Science-- there's something for everyone

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Flesh eating Petunias?

There are some plants that are known to be carnivorous.  They make their living by trapping and digesting small insects.  The most notable of these are the Venus Flytrap, sundews and pitcher plants.  However, scientists from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the Natural History Museum think that there isn’t a sharp dividing line between carnivorous and non-carnivorous plants.

Many plants absorb nutrients from the breakdown products of animals through their roots.  Petunias and some other plants have sticky hairs in which insects get trapped.  These plants don’t actively digest the insects but merely allow the trapped insects to die and decompose.  If the remains of the insects fall nearby, the nutrients are available to be absorbed through the plants’ roots.  Are these plants facilitating the accumulation of nutrients beneath them by catching insects?  Mark Chase, Keeper of the Jodrell Laboratory at the Royal Botanic Gardens, believes so:

“many commonly grown plants may turn out to be cryptic carnivores, at least by absorbing through their roots the breakdown products of the animals that they ensnare.”

Suddenly those petunias don’t look so innocent, do they?

Photo of a petunia, by Elena Chochkova, August, 2009