Carnivorous plants, beguiling vegetables capable of attracting, trapping, and digesting animal prey, have fascinated generations of botanists on nearly every continent. However, there is perhaps no better way to trace their rise to cultural prominence than through the eyes of the Darwin family. The botanical legacy of Charles Darwin, his grandfather Erasmus, and son Francis, conveys the dramatic shift in how carnivorous plants were perceived by general botanical audiences from the late eighteenth century and into the twentieth. From poetic musings about their carnivorous habits to pulp fiction accounts of man-eating vegetal monsters, the BHL carnivorous plant collection offers a glimpse into the powerful spell these plants have cast over readers and observers through the centuries.
Charles Darwin was enamoured with carnivorous plants. As early as 1859, soon after encountering the sundew Drosera rotundifolia on an English heath, the author of On the Origin of Species wrote, “I care more about Drosera than the origin of all the species in the world” (Darwin Correspondence Project). By September 1860 he was working with Dionaea muscipula as well, and would later dub the Venus flytrap “one of the most wonderful” plants in the world (Darwin 1875, 286). Darwin’s rigorous experimentation with these enigmatic vegetal carnivores culminated in 1875 with the publication of Insectivorous Plants. This treatise laid the framework for the study of plant carnivory as it exists today and cemented the notion of carnivorous plants in the scientific and public imagination.