(Photo by Juanita Armstrong-Ullberg)
Animal-eating plants seem like an idea ripped from a Hollywood movie script – “Little Shop of Horrors,” anyone? – but carnivorous plants do exist, even right here in Will County.
Carnivorous plants often depend on a diet of insects because the soils they grow in do not provide enough of the nutrients needed by these plants. This is the case for one of the plants found in Will County, the narrow-leaved sundew, also called the spoon-leaved sundew.
The narrow-leaved sundew grows in sunny but consistently moist habitats, such as bogs, fens and wetlands, said Juanita Armstrong-Ullberg, natural resources land manager for the Forest Preserve District.
“Since the plant is carnivorous and gets its nutrients from insects, it is able to inhabit infertile areas,” she said, adding that it actually does better in such environments.
The narrow-leaved sundew feasts on small bugs such as ants, flies and spiders, Armstrong-Ullberg explained. It catches the insects by secreting a sticky substance called mucilage from the small, pink hair-like structures called tentacles that line its spoon-shaped leaves.
Insects become stuck in the mucilage and then either are suffocated by it or die of exhaustion when trying to escape from it. Once the bug has died, the plant rolls the body up into its stem and releases digestive juices so it can absorb nutrients from it.
The plant gets some of its nutrients from the soil, but more than half of the nitrogen it needs for survival comes from the insects it catches, Armstrong-Ullberg said.
The narrow-leaved sundew isn’t commonly found in Illinois, but is known to be present in five counties in the northeastern part of the state, including Will County. Among the Forest Preserve District’s preserves, the plant is known to grow in two locations – Sand Ridge Savanna Nature Preserve and Braidwood Dunes and Savanna Nature Preserve.
Both these preserves are sand prairies with the type of wet, acidic soil the narrow-leaved sundew thrives in, Armstrong-Ullberg said, and both preserves also have the yellow-eyed grass and meadow beauty plants that the sundew seems to prefer to grow near.
A few other carnivorous plants also can be found in northeastern Illinois and northwest Indiana, including another type here in Will County. Two species of bladderwort – the flat-leaved bladderwort and the common bladderwort – can both be found in Will County preserves, and just like the narrow-leaved sundew, they grow in environments with waterlogged soil, Armstrong-Ullberg said.
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