Flytraps, Sundews, and Pitchers: Discovering the Carnivorous Plants of BHL
In a world where staggering habitat destruction and biodiversity loss have become the new normal, understanding the extraordinary interactions between plants and humans is increasingly urgent. Yet the human tendency to ignore the importance of plant-human interactions remains persistent. The Plant Humanities Initiative at Dumbarton Oaks seeks to address this gap in plant awareness through an interdisciplinary coalition of programs and scholarship tackling the cultural significance of plants in human affairs.
As the Digital Plant Humanities Intern for Dumbarton Oaks this summer, I will be writing an interactive, visual essay on the cultural history of Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula) for the Plant Humanities Lab – a new open access portal developed by Dumbarton Oaks and JSTOR Labs. Accompanying this essay is a BHL collection highlighting the wealth of digitized scientific literature and botanical illustration surrounding carnivorous plants. These fascinating organisms attract, capture, and digest animal prey in order to supplement the nutrient-poor soil of their natural habitats. Today, over seven hundred species possessing this specialized suite of adaptations have been identified, evolving at least seven times independently!
As the English botanist Sir Joseph Hooker once proclaimed, “such vegetable sportsmen as the Sundew, the Venus’s Flytrap, and the Pitcher-Plants” have long been of interest to the botanically inclined (Hooker 1875, 102). The carnivorous plant collection on BHL emphasises sources that feature the Venus flytrap (Dionaea) and sundews (Drosera), as well as the pitcher plants (Nepenthes, Cephalotus, and Sarracenia). Each group represents a different trapping mechanism deployed by the plants to catch their prey: the infamously fast snap traps of Dionaea, dangerously beautiful adhesive leaves of Drosera, and the deceptively simple pitfall traps of the pitcher plants.
The Venus flytrap, a familiar household name and easily the most famous carnivorous plant, has inspired countless admirers over the past several hundred years. Charles Darwin considered it among the “most wonderful” plants in the world (Darwin 1875, 243). Carl von Linné, the father of modern taxonomy, dubbed it a “miracle of nature” (Linné 1774, 335). Even American naturalist and politician Thomas Jefferson attempted to cultivate Dionaea in order to showcase the flora of his fledgling nation. With carnivorous plants native to every continent except Antarctica, this macabre curiosity of the vegetable kingdom is in good company.
Before addressing the fascinating Western narrative of carnivorous plants, a story deeply rooted in colonial expansion and discovery, it is important to first note their rich place in indigenous cultural and medicinal practices around the world. Found in the wild globally, these plants have long been integrated into the knowledge systems of Indigenous peoples from locales as far-flung as Australia, Indonesia, Scandinavia, and North America.
Several Indigenous peoples appear to have been intimately familiar with the plants’ murderous habits long before the arrival of European colonizers, and this carnivorous behavior clearly influenced their cultural significance. The Toraja people of Sulawesi Selatan (South Celebes), Indonesia, believe that ants killed by the “suke-bombo” (a species of Drosera), housed the souls of dead ancestors (Nooy-Palm 1979, 228). By lighting the plants ablaze, these trapped souls could become rainclouds and bring a plentiful harvest. On the other side of the world, Native American Cherokee medical practitioners used the pitcher plant Sarracenia purpurea, the “never-failing insect hunter” to obtain a “never-failing memory” during their training rituals (Mooney 1931, 101). Water from various pitcher plants has been used medicinally in various cultural traditions for centuries, and scientists have only just begun to understand the medicinal powers of the Droseraceae, long prized for their anti-inflammatory chemical properties (Egan and Kooy 2013). Yet surviving texts that discuss the true purpose of their deadly design did not appear until the mid-eighteenth century, when European naturalists first encountered the Venus flytrap. 
Early Modern Herbals
Mostly cropping up in early modern medicinal herbals, there were several 16th-17th century accounts of insects being killed by plants. The Flemish botanist Rembert Dodoens is responsible for the first printed image of a carnivorous plant — a woodcut of Drosera rotundifolia under the Latin name “Ros Solis” in his herbal Crŭÿde boeck (1554).
The English herbalist John Gerard appears to have included some midges or gnats in sundew woodcuts from his 1597 herbal, largely plagiarized from Dodoens’ work. Of course, this detail could simply be a printing error and he certainly did not recognize the significance of this strange phenomenon. Upon careful inspection, D. rotundifolia also appears in the upper left corner of his elaborately engraved frontispiece. Try to spot it!
The unusual leaves of pitcher plants were even more puzzling for early modern naturalists. Mark Catesby suggested that Sarracenia pitchers served as an asylum for insects and frogs in his illustrated The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands (Catesby 1734, 70). Scottish botanist Robert Morison wrote – incorrectly – that the lid of Sarracenia worked like a hinge to trap insects (Morison 1699, 533). Carl von Linné echoed this claim in Hortus Cliffortianus (Linné 1737, 497). In his “PrælectionesIn ordines naturales plantarum,” Linné further supposed that the purpose of the pitchers was to “supply water to thirsty birds” (Linné 1792, 316; see also Miller 1755, 161).
Linné was also the first to describe a carnivorous plant – Drosera and Aldrovanda – according to modern standards of binomial nomenclature, originally popularized through his own classification system based upon the number of sexual organs (i.e., pistils and stamens) that a plant possesses.
John Ellis, an English linen merchant, naturalist, and close friend of Linné, was the first to publish a scientific description and illustration of the Venus flytrap. Amended to the end of his short 1770 pamphlet on Transatlantic plant transport, a brief description in the guise of an open letter to Linné signaled the formal entrance of plant carnivory into Western scientific discourse.
Ellis points to the likelihood of carnivory in his letter to Linné:
“I know that every discovery in nature is a treat to you ; but in this you will have a feast […] no end or design of nature has yet appeared to you from these surprising motions […] the plant, of which I now enclose you an exact figure […] shows, that Nature may have some views towards its nourishment, in forming the upper joint of its leaf like a machine to catch food.” (Ellis 1770, 37)
Linné appears to have met this claim with skepticism, for in Mantissa Plantarum he preferred to describe the snap trap as a simple “catch-and-release” mechanism, intended to stave off predatory insects (Linné 1771, 238).
Word of the strange Venus flytrap spread quickly across Europe, with a wide range of commentators in France, Italy, Germany, Sweden, and England weighing in on the existence of carnivorous plants. Perhaps the most significant was little-known German botanist Albrecht Wilhelm Roth. After learning of Dionaea’s killer instincts, Roth sought to understand similar trapping mechanisms in two close European relatives: the sundews Drosera rotundifolia and D. longifolia. After extensive experiments attempting to explain the physiology of their sensitive trapping mechanisms, he devoted an entire chapter to the sundews in Beyträge Zur Botanik.  His work was later corroborated by William Withering and at least two other English botanists (Withering 1787, 332). He devoted part of his treatise to the more abstract problems carnivory posed… neatly tiptoeing around potential theological conflicts:
“Herr Ellis utters the conjecture in his letter to the Knight of Linné that nature, in the formation of the leaves of Dionaea, may have had some concern for its nourishment. Herr Hofrath Schreber, however, considers this assumption unbelievable, namely that the plant takes some nourishment from the insects crushed between its leaves. It is certain that we cannot judge with certainty what kind of intentions the wise creator had, that he gave these plants a special construction and irritable property, but I believe that one could not wrongly assume that the construction and the nature of these plants aim at in order to obtaining their nourishment for the maintenance and reproduction of their species. Because we can not determine whether these plants, in particular, may not need animal juices for their nourishment and preservation due to their special construction? In addition, we know that the leaves of the plants also have such vessels through which they draw foreign parts from the air for their food, so that there is no reason to doubt the possibility of this.” (Roth 1782, 73)
In 1791, the American naturalist William Bartram prefaced his “Travels through North and South Carolina” with what can be best described as a love letter to Dionaea:
“But admirable are the properties of the extraordinary Dionaea muscipula! A great extent on each side of that Turpentine rivulet is occupied by those sportive vegetables — let us advance to the spot in which nature has seated them. Astonishing production! see the incarnate lobes expanding, how gay and sportive they appear ready on the spring to intrap incautious deluded insects! what artifice! there behold one of the leaves just closed upon a struggling fly; another has gotten a worm; its hold is sure, its prey can never escape — carnivorous vegetable! Can we after viewing this object, hesitate a moment to confess, that vegetable beings are endued with some sensible faculties or attributes, similar to those that dignify animal nature; they are organical, living, and self-moving bodies, for see here, in this plant, motion and volition.” (Bartram 1791, xiii-xiv)
Bartram is, however, not so generous with other vegetable suspects like Sarracenia and Drosera, stating that “whether the insects caught in their leaves, and which dissolve and mix with the fluid, serve for ailment or support to these kinds of plants, is doubtful.” The Venus flytrap was met with similar skepticism in Europe. An Italian translation of John Hill’s A Decade of Curious and Elegant Trees and Plants (1773) claimed that unspecified experiments had proven Ellis’ notion of plant carnivory to be false, despite including a somewhat viscous-looking illustration of the flytrap.
A decade later, on the other side of the world, British explorer Matthew Flinders exalted the discovery of Cephalotus follicularis, a monotypic Australian pitcher plant:
”January 1802 […] Amongst the plants collected by Mr. Brown and his associates, was a small one of a novel kind, which we commonly call the pitcher plant. Around the root leaves are several little vases lined with spiny hairs, and these were generally found to contain a sweetish water, and also a number of dead ants. It cannot be asserted that the ants were attracted by the water, and prevented by the spiny hairs from making their escape; but it seemed not improbably, that this was a contrivance to obtain the means necessary either to the nourishment or preservation of the plant” (Flinders 1814, 64).
The BHL carnivorous plant collection highlights some of the earliest attempts to understand the insatiable appetites of carnivorous plants, revealing the extent to which they were entangled with the history of botanical exploration. The next post in this series will explore these plants through the eyes of three generations of Darwins on BHL (Erasmus, Charles, and Francis), looking at their enduring impact on botany in the popular imagination.
References and Additional Suggested Reading
Bartram, William, and T. Cander. Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws : Containing an Account of the Soil and Natural Productions of Those Regions : Together with Observations on the Manners of the Indians : Embellished with Copper-Plates. Philadelphia : Printed by James and Johnson, 1791. https://doi.org/10.5962/bhl.title.109283
Catesby, Mark. The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands : Containing the Figures of Birds, Beasts, Fishes, Serpents, Insects, and Plants : Particularly, the Forest-Trees, Shrubs, and Other Plants, Not Hitherto Described, or Very Incorrectly Figured by Authors : Together with Their Descriptions in English and French : To Which, Are Added Observations on the Air, Soil, and Waters : With Remarks upon Agriculture, Grain, Pulse, Roots, &c. : To the Whole, Is Prefixed a New and Correct Map of the Countries Treated Of. Vol. 2. London : Printed at the expence of the author, and sold by W. Innys and R. Manby, at the West End of St. Paul’s, by Mr. Hauksbee, at the Royal Society House, and by the author, at Mr. Bacon’s in Hoxton, 1734. https://doi.org/10.5962/bhl.title.62015
Darwin, Charles. Insectivorous Plants. London : J. Murray, 1875. https://doi.org/10.5962/bhl.title.99933
Dodoens, Rembert. Crŭÿde Boeck : In Den Welcken Die Geheele Historie Dat Es Tgheslacht, Tfatsoen, Nae[m], Natuere, Cracht Ende Werckinghe, van Den Cruyden, Niet Alleen Hier Te Lande Wassende, Maer Oock van de[n] Andere[n] Vremde[n] in Der Medecynen Oorboorlijck, Met Grooter Neersticheyt Begrepen Ende Verclaert Es, Met Der Seluer Cruyden Natuerlijck Naer Dat Leuen Conterfeytsel Daer by Ghestelt. Gheprint Thantwerpen : In die Cammerstrate inden Arent seghen Scarabaeum by my Jan vander Loe, 1563. https://doi.org/10.5962/bhl.title.7118
Egan, Paul A., and Frank van der Kooy. “Phytochemistry of the Carnivorous Sundew Genus Drosera (Droseraceae) – Future Perspectives and Ethnopharmacological Relevance.” Chemistry & Biodiversity 10, no. 10 (October 2013): 1774–90. https://doi.org/10.1002/cbdv.201200359
Ellis, John, Lockyer Davis, Carl von Linné, and James Roberts. Directions for Bringing over Seeds and Plants, from the East-Indies and Other Distant Countries, in a State of Vegetation : Together with a Catalogue of Such Foreign Plants as Are Worthy of Being Encouraged in Our American Colonies, for the Purposes of Medicine, Agriculture, and Commerce. To Which Is Added, the Figure and Botanical Description of a New Sensitive Plant, Called Dionaea Muscipula: Or, Venus’s Fly-Trap. London : Printed and sold by L. Davis, printer to the Royal Society, opposite Gray’s-Inn, Holborn, 1770. https://doi.org/10.5962/bhl.title.108658
Flinders, Matthew. A Voyage to Terra Australis : Undertaken for the Purpose of Completing the Discovery of That Vast Country, and Prosecuted in the Years 1801, 1802 and 1803, in His Majesty’s Ship the Investigator, and Subsequently in the Armed Vessel Porpoise and Cumberland Schooner : With an Account of the Shipwreck of the Porpoise, Arrival of the Cumberland at Mauritius, and Imprisonment of the Commander during Six Years and a Half in That Island. Vol. 1. London : Printed by W. Bulmer and Co. , Cleveland-Row ;, 1814. https://doi.org/10.5962/bhl.title.106080
Gerard, John, Edmund Bollifant, John Norton, Bonham Norton, William Rogers, and Rembert Dodoens. The Herball, or, Generall Historie of Plantes. Imprinted at London : By [Edm. Bollifant for Bonham Norton and] John Norton, 1597. https://doi.org/10.5962/bhl.title.99400
Green, Thomas., and Thomas Green. The Universal Herbal; or, Botanical, Medical, and Agricultural Dictionary; Containing an Account of All the Known Plants in the World, Arranged According to the Linnean System. Specifying the Uses to Which They Are or May Be Applied, Whether as Food, as Medicine, or in the Arts and Manufactures, with the Best Methods of Propagation, and the Most Recent Agricultural Improvements … 2d ed., rev.Improved. Vol. 1. London,: Caxton Press, 1826. https://doi.org/10.5962/bhl.title.22325
Hill, John, Cesare Maioli, and Giovanni Generoso Salomoni. Decade Di Alberi Curiosi Ed Eleganti Piante Delle Indie Orientali, e Dell’ America Ultimamente Fatte Gia’ Note. Roma : Nella Stamperia Salomoni, 1786. https://doi.org/10.5962/bhl.title.123996
Hooker, Joseph Dalton. Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Vol. 44. London., 1875. https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/94451.
Linné, Carl von. Hortus Cliffortianus : Plantas Exhibens Quas in Hortis Tam Vivis Quam Siccis, Hartecampi in Hollandia, Coluit … Georgius Clifford … Reductis Varietatibus Ad Species, Speciebus Ad Genera, Generibus Ad Classes, Adjectis Locis Plantarum Natalibus Differentiisque Specierum. Cum Tabulis Aeneis. Amstelaedami [Amsterdam]: [s.n.], 1737. https://doi.org/10.5962/bhl.title.690
Linné, Carl von. “Praelectiones in Ordines Naturales Plantarum.” Hamburgi : impensis Benj. Gottl. Hoffmanni (typis G. F. Schniebes), 1792. https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/bibliography/74201
Linné, Carl von. Systema vegetabilium: secundum classes, ordines, genera, species cum characteribus et differentiis. Dieterich, 1774. 335.
Linné, Carl von. “Mantissa Plantarum altera.” Holmiae : Impensis Direct. Laurentii Salvii, 1771. https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/bibliography/71691
Juniper, B. E. The Carnivorous Plants. London ; San Diego: Academic Press, 1989.
Miller, Philip. “Figures of the Most Beautiful, Useful, and Uncommon Plants Described in the Gardeners Dictionary […] Vol. II.” London : Printed for the Author; And Sold by John Rivington in St. Paul’s Church-Yard, A. Millar, H. Woodfall, J. Whiston and B. White, J. Hinton, G. Hawkins, R. Baldwin, J. Richardson, W. Johnston, S. Crowder , P. Davey and B. Law, T. Caslon, […], 1755. https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/bibliography/74698
Mooney, James, and Frans M. Olbrechts. Swimmer Manuscript: Cherokee Sacred Formulas and Medicinal Prescriptions by James Mooney. Revised, Completed, and Edited by Frans M. Olbrechts. [Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 99.]. Vol. 71st Congress, nos. 581, serial set no. 9470, 581. United States Congressional Serial Set. Washington, DC, 1931.
Nooy-Palm, Hetty. The Sa’dan-Toraja: A Study of Their Social Life and Religion. Verhandelingen van Het Koninklijk Instituut Voor Taal-, Land-, En Volkenkunde. Martinus Nijhoff, 1979. http://ehrafworldcultures.yale.edu/document?id=og13-007
Roth, Albrecht Wilhelm. Beyträge Zur Botanik. Bremen : G.L. Förster, 1782. https://doi.org/10.5962/bhl.title.125404
Wandersee, James H., and Elisabeth E. Schussler. “Preventing Plant Blindness.” The American Biology Teacher 61, no. 2 (1999): 82–86. https://doi.org/10.2307/4450624
Withering, William, and Jonathan Stokes. A Botanical Arrangement of British Plants; Including the Uses of Each Species, in Medicine, Diet, Rural Economy and the Arts, with an Easy Introduction to the Study of Botany … 2nd ed. / illustrated by copper plates. Vol. 1. Birmingham : Printed by M. Swinney [& Walker for G.G.J. & J. Robinson, London], 1787. https://doi.org/10.5962/bhl.title.151683
Wikipedia. “Carnivorous Plant.”
Notes Improving BHL as an ethnobotanical resource is an ongoing process, so some helpful external databases are included under “Recommended Sites.” Tracing the provenance of this knowledge is often difficult, especially in older ethnobotanical works that omit the names of Indigenous sources.  Original German text:
“Herr Ellis äußert in seinem Briefe an den Ritter von Linne die Mutmaßung, daß die Natur bei der Bildung der Blätter der Dionaea, vielleicht einiges Absehen auf ihre Ernährung gehabt haben möge e). Der Herr Hofrath Schreber halt aber diese Mutmaßung für unglaublich, daß nämlich die Pflanze von den zwischen ihren Blättern zerdrückten Insekten einige Nahrung ziehe f). Es ist gewiß, daß wir nicht mit Gewissheit entscheiden sollen/ können sonnen, was der weise Schöpfer für Absichten gehabt habe, daß er diesen Pflanzen einen besonderen Bau und reizbare Eigenschaft gab, indessen glaube ich doch, daß man wohl nicht mit Unrecht annehmen sollte, daß der Bau und die Eigenschaft diesers Pflanzen dahin abzielen, um dadurch ihre Nahrung zur Erhaltung und Fortpflanzung ihrer Arten zu erhalten. Wir können ja nicht entscheiden, ob diese Pflanzen nicht vielleicht vor anderen es besonders nach ihrem Bau bedürfen, thierische Säfte zu ihrer Nahrung und Erhaltung zu haben? Zudem wissen wir ja, daß die Pflanzen vornehmlich in den Blättern auch solche Gefäße haben, durch welche sie aus der Luft fremde Theile zu ihrer Nahrung an sich ziehen, daß wie also an der Möglichkeit nicht Ursache haben, zu zweifeln.” (Roth 1782, 73)
The original post used the term “plant blindness,” a widely used term in botany and plant conservation, to describe the human tendency to ignore the importance of plant-human interactions. BHL recognizes that it is ableist language, framing disability as needing to be cured, and does not adhere to our communications style guide.
For further consideration: McDonough MacKenzie, C, Kuebbing, S, Barak, RS, et al. We do not want to “cure plant blindness” we want to grow plant love. Plants, People, Planet. 2019; 1: 139– 141. https://doi.org/10.1002/ppp3.10062.