The Horrible Cruelty of Plants

Gosh! So my desk is now DESK OF THE WEEK! But most people won’t be aware that there’s a darker side to my desk. It concerns the plants above it, on the windowsill.  Now read on, and be afraid, be very careful…

(Pause. Deep breath. Adopts business-like, fresher tone)

Now I’ve always been horribly fascinated by carnivorous plants. Essentially they eat insects and small mammals to boost their nutrient up-take, as they grow in wet, and very poorly nourished soils – usually peats. And without that extra nourishment they’d soon perish. That, in a nutshell, is their botanical raison d’être. But to catch animals and insects they need to be very cunning. Some, for example the Venus Flytrap, have jaw-like leaves; others, like the sundews, have very sticky leaves. But the plants that fascinate me most are the pitcher plants, many of which are natives of America, being found in the swamps of places like Florida, California and Louisiana – and increasingly as escapees, in southern Ireland. The capacious, dangling pitchers of the genus Nepenthes are actually capable of trapping mouse or vole-sized animals. But these are hard to grow in Britain, so I steer clear of them. Instead I grow the large, vertical pitcher plant, Sarracenia flava, whose pitchers can be a metre in length.

Sarracenia pitchers

This year my Sarracenia flava plant has produced seven pitchers and in a week or two’s time one or two flowers will appear. Their scent is pleasingly foetid.

My plants attract wasps, aphids, flies and other insects to the rim of their pitchers by exuding a slight smell of rotting flesh. When insects land on the pitcher, or its hood, they are attracted further into the plant both by the smell and by red veins, which look horribly like those of an animal. As they go deeper into the pitcher they come across a waxy zone with short, downward-pointing hairs, By this point it is becoming increasingly difficult to escape, and eventually the hapless prey falls into the lowest level of all, where a watery soup of digestive enzymes slowly starts to dissolves its body. It’s a far from a speedy end…

Sarracenia hood

A close-up of the mouth and flared hood of the pitcher, showing the life-like red ‘veins’.

I have to admit I nearly gave up keeping pitcher plants (which maintain my office in a wonderfully insect-free state) after an experience back in 1980 when I was hard at work writing the third volume of my four reports on our excavations at Fengate, in Peterborough. I had several pitcher plants on the windowsill behind my state-of-the-art Apple II desktop computer, which I’d bought in 1978 or ’79 and which was one of the first microcomputers in British archaeology. But I digress…

Anyhow, I was tapping away at the keyboard late one evening, when I couldn’t help noticing that a wasp had landed on the hood of a particularly large pitcher. Fascinated, I watched as the creature followed one of the red veins downwards. I even stood up to view its descent down to insect hell, the better. And it was going there with barely a backward glance – like a banker sniffing out a fat bonus.

I think somebody may have entered the room, or asked me a question, because I was distracted for an hour or so. When I returned to my keyboard I was disconcerted by a very loud, intermittent buzzing. It was so loud I thought there was a fault with the dig bungalow’s electrics (which were dodgy, to say the least). Then I realised what was happening: the unfortunate wasp’s death agonies were being amplified by the pitcher. Soon all the diggers who hadn’t gone to the pub that night were standing around the plant, with ears cupped and eyes like saucers. Like me, they were all completely spooked-out.

The following morning it rained, so I returned to my report-writing. The buzzing was still as loud as ever, but the bursts were now less frequent, and shorter. Then I noticed something on the outside of the pitcher that made me feel uneasy. I looked closer and to my horror the poor wasp had managed to eat its way through the pitcher, but had got stuck at its neck (actually its thorax). So its wings were still making the buzzing sound, but its head could move slightly outside the plant, which gave the scene a horrible Spanish Inquisition sort of feel: the head could turn, while its body behind was being digested. Surely the ultimate in frustration? But this time I didn’t get the diggers in to watch – I thought it might be a bit much.

For about an hour I tried to work on the report, but my attention kept being caught by the bursts of buzzing, which were now becoming noticeably shorter and quieter. Then to my horror I watched as the head started to droop forwards. A ghastly nod. For a moment my hopes rose: maybe it was going to escape? But I should have known better, because a very short time later, it dropped off. I looked up from where the severed head lay on the windowsill, back to the pitcher, where drops of digestive juices were now slowly oozing from the hole left behind. Still, the buzzing had stopped – this time, for good.

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