I recently discovered that a friend of mine, let’s call him Noel, has a garden filled with carnivorous plants and other botanical oddities, which he cultivates with all the care of Charles Darwin (played by Vincent Price). There’s something wonderful about discovering this macabre side of one of your friends. Although I have yet to see it (California being a bit of a commute from New Zealand) I imagine it all in Tim Burton claymation, dilapidated topiary, and lit at night with purple flood lights. Alas, it probably isn’t.
But you don’t have to invoke Audrey IIfor carnivorous plants to be seriously interesting. We
normally think of animals having the upper hand over plants, capable only of fixing light into energy and being made into veggie burgers or ratatouille. Being unable to move is a distinct disadvantage as a hunter. Although, at the level of single-celled organisms, there’s not a lot of difference. Plants and animals look, and move, in a very similar way. In fact, the dinoflagellates (the creatures that cause red tides and light up the ocean at night) can switch from autotrophy (making their own energy from light through photosynthesis) to heterotrophy (consuming other organisms) depending on what food is available.
So what does Noel have lurking there? He’s given me some pictures. My favourite is the dead horse Arum Lily, Helicodiceros muscivorus (=Helicodiceros crinitus and Dracunculus crinitus). It’s an ornamental plant (only in the sense that you can’t eat it) native to the northwestern Mediterranean. It reproduces the stench of rotting meat, attracting carrion-seeking blowflies which act as pollinators. The best and most hideously realistic part about it, aside from the hair, and the carrion-like colouration, is the thermogenesis. It produces heat like a freshly dying animal. Flies, of course, aren’t trying to pollinate the flower, but looking for a place to lay their maggots (to quote a funny children’s song by Fatcat and Fishface). (And while you’re at it, look at their song about the blind coprophagic bat fly.)
It seems a lot of evolutionary work to go through to when It might be more straightforward to be pretty and sweet-smelling like other flowers. But in a competitive sense, any ecological niche is fair game. The plant is using the animals in two ways, tapping into the behaviour of one around the decomposition of another. Obviously, it’s a strategy that has paid off, because the mimicry is extremely intricate.
Noel bought the original plant from The University of California Berkeley years ago, and babied it for quite awhile until he got it to bloom. “When it did, I sort of wondered why I’d bothered! Once you get a whiff, you never, ever want the damned thing to bloom again.”