Thursday, March 30, 2017

Plants that fight back

Michael - Thursday

Reading up about Madagascar has turned up some extremely unusual wildlife phenomena there. For example, in 1875 Dr. Carl Liche, an early explorer of the island and chronicler of the Mkondos tribe, witnessed a huge example of the carnivorous Ya-Te-Veo plant consuming a local woman in sticky, octopus-like tentacles. His report and sketch of the event was printed in the South Australian Register in 1878.
Well, no. It must have been a slack month for news in South Australia. (Easy to believe after my own sojourn there a hundred years later.) The plant didn’t exist, and neither did the Mkondos or even Dr. Liche. Evidence that ‘fake news’ isn’t a social media, or even new, invention.

But we are fascinated by carnivorous plants. Perhaps it’s the sort of fascination that attracts us to lions and other predators. Perhaps it’s just a fascination with plants doing things plants don’t do – moving, eating creatures, fighting back. After some hopeless science fiction adventure stories, John Beynon changed his name to Wyndham and wrote The Day of the Triffids – his breakout book and an international best seller. (Incidentally, he later collaborated with Lucas Parkes on a space exploration novel – The Outward Urge. His editor felt that for such ‘hard scifi’ - new to the Wyndham name - the author needed an engineer’s touch. So Wyndham invented a collaborator from other parts of his extraordinary long name: John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris. Presumably the two authors didn’t do any joint signings.)

Later the sixties movie – The Little Shop of Horrors – featured a plant that ate people and it became a sort of cult movie.

Actually, carnivorous plants are fascinating as they are, even if they’re not dangerous. To humans. Charles Darwin wrote a treatise on them in 1875 titled Insectivorous Plants. (Maybe the inspiration for that newspaper story, given the date.) It’s believed that botanical carnivorous adaptations evolved nine times independently and that there are over 500 different species. It’s not food for energy the plants are after (the way a spider is, for example); they almost always live in poor soils or boggy conditions that are poor in nitrogen, phosphorous, and calcium that plants need for growth and health. The good news is that they usually don’t have much competition. Obtaining those nutrients is the name of the game.

Many of the plants have become very popular and some are quite easy to grow. Or should that be to keep as pets? You have to feed them. The Venus Flytrap is a particular favorite with its own journal for collectors and enthusiasts. There is a morbid fascination in watching the trap closing on its prey.The video below shows it in time lapse.

What I find most intriguing about the Venus Flytrap is the trap mechanism, and it’s apparently not well understood. After all, plants don’t have anything like muscles. The open trap is convex and attractively colored. The inside has sensitive hairs which trigger the trap, but only if two are touched, presumably to prevent wind and dust triggering it. Then the sides of the trap flip to concave, thus forming a chamber and causing the sides to move together. The teeth snap shut and the insect is trapped inside. Now the plant waits until five hairs are triggered before the digestive enzymes are released, once again minimizing mistakes. Plants that can count to five? That’s better than quite a lot of our current politicians can manage.

The pitcher plants of Borneo (Nepenthes rajah) really are huge - the pitchers can be up to eight inches (20cm) across and sixteen inches (40cm) deep, holding more than two liters of digestive fluids. They have been known to catch and digest small animals. The inside of the open lids are lined with sweet nectar which attracts summit rats and treeshrews as well as insects. The large plants are about the right size to fit a rat as the picture shows. But the main attraction to the plant of the rodent is that it sits on top of the pitcher feeding on the nectar, and its droppings fall into the pitcher with all their nitrogen and other minerals. That works for the plant. The shrews service it during the day, the rats at night.

Many pitcher plants (including the Borneo one) have symbiotic relationships with larvae and other small creatures that live in the liquid at the bottom of the pitcher, and chew up the insects that fall in. Several species of mosquito larvae can live nowhere else. There is even a tiny crab that makes its home there. 

Here's another interesting plant - the sundew.

Maybe they don’t eat humans, but one has to respect plants that can count to five, make deals with other species, and digest rat droppings. Why am I thinking about politicians again?


Murder Is Everywhere
Author Recognitions and Events


April 28-30
Malice Domestic
Hyatt Regency
Bethesda,  Maryland
Panel: The British Empire, 0900, Sunday April 30
(FYI- Sujata and I will be on the same panel!!!)

May 31
Janet Rudolph Literary Salon:
"The History of Hot Places: Clashes between Colonialism and Local Cultures”
Joint appearance with Michael Cooper

Jun 11
Books NJ
Sounds of the Paramus Library, 1-5PM
Panel: How to Write (and Read) Mystery
Signing at the MWA-NY Booth

June 16-18
Deadly Ink Conference
Hilton Garden Inn
Rockaway, New Jersey


Murder in Saint Germain, Aimée Leduc’s next investigation, comes out June 6, 2017.
Just signed the contract for the next two Aimée Leduc investigations in Paris with Soho Press.


           April 28-26
Malice Domestic
Hyatt Regency
Bethesda,  Maryland
Panel: The British Empire, 0900, Sunday April 30
(FYI- Annamaria and I will be on the same panel!!!)


Paper back of Rat Run published 28th March.
Signed two-book contract with Severn House.


"The Olive Growers,” appears in BOUND BY MYSTERY, an anthology edited by Diane DiBiasi celebrating the 20th Anniversary of Poisoned Pen Press, out in March.


Dying to Live (Kubu #6) to be released in May in UK and SA  and in October in USA
Stanley will be at Crimefest in Bristol, May 18 - 21.
Michael will be at the Franschhoek Book Festival in South Africa, May 18 - 21.
(See the benefits of writing together!!)


  1. Of course the Mkondi are just across the water in Tanzania.

  2. Unfortunately, the newest member of this select group, the Tangerine Trump Trap, isn't nearly rare enough and it's trap is stuck in the open position, never closing. Sigh.

    1. Oh well, a little rat shit may just improve the trap position!

    2. :-) Oh, now THERE'S a mental picture that will brighten my view for DAYS.

    3. To really brighten your day, if you haven't heard, check out online about the python and Indonesian farmer. Tragic.

    4. So... you're suggesting there might be a way to get a 23-foot python into the White House???

  3. Little Shop of Horrors became a cult musical in NYC off-Broadway in the early 80's. I saw it at least twice. Hilarious.