Dionaea muscipula (Venus flytrap)
The Venus flytrap “eats” insects and sometimes even small frogs that become trapped in its modified, toothed leaves; if the prey struggles, the trap will close even tighter.
About this species
The Venus flytrap is a miracle of nature. People do not think of plants moving, but the Venus flytrap can catch insects with its toothed modified leaves that snap shut when triggered by prey touching the tiny hairs on the inner leaf surface. Kew’s Director Joseph Hooker and Charles Darwin shared a keen interest in carnivorous plants. Darwin even described the Venus flytrap as “one of the most wonderful plants in the world”.
How the Venus flytrap works
The workings of the trap mechanism in Dionaea are complex and depend on changes in the osmotic potential of the cells in the hinge. The traps close when one or other of the trigger hairs is touched more than once in quick succession; if nothing is caught, traps reopen after about a day. Once an insect is trapped, flaps close tighter to squash it, and enzymes are secreted to digest the prey. Mucilage is secreted to seal the margins of the trap. Some days later, after the insect is digested, the trap reopens.
The traps are unusual in that they spring shut. Similar traps are found in the aquatic genus Aldovandra (also in the family Droseraceae), but these only catch minute aquatic animals. Most species of Drosera (sundews) also catch insects, but by using sticky hairs that cover the leaf, after which the leaf slowly coils over the insect before digesting it.
Geography & Distribution
The Venus flytrap is found in south-east USA, in North Carolina and South Carolina. Populations, probably exotic, have been recorded from New Jersey and Florida.
The Venus flytrap has a rosette of leaves up to 20 cm across. Each leaf has a flat stalk and ends in a trap about 2 cm across. The centre is often reddish, and the sides of the trap are lined with 14–20 stiff, comb-like bristles that interlock when the trap closes. The flowers are white, in a cluster at the top of a 15–45 cm leafless stalk. The flowers have five sepals and five equal petals, around 12 mm long. There are 15–20 stamens. Numerous, small black seeds are formed in a round capsule.
Illustration from Curtis's Botanical Magazine
A hand-coloured engraving of Dionaea muscipula by Sydenham Edwards, taken from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine (1804) (Image: RBG Kew)
Curtis’s Botanical Magazine (Editor: Martyn Rix) provides an international forum of particular interest to botanists and horticulturists, plant ecologists and those with a special interest in botanical illustration.
Now well over two hundred years old, the Magazine is the longest running botanical periodical featuring colour illustrations of plants. Each four-part volume contains 24 plant portraits reproduced from watercolour originals by leading international botanical artists. Detailed but accessible articles combine horticultural and botanical information, history, conservation and economic uses of the plants described.
Published for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew by Wiley-Blackwell Publishing.
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Threats & Conservation
Dionaea muscipula is Vulnerable (VU) (A1acd, B1+2c) according to IUCN Red List criteria. It is also considered Vulnerable (G3), using the NatureServe criteria. It has a narrow range on the coastal plain of North and South Carolina. The species is threatened by over-collection from the wild but to an even greater degree by loss of habitat and fires, which alter its natural habitat. Dionaea muscipula is listed on Appendix II of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), which mandates regulations on international trade in threatened species.
Dionaea muscipula was among 250 rare and threatened plants selected for inclusion in the first IUCN Plant Red Data Book published in 1978. This publication grew out of pioneering work by a handful of botanists in the Kew Herbarium, which recognised that there are many plant species in danger of extinction for which their plight was less publicised than rare and charismatic animals. A network of researchers was established around the world, feeding data on the conservation status of plants to the team at Kew, making up what was then called the Threatened Plants Committee (TPC). This work formed the basis of the plant database of the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre, which records distribution and conservation status of over 34,000 globally rare and threatened plant species and modern day IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
The Venus flytrap is commonly grown as a curiosity and is a source of wonder for children and adults alike. Indeed, it is likely that the Venus flytrap has been the source of inspiration for many a horror film involving man-eating plants – a somewhat unique “use” within the plant kingdom! Dionaea muscipula has also been shown to contain naphthoquinones that may have medicinal value.
Watch this Kew video of tips and tricks on caring for your Venus flytrap
This species at Kew
Dionaea muscipula can be seen in the Princess of Wales Conservatory in the carnivorous plant zone.
The botanical artist Marianne North depicted Dionaea muscipula in her painting North American Carnivorous Plants (see image, left), which can be seen in the Marianne North Gallery.
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