Killer tobacco plant: Insect-trapping species named new to science

Release date: 11 August 2021

  • Scientists from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew have named seven new species of Nicotiana (wild tobacco) from Australia. 

  • Collected by a truck stop on the highway, scientists were surprised to find species new to science in such barren land.  

  • One is able to trap and kill small insects, with the researchers dubbing it the ‘killer tobacco plant’. 

A new paper, published today in the journal Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, reveals the details of seven species of Nicotiana (wild tobacco) newly named by scientists from RBG Kew, Curtin University and University of Vienna. 
One of the seven species described by scientists is Nicotiana insecticida, which has sticky glands covering all its surfaces which regularly snares and kills small insects such as gnats, aphids and flies - the first time a wild tobacco species has been reported to kill insects. 
Its seeds were collected by a truck stop on the Northwest Coastal Highway in Western Australia and cultivated back in London in the greenhouses at Kew Gardens, where the plants continued to kill insects in the greenhouses, so its insidious deadly nature is not diminished by the great distance from its homeland. 
Professor Mark Chase, scientist at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew says: “The arid parts of Australia, which is most of the continent, have been thought of as almost barren with limited plant diversity, but in recent years these poorly studied areas have yielded many new and unusual species. One of these, Nicotiana insecticida, demonstrates well the adage that ‘tobacco kills’, although in this case it is insects that become ensnared on its sundew-like glandular hairs and die.” 
The new plant was discovered during a collaborative project involving researchers in three countries (UK, Austria and Australia), looking at how a group of herbaceous species have been able to adapt to the harsh conditions of the Australian arid zone. This has involved eight years of fieldwork by Chase and his collaborator Dr Maarten Christenhusz in the outback of Australia. They looked for tobaccos in all Australian states and territories except Tasmania, where these species do not occur.  
Also among the seven new species is Nicotiana salina, which grows along salt lakes that mark the border between the Western Australian wheatbelt and the central region that is too dry for crop cultivation.  
Another of the new species, Nicotiana walpa, from Kata Tjuta National Park in the Northern Territory (near Uluru) was given its name from the local Aboriginal language (Pitjantjatjara, the language of the Anangu people) for ‘wind’ because it appears only when there have been storms in the desert. If the rain doesn’t appear, as is often the case, this species remains as seeds in the soil. It has only been found twice, once in 1988 and again in 2016 by Chase and collaborators along the 'Valley of the Winds', a popular hiking trail. 
The study is not yet completed, and there are several other Nicotiana species remaining to be described from the Australian deserts.  

For high-res images, please download from the following link and credit as named: 
Note: All collections were done with all the relevant permits and permissions from Australian authorities.  

Journal: Curtis’s Botanical Magazine 
DOI: 10.1111/curt.12402 

About the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is a world-famous scientific organisation, internationally respected for its outstanding collections as well as its scientific expertise in plant and fungal diversity, conservation and sustainable development in the UK and around the world. Kew Gardens is a major international and a top London visitor attraction. Kew Gardens’ 132 hectares of landscaped gardens, and Wakehurst, Kew’s Wild Botanic Garden, attract over 2.5 million visits every year. Kew Gardens was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2003 and celebrated its 260th anniversary in 2019. Wakehurst is home to Kew's Millennium Seed Bank, the largest wild plant seed bank in the world. The Kew Madagascar Conservation Centre is Kew’s third research centre and only overseas office. RBG Kew receives approximately one third of its funding from Government through the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and research councils. Further funding needed to support RBG Kew’s vital work comes from donors, membership and commercial activity including ticket sales.