Earlier this year, I wrote about northern pitcher plants and how they are helping us to better understand food webs. At that time I promised future posts about carnivorous plants, so I have decided to write about sundews, the only carnivorous plant that I currently have in my collection.
Sundews are members of the genus Drosera and are in the family Droseraceae (the same family as the Venus flytrap). With as many as 194 species, Drosera is one of the largest and most diverse genera of carnivorous plants. Sundews can be found in a wide variety of climates and on nearly every continent, from subarctic Alaska to tropical Brazil. They can be as small as a penny or as big as a small shrub. Their leaves form rosettes and come in numerous shapes and sizes, including circular, wedge-shaped, oval, forked, fern-like, and grass-like. Drosera flowers are also quite diverse, but typically they are flat, five-petaled, white or pink, and appear in clusters at the top of a tall stalk.
As described so far, you may be thinking that sundews sound quite simple and innocent, but this is certainly not the case. Covering the surfaces of Drosera leaves are dozens of hair-like filaments. At the end of each filament (or tentacle) is a gland, which produces a small drop of clear and very sticky dew. Attracted to the glistening dew and mistaking it for plant nectar, insects fly into it and find themselves instantly stuck. Struggling to get away, an insect may tear off body parts as it flails about, only to fall into other nearby dew droplets, worsening its ensnarement and ensuring its fate.
In his book, The Savage Garden, Peter D’Amato describes it this way:
“Sundews are innocent-looking and pretty, their delicate leaves sparkling with the promise of sweet nectar, but the foolish insect curious enough to give a sundew the slightest touch will suddenly find itself caught in a living nightmare. Doomed to a horrible death, the insect may struggle for a blessed few minutes or suffer for untold hours as it tries to break free of ensnaring, suffocating glue, grasping tentacles, and burning acids and enzymes; meanwhile, its precious bodily fluids are being slowly sucked dry.”
As the sticky dew attracts and then traps the insects, and the tentacles that support the dew help to further ensnare them, imminent death comes in a variety of ways. The most common for small insects is suffocation, as the glue almost immediately covers up the breathing holes on their abdomens. Larger insects that manage to avoid bodily contact with the glue will instead dangle from the plant and die of starvation or exhaustion. Those that break free, losing an appendage or appendages in the process, usually don’t last long after that and are often trapped and killed by spiders who build their webs around sundews in order to take advantage of such occasions. The leaves of some sundews curl up around their prey, not necessarily to further ensnare them, but to surround them with the largest possible number of glands which will help quicken the consumption and digestion process. By now you can see that as innocent and delicate as they may appear, sundews are in fact about as brutal and unforgiving as they come.
If you’d like to learn more about sundews and other carnivorous plants, including information on how to grow them, I highly recommend D’Amato’s book (The Savage Garden). It’s a fascinating and informative read, and the reality of the natural world described therein will astound you.
Drosera chrysolepis, photo credit: wikimedia commons