flesh eating plantOkay, we’re talking about insect flesh, not Day of the Triffids (the novel, not the movie). Still, the tropical pitcher plants, genus Nepenthes, have evolved a captivating mechanism for supplementing their nutrition in thin forest soil deficient in nitrogen and phosphorous.

A pitcher plant does have shallow roots that are an anchor for a liana, or long, thick woody vine, that can climb 45 feet or more up a tree trunk. Long tendrils grow from the vine’s leaves, and pitchers—also leaves—form at the ends of the tendrils.

Shedd has several species of Nepenthes, all native to islands of the Malaysian archipelago. N. rafflesiana, shown here, produces two kinds of pitchers that may attract different kinds of prey. The larger lower pitchers rest on the ground. Smaller, narrower pitchers dangle in the air. Two traps are better than one.

Pitcher plants are passive predators, using color and sweet-scented nectar to lure their tiny prey into the long cup of no return. The insect slides down the slippery pitcher wall and drowns in ambrosia. The insect’s presence triggers the release of digestive enzymes that dissolve the prey, allowing the plant to absorb the nutrients.

Nepenthes are also called “monkey cups” because the local primates drink rainwater that collects in the pitchers. They are, of course, too big to fall in and meet a sticky demise.

By the way, carnivorous plants should never be fed meat, not even as a Halloween trick. The plants’ digestive enzymes cannot handle large prey. Aside from causing a bad smell, the rotting meal could also damage the pitcher, and the resulting bacterial growth could kill the plant. And that’s no treat.

Tomorrow: Saving the worst for last.

 ―Karen Furnweger, web editor

Looking for more scary creatures? Check out our previous Halloween features!