Largest of its kind, the South African king sundew unfurls. Leaves of this florid species can reach two feet in length.
A hungry fly darts through the pines in North Carolina. Drawn by what seems like the scent of nectar from a flowerlike patch of scarlet on the ground, the fly lands on the fleshy pad of a ruddy leaf. It takes a sip of the sweet liquid oozing from the leaf, brushing a leg against one tiny hair on its surface, then another. Suddenly the fly's world has walls around it. The two sides of the leaf are closing against each other, spines along its edges interlocking like the teeth of a jaw trap. As the fly struggles to escape, the trap squeezes shut. Now, instead of offering sweet nectar, the leaf unleashes enzymes that eat away at the fly's innards, gradually turning them into goo. The fly has suffered the ultimate indignity for an animal: It has been killed by a plant.
The swampy pine savanna within a 90-mile radius of Wilmington, North Carolina, is the one place on the planet where Venus flytraps are native. It is also home to a number of other species of carnivorous plants, less famous and more widespread but no less bizarre. You can find pitcher plants with leaves like champagne flutes, into which insects (and sometimes larger animals) lose themselves and die. Sundews envelop their victims in an embrace of sticky tentacles. In ponds and streams grow bladderworts, which slurp up their prey like underwater vacuum cleaners.
There is something wonderfully unsettling about a plant that feasts on animals. Perhaps it is the way it shatters all expectation. Carl Linnaeus, the great 18th-century Swedish naturalist who devised our system for ordering life, rebelled at the idea. For Venus flytraps to actually eat insects, he declared, would go "against the order of nature as willed by God." The plants only catch insects by accident, he reasoned, and once a hapless bug stopped struggling, the plant would surely open its leaves and let it go free.