It may sound like a tabloid news headline staring out at you from the checkout counter, but the tomato has been recently classified a ‘vampire plant’ like the Venus Flytrap, the pitcher plant and the flowering Nepenthes mirabilis. Researchers were just as surprised by this fact when they discovered characteristics of insect consuming plants were more prolific than ever previously dreamed. The list of carnivorous plants, previously numbered at some 650 swelled quickly to around 975 species when these characteristics were discovered in several common and household plants including the tomato.
Not nearly as dramatic as the snapping jaws of the venus flytrap, but equally effective, the tomato plant’s surface is covered in hundreds of thousands of tiny hairs on their stems that trap insect infestations on their surface, kill them, and then let their bodies fall to the ground where the roots of the tomato collect the rain thinned blood and decaying body matter to absorb their nutrients. The evolutionary trait is suspected by many botanists to have begun merely as a defense mechanism. Those who were protected from insect infestations by the tiny sticky hairs survived and reproduced more easily and therefore it became a trait inherent to the species. Then, as the plants expanded into soil that was sometimes not as nutrient rich as required, those who were able to collect the dead bodies of the plants and absorb the nutrients were able to gain an edge in hostile soil environments and therefore had a greater likelihood of survival much like the Venus Flytrap’s origins.
The tomato’s evolution as an insect-eating plant is yet another strange chapter in the legend of strange plant characteristics. Of course those familiar with the cryptozoology accounts of bygone days will recall the man-eater plant of Madagascar which was documented first in the South Australian Register by Carl Liche. It was later determined by author Willy Ley that the Madagascar tree along with the author, Mr. Liche were entirely made up. Still, the gory account of the plant and its violent nature were very formative in the culture of man-eating plants, later mimicked in Roger Corman’s 1960 classic “Little Shop of Horrors” where the fictional plant Audrey consumes the flesh of all within its grasp. While the tomato may not be the killer tree of hoaxed legends, who knows what fanged monstrosity it may become in the next hundred million years!