This acid is of a different nature from that contained in the tissue of the leaves. As long as the [page 15] tentacles remain closely inflected, the glands continue to secrete, and the secretion is acid; so that, if neutralised by carbonate of soda, it again becomes acid after a few hours. I have observed the same leaf with the tentacles closely inflected over rather indigestible substances, such as chemically prepared casein, pouring forth acid secretion for eight successive days, and over bits of bone for ten successive days.

The secretion seems to possess, like the gastric juice of the higher animals, some antiseptic power. During very warm weather I placed close together two equal-sized bits of raw meat, one on a leaf of the Drosera, and the other surrounded by wet moss. They were thus left for 48 hrs., and then examined. The bit on the moss swarmed with infusoria, and was so much decayed that the transverse striae on the muscular fibres could no longer be clearly distinguished; whilst the bit on the leaf, which was bathed by the secretion, was free from infusoria, and its striae were perfectly distinct in the central and undissolved portion. In like manner small cubes of albumen and cheese placed on wet moss became threaded with filaments of mould, and had their surfaces slightly discoloured and disintegrated; whilst those on the leaves of Drosera remained clean, the albumen being changed into transparent fluid.

As soon as tentacles, which have remained closely inflected during several days over an object, begin to re-expand, their glands secrete less freely, or cease to secrete, and are left dry. In this state they are covered with a film of whitish, semi-fibrous matter, which was held in solution by the secretion. The drying of the glands during the act of re-expansion is of some little service to the plant; for I have often observed that objects adhering to the leaves [page 16] could then be blown away by a breath of air; the leaves being thus left unencumbered and free for future action. Nevertheless, it often happens that all the glands do not become completely dry; and in this case delicate objects, such as fragile insects, are sometimes torn by the re-expansion of the tentacles into fragments, which remain scattered all over the leaf. After the re-expansion is complete, the glands quickly begin to re-secrete, and as soon as full-sized drops are formed, the tentacles are ready to clasp a new object.

When an insect alights on the central disc, it is instantly entangled by the viscid secretion, and the surrounding tentacles after a time begin to bend, and ultimately clasp it on all sides. Insects are generally killed, according to Dr. Nitschke, in about a quarter of an hour, owing to their tracheae being closed by the secretion. If an insect adheres to only a few of the glands of the exterior tentacles, these soon become inflected and carry their prey to the tentacles next succeeding them inwards; these then bend inwards, and so onwards; until the insect is ultimately carried by a curious sort of rolling movement to the centre of the leaf. Then, after an interval, the tentacles on all sides become inflected and bathe their prey with their secretion, in the same manner as if the insect had first alighted on the central disc. It is surprising how minute an insect suffices to cause this action: for instance, I have seen one of the smallest species of gnats (Culex), which had just settled with its excessively delicate feet on the glands of the outermost tentacles, and these were already beginning to curve inwards, though not a single gland had as yet touched the body of the insect. Had I not interfered, this minute gnat would [page 17] assuredly have been carried to the centre of the leaf and been securely clasped on all sides. We shall hereafter see what excessively small doses of certain organic fluids and saline solutions cause strongly marked inflection.

Whether insects alight on the leaves by mere chance, as a resting place, or are attracted by the odour of the secretion, I know not.

Insectivorous Plants Page 10

19th Century English Literature

Charles Darwin

Free Books in the public domain from the Classic Literature Library ©

Charles Darwin

All Pages of This Book