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carnivorous plants

15 august 2019

Carnivorous plants – or rather, their carnivorousness – seem to have been unknown to the ancients. The meat-eating aspect of their lifestyle went unmentioned by Aristotle or Pliny; at least, if either of them had mentioned it, I'm sure that Dan Torre would have mentioned that in his new book Carnivorous Plants. As late as the 18th century, when someone suggested to Linnaeus that some plants might eat insects, the great Swede responded that "such a characteristic would be 'against the order of nature as willed by God'" (89). And the order of nature, Charlie Linnaeus had put some thought into.

It took Charlie Darwin (why does this not surprise me) to establish that flytraps, pitcher plants, sundews, and others actually trap and digest animals. (Or have symbiotic bacteria digest them for them, which Torre points out is to a large extent what humans do, as well.) Once Darwin (in Insectivorous Plants, 1875) documented the meat-eating proclivities of plants, many other naturalists seconded his observations, and an entire niche of popular culture opened up, for the lodging of our fears and fantasies about plants that turn the tables on vegetarians.

Carnivorous plants exist around the globe, and have evolved separately in several different plant families. Some spring traps on their prey (the most famous being Venus flytraps), some work with glue (the sundews), and some drown their prey in reservoirs of liquid (the pitcher plants). Torre is fascinated with those species that are next door to carnivory – that subsist on the decayed remnants of bugs eaten by spiders, for instance, or indeed on the guano of bats that munch up the insects that the plants trap. Cooperation seems intensive among the plant carnivores and their allies … well, cooperation except with their unfortunate guests.

It would not be long after Darwin's discovery that popular culture started to worry about people-sized pitcher plants and Venus Man-Traps. At first it seems odd that man-eating plants should be scary at all. Surely one can outrun them. But Torre explains their horror well. Plants are furtive, silent, and implacable. The same relentlessness that characterizes kudzu or bamboo becomes distinctly sinister if the determined vegetable can not only overrun your back yard but actually make a meal of you.

Torre cites many a carnivorous-plant fiction, from the Triffids to the Little Shop of Horrors. (He may overstate those horrors and underplay their camp value, but perhaps the camp is so obvious that it barely needs stating.) Torre also looks at the work of several contemporary artists who have painted or sculpted carnivorous plants, from the eerie images of Madeline von Foerster to the gorgeous public art of Dan Corson.

It would not be a Reaktion Botanical volume without some gardening advice. Carnivorous plants exist in many different habitats, temperate to tropical, full sun to mostly shade: but one constant abides, they grow in nutrient-poor soils. As a result, the home gardener shouldn't grow them in soil at all, but in a mix of sand and peat moss, constantly moist but at the same time well-drained. This seems to rule them out for Texas summers, so we aren't likely to try any here. A shame, because it seems like a few pitchers of Nepenthes would keep down the mosquitoes.

Torre, Dan. Carnivorous Plants. London: Reaktion, 2019.