(Drosera rotundifolia) Sundew family

Flowers - Small, white, growing in a 1-sided, curved raceme of

buds chiefly. Calyx usually 5-parted; usually 5 petals, and as

many stamens as petals; usually 3 styles, but 2-cleft, thus

appearing to be twice as many. Scape: 4 to 10 in. high. Leaves:

Growing in an open rosette on the ground; round or broader,

clothed with reddish bristly hairs tipped with purple glands, and

narrowed into long, flat, hairy petioles; young leaves curled

like fern fronds.

Preferred Habitat - Bogs, sandy and sunny marshes.

Flowering Season - July-August.

Distribution - Labrador to the Gulf of Mexico and westward. From

Alaska to California. Europe and Asia.

Here is a bloodthirsty little miscreant that lives by reversing

the natural order of higher forms of life preying upon lower

ones, an anomaly in that the vegetable actually eats the animal!

The dogbane, as we have seen, simply catches the flies that dare

trespass upon the butterflies' preserves, for excellent reasons

of its own; the Silenes and phloxes, among others, spread their

calices with a sticky gum that acts as limed twigs do to birds,

in order to guard the nectar secreted for flying benefactors from

pilfering ants; the honey bee being an imported, not a native,

insect, and therefore not perfectly adapted to the milkweed,

occasionally gets entrapped by it; the big bumblebee is sometimes

fatally imprisoned in the moccasin flower's gorgeous tomb - the

punishment of insects that do not benefit the flowers is infinite

in its variety. But the local Venus's flytrap (Dionaea

muscipula), gathered only from the low savannas in North Carolina

to entertain the owners of hothouses as it promptly closes the

crushing trap at the end of its sensitive leaves over a hapless

fly, and the common sundew that tinges the peat-bogs of three

continents with its little reddish leaves, belong to a distinct

class of carnivorous plants which actually masticate their animal

food, depending upon it for nourishment as men do upon cattle

slaughtered in an abattoir. Darwin's luminous account of these

two species alone, which occupies over three hundred absorbingly

interesting pages of his "Insectivorous Plants" should be read by

everyone interested in these freaks of nature.

When we go to some sunny cranberry bog to look for these sundews,

nothing could be more innocent looking than the tiny plant, its

nodding raceme of buds, usually with only a solitary little

blossom (that opens only in the sunshine) at the top of the

curve, its leaves glistening with what looks like dew, though the

midsummer sun may be high in the heavens. A little fly or gnat,

attracted by the bright jewels, alights on a leaf only to find

that the clear drops, more sticky than honey, instantly glue his

feet, that the pretty reddish hairs about him act like tentacles,

reaching inward, to imprison him within their slowly closing

embrace. Here is one of the horrors of the Inquisition operating

in this land of liberty before our very eyes! Excited by the

struggles of the victim, the sensitive hairs close only the

faster, working on the same principle that a vine's tendrils do

when they come in contact with a trellis. More of the sticky

fluid pours upon the hapless fly, plastering over his legs and

wings and the pores on his body through which he draws his

breath. Slowly, surely, the leaf rolls inward, making a temporary

stomach; the cruel hairs bind, the glue suffocates and holds him

fast. Death alone releases him. And now the leafs orgy begins:

moistening the fly with a fresh peptic fluid, which helps in the

assimilation, the plant proceeds to digest its food. Curiously

enough, chemical analysis proves that this sundew secretes a

complex fluid corresponding almost exactly to the gastric juice

in the stomach of animals.

Darwin, who fed these leaves with various articles, found that

they could dissolve matter out of pollen, seeds, grass, etc.; yet

without a human caterer, how could a leaf turn vegetarian? When a

bit of any undesirable substance, such as chalk or wood, was

placed on the hairs and excited them, they might embrace it

temporarily; but as soon as the mistake was discovered, it would

be dropped! He also poisoned the plants by administering acids,

and gave them fatal attacks of indigestion by overfeeding them

with bits of raw beef!

Other common sundews, the SPATULATE-LEAVED SUNDEW (D. intermedia)

and the THREAD-LEAVED SUNDEW (D. filiformis) whose purplish-pink

flowers are reared above wet sand along the coast, possess

contrivances similar to the round-leaved plant's to pursue their

gruesome business. Why should these vegetables turn carnivorous?

Doubtless because the soil in which they grow can supply little

or no nitrogen. Very small roots testify to the small use they

serve. The water sucked up through them from the bog aids in the

manufacture of the fluid so freely exuded by the bristly glands,

but nitrogen must be obtained by other means, even at the

sacrifice of insect victims.

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