Venus flytraps and their meals
Venus Flytrap

Venus Flytrap

Botanical Classification:
Kingdom: Plantae
Class: Magnoliopsida
Order: Nepenthales
Family: Droseraceae
Genus: Dionaea Ellis
Species: Dionaea muscipula Ellis

Related Species: Sundew, Waterwheel

Venus flytrap and floral buds

Flower of a Venus flytrap

Geographic Distribution:
Although the Venus flytrap has a very exotic appearance, it is not a tropical plant. The Venus flytrap is native to a small area in North and South Carolina. Some have also been found in a small area of Florida and have been documented in New Jersey as well. "Venus flytraps’ considerable eccentricities have confined them to a 100-mile-long sliver of habitat: the wet pine savannas of northern South Carolina and southern North Carolina. They grow only on the edges of Carolina bays and in a few other coastal wetland ecosystems where sandy, nutrient-poor soil abruptly changes from wet to dry and there’s plenty of sunlight. Fewer than 150,000 plants live in the wild in roughly 100 known sites, according to the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources."
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Human Use Of Venus Flytrap Extract:
In the 1970s, German physician Dr. Helmut Keller began testing liquids from the Venus flytrap in order to determine if they could be used as a means to digest the abnormal proteins found in cancer cells. After several years, he patented Carnivora, a pure phytonutrient extract of the Dionaea muscipula. In a 1985 study, Keller claimed that in a study involving 210 people with various types of cancer, 56% experienced either remission or stabilization of their tumors. Although the study was published, the results were never verified, and still today Carnivora is not approved by the USFDA. Studies of the effect of the extract have ranged from positive but inconclusive to a number of conflicting studies.
Despite the varying results found in a number of studies, the makers of Carnivora claim that the 100 percent pure phytonutrient extract and capsule claim that 17 multi-faceted immune-supporting compounds are produced by the plant naturally.
The benefits listed of Carnviora are said to be:
  • Multi-faceted immune system optimization through systematic immune modulation
  • It gives powerful antioxidant support for heart and cell growth function
  • It has no toxic or mutagenic effects in humans or animals
  • It promotes/supports resistance to harmful invaders
  • It takes advantage of 17 multi-dimensional nutrients in their natural state working synergistically to support the natural healing process
  • It selectively responds to abnormal cells only and causes no harm to a single normal cell
  • It is 100% pure. No alcohol, glycerin, propylene glycol, or any other harmful excipients or fillers

However, Carnivora is sold as a dietary supplement and does not need to provide the FDA with results of detailed testing proving the product is safe and effective. The American Cancer Society shows a different side of the extract from the Venus flytrap, otherwise called carnivora or plumbagin. It states that liquid extracts of Venus flytrap, including Carnivora, do not appear to be toxic when taken orally, however, when the liquid is injected into the body, side effects such as nausea, vomiting, fever, chills, and collapse of the circulatory system may occur. The extent of plumbagin's toxic effects are not fully know yet, but they are known to cause toxic side effects such as diarrhea, skin rash, liver damage, and abnormal blood counts. It has been documented as affecting the ability to conceive and raise likelihood of pregnant animals to abort, as well as affect the sperm in male animals. It has also been found that, "most of the liquid extracts of Venus flytrap contain between 25% and 30% alcohol, which may cause harmful interactions with medicines."
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Carnivorous Behavior:
Rather than absorbing nitrogen and other nutrients through their roots, Venus flytraps are carnivorous. Flytraps are insectivores, meaning they usually feed on insects and arachnids, but some have been seen dining on small frogs who carelessly wander on the flytraps sensitive leaf.
"Flytraps are improbably elaborate. Each yawning maw is a single curved leaf; the hinge in the middle is a thick vein, a modification of the vein that runs up the center of a standard leaf. Several tiny trigger hairs stand on the leaf’s surface. Lured by the plants’ sweet-smelling nectar glands, insects touch the trigger hairs and trip the trap. (A hair must be touched at least twice in rapid succession; thus the plant distinguishes between the brush of a scrambling beetle and the plop of a raindrop.) The force that closes the trap comes from an abrupt release of pressure in certain leaf cells, prompted by the hair trigger; that causes the leaf, which had curved outward, to flip inward, like an inside-out soft contact lens snapping back into its rightful shape. The whole process takes about a tenth of a second, faster than the blink of an eye. After capturing its prey, a flytrap excretes digestive enzymes not unlike our own and absorbs the liquefying meal. The leaf may reopen for a second or even a third helping before withering and falling off." ( )
Once the trap has been sprung, it could take over a week for the flytrap to devour its prey. The flytrap does not swallow its prey, instead, digestive juices are released once the trap has been closed and drowns it prey. Once trapped, the insect is slowly digested by several digestive enzymes that help to decompose the insect. Once sufficiently digested, the leaf re-opens, revealing the drained body of its victim, and ready for its next meal. Venus flytrap may only eat a few insects in its entire life and the leaves may only be able to open seven times before turning black and dying, but that has not stopped it from capturing the minds of people and causing them to believe that the plant is an insatiable carnivorous flesh-eater.
A Source of Inspiration:
Because of the Venus flytrap's fascinating closing mechanism, carnivorous appetite, and monster-like appearance, the flytrap has been a source of inspiration for films and literature. Its' appearance has fostered ideas of giant, toothy, man-eating plants with an insatiable taste for flesh and a habit of biting. It has created carnivorous plant monsters that frequent films and fiction. Even iconic the video-game Super Mario Bros has been influenced by the idea of man-eating plants.
The idea of man-eating plants was b-movie gold, and many films featured or played around with the idea. A large man-eating Venus flytrap makes a cameo in the film Konga, an English adaptation of "King Kong" about a professor who comes up with a formula to grow plants and animals to an enormous size. He tries out the formula on a chimpanzee as well as plants in his hot house. In the climax of the film when the giant chimpanzee is running amok, we see that the professor has grown a giant Venus flytrap in his hot house, and moments later we see his student's arm getting trapped by the monster plant.
The Venus flytrap was also a source of inspiration behind the Venomous Tentacula from the Harry Potter series. The plant resembled a Venus flytrap with vines that moved like tentacles. It was a spiky, dark-red plant that had teeth and a penchant for biting. Even its seed pods resembled the seeds of the Venus flytrap, which were shriveled black pods.
The most famous of man-eaters, Audrey II, from the film, Little Shop of Horrors, was another monster plant that was seemingly inspired by the idea of carnivorous plants and the Venus flytrap. Audrey II, thrives on human blood and will die without it. As she grows bigger, so does her appetite and she becomes a full-blown man-eater.
Other films that feature man-eating plants are, The Attack Of the Killer Tomatoes, The Day of the Triffids, Voodoo Island, and also Jumanji.

Audrey II
Man-eating Venus flytrap from "Konga"
Piranha Plant from Super Mario Bros

Stewart, Amy. Wicked Plants. Workman Publishing, NY 2009.