“Sheep-eating” carnivorous plant Puya chilensis and other dangerous plants

The Puya chilensis

The Puya chilensis

Seymour from the Broadway musical Little Shop of Horrors probably wouldn’t be worried by the so-called sheep-eating plant Puya chilensis, a carnivorous plant native to Chile, but the Internet is abuzz with the news of one of these spiny, dangerous plants blooming at the Royal Horticultural Society greenhouse in Surrey, England. Related to the pineapple and a member of the bromeliaceae family, the Puya chilensis grows to a height of ten feet and features bright green and yellow flowers, each of which grows on a flower spike. These spikes snare passing sheep, which, being stuck to the sheep, then starve to death. The Puya chilensis then draws nutrients from the decaying animal, which acts as fertilizer.

While the plant may sound sinister — imagine, snaring innocent sheep with its spines! — the Internet is largely abuzz with the Puya chilensis due to sensationalized headlines about the specimen now blooming in Britain. Though thousands of the plants bloom successfully in its native Chile, horticulturalists have trouble getting it to bloom elsewhere. Another Puya chilensis in the UK, located at the National Botanic Garden of Wales, took 11 years to bloom. The Surrey plant has been waiting 15 years.

What did they feed it?

“I’m really pleased that we’ve finally coaxed our Puya chilensis into flower,” Cara Smith told a reporter for the UK’s free paper, Metro, in the June 20, 2013 article, “Puya chilensis: ‘Sheep-eating’ plant blooms in Surrey.” She explained that the horticulturalists had been providing it with liquid fertilizer, “as feeding it on its natural diet might prove a bit problematic.” For parents who might be worried about bringing little ones to see the bloom, she reassured, “It’s growing in the arid section of our glasshouse with its deadly spines well out of reach of both children and sheep alike.”

It’s not just in captivity that the plants take a long time to bloom. The wild plants can take 20 years to mature. They’re also not always looked kindly on; Andean shepherds sometimes set fire to the plants rather than risk their sheep getting snagged in the prickly vines.

There are scarier plants

But while a sheep eating carnivorous plant may capture the imaginations of readers, there are plenty of stranger carnivorous plants. Nay-sayer Michael Byrne of Motherboard, writing in his June 23, 2013 article, “What? This ‘Sheep-Eating Plant’ Isn’t Even All That Sinister,” refused to be impressed by the Internet buzz the bloom has received. “If there is ‘news’ beyond some very breathless posts on the Internet about a plant that stabs its victims,” Byrne wrote, “it’s that the puya chilensis is not all that extreme or uncommon: there’s about a thousand carnivorous plants identified in the world and most of them are a lot cooler.”

Byrne’s favorite choice for a scary plant is bindweed, a nefarious plant killer native to the American Midwest, that wraps around other plants like a snake and eats all the nutrients from the host plants. Poo-poohing the Puya chilensis and the Venus flytrap for eating their prey dead, Byrne notes that bindweed needs its prey to be alive.

Byrne is not the only writer who doubts the threat of the Puya chilensis. David Clark Scott, writing for Christian Science Monitor in his June 22, 2013 article, “Sheep-eating plant towers over English countryside. Oh my!,” noted that technically, the Puya chilensis isn’t even a carnivorous plant. True carnivorous plants, like the Venus flytrap, mainly eat insects. But despite this quibble, Scott found the plant fascinating for the way it captures small mammals for fertilizer. He quoted a theory from PopSci.com: “Most plants that have spines, like cacti, use them for protection, but it’s theorized that Puya chilensis actually uses them for hunting.”

If bindweed doesn’t sound all that scary to you, what about these weird and wild dangerous plants:

  • The Nepenthes attenboroughii, or giant pitcher plant, of the Philippines secretes a nectar-like substance that lures animals, including rats, into a collected pool of acid and enzymes. Sticky ribs inside the “pitcher” make it almost impossible for the prey to climb out.
  • The Eupatorium rugosum, or white snakeroot, was responsible for the death of President Abraham Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks. The plant, which blooms with white flowers, contains tremetol, an alcohol that causes livestock to have muscle tremors — and the milk from cows that eat the plant can be deadly.
  • The Utricularia macrorhiza, known as the common bladderwort, is an aquatic carnivorous plant that captures tadpoles and crustaceans in its bladders, which snaps open to catch its prey. That fast action sounds more the stuff of thrillers than the sheep trapper.
  • The Abrus precatorius, also called the crab’s eye, rosary pea, or jequirity, looks a bit like an animal, but its real danger is in its poison. The seeds contain a high abrin content, a poison that impacts bodies on the cellular level. Just one seed is fatal to humans.

The Abrus precatorius

Are there any plants that frighten you? Tell us about it in the comments below!

Learn more about weird plants in Questia’s horticulture library.

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