I remember being about 8, sitting on the bank of the North Fork of the Kentucky River plotting the demise of a ladybug I held in my hands. I was torn between the Ladybug, Ladybug, fly away home poem and the blood and guts I was sure would spring forth in a matter of minutes. I wasn't aware that ladybugs did not have blood and guts. I am happy to tell you that the poem won that round, and it wasn't until later that I discovered the condition of the innards of ladybugs, because about the same time a small cricket made his appearance. I traded the life of the ladybug in for the unsuspecting cricket. I did not like crickets much, their noise often kept me awake in the middle of the night, and I had not yet met Jiminy, so the impending demise of the cricket did not alter my thinking in any way. I placed him upon the sparkling lower leaf of the sundew. Immediately the sundew did what I knew it would do. The hairs on its leaves bent in and down upon the little cricket. I was upset when I could not see his blood and guts, but not too upset over his demise. After all, he had legs, he could have jumped off the leaf if he had not lingered one second too long exploring the sparkle on the sundew leaf. Survival of the quickest, I thought.
The sundew was not a plant I saw very often in the mountains. Drosera rotundifolia grows usually in wet peaty bogs and swamps. I knew it only because the older ladies in my life pointed it out to me occasionally when we ran across it. They called it Red Rot, since the plant itself does have a reddish tint, and growing in a swampy area, there is bound to be a rotten scent wafting around. It is a native to North America and Eurasia, and grows from Newfoundland to Alaska, south to Florida, Illinois, Montana, and California. It is not one of the plants that my older relatives used for medicinal purposes, but according to its history, sundew did have its place in a long line of home remedies at one time.
Sundew is a perennial herb growing up to 8 inches tall. Round, dish shaped, long stalked leaves grow in a rosette and are covered with glandular hairs that secrete a sticky sap that attracts and snares small insects. The sap contains a powerful digestive juice that changes the protein in the insect into a substance absorbable by the plant through the surface of the leaves. Pinkish white flowers bloom June through August and are borne in elongated clusters at the ends of leafless stems. The moment a small unsuspecting insect alights upon a leaf of sundew, it is hopelessly trapped. It is interesting, I think, that the plant exudes a sap only at the tips of its leaves, in sunlight the sap sparkles and attracts insects. Being only on the tip gave the insect a bit of a fighting chance. As soon as the insect touched the leaf, wham, the hairs begin to close in upon him. Very soon, that insect is nothing but a dark little blob of goo.
As early as the 13th century, alchemists noted positive results from the use of sundew's sap in the treatment of consumption, or tuberculosis. In 16th century England one of the herbalists observed that physicians have thought this herb to be a rare and singular remedy for all those who had chronic lung ailments. Today herbalists recommend sundew sap for soothing coughs due to irritation and ascribe to it antispasmodic properties that would also help stop coughing. The genus name Drosera comes from a Greek word meaning "dew". The plant's dew like sap is usually discharged by the leaves about noon, the same time the flowers open briefly when there is sun. Scientists today only confirm its use as a soothing agent for coughs.
Now, you must remember that I didn't know any of its history when I was using sundew as a trap for insects. It was simply a strange reddish looking plant that killed. If a plant ate bugs, I thought it surely had some other animal characteristics. I just knew it sat there watching, lurking, luring unsuspecting bugs to its hugging leaves that would squeeze the life right out of them. I was very careful to not put my finger anywhere near a leaf, lest I pull back a blackened stub. Well, it devoured a cricket in an incredibly short time. My finger was not much bigger than the cricket. It seemed the more I watched it, the more bugs would light upon its leaves. I thought it might be a good idea to detour the insects, so I built a little series of twiggy hurdles that they would have to mount before getting to the plant. All of this was done very carefully so that I didn't touch the sundew myself. By the early afternoon, all the little sundew plants had hurdle fences around them. All worked well until Pepper my dog decided to join me, and jumped right in the middle of the hurdled sundew. I thought Pepper might lose her leg or her tail or both when she sat upon the sundew, so I yelled and screamed till I scared her off the plant, then I chased her home so that I could give her a bath, thinking the entire way how I was going to save her tail from the vicious bite of the sundew.
Ah well. I did save Pepper's tail, but she really hated baths.
I was such an easy kid, didn't take much to entertain me, did it?
All photos are from Plant Files. Thanks to these photographers: Evert, Equilibrium and Kennedyh.
Additional information came from The Reader's Digest book: Magic and Medicine of Plants, 1986.
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