Because One Can Never Say Enough About Carnivorous Plants

Darwin, as you may know, wrote a book devoted to carnivorous plants called, appropriately enough, Insectivorous Plants. In this experiment Darwin is using the Venus Flytrap. To set the stage:

The sensitive filaments are formed of several rows of elongated cells, filled with purplish fluid. They are a little above the 1/20 of an inch in length; are thin and delicate, and taper to a point. I examined the bases of several, making sections of them, but no trace of the entrance of any vessel could be seen. The apex is sometimes bifid or even trifid, owing to a slight separation between the terminal pointed cells. Towards the base there is constriction, formed of broader cells, beneath which there is an articulation, supported on an enlarged base, consisting of differently shaped polygonal cells. As the filaments project at right angles to the surface of the leaf, they would have been liable to be broken whenever the lobes closed together, had it not been for the articulation which allows them to bend flat down.


Then comes some experimentation:

These filaments, from their tips to their bases, are exquisitely sensitive to a momentary touch. It is scarcely possible to touch them ever so lightly or quickly with any hard object without causing the lobes to close. A piece of very delicate human hair, 2 1/2 inches in length, held dangling over a filament, and swayed to and fro so as to touch it, did not excite any movement. But when a rather thick cotton thread of the same length was similarly swayed, the lobes closed. Pinches of fine wheaten flour, dropped from a height, produced no effect. The above-mentioned hair was then fixed into a handle, and cut off so that 1 inch projected; this length being sufficiently rigid to support itself in a nearly horizontal line. The extremity was then brought by a slow movement laterally into contact with the tip of a filament, and the leaf instantly closed. On another occasion two or three touches of the same kind were necessary before any movement ensued. When we consider how flexible a fine hair is, we may form some idea how slight must be the touch given by the extremity of a piece, 1 inch in length, moved slowly.
Although these filaments are so sensitive to a momentary and delicate touch, they are far less sensitive than the glands of Drosera to prolonged pressure. Several times I succeeded in placing on the tip of a filament, by the aid of a needle moved with extreme slowness, bits of rather thick human hair, and these did not excite movement, although they were more than ten times as long as those which caused the tentacles of Drosera to bend; and although in this latter case they were largely supported by the dense secretion. On the other hand, the glands of Drosera may be struck with a needle or any hard object, once, twice, or even thrice, with considerable force, and no movement ensues. This singular difference in the nature of the sensitiveness of the filaments of Dionaea and of the glands of Drosera evidently stands in relation to the habits of the two plants. If a minute insect alights with its delicate feet on the glands of Drosera, it is caught by the viscid secretion, and the slight, though prolonged pressure, gives notice of the presence of prey, which is secured by the slow bending of the tentacles. On the other hand, the sensitive filaments of Dionaea are not viscid, and the capture of insects can be assured only by their sensitiveness to a momentary touch, followed by the rapid closure of the lobes.

One Response

  1. Darwin is especially famous for “The Origin of Species”, but he made really a whole lot of other scientific work. His book about carnivorous plants is still among the most capacious books about carnivorous plants which exists. Interestingly, the carnivorous nature of some plants was for a long time denied, because they were in contrast to the bible.

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