Sundew – Drosera rotundifolia

Flanders Moss NNR

Our blog editor, Jane Petrie, writes about what she has been seeing close-up from the Flanders boardwalk:

When out on the boardwalk at Flanders it’s easy to gaze about and be entranced by so much that’s going on – the twinkling field of white cotton grass, the dragon and damsel flies zooming around, lizards zipping along the boardwalk or if you’re lucky, a cuckoo or raptor cutting through the wide blue sky above…

However, there’s also a lot to be seen down at peaty watery ground level, if you’re willing to crawl about to get nose to nose with some of the moss’s smaller and perhaps less obviously flashy inhabitants.

Sundew, specifically the round leaved sundew, can be found near the boardwalk on Flanders.  It can be hard to spot until you finally see some, then you see patches of red and green leaves here and there so often you wonder how you ever missed it in the first place.  This month, the sundew plants are looking glorious in their bizarre, sticky, dew-dropped, tentacle haloed way.  If there was ever a competition for weird alien looking plants, sundews would surely medal.

Sundew form compact rosettes of leaves, red and green and what a thing of beauty this little plant is.  Their name comes from the drops of mucilage that resemble drops of morning dew.  And at this time of year, they look incredibly pretty with halos of reddish tentacles, each tipped with with a sticky gob, glistening in the light.

So far so good, but sundews aren’t just a pretty face – oh, no…far from it, because this is a cheerful looking little plant with a dark side.  The sticky dew is sweet and attracts flying insects to it, who then become entrapped.  All sundew species worldwide (and they appear on every continent except Antarctica, in myriad forms) can move their tentacles in response to contact with edible prey.  Once they have caught an insect, they can curl their tentacles inwards to hold it fast.  Having done so, they secrete enzymes which digest the insects and the plant then absorbs the nutrients released. 

Sundew grow in boggy, acidic habitats where the soil has low nutritional value so the carnivorous element supplements their diet.  Well designed, sundew flowers sit on a tall stalk above the sticky plant, perhaps to avoid potential pollinators becoming entrapped and thus unable to fulfil their pollinating function. 

Sundew in flower – Duncan Curry, SNH.

As with almost every plant found, our ancestors had various uses for it.  One such use was on the face to brighten the complexion or, mixed with milk and applied to the skin, to remove freckles and treat sunburn.  As Culpepper notes ‘The leaves are continually moist in the hottest day, yea, the hotter the sun shines, the moister they are’ so one can see why some might feel its juice would keep the skin plump and moist and prevent dryness.  However, Culpepper continues ‘It flowers in June and then the leaves are fittest to be gathered…The leaves, bruised and applied to the skin, erode it…destroys warts and corns’.  So, clearly, one had to be careful exactly how sundew was used because there is a wide range of effect to be had, from moistening to erosion or even destroying! 

The plant was further used to relieve chest conditions such as asthma and whooping cough. It was commonly mixed with thyme in a syrup to treat coughing in children.  The plant has properties that relax the muscles of the respiratory tract, which relieves wheezes.  In the 16th and 17th centuries it was thought also to relieve melancholy.  Later on, the plant was thought of as a love charm, given its ability to lure in and trap helpless insects.

So next time you’re out on the Moss, keep your eyes peeled for the fascinating sundew and just take a moment to marvel at it.

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