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Meat Eating Plants of Idaho

By: Daniel Murphy - Collections Curator | 06/06/2019

Plants have to eat, just like any other living thing. However, unlike other living things, plants make their own food using water, sunlight, and carbon dioxide. As for their vitamins and minerals, they usually use their roots to harvest those from the soil. But not always.

Plants that have evolved in environments lacking in available nutrients have devised other ways to supplement their diet. Enter meat-eating plants.

Otherwise known as carnivorous plants, these meat eaters are found in a variety of habitats around the world. Venus fly traps – with their mouth-like, snap trap leaves – and pitcher plants – with their tubular leaves that act as pitfall traps – are among the carnivorous plants you may be most familiar with. But there are others, including a few that live in Idaho.

Fens, wet meadows, and lakeshores in Idaho’s panhandle and parts of central Idaho are home to two species of sundews – roundleaf sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) and English sundew (Drosera anglica). The leaves of sundews are adorned with glands that excrete a clear liquid that appears as sweet nectar. Unsuspecting insects approach the leaves expecting food but instead find themselves stuck, tricked by what is actually glue. In some cases, the leaves curl up around the insect, coating it with more glue. From there, digestive fluids are excreted from the leaves and the insect’s insides are consumed.

A number of Idaho’s shallow streams and ponds are home to aquatic carnivorous plants called bladderworts (Utricularia spp.) Their common name refers to tiny bladders attached to their floating stems which they use to capture prey. Little hairs on the outside of the bladder traps are triggered by incoming insect larvae and other tiny organisms, and in a flash the traps open and suck them inside where they are quickly digested. Their ravenous feeding goes unnoticed by onlookers who stop to admire their attractive snapdragon-esque flowers.

Carnivorous plants capture our imaginations and are appreciated by even the most plant-indifferent among us. At Idaho Botanical Garden, we have maintained a collection of carnivorous plants for many years. This display is currently undergoing renovations, but will be up and running again soon, luring in insects and making a meal out of them before your very eyes.