When you were in middle school science class (if you weren’t sleeping or trying to get the attention of your latest crush), you probably learned about a complex chemical and biological reaction called photosynthesis. Even if you thought that science is for geeks, photosynthesis is pretty cool.
Photosynthesis means “create out of light.” “Photo” means “light” (like a photograph, a “light picture”), and “synthesis” means “to put something together” (like when a DJ uses a synthesizer to create musical sounds). Are you able to generate energy out of light? No, which means plants are way cooler than you.
You may know that your body is composed of many different cells that carry out various functions. Red blood cells transport oxygen throughout your body. Immune cells fight off pathogenic invaders, and skin cells protect you from harmful UV rays and other environmental agents that could harm you. And inside each of those cells are organelles, which carry out metabolic functions inside the cell.
Plants have differentiated cells, too, which carry out different functions to keep the plant alive and thriving. And inside their cells are organelles called chloroplasts. Chloroplasts capture the energy that comes in from the sun, convert that energy into a form that the plant can use, and store it.
That’s basically what photosynthesis is – the process of taking the energy that comes in from the sun and turning it into a form of energy that plants can use. If you think that solar panels – which also convert energy from the sun into energy that can heat your home or fuel your car – are cool, plants were photosynthesizing way before solar panels.
Chlorophyll is a pigment contained inside the chloroplasts. It captures the light energy and, in the process, converts carbon dioxide into oxygen. So photosynthesis is a fancy word for how plants breathe, and how they do another neat trick: pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and creating the oxygen that we breathe.
When you breathe in, you take in a large number of gasses, including the oxygen that you need to survive and nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and other gases. When you breathe out, you expel the carbon dioxide that is a by-product of cellular processes.
Plants breathe, too. When they photosynthesize, they take the carbon dioxide that we breathe out (and also that our cars, airplanes, and other industrial machines emit) and convert it into oxygen. Without plants, we would be dead. Even if you don’t like eating vegetables, you need plants to live.
Photosynthesis, or plant respiration, helps keep the air clean by pulling out the carbon dioxide that we humans have emitted in large quantities. The problems created by carbon dioxide are immense – not only are we changing the chemical composition of the atmosphere, but we are also causing the Earth to heat up.
Plants are our friends. They clean that nasty excess carbon dioxide out of the air and use it to help them grow! They help draw excess carbon dioxide into the ground, where it is no longer causing our climate to break down through global warming. We need lots and lots more plants!
Fungi don’t count as plants because they absorb their nutrients from the soil exclusively. They don’t have chloroplasts, and they don’t have chlorophyll, so they are unable to create their energy from the sun. Plants also absorb nutrients from the soil; anyone who has gardened knows that you need to keep the soil nutrient-rich to have a healthy garden.
However, in addition to getting nutrients from the soil, plants get their energy from the sun. Through photosynthesis, they breathe in carbon dioxide and, while converting the sunlight into a form of energy that they can use, breathe out oxygen. Thank you, plants!
Some Plants Do More Than Photosynthesize And Respirate
Okay, photosynthesis is not the only thing that plants do. It’s a cool thing that they do, but it is not the only thing. Plenty of plants grow flowers, emitting a sweet (or sometimes not-so-sweet) fragrance. In some plants, those flowers turn into berries, apples, and other types of fruit that we can eat.
Plants also reproduce by generating seeds, which either become food or become a new generation of plants. And some plants do some downright strange stuff. You may have guessed that these are the carnivorous plants. They’re weird.
Carnivorous plants eat meat. That’s right; they eat meat. They get energy and nutrients from the soil, and they also generate energy from sunlight through photosynthesis. And they capture prey and eat it. Not big prey, mind you. There are not any plants on this planet that eat moose or bears.
But they do eat bugs and sometimes tiny amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. So they may eat spiders, mosquitoes (thank you, plants, for eating the mosquitoes!), little frogs and lizards, and mice who may venture too close.
If you have ever been to a carnival, you may be surprised that the root word for carnival – “carna” – actually means “meat.” Carnivals were originally (and some might argue that they still are) pretty crass, vulgar events where people acted like animals and showed their carnal – what the Medieval church would have called their “worldly” – side.
“Vore” means “eat.” A herbivore eats fruits and vegetables, an omnivore eats a combination of fruits, vegetables, and meat, and a carnivore eats meat. Calling some plants “carnivorous” may be a bit of a misnomer because they do not only eat meat. But the fact that they do eat meat causes them to stand apart from other plants.
Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning that they have to eat meat. Nearly their entire diet has to consist of meat because their dietary needs can only be met that way. Their meat-based diets can be supplemented with some fruits and vegetables, but they are primarily carnivores.
Humans can survive (and often do) without eating meat, and many humans eat both meat and plants. Yet humans are generally considered omnivores because they don’t primarily eat meat. Some carnivores, such as snakes or even the extinct T-Rex ate some plants, but plants are the exception. Meat is the rule.
You may be tempted to think that carnivorous plants are cannibals, meaning that they eat each other, but that is not true. In a sense, it is true that when plants die, they decompose and form a new layer of soil. That soil nourishes a new generation of plants, who derive their nutrients from it.
Nevertheless, carnivorous plants consume meat to supplement their nutrient intake from the soil and the sunlight. They don’t go out and hunt meat; usually, the meat comes to them.
Yep, plants that eat meat. And you thought that you had seen everything. Nope, this one probably takes the cake. They defy what you may think you know about the food chain – plants convert sunlight into energy and are consumed by animals, including humans.
But some plants have turned the food chain around so that they are consuming insects, spiders, and small animals. The idea does not make sense. However, these things do exist, and if you want to, you can probably find a way to visit a garden or other location where they grow.
You may be tempted to think that carnivorous plants come straight out of a fantasy or science fiction story, like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, or Star Trek. Maybe Merlin created them when he was training King Arthur, or the crew of the Enterprise came upon them while visiting some distant planet that is entirely different from our own.
All we can say is that carnivorous plants are weird. And they are also really, really real. Sure, there are probably stories about carnivorous plants in fantasy and science fiction stories, but the ones we are talking about here actually grow on Earth. You may have already seen some.
Carnivorous Plants Usually Live In Nutrient-Poor Soil
Plants generate energy from the sun through photosynthesis, and they also derive many of their nutrients from the soil. Farmers, in particular, know the importance of making sure that the dirt has plenty of nutrients for the plants to grow and produce a healthy crop.
What happens when the soil does not have a good enough nutrient quality? Farmers and gardeners supplement the land with things like fertilizer and compost. Carnivorous plants usually live in nutrient-poor soil, so they cannot get what they need from the ground. And they don’t have caretakers adding in extra nutrients. So what are they to do?
Since Carnivorous Plants Don’t Get What They Need From The Soil, They Get It From Insects And Small Animals
Yep, since these plants do not get sufficient nutrition from the ground and the sunlight they convert into energy, they eat meat. When you think about it this way, carnivorous plants are suddenly much less strange. They kind of make sense.
While there are humans who are vegans, meaning that they do not eat any animal products, most humans are unable to get the nutrition that they need without some animal products (not necessarily meat, but things like dairy and eggs). And plants that are unable to get the nutrition that they need do the same thing.
Don’t Worry; You Won’t Get Attacked By Killer Plants
Carnivorous plants are much less scary than they seem. Many of them are small enough to grow in a regular flower pot, and no, they don’t suddenly grow in size and start attacking puppies and children in the middle of the night.
Carnivorous plants pose no threat to humans. They are not poisonous to touch, and they are not big enough to consume an entire person. They are not big enough to eat a finger. No, you won’t get eaten by killer plants. Mosquitoes, yes, and good riddance. Spiders, yes. Puppies, no. People, absolutely not.
Most carnivorous plants are less than a foot tall. Many are significantly shorter, and some even spread out like lichens. Granted, if they were maybe 100 times larger, they would be pretty scary, and you would not want one around. And if they were like some of the plants in Harry Potter, like the devil’s snare… No, thanks.
But depending on where you live, you could probably keep a few carnivorous plants in your house. You might even appreciate how they decrease the excess mosquito population! They won’t eat you alive, and they aren’t guarding any magical stones that Albus Dumbledore has been hiding.
To get eaten by a carnivorous plant, you would have to shrink yourself down so that you are only about an inch tall. Then you would have to have somebody drop you directly into the mouth of the carnivorous plant.
What, they don’t go roaming around looking for prey? No, they are rooted to the ground. They only eat things that fall into their mouths. After all, they are plants. Their roots draw nutrients up out of the soil, and their leaves photosynthesize sunlight into energy. Moreover, they do that awesome magic trick of converting carbon dioxide into oxygen.
The Most Well-Known Carnivorous Plant Is Probably The Venus Flytrap
You may have heard of the Venus flytrap, probably the most famous of all the carnivorous plants. It grows in the American South, particularly in North and South Carolina, but can be found in greenhouses and botanical gardens worldwide.
The Venus flytrap is a small flowering plant that has lobe-like features, which serve as its mouth. When an unsuspecting insect ventures onto one of the lobes, it stimulates some of the plant’s hair and causes it to secrete a reddish sap to digest the unfortunate critter. The lobe closes around the insect, and the plant spends about ten days digesting it.
Butterworts live in many different climates, ranging from the Arctic tundra of Siberia (which can become quite pleasant during the summer months, when the snow melts) to the much warmer weather of Central and South America. The common butterwort thrives in bogs, which are like swamps – very wet.
If you have ever used fly paper to try to catch those pesky little critters that may circle your living room, you can easily understand how butterworts trap their prey. They secrete a sticky substance, which traps unsuspecting bugs that land on the plant. They then secrete digestive enzymes to digest the insect and absorb nutrients from it.
Like the Venus flytrap, the waterwheel has lobes that serve as mouths for little critters that get too close. When a small fish or other marine animal finds its way to one of those lobes, it closes and traps the animal inside. The waterwheel then secretes digestive enzymes to digest its prey.
Waterwheels thrive in marine environments across the Americas, Europe, and Africa. This free-floating plant is considered endangered, so international organizations are taking measures to preserve its existence for future generations.
Roundleaf sundews are wildflowers that look a bit like dandelions, once they turn to the cotton-ish fluff (the kind that children like to blow into the wind). Each brightly colored “petal” looks like a hair that is tipped with dew, making it attractive to insects and other critters that may get a little bit too curious.
That “dew” is a sticky secretion that traps bugs that find themselves on it. Similar to getting caught in a spider’s web, they cannot get out. The roundleaf sundew then secretes digestive enzymes that draw the nutrients out of the prey. Yum, yum.
The “mouth” of a yellow pitcher is different from the lobes of the famous (or infamous) Venus flytrap and its underwater cousin, the waterwheel. And unlike butterworts and roundleaf sundews, the yellow pitcher doesn’t trap its prey with sticky secretions.
Instead, this carnivorous plant has a long “pitcher” for a mouth, and unfortunate bugs and small creatures fall into it. To attract them, the yellow pitcher produces a sweet nectar-like substance; once they fall in, trying to get the nectar, the yellow pitcher digests its meal.
Dewy pines live in the dry, desert regions of Spain, Portugal, and Morocco. Where it lives, the soil is generally too poor to provide for all of the plants’ needs, so it makes up for that nutrient deficit by eating bugs. It has many spiny leaves, which look a little bit like arms.
Those leaves are covered with a sticky substance. The dewy pine releases an aromatic scent to attract insects, and the insects then get stuck on the leaves. The plant then digests the insects to absorb their nutrients.
In case you were wondering, no, these aren’t the kinds of bladders that you empty when you go to the bathroom. A bladder can refer to any sac that releases water, not just the organ that stores urine. Bladderworts are water-based plants that have bladders that serve as mouths to help them eat their prey.
These aquatic plants may eat fleas, insects and insect larvae, marine worms, and other small creatures that venture too close. Though there are hundreds of different kinds of bladderworts, they generally live in the northern hemisphere.
If you have ever seen a picture of a snake charmer trying to lure a cobra, you may be familiar with the image of a snake hood that can flare up whenever the cobra feels threatened or is going to attack. Cobra lilies have a similar hood – and they look like cobras!
And given that they eat meat, they act a bit like cobras, too. Cobra lilies secrete a sweet nectar-like substance to attract their prey, which then gets trapped inside. However, just to confuse the prey, the plant is translucent, so the bug can see outside, like looking through a window, but can’t get out! Downward-pointing hairs inside the plant prevent the prey from being able to escape.
Brocchinia Reducta Uses Bacteria To Digest Insects
Brocchinia reducta lives mostly in South America, particularly in Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, and Guyana. Its whorl-type leaves somewhat resemble the top part of a pineapple (or the bottom part, if you consider the way that pineapples grow).
The leaves are filled with water, and they attract insects. Unlike other carnivorous plants, brocchinia reducta does not produce digestive enzymes. Instead, it relies on symbiotic processes with bacteria. Symbiotic processes are those in which two animals (or in this case, a plant and bacteria) depend on each other.
Most carnivorous plants feed on tiny prey, sometimes as small as fleas, not usually more substantial than little spiders. Nevertheless, pitcher plants (the family includes the yellow pitcher) get to be considerably larger and have broader dietary needs. Moreover, to meet those nutritional needs, they eat bigger prey.
Monkey cups are a type of pitcher plant, and they live in parts of Asia through Australia, along with the African island of Madagascar. Larger monkey cups consume vertebrate animals, including rats. They might also consume other small amphibians and reptiles that fall into their pitchers.
“10 of the most fascinating carnivorous plants.” MSN News. May 28, 2019.