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article imageVegetarians might want to think twice before eating tomatoes

By Stephanie Dearing     Dec 7, 2009 in Food
It is difficult to not find a way that humankind uses plants. Think of all we derive from plants: food, medicines, clothing, paper products, furniture, homes, fuel for heat and cooking ... then there are the aesthetic benefits of plants.
In spite of all the benefits we derive from plants, the truth is that there is a darker side to plants. The side of plants that we fear. Who hasn't asked, with sweat dotting their brow, 'Did I just eat something I shouldn't have' when eating wild berries? Our fears are, frankly, based on reality -- some plants can kill us if we eat them. And there was once a time when, not knowing any better, we thought we could detect sinister plants based on how they looked. At one time, for example, the potato and tomato, were widely feared. Phew, thank goodness we got over those fears! But wait a second ... new research from the United Kingdom is already turning everything that we know upside down. It seems that some seemingly innocent vegetables and flowers are actually, gulp, carnivorous!
New research from the Kew Botanical Gardens and Natural History Museum just might have some vegetarians swearing off of foods from the nightshade family. Seems these plants eat a little meat when they can get it. And tomatoes and potatoes are not the only plants boosting their diets with a bit of fresh meat - scientists think there are 323 other plant species that also like to munch meat. Such as petunias and tobacco. But wait! It's not quite like one of those B movies where killer tomatoes are trying to take over the world. Plant geneticist, Dr. Mike Fay, who works at the Botanical Gardens, told the press that the species had not been identified as carnivorous before because "... they are missing some of the prime characteristics associated with carnivorous species."
According to The Independent, the researchers said "We may be surrounded by many more murderous plants than we think." The assessment of plants for their carnivorous potential was planned to celebrate Darwin's birth, 200 years ago. Darwin was fascinated with carnivorous plants. He was also quite taken with the potato. Researchers said that they believed the newly identified-as-carnivorous plants do not directly eat their victims. Instead, hairs on the plants trap insects, which die. At some point, the bodies of those insects will fall to the ground and decay, and the plants eventually receive the nutritional benefits through their roots.
The authors say their findings, published in the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society this week, support the theory that all flowering plants were carnivorous at one time. Over time, many have lost that capacity as they evolved. Dr. Fay told media that the scientists believed the ability to capture food enabled plants to survive poor soils in the wild. Domestication has not caused the plants to lose that capacity.
Other plants familiar to readers that could be considered carnivorous include Shepherd's Purse, some varieties of geraniums, and some cinquefoil plants, as well as the petunia.
The paper is called Murderous plants: Victorian Gothic, Darwin and modern insights into vegetable carnivory and was a collaboration between four scientists from the Natural History Museum and the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew.
More about Carnivorous tomatoes, Carnivorous potatoes, Nightshade family, Kew royal botanical gardens, Vegetarians
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