The western false asphodel, known scientifically as Triantha occidentalis a native of western North America freshwater wetlands and other such locations (which are not so oxygen and nutrient rich), stands tall flaunting its delicate stalk and white flowers, radiating brilliantly.
The plant looks harmless to the nectar-seeking midge as much as it looks inviting. The unfortunate midge lands near its alluring flowers and realises the mistake, that turns out to be its last. It struggles hard to free itself from a sticky secretion.
The source of this secretion is small red hairs (called trichomes) present on the upper part of the stalk. The struggling midge gets its wings mired in the sticky substance and ultimately dies after drowning completely. The plant absorbs the nutrients from its dead prey, with the help of digestive enzymes present in the sticky secretion and waits for the next meal, patiently.
The plant meets more than half of its nitrogen requirement from the variety of its insect prey via this novel mechanism. One would obviously be reminded of other well-known examples of insectivorous plants, questioning the novelty of the mechanism. What sets the western false asphodel apart from the rest of the carnivorous plant lot is – it utilises flowering stalk as a sticky trap, instead of leaves.
The plant belongs to the genus Triantha, a small group of flowering plants in the family Tofieldiaceae. It’s astonishing that a plant that has been familiar to botanists and locals for more than 100 years, was secretly devouring insects and recently we get to know its key to survival in nutrient-poor habitats.