If “Little Shop Of Horrors” gave you nightmares, look away.
The western false asphodel wildflower (known by its scientific name of Triantha occidentalis) can be located throughout the Pacific northwest in areas like mountains and bogs. The white plant also omits a sweet smell.
While it sounds like your run-of-the-mill flower, it was found by British Columbian scientists to be holding an incredible secret: it’s a flesh-eater. The findings were published in a study in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences.
As the study’s abstract notes, this is only the 12th time plant carnivory has been recognized since Charles Darwin produced a monograph on carnivorous plants.
As Atlas Obscura explains, scientists noticed that the plant was missing genes that help it with the process of photosynthesis. In an effort to discover how the false asphodel gains its fuel, scientists bred a group of fruit flies and tagged them.
Scientists also gave the fruit flies food mixed with acid that contained nitrogen-15. If the scientists found that same nitrogen in the plants’ tissues, it means it had to have been transferred over. They then placed the flies onto the wild asphodels’ sticky, 2.5 feet stems, or inflorescences. After a few weeks, scientists did confirm that the plants were “siphoning that nitrogen and accumulating it in its stem and fruits.”
The scientists didn’t know how they absorbed the nutrients, guessing the asphodel’s “glandular hairs” – which the abstract states secrete phosphatase, a common trait among all carnivorous plants. However, the false asphodels weren’t able to consume the entire flies, which meant leftover exoskeletons.
Lead author of the study, Qianshi Lin, told Atlas Obscura that the climates where the western false asphodel is found are perfect for a plant such as it to thrive due to the “patchwork of the water and forest.”
The abstract noted that the western false asphodel was unique among its carnivorous brethren when catching prey because it solely uses “sticky traps adjacent to its flowers.”
So, what kind of insects does this flower chow down on? Bees and butterflies manage to get out of harm’s way by being “just big enough,” Lin explained. This is beneficial for the false asphodel, as it helps to keep pollinators from meeting the same fate as beetles, mosquitos, and ants – all of which the scientists speculate make up the false asphodel’s diet.
While eating may seem like a simple-enough task, it’s much tougher for plants. Conservation ecologist Iza Redlinski, also speaking to Atlas Obscura, explains that plants’ carnivorous consumption is heavy effort, and is “only worth it” when there aren’t any other options.
“From the plant’s perspective, it’s a lot of effort to lure an insect, capture it, digest it, [and] absorb those nutrients, while still probably photosynthesizing.”
Lin also told Atlas Obscura that there might be other carnivorous plants in the wild that have been able to evade notice, just like the false asphodel did for so long. These are referred to in the abstract as “cryptic carnivores.”
However, Lin expressed his worry that global warming will dry up the bogs that plants like the false asphodel call home. It’s a definite possibility, given how climate change can effect plants and many of their habits.
There are currently over 630 known species of carnivorous plants, some of which are so big — one example being the giant montane pitcher plant — they have been observed eating vertebrates and small mammals such as birds and mice. The nutrients that some carnivorous plants absorb don’t always have to be a living orgasm, either. Some plants are known to feed on feces.
Andrew Rhoades is a Contributing Reporter at The National Digest based in New York. A Saint Joseph’s University graduate, Rhoades’ reporting includes sports, U.S., and entertainment. You can reach him at email@example.com.