Nature, Science

Plants behaving badly


Two groups of plants exhibit such intriguing behaviour that a century and a half ago they attracted the attention of Charles Darwin. These same plants, the orchids and the carnivorous plants, still fascinate scientists today. In two one hour films, ‘Plants behaving badly’ reveals a world of deceit and treachery worthy of any fictional thriller.

Scientists have recently shown that many more plants are carnivorous than we had ever thought. Welcome to the world of killer tomatoes and murderous potatoes. Even the more well-known carnivorous plants – sundews, flytraps and pitchers – are revealing new behaviour.

Pitcher plants sometimes need to form partnerships with insects. Mosquito larvae live inside North American pitchers, where they break up drowned prey and help the plant digest it. But in Borneo, one giant pitcher has formed a remarkable relationship with a single species of ant. The pitcher has swollen tendrils, to house the ants. The ants dive into the pitcher fluid to retrieve drowned insects to feed on – but in tearing these up they also help the plant digest the prey. Carnivorous plants have featured in many sci-fi films over the years, but the reality turns out to be far stranger than the fiction.

Darwin’s book ‘On the Origin of Species’ shook the scientific world and far beyond. Yet it was his next book, devoted entirely to orchids, which filled in gaps and clarified his revolutionary ideas. Orchids have an ethereal beauty, whether growing hundreds of feet up in a misty rainforest or along the verges of busy suburban roads. But their exotic flowers are shaped for just one purpose – to seduce pollinators. Many use sex as a lure by impersonating a female bee or wasp.

Orchids produce thousands of seeds, which are so small that they contain no food reserves. They can only germinate with the help of specific fungi in the soil. In the past, this made orchids hard to grow from seed, a problem now solved by hi-tech laboratories. This means that some of the rarest plants can be re-introduced to old haunts but these projects are carried out in such secrecy, it’s like something from a spy movie.

Produced by Sky Vision for Terra Mater Factual Studios

Read about the strange and most of all unexpected encounter director Steve Nicholls and his team had when filming the Rajah Pitcher plant in Borneo by following this link.