The Venus flytrap, or Dionaea muscipula, is a carnivorous plant that still baffles and fascinates scientists and botanists today. Its trapping structure is its key distinctive feature and is what gives it its menacing name.
Origins of the Venus flytrap
The origins of the name go way back to 1769, to the eastern bogs of North Carolina and a man named John Ellis. John Ellis, a member of the East India Company who primarily dealt with the shipping of plants, discovered the Venus flytrap and was so taken aback that he wrote a letter to famous botanist Carl Linnaeus describing the plant. In that letter, Ellis named it Dionaea muscipula after the Greek goddess Diana (who the Romans called Venus) and muscipula — Latin for ‘mousetrap’.
The anatomy of the plant is fascinating too. Its evolutionary history isn’t entirely known since the plant hasn’t been fossilized as such. However, scientists believe that the plant started out flowering far smaller in size on the ground and gradually grew bigger due to the size of its prey.
How does a Venus flytrap work?
The inner walls of the leaves are covered in nectar which attracts flies, insects and spiders to land there. There are three trichomes (hair-like spikes) that rest in the middle of the plant’s mouth. These are, in effect, the Venus flytrap’s triggering mechanism.
If two spikes are touched within twenty seconds of each other or one spike is touched multiple times in quick succession, then the two halves of the plant close together and ensnare any prey in under a second. The trichomes are incredibly sophisticated as they can distinguish between living or inanimate objects very easily – whether it’s a drop of rain or the shell of a nut.
The edges of the plant’s leaves are covered in stiff hairs, called cilia, which interlock once the trap has been sprung, sealing the fate of the prey for good. What’s even worse for any poor insect that is trapped is that its struggles only make the leaves join tighter together.
Once the trap is tightly shut it turns into a stomach. The secretion of enzymes such as oxidative protein modification then breaks down and digests the prey. This can take up to ten days, depending on the size of the meal, after which time the trap reopens and spits out the exoskeleton of the insect – basically the insect’s outer body.
Venus flytrap care
Venus flytraps can be grown at home but they are notoriously demanding plants to grow. They require a lot of sunlight (around twelve hours of direct light per day). Once sunlight starts to decrease in fall, the plant will go dormant, living on underground. For watering, it’s best to use rainwater rather than tap water.
The Venus flytrap is a carnivore, so it must be fed live insects when kept as a houseplant. They’re ideally planted in peat, sphagnum moss, or other low nutrient soils. Fertilizer should not be used.
Venus flytrap flower
Venus flytraps are perennials — meaning they bloom again each year. Their flowers are white and will produce seeds when pollinated. Flowering requires a great deal of the plant’s energy, so growth often slows during this time.
For a more visual way of learning how the Venus flytrap works, watch this clip: