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INSECT-EATING PLANTS

Have you ever been to the scary movies and seen those huge plants that trap horses, tigers, elephants, and people, and they are never seen again? They might show some scientists
looking for butterflies walking through the jungle. They see all sorts of beautiful trees, vines, ferns, and flowers. Get a bit deeper into the jungle, where no person has ever been before (at least if they had, they never came back to tell about it), and the appearance of the plants changes. They get bigger. Huge leaves. Giant flowers that are cup-shaped. The cup parts of the flowers are about the size of bathtubs. The jungle guide refuses to go any farther. He says something about evil spirits. The scientists go on by themselves, cutting through vines and ferns with their machetes. One man stops to admire a particularly beautiful flower. He leans forward to smell the blossom, and suddenly, the man is GONE! The flower got him! The other guys didn't see it happen, so when they realize he isn't with them any more, they don't know where he is.

After quite awhile, they come upon a really big, huge, gigantic flower, and there are skeletons around it, from elephants and hippopotami and camels. The flower senses that the men are there, and it bends over to try to get one of them. Then they realize that they are in a jungle of killer plants. It takes the good guys in the movie a long time to figure out a way to destroy the man-killing plants. Pretty scary. Where do you think the movie people got the idea of killer plants? Do you think there is any such thing as a killer plant?

Most of the scary movies have some small touch with reality. Most "monsters" that are in movies are similar to real animals that used to exist or that do exist--from dinosaurs to giant killer flies the size of an elephant. There are some pretty weird-looking reptiles (which really are dinosaurs), and a tiny insect magnified a zillion times looks quite horrible. Just as there really are animals and insects similar to the monsters in scary movies, there really are plants that kill their food.

Bugs. (Since this is a classroom, and we are in school, doing science projects, we will not call them "bugs." They are INSECTS.)

On a recent trip to a large nursery, your teacher was able to get some plants that eat insects. They are on the counter, where you can see them easily. They can be seen more clearly with a magnifying glass, so let's line up and take turns inspecting them.

Plant # 1 is a Sundew Plant. Look at the leaves. They are covered with many tiny, red hairs. Looks kind of like a pincushion with pins on it. At the tip of each hair, there is a drop of red liquid. Looks like it might taste good, doesn't it? WE WILL NOT DO ANY TASTING. If you touch a droplet with a toothpick, you will see that the red liquid is sticky stuff, and if you pull on it, it comes up like gum. It appears that a tiny insect might be attracted to the red liquid, walk on the leaf, or fly onto it, and get stuck.

Have you ever seen fly paper? It is paper with sticky stuff on it that smells good to flies, they go to it, and get stuck there. It's sort of gross, because the flies are stuck on the paper, and they flap their wings and buzz a lot, trying to get away. Makes you feel sorry for the fly, even if you don't like flies!

Plant # 2 is a Butterwort. The oval-shaped, yellow leaves are shiny. The reason they shine is that they have sticky stuff on them that is similar to mucilage. Another trap for small insects. The butterwort plant is active. See how the leaves just lie flat on the soil? When there is an insect stuck to a leaf, the leaf rolls up and traps the insect inside.

Plant # 3 is a Pitcher Plant. Notice, it looks like a pitcher from which water, or lemonade, may be served. In nature, what happens to the pitcher plant when it rains? It gets water inside, and some of the water stays there.

See the hairs around the top of the bloom? Which direction do they point? Inward and toward the bottom of the pitcher. When an insect gets in there, it can't walk out because those hairs form sort of a cage, by pointing to the center and bottom of the pitcher. Insects usually don't wear life-jackets, so they drown in the water at the bottom of the pitcher.

In some rain forests where there are many pitcher plants and other plants that trap insects, there are tiny frogs who sit in these plants and eat some of the insects that get trapped.

Plant # 4 is a Venus Flytrap. This interesting-looking plant has two lobes instead of the usual leaf, and each lobe has bristles around the edge. On the surface of each lobe, about in the center, you can see three hairs. Touch a hair with a toothpick and see what happens. Zoop! The lobes close, just like a trap!

Now that we know how four of the many insect-trapping plants actually trap insects, we should know why they trap insects. They don't do it for fun, although we really don't know if plants can have fun or not!

Plants, like everything else that is alive, need food. Usually, plants manufacture food from sunlight. These plants can do that, too. However, in the rain forests, where most of these plants grow, there is very little sunlight on the forest floor. The trees grow tall and wide, and block out the sun, just like an umbrella. Matter of fact, that part of the rain forest is called "the umbrella" or "the canopy." Plant food, then, needs to come from another source.

The ferns only need the humus on the floor. Leaves, twigs, and fruits, drop to the floor and decay, and trees die and fall onto the floor and decay, and animal droppings collect
and decay. Over time, a rich humus develops, which provides nourishment to several of the plants.

Vines usually twine around trees, and grow right to the umbrella, seeking the sun. The leaves at the tops of the vines are large, and absorb sunlight, which is used to
manufacture their food.

While the humus is rich in nutrients for some plants, the soil in rain forests is very poor. When parts of rain forests have been cleared for farm land, the quality of the soil is such that crops do not grow well. You can see, then, that our insect-trapping plants need the insects for food, because they don't get much light, and the soil does not provide nourishment.

How do the plants eat the insects? They don't have teeth, tongues, or stomachs. What they do have instead, is the ability to secrete liquids that dissolve the soft body parts of insects. Once dissolved, the plants can take in the "insect soup" which helps them to grow.

When I was a child, my mother had a flower garden with many different kinds of flowers. One of them was very unusual. She called it "Lily of the Nile," but I don't know if that
was really its name. It had a fat, dark green stem, was about three feet tall, and the single blossom at the top of the stem was almost black. There were some yellow spots
inside the blossom. It was shaped like a goblet, and on one side there was a pointed strip that hung down outside the "goblet." The flower was pretty, but it smelled just awful! It smelled so horrible that the flies wouldn't even go near it! Once each week, my mother would put 1 table- spoon of warm (not cooked), finely ground hamburger into that flower. It would close up for a couple days, then open again, and the meat would be gone. I have looked for some literature on that plant, but have never found out any more about it. Maybe, in nature, it ate small rodents, or birds, or insects.

 
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