Real-Life Killer Tomatoes? Carnivorous Plants May Be All Around Us

By Brett Israel | December 9, 2009 2:39 pm

fuzzy-tomato-webWatch out next time you’re in your garden—carnivorous plants are lurking where you least expect. OK, they aren’t really dangerous, unless you’re a small insect, but now that we have your attention, scientists are reporting that common plants like petunias, potatoes, and tomatoes may actually have a carnivorous nature.

Botanist Mark Chase argues that carnivorous plants are much more widespread than previously thought, they just act in more subtle ways than the Venus flytraps and pitcher plants of the world. For instance, the cross-leaved heath (Erica tetralix) is not typically considered a carnivorous plant, but this pink flower possesses sticky, adhesive glands and dwells in poor soils. Also, while carnivorous seeds might be a strange concept, those of the shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) possesses a sticky layer with chemicals that can attract, kill and digest victims [Fox News]. Chase and his colleagues argue that about 300 more plants could be fairly classified as carnivores, in addition to the roughly 650 known carnivorous plants.  Of the new suspects, tobacco and tomato plants are among the most famous.

So you’re probably thinking, how would a tomato eat anything? Well it’s not that simple, according to study coauthor Mike Fay. He says he thinks these plants were overlooked because they aren’t flashy and act in subtle ways. For one, they do not immediately digest what they trap. “They catch little aphids on the sticky hairs [on their stems] all the time. As these insects break down and drop to the ground the ground becomes enriched and the plants absorb them through the roots,” he said [The Independent]. So basically they are trapping their own fertilizer, which is a nifty evolutionary trick.

However, at this point, the research team is doing little more than hypothesizing, since they haven’t run any experiments to see if some of their suspected carnivores actually gain nutrients from the bugs they kill. The researchers also note that cultivated tomatoes are probably so well-supplied with fertilizer that they’d have little need of the nutrients from a couple of aphids. Regardless, you can read about their theory in the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society.

Related Content:
DISCOVER: The Plants That Eat Animals
DISCOVER: The Processing Plant: how the purple pitcher plant does its work
DISCOVER: Flesh-Eating Plants in the Borneo rainforest

Image: flickr / The Suss-Man (Mike)

MORE ABOUT: botany, insects

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