August 12, 2006
When I told PlantsWoman that I'd be driving down the west coast with my family, she told me I would have the opportunity to see a rare plant that doesn't grow here in the northeast. See, this is what happens when your friends are scientists. Tell them you are going on vacation, and they don't recommend restaurants or amusement parks or beaches. No, they tell you what unusual plant you can see. I love that.
The darlingtonia californica is a carnivorous plant.
I immediately imagined something like the plant from the The Little Shop of Horrors but she explained that the plant ate insects rather than large mammals. I was a little disappointed, of course, because I think my teenagers would have been more excited by a man-eating plant, but I told her I would look for the road sign as we came down the coast.
Usually I find it hard to pronounce, no less remember, the Latin names that my scientist friends and students toss off so casually, but this one was easy. My Darling Tonia could even be some kind of movie title, I thought. Or certainly a tragically romantic song. "Oh, my darling, oh my darling, oh my darling tonia." And when I checked the internet, I discovered that drowning tragedies happen inside these plants all the time. Perhaps Clementine was an insect.
Sure enough, as we came down the coast, I saw a brown sign that said, "Darlingtonia Wayside." When we pulled into the parking lot, my teenagers were muttering about the fact that we'd already stopped at every scenic lookout or historical marker in the entire state. They were hungry, tired, and ready for lunch. I assured them that they could just stay in the comfort of the car (the rental vehicle, unlike my car at home, had air conditioning), while I popped out to take a look at this unusual plant.
I felt my body relax as I left behind the hot parking lot and cranky children. The trail was deeply shaded by conifers, their aroma released by the summer sun, and lovely green ferns grew in clumps along the edges. I was wondering if I would recognize the plant from my quick glance at an internet photo, which is not the most precise method of plant identification. I kept thinking I should have at least looked up the size of the plant since PlantsWoman, a bryologist, has been known to give enthusiastic descriptions of things that cannot be seen without a magnifying lens. Then I came around a bend in the trail and saw what was, unmistakably a clump of darlingtonia.
One of its common names is the cobra lily, and I could see why. The bed of plants rose like a group of translucent green cobras, reminding me of an animated version of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book.
Insects are lured into the plant by nectar and by plant windows that give them a false sense of security. The windows are translucent, like stained glass windows I guess, and for the insects, I suppose it's like getting lost in the kind of maze of glass that they used to have at the boardwalk, with so many false exits that it's impossible to get out. The upper surface of the tube is glassy and smooth, and insects slide gradually down the slippery slope into the lower tube, where downward pointing hairs trap them. Their bodies disappear into the liquid at the base of the leaf, dissolving into nutrients that can be absorbed by the thin lower walls of the plant.
I could see the temptation. The plant was such a lovely translucent green, glowing in the sunlight that filtered down through the forest canopy. If I could shrink myself small, I would be tempted to explore, to climb inside the hood of the plant to bathe myself in soft green light. The color of the plant windows was more delicate and subtle than stained glass cathedral windows, which seem almost garish in comparison. I could see myself getting lured in by those beautiful windows, scrambling around on the smooth surface, barefoot to get a better grip, but then slipping inevitably down. Lost and gone forever. Oh, my darling tonia.
I stared at the plant, trying to picture the scene: would I struggle and beat my wings against the hairs that trapped me? Or give in to the inevitable and slide gracefully as if I were on a toboggan run, entering the pool with a splash?
Then I looked up and realized that my family, lured by the darlingtonia, had left the car, followed the trail, and were clustered on the boardwalk next to me. They, too, seemed mesmerized by the plant. With-a-Why leaned over the railing to get a closer look, his face just centimeters away those translucent green hoods.
A very seductive plant.
Posted by jo(e)