Day 383: The Salad That Eats You Back

originally published January 17, 2013

One of the easiest tropes to weave into a horror story is to make people afraid of something so innocuous and commonplace, it would be unfathomable for it ever to pose a threat. Like a motel operator who’s big into taxidermy. Or a janitor who happens to like to play with razor-blade fingers. Or – more legitimately – a plant.

Whilst listening to my vegetarian friends drone on about the evils of eating meat, I often get bored and fantasize about ribs slathered in barbecue sauce. Yes, I eat meat, other animals eat meat, but there are oft-forgotten plants who also crave a bit of the flesh. I suppose I could consider myself fortunate to live in a part of the northern tundra where the only trees that grow wild seem to be Christmas-looking trees or trees that produce Canada-flag-looking leaves. None of them have ever tried to eat me, or if they have, their efforts have been so pathetically minimal, it would be embarrassing for them to admit it.

The closest I’ve ever come to a meat-eating plant has been this thing:

But meat-eating plants exist – 630 species of them. I’d like to say that they’re growing in number and getting organized in some of the more dense urban centers of the country, but that would be irresponsible fear-mongering, which I try to avoid doing on Thursdays.

These it-beasts tend to grow in lousy soil, the kind with less nutrients than a three-day-old Big Mac. You’ll see them sticking out of rock outcroppings or lulling about in a bog, craving sweet, sweet nitrogen like a wino craves a twist-off cap. And what the soil won’t provide, these plants will harvest from the tender flesh of a fresh kill.

If you come across one of these in the wild, PLEASE avoid the temptation to make use of them as a ‘natural’ condom. That’s a pitcher plant, and it’s a wonderfully devious device. Inside that pocket-like fold lies a little splash of liquid. If you happen to be an insect fluttering by, and you get drawn in by the tempting honey gland that acts as the plant’s ‘lid’, then the liquid inside will taste like cool refreshing death-water.

The rim of the pitcher is slippery, so even flies with their sticky little feet can stumble into the trap. Some pitcher plants have built-in security systems, like waxy scales or sharp little hairs that keep the bugs from clambering back to the surface. The bugs drown in the liquid, then the plant consumes them.

But wait, it gets even more science-fictiony than that. Some pitcher plants have mutualistic insect larvae actually living inside their… gullet. These larvae eat the trapped bug, then poop it out. The plants then absorb the nutrients inside the cannibalized bug-poop. How no one has written a children’s book about these things, I have no idea.

If you have a pet fly, and if you value its life (though honestly if you don’t, you have no business keeping one as a pet), please advise him/her/it to stay away from this plant. This is the drosera capensis, and it works just like flypaper. When a bug lands on its adhesive leaf, the leaf folds inward, lengthwise at first. Then it curls overtop – all this within a span of about a half hour – and feeds on the insect, Sarlacc-style.

These plants are native to South Africa, and because they are pretty, people have brought them elsewhere, messing up ecosystems in their wake. New Zealand has this plant on their Pest List of invasive species. Authorities have been given the order to employ lethal force if they spot one of these plants trying to swim ashore.

I really like the Venus Flytrap. Not only does it give me yet another opportunity to post a photo of Tim Reid on WKRP In Cincinnati, but these plants also crush vile spiders between their mighty jaws. That notion brings me joy. Actually, 95% of a Venus Flytrap’s diet consists of things that don’t fly: spiders, grasshoppers, ants and beetles.

Only a small handful of plants are capable of what we would call fast movement, and the Flytrap is one of them. Bugs have got to be careful wandering around these things (which grow natively in a pocket along the eastern US coastline). When at least two trigger hairs on its open membrane are tickled, you’re looking at an eviction notice of about a tenth of a second, otherwise you’ll find yourself promoted from bug to entrée.

The plant was also known by another name: ‘tipitiwitchet’, or ‘tippity twitchet’. According to two sources, this might be an oblique reference to the fact that the plant sort of physically resembles female genitalia. I want to be friends with the guy who, after I’ve been on a date, asks me if I “got into her tippity twitchet.” He’d be a fun guy to know.

Utricularia, or as they get called by the other plants behind their backs, Bladderworts, are a water-based carnivore, feeding on water fleas, fish fry (not fried fish – I checked), tadpoles and mosquito larvae. These flowers are the equivalent of the guy you accidentally bump into on the subway and he stabs you. Then eats you. Actually, a real-world metaphor might not fit here.

When an unsuspecting tadpole wriggles up against the trigger hairs, these plants open up. Because their bulbous innards were filled with air, this creates a vacuum that sucks the hapless tadpole to its doom. Then the door snaps shut again, all within about 10-15 thousandths of a second. Bladderworts are considered one of the most sophisticated structures in the plant kingdom, probably because it takes care of dinner and an accompanying beverage all in one swoop.

Head to Africa or Central/South America and you might run into the Genlisea and its devious “Pet-Me” leaves concealing the vicious lobster-pot trap tendrils beneath. These things have special Y-shaped leaves that let their prey – mostly protozoa and other creatures at the bottom of the evolutionary ladder – enter the plant’s realm but not exit. The only way to move is forward, toward the stomach-like thing that isn’t technically a stomach, but will technically digest you.

Well not YOU necessarily – I don’t have a lot of protozoan readers. But you get the idea. It’s believed the Genlisea will also use its… belly-thing to create a vacuum, just like the bladderworts. This all takes place underground, also in watery environments. They probably won’t eat the skin off your feet, but I’d wear water-shoes just the same. Or stay on land – that’s where they usually keep the beer anyway.

Hopefully you won’t venture into the world casting shadowy glances of suspicion at your local plant-life. I don’t think any of these plants can take a human life – the worst you’ll find is this thing:

That’s a Nepenthes Rajah, native to Borneo. It’s a pitcher plant, but the biggest in the world. Though it usually dines on insects, people have pulled rats, frogs, lizards and birds out of these things.

So if you’re wandering around Borneo with your pet Chihuahua, you might want to keep it on a short leash.

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