Get access

Murderous plants: Victorian Gothic, Darwin and modern insights into vegetable carnivory




Darwin's interest in carnivorous plants was in keeping with the Victorian fascination with Gothic horrors, and his experiments on them were many and varied, ranging from what appears to be idle curiosity (e.g. what will happen if I place a human hair on a Drosera leaf?) to detailed investigations of mechanisms. Mechanisms for capture and digestion of prey vary greatly among the six (or more) lineages of flowering plants that have well-developed carnivory, and some are much more active than others. Passive carnivory is common in some groups, and one, Roridula (Roridulaceae) from southern Africa, is so passively carnivorous that it requires the presence of an insect intermediate to derive any benefit from prey trapped on its leaves. Other groups not generally considered to be carnivores, such as Stylidium (Stylidiaceae), some species of Potentilla (Rosaceae), Proboscidea (Martyniaceae) and Geranium (Geraniaceae), that have been demonstrated to both produce digestive enzymes on their epidermal surfaces and be capable of absorbing the products, are putatively just as ‘carnivorous’ as Roridula. There is no clear way to discriminate between cases of passive and active carnivory and between non-carnivorous and carnivorous plants – all intermediates exist. Here, we document the various angiosperm clades in which carnivory has evolved and the degree to which these plants have become ‘complete carnivores’. We also discuss the problems with definition of the terms used to describe carnivorous plants. © 2009 The Linnean Society of London, Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 2009, 161, 329–356.