechanisms. In fact, the very things that make carnivorous plants so deadly to insects are what make them so fascinating to us.
Some Popular Varieties of Carnivorous Plants
When the uninitiated (most of us) think of carnivorous plants, we immediately think of the Venus flytrap (dionaea muscipula). A native of the south-eastern states of the US, these have fascinated children for generations and have played a starring role as "man eaters" in more than one feature film. However, there are other equally fascinating species as well:
- In Australia, we have the Victorian drosera. Sometimes still called drosera whittakeri, this is a variety of sundew that produces a lovely white flower. It grows prolifically throughout Victoria, but can also be found in neighbouring New South Wales and South Australia. Victorian drosera produce a sticky musilage that entraps insects. The leaves then curl around the prey and the digestive process begins.
- Sarracenia leucophylla, commonly known as white pitcher plant, is another native to the United States. It gets its name from its red and white tipped pitcher or flower vase appearance. It closely resembles a beautiful, nectar-rich flower, which is exactly what unsuspecting moths think it is until they get caught on its sticky surface. Demand for these is so great they have to be protected against illegal poaching in places where they grow wild.
Cultivating Carnivorous Plants in the Home
Carnivorous plants evolved out of a need for nutrients in nutrient poor soils. When cultivating them in and around the house, this is the most important thing to keep in mind. Unlike other plants, they require a regular source of food. Outdoors, they thrive in the summer months when flies and insects are freely available and then go dormant through the colder winter months, when their food sources diminish.
Indoors, you have two choices: either place your carnivorous plants on a windowsill or other sunny location that attracts insects or hand-feed them. Most home owners prefer the former method and find that not only are they a beautiful addition to the home, they do their bit to keep insects at a minimum.
The soil you use should as closely resemble their native soil as possible. A combination of sand, peat and sphagnum moss is ideal and the soil should be kept moist. Pitcher plants love the morning sun and do well in hanging baskets outdoors.
If there is one thing you need to fear about carnivorous plants, it is that you will become so fascinated by them you will want to have more of them around you!