Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Carnivorous Plants 1: Butterwort

If every there was a Jekyll-and-Hyde of the plant kingdom, this is surely it. At this time of year common butterwort Pinguicula vulgaris produces delightful little violet flowers that attract pollinating insects that ensure that it sets seed, while at the same time catching and digesting small insects on that rosette of sickly yellowish-green leaves down at soil level.

These plants thrive on the permanently boggy conditions on the old lead mine ore-washing floors at Middlehope Burn in Weardale. There's very little nitrogen in the ground but the small insects that they digest make up for that. The surface of the leaf is covered in glistening, stalked glands producing mucilage that glues the insect down, then tiny glands embedded in the leaf surface release diestive enzymes that convert it into nutritious soup. The rolled edges of the leaves keep the pool of digestive enzymes in place. To see the capture and digestive glands of another, more exotic butterwort species in more detail, click here. The glands release protein-digesting enzymes that curdle milk and butterwort leaves were once used in the first steps in making butter - hopefully making sure that there were no flies stuck to the leaf first!

Butterwort keeps its welcoming flowers and deadly digestive equipment well separated via a tall flower stalk...

... and the precious nectar, there to attract small bee pollinators equipped with a suitably long proboscis, lies inside that nectar spur that you can see at the back of the flower - protected by a forest of fine hairs that prevent small, non-pollinating insects from crawling in and stealing it.

14 comments:

  1. Isn't nature marvellously clever? An unknown species for me, but what an interesting lifestyle.

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  2. Fascinating Phil.
    Deadly but beautiful.

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  3. I agree Phil - I love to see the butterworts out in flower - right up there on my favourites list, especially on the Northumberland shoreline where they pop up in fresh water flushes that come off the boulder clay onto the beach. Do you think it's using the same digestive enzymes as its local partner in crime - the sundew?

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  4. Apologies for my ignorance but what's the difference between a pollinating and a non-pollinating insect? I would have thought that any insect in the habit of crawling inside a flower might potentially be a pollinator?
    cathie

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  5. cheers for the detail I've seen them here
    http://teddytourteas.blogspot.com/2011/03/moughton-whetstone.html
    photo's 20 and 21 and in High Cup Nick
    cheers Danny

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  6. Well, well..Feast him first and eat him later!

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  7. Beautiful photos of the fascinating Butterwort. I know how difficult they are to photograph without getting wet, since they grown on boggy ground!

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  8. Very pretty little plant, toffeeapple - but deadly too. There are a lot of larger species in tropical climates that catch larger prey

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  9. Hi Keith, it's a winning combination!

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  10. Hi Nyctalus, by a remarkable piece of convergent evolution, the proteolytic enzymes in both are very similar to those in the mammalian gut....

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  11. Hi fernenland, interesting question. There are many small insects that can crawl into flowers to steal nectar(ants, for example) without picking up pollen from the stamens - in which case visiting a flower doesn't necessarily end in pollination....

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  12. Hi Danny, there are some very large colonies in Teesdale too..

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  13. Savage, treacherous plants lotusleaf!

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  14. I had soggy knees for the rest of the day swanscot!

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