Carnivorous Plants Guide – Fascinating Meat-Eating Plants

Carnivorous plants guide

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When you think about feeding your plants, you probably imagine adding some fertilizer to the soil. But there are some plants that actually eat meat! Yes, there are lots of species of carnivorous plants and they’re truly fascinating. Let’s go on a journey to discover more about these amazing plants.

Why Do Carnivorous Plants Eat Meat?

Why do carnivorous plants eat meat
Venus Fly Trap, One of the Most Well Known Types of Carnivorous Plants Uses a Snap Trap Mechanism to Capture its Prey

It’s amazing to think that plants would have evolved to eat meat, but there are some good reasons as to why this happened. It’s believed that this particular types of plants are around 72 million years old, much younger than other plants like ferns which are around 400 million years old.

These carnivorous plants would have developed a new way of getting nutrition because their natural environment was nutritionally poor. The soil in these areas would not have been very beneficial and certainly couldn’t support plant life without an outside source; the solution? The plants evolved to become meat-eaters.

What’s fascinating is how this happened. There was a gene within the plants that were originally designed to aid root growth but this was repurposed, allowing the plant to catch prey using various types of mechanisms.

How do Carnivorous Plants Digest Their Prey?

How do carnivorous plants digest their prey
Carnivorous Plants Use Enzymes to Break Down Insects That They Capture

While you and I digest food in a way that is very familiar to us, carnivorous plants, sometimes called insectivorous plants, work in a very different way. But one thing that is similar is the use of digestive enzymes.

These enzymes break down any insects that are caught in the plant, allowing it to absorb all of the essential nutrients. This essentially turns the prey into a stew but there are some plants that rely on symbiotic bacteria to break down the prey.

Types of Trapping Mechanisms of Meat-Eating Plants

Tropical Pitchers Use a Pitfall Trap to Lure Insects into the Plant

Not all carnivorous plants catch their prey in the same way. Each one has its mechanism and way of enticing prey which makes them all the more fascinating.

Pitfall Trap

The pitfall trap is a structure made from the leaves of the plant which are shaped like a pitcher. Around the edges of this, there is nectar which the plant uses to attract its prey. However, there is also a slippery substance around the edge of the trap which causes the insects to slip in, thus rendering them dinner.

Flypaper Trap

The leaves of these types of plants are covered in stalks that have a mucilage coating. When an insect lands on them, they become stuck, and the more they struggle, the more coated they will become. Typically, an insect will suffocate and some plants help this along through the use of tentacles that wrap around the victim once it is caught.

Snap Trap

If you are familiar with any carnivorous plant, it’s probably the venus flytrap which uses the snap trap mechanism. The leaves of the plant are covered in sensory hairs. When an insect lands on the leaves and the hairs are triggered, this causes the leaves to snap shut around the prey.

Bladder Suction Trap

This type of trap is unique to the bladderwort, as the name suggests. The leaves form the shape of a bladder which is covered in small sensory hairs. There is a ‘trap door’ at the top which will close when the hairs are triggered by a landing insect which then falls into a pool of water inside the bladder.

Lobster-Pot Trap

Plants that use the lobster pot trap usually look like innocent root systems. These ‘roots’ are covered in tiny hairs and slits which single celled organisms can fit inside. Once they are lured in, the plant uses its tiny hairs to move the prey into the digestive bladder.

How Many Species of Meat Eating Plants are there?

Sundews are One of the Largest Groups of Carnivorous Plants with Over 100 Species

It was Darwin that initiated the study of meat-eating plants and more than 125 years down the line, his pioneering research has allowed scientists to continue studying these plants. As it stands, researchers have discovered more than 630 different types of carnivorous plants from around the world.

While you might think that these seem like exotic plants, they’re actually found all over the globe apart from Antarctica. However, regardless of the continent or country, most carnivorous plants prefer moist, boggy areas alongside bodies of water. The terrain may be grassy, rocky, or sandy.

The one thing that all carnivorous plants have in common, despite their habitat, is that the soil is usually sterile and other plant life would never be able to grow in it. 

Can Carnivorous Plants Overeat?

Can carnivorous plants overeat?
Round-Leaved Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia)

Just like humans, it is possible for a carnivorous plant to overeat. If you are caring for one of these plants, you won’t typically need to give it more than a couple of insects each month. While it can be fascinating to watch the plant feeding, too much can make it sick or even kill it.

You can tell when a carnivorous plant has overeaten because it will lose much of its energy and vigor. Where you would normally be able to see it digesting bugs, it would now not make any attempt to do this. It’s important to only offer one insect at a time and wait for that to be fully digested otherwise the plant will become sluggish.

Can Carnivorous Plants Live Without Bugs?

Butterwort Leaf Close-Up Showing the Digestive Fluids That Are Secreted to Trap Insects

Generally speaking, a carnivorous plant does need bugs for nutrition. However, some plants, like the venus flytrap, can go for a few months without any bugs. Whether or not this is possible for individual plants largely relies on how well cared for they are. In some cases, you can keep carnivorous plants without ever having to give them insects.

This can only be done by using soil that contains nutrients to sustain the plant. However, you should never use regular plant food as this can burn the sensitive roots and harm your plant. Composting tea mixed with rainwater is an excellent option but never use composting tea on its own as this can be just as damaging as plant food.

It’s also important to ensure your plant stays well-watered, but natural water like rainwater and melted snow is the best option as tap water can be too harsh.

Do Carnivorous Plants Prefer Certain Types of Insects?

Can carnivorous plants live without bugs
Cape Sundew (Drosera capensis)

Carnivorous plants are amazing in so many ways, and one of these ways is that they can determine which insects are food and which ones are pollinators. Typically, these plants would have their flowers higher up where pollinators would land while their traps are located near to the ground. This allows crawling insects to become trapped.

Moreover, they use different attractions for different purposes. For example, the flowers contain pollen and nectar, while the traps constrain certain scents to attract prey. That said, from time to time, a carnivorous plant may accidentally eat one of its pollinators, but it’s not at all beneficial to it.

Types of Carnivorous Plants

There are thought to be around 630 species of carnivorous plants. While we can’t list them all here, we’d like to introduce you to some of the most interesting ones.

Venus Fly Trap (Dionaea muscipula)

Venus Fly Trap (Dionaea muscipula) carnivorous plant
Venus Fly Trap (Dionaea muscipula)

The venus fly trap is potentially one of the most well-known carnivorous plants which can be found in bogs and swampy areas where the soil nutrient content is low. These plants are found in North and South Carolina. They’re small plants that grow up to about five inches.

They use a snap trap mechanism so when an insect lands on the leaves, tiny hairs are triggered, causing the leaves to close around the prey. Surprisingly, the plant does use photosynthesis for many dietary requirements but it needs insects as a source of nitrogen. It takes around five days to digest an insect, after which time, the leaves will open again so that the plant can discard the insect shell.

Tropical Pitcher (Nepenthes spp.)

Tropical Pitcher (Nepenthes spp.) is a carnivorous plant
Hooker’s Pitcher Plant

Tropical pitchers are sometimes called monkey cups and they can be found growing in tropical regions of countries like Sumatra, Malaysia, and Borneo as well as in other parts of Southeast Asia. They get their nickname because monkeys are often seen using the plants to drink from.

The tropical pitcher uses water in its ‘cups’ which are covered in nectar that attracts its prey. Once the insects land on the plant, they fall into these cups where they are digested. Insects would have a hard time getting out as the inside of the cups is lined with a slippery substance making it almost impossible to climb out.

One species of the tropical pitcher, the nepenthes rajah is known as the largest meat-eating plant in the world and can grow up to six meters! Rather than just eating insects, this plant will also prey on frogs, birds, and rodents. However, the mountain shrew is exempt from being eaten as it helps the plant by pooping in the cups after eating the nectar to give the plant a nitrogen boost.

There’s also the nepenthes lowii which is one of 100 species of tropical pitchers. Unfortunately, like many others, it is considered endangered due to poachers working for the rare plant trade.

West Australian Pitcher Plant (Cephalotus)

West Australian Pitcher (Cephalotus) carnivorous plant
Australian Pitcher Plant (Cephalotus)

The Land Down Under is home to all sorts of weird and wonderful flora and fauna, and the West Australian pitcher plant is no exception. What’s really special about it is that it is one of the smallest types of pitcher plants with cups that rarely exceed 1 ½ inches.

What’s more, there are one species of the Western Australian pitcher that’s known to be exceptionally rare owing to its very dark coloration. Unlike many other types of meat-eating plants, this one not only has traps but also regular leaves. However, just like other pitchers, the cups contain digestive fluids and water which dissolves their prey allowing the plant to absorb all the goodness.

Cobra Lily/California Pitcher Plant (Darlingtonia californica)

California Pitcher Plant (Darlingtonia californica)
Cobra Lily (Darlingtonia californica)

The cobra lily is found in northern parts of California and southern parts of Oregon, specifically. This is primarily a pitcher-type plant with leaves that have formed a shape not all that dissimilar from a cobra, hence its name.

The leaves are covered in nectar to attract prey. But what makes this a truly effective botanical hunter is that the cups contain a series of false exits which are used to wear the victim out before it is digested.

Sun Pitcher (Heliamphora)

Sun Pitcher (Heliamphora) carnivorous plant
Sun Pitcher (Heliamphora)

Sun pitchers are a close relative of the cobra lily but are found in South America and not North America. Most commonly, they’re found in Guyana but there are some in Venezuela and Brazil. There are more than 20 species of sun pitchers and these plants use pitfall traps in deep, rich colors that attract prey.

What sets the sun pitcher apart from other closely related plants are the non-petalled white flowers and the presence of a nectar spoon above the opening of the trap.

North American Trumpet Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia spp.)

North American Trumpet Pitcher (Sarracenia spp.) meat-eating plant
Green Pitcher (Sarracenia oreophila)

Another plant that uses a pitfall trap mechanism to ensnare its victims in a cup filled with water and digestive fluids is the North American Trumpet Pitcher. These plants have funnel-shaped leaves coated with nectar that lures in prey.

They’re found in several places throughout North America such as the western US, Canada, and around the Texas lakes. They prefer wetland locations and sadly two subspecies are now classed as endangered.

The North American trumpet pitcher is well adapted to its environment and has a ‘hood’ over the top of the pitcher to prevent it from becoming flooded with water in rainy seasons.

Sundew (Drosera spp.)

Sundew (Drosera spp.) carnivorous plant
Round-Leaved Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia)

The sundew plant uses a flypaper-style mechanism to capture its prey. It has several coated stalks that protrude out and when you look at them, it looks like each one has a tiny droplet of fluid on the end. This digestive fluid is sticky and will therefore snare any insect that lands on it. When the plant feels movement, it releases its tentacles which wrap around the insect.

It’s not uncommon to find sundews inhabiting the same places as pitcher plants, usually right alongside them. They’ll grow around bogs and swamps and are found in many places around the US although they are also common in Australia.

Butterworts (Pinguicula spp.)

Butterworts (Pinguicula spp.) carnivorous plant
Common Butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris)

Butterworts are perhaps one of the most widespread carnivorous plants with more than 80 varieties that are found all around the world. In the US, they are common in moist areas like swamps, bogs, and even in rock crevices. They are sometimes called the marsh violet and are pollinated by hummingbirds.

The leaves at the base of the plant have glands that secrete digestive fluids and are sticky so that an insect is trapped once it lands on them. As the insect struggles, more fluid is secreted, making it even harder to escape.

Brocchinia Reducta (Brocchinia reducta)

Brocchinia Reducta (Brocchinia reducta) carnivorous plant
KENPEI / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

The brocchinia reducta is actually from the same species of plants that contains pineapples, although there are only three carnivorous species within this family. One of the most interesting characteristics of this plant is that it has leaves that reflect UV light, which helps to attract prey.

They are found in various locations throughout South America, particularly Venezuela, Guyana, Brazil, and Columbia. As well as using UV light to lure in prey, it also uses a sweet scent and once the insects come, they are trapped in the rosette of leaves that contains water and digestive fluid.

Waterwheel (Aldrovanda vesiculosa)

Waterwheel (Aldrovanda vesiculosa) carnivorous plant
Waterwheel (Aldrovanda vesiculosa)

Many people would agree that the waterwheel is just an aquatic version of the well-known venus fly trap. It uses the same snap trap mechanism and does have a very similar appearance. But the main difference is that this one lives underwater. You’ll find them in lakes and other similar bodies in many places across the world including Australia, Asia, and Europe.

The waterwheel is rootless and simply floats around the body of water at the surface, attracting insects and bugs. When a bug comes along, the plant snaps shut at an astonishing rate, completing the action in 100th of a second!

Bladderwort (Utricularia spp.)

Bladderwort (Utricularia spp.) carnivorous plant
Common Bladderwort (Utricularia vulgaris)

Another aquatic species, the bladderwort is a free-floating plant that boasts beautiful bright yellow flowers. You will normally find them in more acidic shallow water and they can grow anywhere in the world, provided there’s water. The only place where there haven’t been any recorded bladderworts is Antarctica as well as a few islands in the South Pacific.

What’s truly fascinating about the bladderwort is that the bladders are no bigger than a pinhead but they work at super speed, trapping prey in a fraction of a second. They feed on small crustaceans and mosquito larvae, among other things.

Dewy Pine (Drosophyllum Lusitanicum)

Dewy Pine (Drosophyllum Lusitanicum) carnivorous plant
incidencematrix / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

If there’s a plant out there that has a unique way of attracting prey, it’s the dewy pine. It emits honey as a way of luring in prey which then gets stuck to the sticky substance secreted by the plant. They work in a similar way to sundews but are known not to be as powerful.

The dewy pine is very specifically located in Portugal, Morocco, and Spain although it can be grown at home provided it is given plenty of water when it is a juvenile. However, as an adult plant, it needs very little water and is unlike other carnivorous plants in that it will still thrive in dry soil.

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