Cold-Blooded Killers Taste Good with Salt

I have bloodthirsty killers in my backyard. Ten of them. They stand at the back fence, looking right into the house. They look so normal. They look just like…tomato plants. But, according to researchers at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in the United Kingdom, they’re not so innocent. They’re murderous carnivores on par with those botanical sociopaths, the Venus fly traps and pitcher plants. And, right about now, I’m very glad I’m not an aphid.

My tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum) are part of a potentially large group of plants seemingly overlooked thus far by botanists in their discovery and cataloging of the world’s carnivorous species. After doing a study assessing carnivorous species as part of a celebration of the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth, the Kew researchers now think there are hundreds more plants that may have a taste for flesh. These include not only tomatoes, but also species of petunia, ornamental tobacco, potatoes and shepherd’s purse, all of which catch and eat insects and other small animals. Dr. Mike Fey, of Kew, said, “Widely recognized carnivorous plants number some 650 and we estimate that another 325 or so are probable additions – so an increase of about 50 percent.” He attributes the lack of recognition, up to now, to the plants missing some of the key characteristics associated with carnivorous species, including special structures to kill and consume prey like those present in the Venus fly trap and pitcher plant.

So, my tomatoes are murderers with an appreciation for subtlety. Their kills aren’t flashy or dramatic, but passive and prolonged. They, like ornamental tobaccos and some species of potatoes, have sticky hairs on their stems that can snare small insects, like aphids, and other small invertebrates. Rather than eat the hapless bug directly, my tomatoes entrap them, leave them to die, and wait for their tiny carcasses to drop to the ground where their nutrients are available for eventual absorption by the roots of their killer. It’s like something out of a Stephen King novel, if he were a food writer.

The most macabre part about this whole thing is, though domestic varieties of tomatoes and potatoes still have these sticky hairs and can and do trap and kill insects, they don’t even need that extra food. “The cultivated tomatoes and potatoes still have the hairs,” said Professor Mark Chase, of Kew and Queen Mary, University of London. “They do trap insects on a regular basis. They do kill insects…We suspect in the domesticated varieties they are getting plenty of food through the roots from us so don’t get much benefit from trapping insects.” Oh my God, it’s happened. Plants are killing for sport.

I am not ashamed to admit I am slightly unnerved by this backyard development. I thought I lived in a nice neighborhood. I believe I shall wait until the murderers on the fence bear fruit, then mercilessly harvest that fruit, chop it roughly, and serve it with basil chiffonade, chunks of French brie, a drizzle of olive oil and some freshly cracked black pepper. And then take the bowl out to the backyard and eat very slowly. Just to show those tomatoes who’s boss.

References

  1. Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Lewis Smith. December 5, 2009.
  2. Real-Life Killer Tomatoes?  Carnivorous Plants May Be All Around Us. Brett Israel. December 9, 2009.
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Caroline Sober

Senior Software Developer at Promega Corporation
Caroline is a senior software developer at Promega. She’s not a scientist, so if you hear her talking about DNA purification or pipetting or current issues in bioprivacy, she’s totally faking it and you should tell her to hush. She is, however, passionate about building useful software, the interactions between people and technology in general, and how social media is changing the conversation between companies and customers. She lives in Madison with her husband, daughter, and 110-pound dog.

One thought on “Cold-Blooded Killers Taste Good with Salt

  1. Caroline, How interesting! This explains so much…like why tomatoes are red…their earthy to slightly sweet flavor, and those tooth marks one sometimes finds in them…?

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