• Ghouls of the Garden

    by Dana Goforth

    I gotta find food for Master. Food I gotta find for Master. For Master I gotta find food. — Seymour Krelborn, Little Shop of Horrors, 1960.

    Growing up, I was fortunate to have two dear friends who introduced me to the world of horticulture. Ann and John were instrumental in my early education of the natural world, and they shared their vast knowledge freely. My visits to their home in Pennsylvania were filled with hours poking around their amazing garden and days traveling to out of the way enclaves of unusual plants. On one peculiar trip, I found myself standing next to John looking at a small wooden sign tilted at a slightly disheveled angle, that simply said, “Entrance.” What made it especially cool was that we had just pulled off a major New Jersey interstate and parked on the shoulder — the car ticking patiently behind us. Just to the right of the lichen dappled sign was a narrow path tucked between two trees.

    1_ManEatingPlant“We’re here!” John joyfully said as he disappeared down the path. Following him, I found myself in a strange and mysterious place. The dense forest that surrounded us gave way to a large oasis of water. Here and there, mounds of spongy, green moss sprinkled with tree droppings, pushed upward. In a lacy embrace, stagnant water hugged the mounds, as if attempting to drag them back under the surface. A perfect place to hide a body I thought. The interstate noise was muffled and an eerie silence leaked from the trees. I loved it.

    “This is a bog,” John explained as we walked single file down a slim boardwalk made of narrow weathered planks. “The water moves slowly, like a deep, hesitant breath, but it’s only a foot or so deep. It’s highly acidic. Curious plants thrive in this environment.”

    John pointed to a short clump of trumpet shaped plants that unfurled at the base of a tree. I bent down to get up close and personal. Looking inside the pitcher-like plant, I saw the shriveled body of a fly floating on water. It was not alone. Cadaverous exoskeletons of unidentifiable creatures shared the space. Wicked cool.

    Sarracenia (pitcher plant), is one of hundreds of odd plants labeled Carnivorous (flesh eating). An older term, coined by Charles Darwin, was insectivorous (insect eating), and is still sometimes used. Neither term is entirely accurate and somewhat limiting because prey for these plants not only include spiders, flies, and beetles but lizards, frogs, and occasionally rodents too. A popular myth, which just won’t die, is about a man-eating tree in Madagascar that consumed a young maiden who was offered to it as a sacrifice by her tribe. Lovely.

    Carnivorous plants number in the hundreds, if not thousands. Contrary to popular belief, these plants live not only in steamy, humid jungles but also in arid, desert environments. They have adapted to many other micro-climates. There is even a species that lives in the Artic. In fact, North America is host to a majority of carnivorous species. They typically prefer mineral-deficient, moist soils, where most plants die a slow death. Carnivorous plants, however, have adapted to the low mineral content by devouring plump, nutritious prey. All they have to do is catch one, and they do so in very ingenious ways.

    OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula, Latin for mousetrap) is without a doubt the most famous carnivorous plant. Who hasn’t tried to fake it out by sticking a daring finger between the serrated, clam-shell like leaves? Venus flytrap is a carnivore of the “Snap Trap” variety and is native to the Carolinas. It secretes a sweet nectar along the inner base of the teeth that rim the leaves, inviting insects to their last meal. A mild electric current is triggered as the unlucky victim “tickles” the trap, which shuts tightly. Caustic digestive juices are secreted into the prison and the insect dies. After about five to ten days, the trap opens and the corpse is ejected.

    Similar to fly strips humans hang to kill the little nasties, Butterworts (Pinguicula or ‘pings’) and Sundews (Drosera) employ the “Sticky Trap” method of culinary procurement. Both species exude attractive, sticky substances that lure prey into their lair, trap the living creature so it can’t escape, and then eats them. Actually, the plants secrete an enzyme that slowly decomposes the soft tissues of the vital insect. The digestible components of the now fluid body are absorbed into the plant surface for nutrition.

    The sundew family is particularly vicious and could be an award-winning horror story in the insect realm. Many species have long, hairy tentacles coated with a gluey substance that appears as sweet nectar. The unfortunate bug lands or crawls on the stem and is immediately stuck. Like the Venus flytrap, the retentive glands along the edge of the stem are stimulated and immediately roll up, carrying the quarry deeper into the depths of the plant. The chilling part is that the doomed bug dies a slow death as it’s bodily fluids are slowly sucked dry by burning acids over several days. If the prey does manage to escape, it usually leaves a wing or a trail of partially consumed appendages behind as witness.

    3_Nepenthes_rajahThe majordomo of the carnivorous plant kingdom has to be the tropical pitcher plant, Nepenthes, which literally means without grief. In Greek mythology, it is the drug of forgetfulness, administered to quell grief. Native to the Southeast Asian region, nepenthes range in size from small, ground dwelling plants to huge climbing vines. The pitcher cups vary in size and color and are called “Pitfall Traps.” Victims, small and large, are lured to their death with the promise of ambrosia and an easy meal. The trapping mechanism of the nepenthes is a deep, voluminous cavity that is called the pitcher or trumpet. Once inside, the insect is unable to escape from the cavernous pit and usually drowns in a cesspool of bacterial-eating flesh. Another persistent myth takes place at a botanical garden in Borneo. When asked what he was removing from the pitcher of the nepenthes rajah, the keeper evilly replied, baby monkeys. They disturb the tourists he giggled. While this is probably not true, the species is known to trap and devour rats, lizards and other small creatures.

    Finally, Northern California near Mt. Shasta is the natural habitat for the Cobra Plant (Darlington californica). Closely related to the Eastern Sarracenia of John’s bog, the cobra plant has a snake-like, translucent hood, (actually a leaf), that lures hapless winged creatures with an irresistible manna. The victim flaps around inside, duped into thinking the lighted hood is a means of escape, until it tires and slowly slides down the slick prison walls, into the death pool below. Sadly, cute little tree frogs are also on the menu for the cobra plant.2_Drosera_capensis_eatingfly

    __________

    What is it about carnivorous plants that creeps us out? We boil, behead, pulverize, bludgeon, mash, and bleed plants for sap. They are chopped, burned, carved, and bent in unnatural shapes. We rely on them for medicines and pay big bucks for their essences. Yet movies like Day of the Triffids and Little Shop of Horrors give us nightmares. And our imaginations shudder at the thought of being devoured alive.

    Happy Halloween and sweet dreams. Bwwwwaaaaaahhhhhh…

    posted to Cedar Street Times on October 24, 2013

    Topics: Uncategorized

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