It must be the Harry Potter enthusiast in me that can’t help but conjure quasi-magical images when I think about the University’s unused rooms, locked tight behind oak doors; its unexplored basements; its attics filled with heavy afternoon light. After all, St. George is a big, old campus, filled with curiosities.
Such a curiosity appeared before me last term, almost as if out of a fantasy novel, in the form of carnivorous plants.
Here is how it came about: I was volunteering at the Stinchcombe lab, an EEB lab located in the Earth Sciences building, working with a PhD student whose experiments deal with rhizobium-plant interactions. I was put in charge of tending her plants, Medicago trunculata, which meant that most of my time (after putting in a three-week stint weighing plant nodules and roots) was spent in the penthouse greenhouses.
Because I was hauling around vast jugs of water and fertilizer, I used an elevator to get to the building’s top floor. Just outside the elevator doors were three greenhouse chambers, filled with exotic plants.
Twice weekly, after watering the Medicago and waiting for the elevator, I fogged the windows of those greenhouses, nose to the glass. Inside I could see the rotund phytotelmata of Nepenthes pitcher plants, hanging heavy with the duplicitous water that lures adult invertebrates to their watery grave; the taloned hands of flytraps sitting deceitfully still; the fat, red stomachs of Sarracenia waiting for prey.
The wonderful thing about carnivorous plants is that, not surprisingly, they eat things: mostly invertebrates, like insects, snails, and slugs. Over evolutionary time, the leaves of pitcher plants have adapted to form a bowl that catches falling rainwater, and which mixes, depending on the species, with digestive enzymes produced by the plant. This sweet-smelling concoction lures insects in, and upon entering, unsuspecting bugs find themselves in a masterpiece of trickery: along the sides of the bowls are downward-pointing hairs that inhibit any movement out of the bowl. The insect eventually drowns, unable to get out, and is subsequently slowly digested and consumed.
In Canada, a few species of carnivorous plant occur naturally, like the northern pitcher plant, Sarracenia pupurea, found in sphagnum bogs and wastelands; and sundews, like Drosera intermedia.
On my last day volunteering, (the greenhouse’s glass wall now thoroughly begrimed from my hot breath and sweaty palms), I found out that these three houses are actually open to students. Both the EEB and Forestry departments make up the rooftop Earth Sciences Greenhouses. Although these two areas are not open to the public, being reserved for graduate research, the Teaching Plant Collection (including the carnivorous plants) is open to all students between 10-4, Monday to Friday. Maintained by two of the University’s horticulturalists, the collection houses numerous plants from a variety of ecozones and climates, and has specimens used not only in some university lectures, but also for elementary and high school tours.