Like many wealthy people of the Victorian Era, Charles Darwin was a passionate orchid collector. He was amazed by their beautifully complex shapes, patterns and structures, and he began amassing a collection of rare specimens from around the world. Even before he wrote On the Origin of Species, Darwin knew that every unique orchid flower must be a result of some advantage that was bestowed upon that species in its particular habitat.
During the Victorian Era, there was a botanical equivalent of ‘gold fever’. Wealthy collectors sent explorers to all corners of the world to discover new, exquisite types of orchid. The finest specimens could fetch very high prices indeed, and explorers risked their lives just to find them, travelling through dangerous, unmapped territory in search of these beautiful, delicate flowers.
Deep within Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire, a huge, gnarled tree spreads its crooked limbs out over a small clearing. This is the Major Oak, the most visited tree in Britain – and probably the most famous. Weighing around 23 tons, with a trunk girth of 10 metres, and a canopy of 28 metres, it’s the largest oak tree in the country. And, at between 800 and 1,000 years old, it’s also one of our oldest. But these are not the primary reasons for the Major Oak’s popularity.
When we think of parasites, we tend to think of tapeworms within our bodies, or fleas on our pets, or perhaps even wasps that lay eggs inside caterpillars. We almost certainly wouldn’t think of plants engaging in such sinister behaviour – yet the truth is that many plants have highly parasitic lifestyles.
The idea of a plant eating an animal seems like a strange concept. Perhaps it is because it shatters all expectations. Surely plants are supposed to be passive recipients of sunlight and water – not carnivores turning to the flesh of animals for their sustenance. Carl Linnaeus, the famous Swedish naturalist who devised a system of ordering all living things in the world, refused to believe that plants could be carnivorous, declaring that it went ‘against the order of nature as willed by God.’ He reasoned that so-called carnivorous plants only caught insects by accident.