Encounters with Plants that BITE!

In late 2018, the BRIT Philecology Herbarium received funds from the National Science Foundation Grant: “Endless Forms most beautiful and most wonderful” to digitize collections of species across 15 plant families that have unique adaptations and morphologies. These plants may live in extreme and highly specific environments that face elevated risks of extinction in the rapidly changing climate that we’re seeing today. Dozens of herbaria across the United States are digitizing their collections representing these peculiar families in an effort to aid in research about their evolutionary history, ecology, conservation tactics, and more. Some of the groups of plants that fall under this grant include epiphytes (such as orchids), succulents (cacti and some euphorbs), and carnivores!

The carnivorous families included in this project are Droseraceae (sundews), Lentibulariaceae (bladderworts), Nepenthaceae (tropical pitcher plants), and Sarraceniaceae (pitcher plants). By the end of 2019, over 2,000 sheets of these families in both the BRIT/SMU and VDB collections were imaged and are currently in the process of transcription and georeferencing. These specimens have been collected over a span of 200+ years and from around the globe. This project will help liberate the invaluable data of these collections. In the meantime, it has also allowed staff and volunteers to uncover a hidden treasure trove of exceptional collections. 

Darlingtonia californica, cobra lily, collected in1877 in Plumas County, California.

The specimen shown above came to BRIT through the acquisition of the Dartmouth College Herbarium (HNH) in 2002. The roughly 25,000 specimens have already proven to be an impressive addition with the discovery of fern specimens collected by the father of national parks, John Muir, in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. 

Darlingtonia californica, or cobra lily, is endemic to regions in northern California and southern Oregon. Like other carnivorous plants, cobra lilies thrive in nutrient-poor acidic environments (like bogs) yet make up for the lack of certain nutrients by luring insects to their trap and digesting them. If you look closely at this specimen (and the image below), you can actually see an insect pressed with the plant! This beetle may have been more interested in the cobra lily’s flower rather than the enticing scent coming from under the hood of the modified tubular leaves. Regardless, it is rare to see insects on herbarium sheets so this was exciting to stumble upon! 

A beetle accidentally pressed on the herbarium sheet.

BRIT Herbarium staff Tiana Rehman and Ashley Bordelon had the opportunity to encounter thousands of LIVE bug-hungry plants during their visit to the Austin-based carnivorous plant nursery, Carniveroin October 2019. Owner Drew Martinez has been cultivating and breeding all varieties of pitcher plants and other carnivorous plants for the past four years but has had a love and appreciation for these plants for most of his life. A past BRIT Summer Intern, Hannah Liebermann, is now employed as a horticulturist for Carnivero. BRIT loves to see where past interns have taken their plant passions and ventured off to! 

Owner of Carnivero Drew Martinez and horticulturist Hannah Liebermann. 

Carnivero plans to have a storefront in the near future but for now, it only fulfills online orders of their wide variety of carnivorous plants and other tropical plants found all over the world. Martinez informs us that his nursery keeps conservation in mind and hopes that the beautiful and hardy hybrids he cultivates will mean that fewer plants will be illegally taken in the wild. These plants are not for everyone. It takes a lot of respect and patience to care for one at home because they live in highly specific environments in the wild such as high elevation, acidic soil, water temperature, humidity, etc. 

Nepenthes hybrid

Carnivorous plants are obviously special because of their insect-only diet, but there are other interesting traits they exhibit to lure and capture their prey. There are species of Nepenthes that are masters of inducing bugs to slip and fall into their traps. The rim (or peristome and ribs) of the plant is one of the slipperiest surfaces on Earth when wet. This surface has inspired many scientists to try and replicate it! Did you know that some of these species including other carnivorous plants (like Venus flytraps) also emit pigments that can only be seen on the ultraviolet spectrum? These are just a few things that scientists have learned from studying these plants, and there are bound to be more discoveries in the future!

Bilingual Endless Forms exhibit by the BRIT Herbarium — featured in Upper Atrium Research Gallery (October 2019) — highlighting carnivorous plants alongside illustrations and related books from the BRIT Library.
“… whilst the planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” – Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species

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