Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

July 2015 – California Pitcher Plants, Darlingtonia State Natural Site, Oregon

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Animal-eating plants evoke a certain fascination, don’t they? They cross a boundary that it doesn’t seem quite right to cross. We generally think that animals, like us, eat plants not the other way around. We think that plants are fundamentally different from us, a separate kingdom. But are they?

I am currently reading a book, What a Plant Knows by biologist Daniel Chamovitz. It examines the science of plant senses, awareness and perception. In other words, he explains what we might call plant sentience or basic plant consciousness. We know that we share much of our DNA with other animals, even the most primitive, but did you know we share genes with plants as well?

In modern times and throughout history we find examples in media, literature and lore of creatures that look and behave like both plant and animal. There is Audrey II – the man-eating singing plant from the Faustian musical comedy, “The Little Shop of Horrors”; the ents, those great tree-beings who walk and talk and help save Middle Earth – albeit slowly – in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy; and throughout history and cultures there have been depictions of the “green man”, a man made of leaves.

As a child we had a Venus Flytrap. Placing an insect or piece of raw meat into it’s fringed jaws, the plant would snap shut on the offered meal. In time the meat would be digested. Flytraps are found in wetlands of North and South Carolina. Most of the other carnivorous plants living in the United States are varieties of pitcher plants.

On the West Coast we have the rare Darlingtonia californica, also called the California pitcher plant, cobra lily, or cobra plant. Just north of Florence, Oregon, on the Pacific coast, is a tiny preserve, Darlingtonia State Natural Site. There, in a small fen, are hundreds of these strange insect-digesting plants. They materialize from the ground like a hollow snake, ending in a bulbous head, sprouting a forked leaf like a serpent’s tongue.

These pitcher plants attract insects into their tube-of-doom by secreting a sweet nectar. Once inside, the insects become disoriented and cannot find their way out. Eventually, they fall to the bottom of the stalk where downward-pointing hairs keep them trapped. They drown in a pool of bacteria-filled water, decomposing and creating nitrogen for the plant to absorb.

The California pitcher plant is also a photographer’s delight. Like curious green and red-spotted apparitions, they raise their heads to peer around. Individuals seem to have personalities and groups appear to be relating to each other.

Do carnivorous plants alter your perspective on plants . . .  and maybe on animals, too?

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