Two things about Venus Fly Traps: they like meatballs – and they can do maths.
By meatballs, I mean minuscule blobs of mushed bloodworm served, cocktail-style, on the end of a toothpick. By maths, I mean they can count.
Fly Traps are triggered by hairs on the inside of their jaws. One brush against those hairs: nothing happens. Two brushes: pow! They snap, but they’re not yet sealed shut. Before beginning the long process of dinner (5 – 12 days), the plant wants evidence that its prey is worth the effort: it wants to feel it struggle. Five tweaks of the guard hairs are needed before the Fly Trap is finally convinced and its digestive enzymes start flowing. (If, like me, you are trying to coax a small and stubborn plant to eat, this is the tricky bit. Meatballs don’t struggle.)
My pitcher plant is less pernickety, accepting whatever drops into its cups. It’s fond of fruit flies, and the odd waxworm. The nepenthes truncata at Kew Gardens allegedly gets an occasional treat of chopped mouse. In Borneo, the giant nepenthes rajah has pitchers big enough to trap a rat. But mammal is not their favourite food; it takes too much digesting. While a raised lid coated with nectar lures tree shrews and bats to come and perch on their toilet-seat rim, many nepenthes seem more interested in dining off what plops into the bowl, rather than the animal themselves.
Charles Darwin was a fan of carnivorous plants. Experiments on his beloved pet sundew led him to exclaim, ‘By Jove, I sometimes think Drosera is a disguised animal!’
In April, 1874, Darwin’s drosera was eclipsed by something much more dramatic. The New York World published an article about the Man-Eating Tree of Madagascar. With its kraken-esque tentacles and taste for human blood and guts, this monster was later proved a hoax, but it wasn’t the only one of its kind. In Central America there were tales of the Ya te veo – the I see you Tree – and in Under the Punkah, published in 1881, Phil Robinson relates how one of his uncle’s travelling companions was devoured by a Nubian shrub. In Nicaragua, a naturalist reported that his dog had been caught by a Vampire Vine. Crypto-botany was born – and fiction has been the richer for it.
But plants have never been harmless. They sting us, scratch us, trip us, poison us … Should we be more afraid?
Recent scientific research has shown animals to be much more intelligent than it has suited humans to imagine. Now the same is happening with plants. They’re not just sitting there, photosynthesising: they are communicating with each other. They have their own version of the internet – the Wood Wide Web. It is made of fungus. Like our own web, it can be used for Good, or for Bad. Plants can warn their neighbours of attack by pesticide or aphids; big trees may donate nutrients to younger saplings, via mycelial strands, helping them when times are hard. On the criminal side, valuable carbon and nitrogen will go missing and shady characters will spread toxic chemicals to keep wandering roots off their patch.
Plants have had ages – literally – to get it sorted. They were here long before us and some of them can live to five thousand years or more. We depend on them for life itself – yet we treat them with very little respect. Ya te veo. I see you. Maybe they have been watching us – for long enough to decide that our species is doing their planet no favours. Maybe – before it’s too late – they will decide to take a stand and fight back. The conspiracy may be already ripening, in the soil beneath our feet …
It’s OK. If I’m ever swallowed by a mutant Venus Fly Trap, I know exactly what to do. Keep calm, and don’t wiggle.