Slimy Leaves Trap Bugs with Sticky Glue!

Starfish plants digest insects faster than most of the other carnivorous plants.  They often consume their prey in 24 hours.

Starfish plants belong to a group of plants called Pinguicula.  Some 30 species of Pinguicula are found around the world.  Some are very small, less than an inch in diameter.  Your plant is one of the larger species, or hybrids.  It captures fungus gnats, small flies and mosquitoes.

Pinguicula
Starfish plants have other common names as well.  One is ‘Butterwort.’  The name ‘wort’ is an old English word that literally means ‘plant.’ The reason it is called ‘butter’ is because of the slippery or buttery feel of the glue covered leaves.  The first half of the Latin name is ‘Pinguis,’ which means ‘fat,’ and refers to the greasy feel of the leaves.

Starfish plants evolved in moist environments with low soil fertility.  They thrive in mossy areas near streams, and other continually moist areas.  Without nutrients available in the soil to feed them, it is almost as if they ‘decided’ to look elsewhere for food.  The air in these moist places is filled with flies.  These plants developed a trapping system to capture these gnats, small flies and mosquitoes.

The name Starfish refers to the rosette of sticky leaves.  Use a magnifying glass and you will see that the upper surface of the leaves are covered with short hairs, each tipped with a droplet of liquid. The clear liquid is a glue!  It serves two purposes.  It traps the feet and wings of insects so they cannot escape after landing on the leaf.  It also carries powerful enzymes that quickly digest the nutrients from their captured prey.

The leaves can move!

This movement is very subtle.  Only the leave margin move, or curl inward, if food is placed near the edge of the leaves.  The action begins within 2-4 hours of being fed.  Leaves quickly return to normal shape within a day or two, depending on the size of the meal.

As the leaf curls, the trapped insects sink down to the leaf surface where a second set of glands release a viscous acid fluid.  The fluid contains enzymes which digest the insect.  Some speculate that the curled leaf helps hold the insect in contact with more digestive enzymes. The release of this acid digestive fluid is triggered by nitrogen containing objects. While other objects will cause release of fluids on the leaf, only ‘food’ will cause release of the acid enzyme-rich fluid. Very large meals will rot straight through the leaf. In nature these plants only capture very small gnats and flies.

Man has been aware of these plants for centuries and found uses for them.  Alpine peasants used to apply the leaves to the wounds of their cattle to aid in healing. Scandinavians are said to have dropped the leaves into fresh reindeer milk to curdle it.

Although the plant you have will not go dormant, many of the other Pinguicula species do have a resting or dormant period during winter.  They die back to a few leaf ‘buds’ that sprout again in the spring. The leaves are delicate and easily bruised. In bright locations they may be a yellow color; in shade, or if well fed, they turn green. An odd fungus-like odor has been noticed in many species – an adaption perhaps to attract insects.

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