Killer plants. Killing little animals. Luring them to their death. Then gobbling them up.
"How cruel," Darwin said a century ago, enchanted and repelled by these plants with death chambers, false exits (that the poor creatures try to escape by), walls that give way and plunge some little six-footer to doom in acidic enzymous pits.
"Do you ever feel sorry for the creatures trapped by your plants?" I was asking Adrian Slack, an English authority and commercial raiser of them, who has turned out a quite splendid book, "Carnivorous Plants" (used by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, a neat 105 years after Darwin's great "Insectivorous Plants").
"Carnivorous is better than insectivorous," Slack ventured, settling down to a cheese sandwich and a glass of whiskey (for he is a vegetarian). "They eat a lot more than insects."
People? you think of asking, enjoying the horror of it all and rapidly forming a list.
"Lizards," he went on, "rotifers. Little fishes, even little monkeys, and lots of rats."
Orange cheese was entrapped past his dense dark beard (with downward-pointing hairs) from which no cheese sandwich can possibly escape.
"But you ask about pity for the victims. It's odd; it raises questions what is natural. If I see a fly caught in a web with the spider sidling over to bite and kill it, I fell like rescuing it. Yes. And a cat toying with a mouse [here he paused for a sip of bourbon, an astonishing chemical liquid that forces chewed cheese down a dark abyss from which it never rises again], I would certainly free the mouse and set it in a safe place.
"But a fly caught in a sarracenia [one of the most beautiful of carnivorous plants] doesn't affect me the same way. I tend to let Nature take her course."
A course of some horror, needless to say. Without completely ruining everybody's day, it may be said these animal-eating plants have various techniques. Some behave like flypaper, into which insects fly and fly no more. Others have bright-colored tubes, rimmed with nectar which insects sample, then lose their footing and fall into a liquid pool some inches farther down inside the tube. There enzymes (which have suitably disgusting names: ribonuclease, lipase, acid phosphatase, etc.) work on the little corpses, turning them to a nutritious soup. Cells absorb good things from it. c
Slack not only raises virtually all carnivorous plants known to man, but has been breeding them for new variations -- brighter colors, deeper ruffles, more astonishing red veins.
"One that attracted favorable interest in England is called 'Loch Ness,'" he said, sampling some popcorn, for he is keen to try native fodder as he travels, and finds American food relatively delicious, though his standard of comparison is merely the food of England, which in general is enough to give a nepenthes heartburn.
Darwin was the first great serious investigator of these plants, which he rightly pronounced to be marvels.He could not get over the behavior of some, the Venus flytrap, say (named Venus for its beauty), which acts as if it had a nervous system and muscles that obey orders from command central.
It is still not understood just how the Dionaea, to use its botanical name, works. A leaf lies open to the sun and air. A bug lands on it, touching one of six spines on the lead surface. Nothing happens. It touches a second spine and the leaf (two symmetrical halves along a central rib) snaps shut quickly enough to trap the insect. All along the perimeter of the leaf are little teeth. When the two halves spring together, these spines mesh to form a sort of cage. If the bug struggles, unable to get out since the spines cage him in, he rubs even more against the interior hairs that signal the leaf to close even tighter, so that soon the creature is encased so closely that even from the outside you can see the shape of the victim.
During the several days that may be needed for digestion, the bug does not rot but is preserved by some chemical action of the leaf.
Now you grow up thinking of sweet flowers, innocent daisies or violets or other ornaments of a young girl's hair. A blue sash on the white dress, maybe, with a bunch of anemones and lad's love. Pansies. Rosemary.
Well they don't wear nepenthes in their hair. Those sinister tropical flowers sometimes are big enough to hold a football, or a small lemur, or rats and any other small mammal unfortunate enough to be caught and digested. The flower suggests a womb, but the colors are sinister madder, dull purples and suspicious greens, with fluted rims.
In the sea there are plants that trap fish inside little bubbles of plant tissue. There they swim as in a fishbowl until digested.
One of the most appalling plant devices is found in a carnivorous plant that lures insects in, where it explores nectar in the dim interior. It flies away, as insects do, toward the light. But in this case the light is a translucent panel of the plant's interior wall. It is solid, but the light shines through from the outside. The bug flies into it, falls when he hits the wall, and is drowned and digested at leisure.
Even the exquisite sundews that sit like diamond clusters on the surface of sphagmun bogs, their tiny leaves edged with little spikes each tipped with a globule of sparkling clear "dew," like to many coronets for Titania -- even these are lethal to tiny insects that get stuck and are devoured.
"How cruel Nature is," and Darwin was right: it's not the plant but Nature herself that offends us, or those of us who are (as a wit said) indentured to animals.
"I think the photographer put a bee in that sarracenia for her picture," Slack said, alluding to one of the grand illustrations in his book. "Denied it, of course. But I never saw any other bee on any carnivorous plant. I freed it. Yes. [Downing some more popcorn] Yes."
Slack grew up in England's West Country, all very pastoral, dappled with daisies and sheep and long purples and Arcadian glades suitable for lovers or Shakespeare, who knew those sort of rural paradises well. Shakespeare was uncommon, though, in sensing the earhty sinister aspect of flowers -- their grossness as well as their silken satisfaction -- and it's too bad he never had a good collection of carnivorous plants to muse on, since most of them were introduced to England after his death.
"I had proposed to be a painter," Slack said. "I saw my paintings were frightfully bad and I burned them all. I had to think what to do then to make a living. I turned to garden design, making gardens for people, and merging factories into the landscape.
"I can't say just how the carnivorous plants took over. I had my first sundew when I was 18. Yes. A psychoanalyst might -- but I find it a mistake to psychoanalyze. To me there was nothing sinister in these plants, but a most wonderfull beauty and style and specialization. That's it, very beautiful. My collection increased, and I threw thousands of plants away for lack of space. Then a fellow said why not sell them? But there was no demand for them, I had assumed.
"The press in England seemed interested in them, and word spread, and we formed a commercial partnership -- I know you think it dreadful to speak of such things -- which is doing well. We won the Lindley Medal (a coveted silver-gilt award) of the Royal Horticultural Society for a display of these plants. A sarracenia with two trumpet tubes, say, would cost about three pounds ten. I never can remember about pence, how they work out in American money." (About $6.20.)
He downed the last sip of bourbon ("which you pronounce BER-bun, I believe?") with the pleasure one feels at having mastered boomerangs or other outlandish native specialties, and pursed his lips contentedly within the beard. On which not one crumb remained to show that once a cheese sandwich lived and rejoiced in the sun of day.
"It's Nature's Way," he said gently, and it sounded true and irrecoverably sad.