You might encounter a false asphodel ( Triantha westernis) while hiking through mountain bogs along the West Coast of North America during midsummer. This is a small, unassuming flower that produces dark green stalks and white flowers.
As it turns, the false asphodel, which can be found in Alaska and California, is hiding something from the human race. It is a carnivore.
Qianshi Lin, botanist at the University of British Columbia, heard that the flower stalk of a plant looked like sticky traps used by sundews to catch insects. Lin set out to find out if this was the case for this particular flower.
Lin’s research has shown that false asphodel is a plant that traps and kills small insects. This fact has been known for more than a century. According to a study published in Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences on August 9, nearly two-thirds of nitrogen, a vital nutrient, is found in the leaves of these animals.
Lin, now a postdoctoral researcher at University of Toronto, says, “This type of plant turns the tables against animals and eats bugs, which is quite cool.”
Scientists knew before this study that carnivory had evolved eleven times in different plants. Lin claims that this discovery is the twelfth independent evolution.
False asphodels have some similarities with sundews, a genus containing over 150 plants that catch insects using sticky and often vibrantly colored hairs, before secreting enzymes that digest and liquify the animals, and absorbing them whole.
These bog flowers belong to a small family of herbaceous perennials called Tofieldiaceae. They are not known to be meat-eaters. False asphodels have a short growing season. They start to grow after the snow melts in May and flower in June and July. The seeds then wither away in early fall. Learn more about the fatal attraction of carnivorous species. (
False asphodel: Most carnivorous plants can be found in areas with poor soil nutrients. This is because they are able to digest insects, which is a benefit. It is expensive to build structures that can catch and devour animals, and only 0.2% of flowering plants have this ability.
Lin says that one reason this plant’s carnivory is overlooked was because these hairs are small and only grow on the stalk of the flower. Lin doesn’t believe any other carnivorous plants have this feature.
Botanists have found traps near flowers but not exclusively in this location, as is the case for this species, says Adam Cross, an ecologist who studies such plants at Curtin University in Australia, who wasn’t involved in the paper. Lin believes that preying on insects that could be pollinators can be counterproductive. However, the research shows that this bog flower almost exclusively captures small ants and fly, but not larger pollinators like bees.
Andreas Fleischmann, a scientist with Botanische Staatssammlung Munchen, a German herbarium and research center, says simply labeling the plant as a “carnivore” may miss some potential qualifications. The situation with this plant could be better described as “defensive Killing” because the stick hairs seem to prevent non-pollinator insect from getting into the flowers.
Fleischmann, who wasn’t involved in the paper, stated that “for plant carnivory” the main criterion for plant carnivory is not whether the plant digests insects… but the attraction of prey. He isn’t sure if the sticky hairs of Triantha attract insects.
Unlocking the secret of a plant
It is not as easy as it sounds to prove that a plant is a carnivore. Lin fed 150 captive fruit fly larvae nitrogen-15. This stable nitrogen isotope contains an extra neutron and can be used to track nutrients transfer from animals to plants.
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Lin and his colleagues then fed the fruit fly to 25 wild false asphodels that were living in British Columbia’s bog. They placed the insects on the stalks of the flowers. The scientists then harvested the plants after several weeks and analysed their chemistry. The plant’s leaves contained nitrogen-15, which was evidence that nutrients from the flies were absorbed into the plant. The flies accounted for 64 percent of nitrogen in the study plants. Learn how salamanders are eaten by carnivorous plants. ?
Researchers also looked at the sticky hairs to determine if they were excreting phosphatase. This enzyme is found in carnivorous plants and helps break down tissue and release nutrients like phosphorus.