It’s a great place for a flesh-eater to hide out, unnoticed. British Columbia’s Cypress Provincial Park, overlooking West Vancouver to the south, has beautifully droopy yellow cypresses, with mountain hemlock and silvery fir for neighbors. Warblers, ravens, hawks, and woodpeckers fly above heathers, huckleberries, and ferns, where black bears, weasels, and coyotes pad past. Amid this profusion of life, a plant called Triantha occidentalis, or the western false asphodel, quietly waits to feast—though humans didn’t know what it was up to until now.
A few years ago, a team of scientists from the University of British Columbia (UBC) and other institutions began to suspect that there was something up with T. occidentalis, which lives throughout the Pacific Northwest and has been documented for well over a century. The spindly thing—topped with a spray of little white flowers—thrives in damp environments, often in the company of confirmed carnivores such as sundews and butterworts. The team had a clue something was up when they found that T. occidentalis was missing some genes that aid in photosynthesis. It’s rare to see such an elision in a plant—outside of heterotrophic ones, that is, plants that don’t use the sun alone as an energy source. Other members of the same lab decided to pick up the question of what, exactly, was fueling T. occidentalis. Now, in a recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from UBC and the University of Wisconsin-Madison confirm that T. occidentalis has an appetite for meat.
In portions of North America, at least, flesh-eating plants tend to congregate in bogs or deep, rain-fed kettle lakes carved by glaciers. In these water bodies, nutrients often sink to the bottom—or, without much runoff, may not be plentiful to begin with. Carnivory is a tough life, and only worth it when the tactic is a plant’s best option, says Iza Redlinski, a conservation ecologist at the Field Museum in Chicago. “From the plant’s perspective, it’s a lot of effort to lure an insect, capture it, digest it, [and] absorb those nutrients, while still probably photosynthesizing,” she says. Boggy Cypress Provincial Park is the kind of place where the trade-off makes sense. The patchwork of water and forest is “a perfect place for carnivorous plants,” says Qianshi Lin, lead author of the new study.