Insect-eating plants, also known as carnivorous plants, have fascinated people for centuries with their unique and specialized adaptations to capture and digest prey. These plants are found in diverse habitats worldwide, and have evolved a variety of traps and mechanisms to catch insects, spiders, and other small animals as a source of nutrients.
In this article, we will explore 20 examples of insect-eating plants, their unique features, and how they have adapted to their environments. From the Venus Flytrap to the Sundew, these fascinating plants are sure to capture your imagination and leave you in awe of nature’s incredible diversity.
20 insect eating plants (carnivorous plants)
The Venus Flytrap may be the most famous insectivorous plant, but there are countless other species that have evolved remarkable adaptations for capturing and digesting prey. The following list looks at 20 unique examples of these fascinating organisms, including the Pitcher Plant and Waterwheel Plant, and their incredible adaptations to diverse environments.
1. Venus Fly Trap
Scientific name: Dionaea muscipula
This is the most commonly thought of all insect eating plants, and for good reason. The Venus Fly Trap is native to the North Carolina and South Carolina subtropical wetlands and is fairly small, only half a foot in length. Its unique “jaws” can be triggered by flies and other small insects landing on them, and then they shut on their prey.
Once its jaws close on the unlucky insect, the Venus Fly Trap secretes enzymes that break down the body into a nutrient-rich liquid the plant is able to digest. To cut down on false alarms that waste precious energy, the trap will only snap shut if an insect touches two different interior hairs in the course of 20 seconds.
2. Tropical Pitcher Plant
Scientific name: Nepenthes alata
The Pitcher Plant has evolved to have leaves that resemble champagne flutes that are capable of catching and trapping flies and other insects in their stomach. The thing that truly distinguishes the Tropical Pitcher Plant is the sheer size of it – the “pitchers” of this plant can reach over a foot in height. They range throughout the eastern hemisphere and are native to Madagascar, Southeast Asia, and Australia.
Thanks to their massive size, this carnivorous plant is capable of catching and digesting not only insects, but also small lizards, amphibians, and even mammals. These doomed animals are attracted to the plant’s sweet-scented nectar in the center and are coerced into falling in. Once they’re in the pitcher, digestion can take as long as two months.
3. Portuguese Sundews
Scientific name: Drosophyllum lusitanicum
The Portuguese Sundew grows in nutrient-poor soil along the coasts of Spain, Portugal, and Morocco. Similar to carnivorous plants like the Pitcher Plant, the Sundew attracts insects with a sweet-smelling nectar that lures them to the plant and to their eventual demise.
Unlike the Pitcher Plant, there’s no internal aspect for the insects to be digested in. Instead, they secrete a sticky substance called mucilage on its leaves that traps the insects, and then when it senses the bug it secretes digested enzymes that slowly dissolve the unfortunate insects and extract those essential nutrients.
Scientific name: Utricularia
The Bladderwort is named for its tiny bladders that function as suction cups for insects that happen to float by. It lives in the open water and possesses tiny hair-like feelers to the opening of the bladder that can sense the presence of insects.
Their primary food isn’t flies but fleas and other tiny insects that accidentally land on the plant. This then triggers the flattened bladder to suddenly inflate, thereby sucking in water and bringing the insect with it. As it inflates, the flap closes in on it and makes for an effective trap door to keep the insects inside while digesting.
5. Cobra Lily (California Pitcher Plant)
Scientific name: Darlingtonia californica
The Cobra Lily gets its name for the way it resembles a cobra snake about to strike. It’s also referred to as the Lobster-pot Plant for the way it looks like the pots fishermen use to catch lobsters.
Cobra lilies are native to the cold-water bogs of Oregon and northern California. It’s smaller than the pitcher plant, but operates on a similar mechanism of using sweet-smelling nectar to lure insects into its stomach.
This plant is unique in that its pitchers have what would almost be tiny windows in them. These are false exits for the insects that happen to fall inside, and are used to exhaust them with fruitless escape attempts until they’re digested by the plant.
It also has tiny overlapping hairs on the inside that force prey to go further down and into the digestive fluids. Naturalists still don’t know the type of insect that gathers this flower’s pollen, as there are no recorded cases of insects that are capable of escape.
Scientific name: Triphyophyllum peltatum
The Triphyophyllum is a rare plant found in tropical West Africa with a unique life cycle of three distinct stages. The first is one with unremarkable oval leaves, but once it flowers it produces long and sticky leaves that are capable of attracting, capturing, and finally digesting insects.
In its final cycle, it becomes a grabby climbing vine equipped with short, hooked leaves perfect for grabbing tree bark and branches. It can attain lengths of over 100 feet and stretch over large areas of jungle.
Scientific name: Roridula
Roridula is native to South Africa, and technically isn’t considered to be a carnivorous plant. It has sticky tendrils that trap insects like many of the plants on this list, but it isn’t the one that does the digesting. Instead, they leave that part up to another species of insect – Pameridea roridulae, a small bug species native to the same area.
Roridula has a symbiotic relationship with P. roridulae, as it captures the insects for the bug to eat and in return, the plant receives extra nutrients via the bug’s excreted waste. This waste is especially rich in nutrients for the plant’s growth without having to waste additional resources on developing a digestive enzyme.
Scientific name: Pinguicula
The Butterwort is named for its broad leaves that almost look like they’ve been coated with butter. It’s native to Eurasia, North America, South America, and Central America. Unlike many of the plants on this list, the Butterwort doesn’t secrete a sweet smell but instead imitates dew for the insects to drink.
Once the fly lands on what it thinks is a dew drop, it quickly discovers that the pearly secretions are a sticky substance designed to keep them trapped. Once stuck, the plant secretes digestive enzymes, literally sucking the bugs dry. You can see when they’ve had a good meal by the presence of hollowed out bug exoskeletons left on its leaves.
9. Waterwheel Plant
Scientific name: Aldrovanda vesiculosa
The Waterwheel Plant is essentially the Venus Fly Trap of the water. It has no real roots, electing instead to float on the surface of lakes and entice bugs with its small traps. These traps come in groupings of 5-9 and are attached like a wheel at the center.
Like the Venus Fly Trap, these traps snap shut once their hairs are triggered by an incoming insect. This can be accomplished in as little as one-hundredth of a second, making the Waterwheel Plant a formidable “hunter”.
10. Moccasin Plant (Pink Lady’s Slipper)
Scientific name: Cypripedium acaule
The Moccasin was originally discovered in Southwest Australia, and for all intents and purposes resembles a Pitcher Plant. It has the same shape and uses the same sweet scent to lure them into its moccasin-shaped pitchers where the unfortunate bug is slowly digested.
Like the Cobra Lily, this plant posses translucent cells that cause insects to knock themselves silly trying to escape. The Moccasin Plant is especially unusual in that it’s not very closely related to other carnivorous plants. It’s actually closer to flowering plants like apple and oak trees, and is a good example of convergent evolution where multiple species adapt to a similar environment in similar ways.
11. Brocchinia Reducta
Scientific name: Brocchinia Reducta
Brocchinia Reducta is native to southern Venezuela, Brazil, Colombia, and Guiyana. It’s equipped with long slender pitchers that secrete a sweet scent to lure in unsuspecting bugs, but unlike the other plants on this list, also reflects ultraviolet light that usually signals to bugs that a plant is meant to be pollinated.
This carnivorous plant is actually a type of bromeliad, which is the same family of plants that includes pineapples, Spanish mosses, and thick leaved succulents.
Botanists were originally unsure if it should be classified with other true carnivorous plants, but in 2005 they discovered digestive enzymes in its gigantic bell, cinching it as one of the largest carnivorous plants in the world.
12. Catapult-flypaper Trap (Pimpernel Sundew)
Scientific name: Drosera glanduligera
The Catapulting Flypaper Trap possesses both flypaper adaptations, such as the Butterwort plant, and the snap-trapping mechanism of a Venus Fly Trap. It’s endemic to Australia and catches prey with sticky outer tentacles.
When the poor insect puts pressure on these trigger happy tentacles, plant cells break underneath it and send the object catapulting towards the center of the plant. After being grabbed and brought to the “mouth” and “stomach”, the insect is quickly digested.
13. Lance-leaved Sundew
Scientific name: Drosera adelae
The Lance-leaved Sundew has a beautiful rosette of sword-shaped leaves that, like most sundew plants, are covered in sticky glue to trap prey in. This is actually considered to be the laziest of carnivorous plants, as they barely move when capturing insects.
This amazing plant reproduces asexually, generating plants from their spreading roots, and so is usually found in large clumps in the densely shaded margins of the northeastern Australian rainforests. Even though it’s considered a tropical plant, it’s fairly frost resistant and can return from its roots after short periods of cold temperatures.
14. Trumpet Pitchers
Scientific name: Sarracenia
The Trumpet Pitcher plant, also known as the Yellow Pitcher Plant, is concentrated in northern Florida and the southern parts of Georgia and Alabama. They use the same “hunting” method as the traditional pitcher plant, complete with modified leaves that make the pitcher.
The Trumpet Pitcher is notable as it’s one of the smallest species of pitcher plant and can sometimes pass by underfoot unnoticed. As the name suggests, they have a large, yellowish flaring opening covered by a leaf to prevent insects from escaping from their modified stomach. This can happen over the course of a few days to a few weeks depending on the size of the prey.
15. Rainbow Plant
Scientific name: Byblis
The Rainbow Plant is a carnivorous species of plant that’s endemic to Australia. It’s technically a small perennial herb, as it has gorgeous purple and white flowers that are able to resprout after fire. It’s often found in and around swamps and seasonally wet areas, and is considered part of the sundew family.
This plant is currently listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature red list in 2000 and has remained ever since. The sticky “dew” on their leaves is especially vulnerable to pollution that reduces its efficacy, so many are starving. Thankfully, efforts are being made to cultivate it in greenhouses, and it’s growing in popularity for both the flowers and the appreciation of their carnivorous tendencies.
16. Powdery Strap Airplant
Scientific name: Catopsis berteroniana
The Powdery Strap Airplant is a relatively new discovery, and so little is known about it. It’s been theorized to be a true carnivorous plant due to the poor soil quality of its native range, but has yet to be definitively proven. Its native range is from southern Florida to southern Brazil.
It’s special in that it captures the largest insects compared to its size of any other pitcher plant. Their “pitcher” isn’t one structure, but instead multiple overlapping erect leaves that capture rainwater to form slightly acidic pools in the center. It has special sessile glands on the outside of its leaves that are used to absorb nutrients, but it doesn’t possess the ability to secrete digestive enzymes. Instead, it simply waits for the nutrients to dissolve in the rainwater before being utilized by the leaves.
17. Albany Pitcher Plant
Scientific name: Cephalotus follicularis
The Albany Pitcher Plant goes by many common names, including the “Australian pitcher plant” and “fly-catcher plant”, making it perfect for this list. It uses the traditional pit-fall traps using modified leaves that are similar to most pitcher plants that can actually change color – red in the high light areas but green in shadier conditions.
The entrance of their pitcher has a spiked arrangement that allows prey to enter but hinders their escape. It has the added benefit of preventing rainwater from entering the pitcher which would otherwise dilute the digestive enzymes and render it less useful. The lid also has smaller “skylights” that give the insects false hope as they struggle in the stomach.
18. English Sundew (Great Sundew)
Scientific name: Drosera anglica
The English Sundew, also called the Great Sundew, is found not only in England but most anywhere in the circumboreal range. It’s a small perennial herb that forms an upright, stemless rosette of linear leaves that are densely covered with mucilaginous glands. Each gland is tipped with a clear droplet of a viscous fluid that’s used to trap the insects they require.
Insects are attracted to the sugary scent exuded by the glands and are quickly stuck once they land on the plant. Most of its prey consists of small insects such as flies, but it’s been known to catch bulkier insects such as butterflies and even dragonflies in its sticky trap. It’s capable of completely bending around caught prey, leaving only the insect’s exoskeleton behind.
19. Giant Sundew
Scientific name: Drosera gigantea
The Giant Sundew is considered one of the largest insect eating plants because of its tall, tree-like form. It grows in sandy soils at the margins of swamps and near granite outcrops along the Western Australian coast. This woody plant produces small shield-shaped leaves along many lateral branches that make it look like a small tree – individual plants can grow up to 3.3 feet tall.
This plant is unique in that it’s one of the only plants to contain multiple secondary metabolites, or digestive enzymes that further process nutrients after the first breakdown. These are also what’s thought to be responsible for the brown color of the plant, as most insect eating plants are either green or red.
20. Sweet Pitcherplant
Scientific name: Sarracenia rubra
The Sweet Pitcherplant is a native to North America, more specifically from the coastal plains of Virginia to the Florida panhandle. Like most pitcher plant species, it uses a rolled leaf and a “roof” to trap insects in their digestive enzymes. Again, this leaf is used to block rainwater that would dilute their essential digestive enzymes.
The upper regions of the pitcher are covered in short, stiff downwards-pointing hairs which serve to guide insects towards the opening. This opening is then covered in nectar-secreting glands that make the surface incredibly smooth and waxy that the insects lose their footing on and slip down into the plant. Some larger insects such as wasps have been reported to escape the pitchers on occasion, usually by chewing their way out through the wall of the tube before they’re digested.