This Flower Is Keeping a Secret: It’s Actually a Carnivore


This wildflower looks innocent. Found in wetlands not far from major cities in the Pacific Northwest, it attracts pollinators with white flowers on a long, sticky stem. You can even buy Western fake asphodel seeds at garden stores.

But according to new research published Monday Proceedings of the National Academy of SciencesBotanists have overlooked a distinctive feature of the perennial plant: It is the world’s newest and most unexpected carnivorous plant.

There are 13 known carnivorous plant families, from insect-eating sundews and Venus flytraps to pitcher plants large enough to suffocate and swallow a mouse. Most live in sunny, moist habitats that are deficient in vital nutrients – peat bogs, acid swamps, forest canopies – and must get their nourishment from live prey.

“Carnivorous plants often have a strong signal that they are carnivores,” said Qianshi Lin, a botanist at the University of British Columbia and author of the study. “They often grow together with other carnivorous plants in nutrient-poor environments. And they usually have a structure that can catch insects.”

Dr. Lin said that although the Western false asphodel has been found in environments where other carnivorous plants have arisen, no one suspects it may also be carnivorous. “This herb has long been overlooked because it has no uses and people don’t know much about them.”

During the summer bloom season, Western false asphodels produce leafless flowering stems up to 31 inches long, covered with sticky hairs. Dr. While herbarium specimens often have small flies or insects clinging to these hairs, these hairs were often believed to be part of the plant’s defense strategy and kill insects that could attack leaves and flowers, Dr. Lin.

The first clue that the plant has an appetite for insects came when T. Gregory Ross, also from the University of British Columbia, noticed the genetic signs of the plant that are sometimes associated with carnivorous plants. This is Dr. It was enough for Lin and his colleagues to take another look.

To prove that a plant is carnivorous, you must show that nutrients have passed from animals to the plant. To test this, Dr. Lin and colleagues hooked the fruit flies with nitrogen-15 isotopes and placed them on the bodies of the false asphodel, as well as the carnivorous sundew and the more harmless wandering fleas.

Dr. Lin said that when they checked the nitrogen levels of all three plants, they discovered that the sundew and false asphodel absorbed roughly the same amount of nitrogen isotopes. And to rivet it, the hairs on the false asphodel’s body secreted a phosphatase, a digestive enzyme that many carnivorous plant species use to extract phosphorus from insects. The western fake asphodel did indeed digest its prey.

Dr. “We found that the nutrients got into the flowers and fruits in the first place,” Lin said, suggesting that the extra nutrition from the insects helps the plant reproduce. While more research is needed, it’s possible that the plant may store excess insect nutrients in its roots to aid the next year’s bloom season.

So far, the false asphodel in the West is unique among predatory plants: No other species uses just flower stalks to catch its prey. Dr. “Most will avoid trapping around their breeding sites as it will catch or kill their pollinators, which is obviously bad for them,” Lin said. “It’s pretty unusual for this to do.”

Dr. To circumvent this problem, Lin said the plant’s hairs and secretions appear to be adapted to target only very small prey (mosquitoes and tiny flies) and are likely too weak to accidentally catch a butterfly or bee.

Western false asphodels may be a recent example of how certain plants adapt previously existing structures to carnivores. Plants like sticky purple geraniums and tomatoes also have sticky hairs on their surfaces, often thought to act as a defense mechanism. But once you catch the bugs, Dr. It may be a relatively short evolutionary step for plants growing in poor environments to start digesting them, Lin said.

Does that count as a complete carnivore, though? Andreas Fleischmann, curator of vascular plants at the Bavarian Natural History Collections, said that in his view the main criterion for carnivorous plants is not whether the plant digests insects, but whether or not it attracts them.

It has not yet been shown that the false asphodel actively attracts the insects it eats, he said. The vast majority of carnivorous plants deliberately lure their prey into special leaf traps through provocative scents and striking colours. The false asphodel may represent a different evolutionary strategy: Dr. “Don’t waste the bugs you kill defensively,” Fleischmann said.

Either way, the study raises the intriguing possibility that there are other plant species—perhaps even familiar ones—that have yet to be recognized as ways to digest insects. The western false asphodel has three yet-to-be-tested sister species and may also be carnivorous.

Dr. “This is a good reminder that even in well-known environments, we still don’t know much about the ecology of many individual plant species,” Lin said.


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