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The most wonderful plants in the world

Not the words of PETER FROST but of Charles Darwin who wrote an entire book on plants that eat insects

EIGHT years and about half-a-million rambling words ago I wrote a column for this paper on why peat bogs are important and fascinating places. Peat traps carbon and as our planet warms up that becomes more and more important.

In the article I told readers why peat bogs and the plants that grow in them are so important to me. I went back more than half a century to my early days helping out at the Morning Star offices in Farringdon Road.

I was learning my trade and my politics and one facet of life there was a wonderful comrade volunteer who awakened in me my first ideas on something, not much talked about in those days, called the environment.

She was a nature lover and her enthusiasm was contagious. I told her I had heard of real if unbelievable plants that actually ate meat – could this be true?

The next week she bought me a small flower pot and in it was a tiny bright sparkling red plant with leaves glistening with sticky glue beads. It was the round leaved sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) and it was the first sundew and indeed the first carnivorous plant I had ever seen.

She explained that she had picked it from a peat bog in the New Forest. Yes, you could pick wild plants in those days.

She also lent me a book – Charles Darwin’s Insectivorous Plants. Published in1875, just 14 years after his more famous On the Origin of Species, it was a real eye opener.

The book described how Darwin had used experiments with that very same round leaved sundew to further prove his theories on how plants and other species had evolved.   

Darwin observed because peat was so lacking in nutrients the plant had evolved and developed the ability to catch and digest tiny animals.

That comrade, that plant and that book literally changed my life. I was hooked on the natural world. It didn’t take long to realise that not everyone felt the same. The natural world was under attack, it still is today, and the realisation that it needed looking after would stay with me forever.

I wish I could remember that woman’s name, I do remember the plant, it’s still one of my favourites and I still get a real thrill when I come across a sundew in its natural home. I now grow it from sustainably collected seed in the tiny peat bog in my pocket handkerchief size garden.

There are three Sundews native to Britain and I try to grow them all.

As well as the round leaf there is the great sundew (Drosera anglica).

Other true native British insectivorous plants include the bladderworts (Utricularia). British bladderworts are aquatic and trap tiny pond creatures with ingenious vacuum traps.

British butterworts (Pinguiculas) are pretty plants often found growing precariously in cracks on sopping wet cliff faces. Not an easy habitat to replicate in my garden. There are hundreds of other butterworts growing in other, mostly much warmer countries.

Much more spectacular than our tiny native sundews are the 20 times as big sundew species from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. I grow varieties of D.Capensis and D.Binata and their long often branching leaves make a handsome sight catching the sun, and an array of insects in my tiny bog.

The other major group of carnivorous plants I grow are the pitcher plants, mostly from the Southern states of the US. I find that most species of sarrancenia and the many hybrids available make amazing displays in my garden.

Some sarrancenia pitchers grow more than three foot (one metre) high. All have colourful markings that fool the flies and eventually trap them.

Over the decade some well-intentioned but irresponsible enthusiasts have tried to increase the number of carnivorous plants growing in Britain. One that they introduced into the wild was the huntsman’s horn or purple pitcher plant (Sarrancenia purpurea). It proved really happy in British bogs with some colonies growing so vigorously they smothered native plants.

One bog in the Lake District became so overrun that thousands of the pitcher plants had to be carefully removed by hand.

Today carnivorous plant fans are stripping the same plant from a huge bog in Wareham, Dorset, where the invader had virtually smothered all native plants. Thousands of the plants have been transplanted to the Eden Project where they can grow in safely controlled captivity.

The most common and well-known carnivorous plant is the ubiquitous venus fly trap (VFT) (Dionaea muscipula). Originally found in the southern USA. Frequent picking has made it almost extinct in the wild.

However the nursery trade, using amazing modern cell multiplying techniques developed to produce cheap orchids, now produce millions of flytraps for the novelty market.

The VFT might be the easiest insectivorous plant to buy, and the most entertaining to watch but is by no means the easiest to grow.

Most VFTs are brought home from the garden centre, fed a few flies to see the traps snap shut and then left to slowly die, often to be replaced on the next garden centre visit. They must have soft water and a deal of sunshine to flourish. They flower easily but like many plants die as soon as they have set seed. Flower stems need to be cut off as soon as they appear.

I have three troughs in my garden each a foot (30.5 cms.) square they have a hand mixed compost to replicate acid bog conditions.

Here in the East Midlands, my little bogs need no protection to survive the winter. I try to use only rain or soft water to keep them continuously soaking wet in spring and summer and just damp in the winter when they mostly die back.

Some will have spectacular flowers in spring. Remember the pitchers or sticky parts are modified leaves although most are far more colourful and spectacular than any mere flower.

As Darwin discovered insectivorous plants have to be a bit cunning with their flowers. They usually grow them on really tall stems. That way the friendly pollinating insects are kept well away from the traps which catch the more unfortunate insects destined to become the plant’s next meal.

Across the globe there are many other carnivorous plants. Some are tropical. Monkey cups (Nepenthes) grow in tropical rain forests sometimes high up mountains. They need much skill and a warm humid greenhouse to grow. As their name suggests they catch and eat prey bigger than insects. Sadly they normally catch tiny rodents rather than far more impressive sounding monkeys.

Carnivorous fungi derive some or most of their nutrients from trapping and eating microscopic animals, often nematode pests. More than 200 species have been discovered and some are being used to protect commercial crops from pests.

Today scientists are discovering that some common plants like teasels and even tomatoes are evolving to gain nutrients from trapped insects.

Researchers at the Kew Botanical Gardens now believe there are hundreds more plants that catch and eat insects and other small animals than were previously realised. Among them are species of petunia, ornamental tobacco plants, potatoes and shepherd’s purse, a relative of cabbages.          

It seems that Darwin was right about evolution – but many of us knew that already.

Strangely in Trump’s America more and more people are denying Darwin and holding on to the view that God created everything on Earth in just six days — plants, insects, birds, fish, whales, dodgy presidents and presumably coronaviruses.

“No” I hear Trump trumpeting from across the ocean, “that wasn’t God, that was CHINA!”

I’m just glad that when God was doing all the run-of-the-mill stuff like turnips and broccoli she still had a few minutes to design what Charles Darwin and I think are the “most wonderful plants in the world” — the ones that eat meat.

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