Murderous Plants

This module, inspired by the work of Charles Darwin and his American correspondent Mary Treat, contains three individual lessons which consider adaptation and competition in the context of carnivorous plants.

Download and use the lessons below. All necessary teacher notes, downloadable resources, video links and extra information are found in the Notes section of each Google Presentation.


Charles Darwin was fascinated by plant nutrition in relation to carnivorous plants. Both he and Treat conducted investigations through observation in the field and experimentation in their homes and gardens. Darwin published his study on Insectivorous Plants in 1875. He was particularly interested in a plant exhibiting animal-like behaviours, and at one point was said to exclaim: ‘By Jove I sometimes think Drosera is a disguised animal’. He was so passionate about this plant he called it 'My beloved Drosera'.

This module also uses carnivorous plants and their habitats as a stepping-stone for exploring broader ecological concepts, in particular the structure of an ecosystem and predator-prey relationships. Students will engage in Darwin inspired activities with living specimens through inquiry-based learning.

Contemporary scientists, such as Aaron Ellison at Harvard University, continue to research these enigmatic plants and their extraordinary forms and behaviours. Students will engage with late Victorian botanical science in relation to how modern science works and consider the continuing role of evidence, theorising and peer-review.

Supporting Videos with Dawn Sanders

We thank Dr Dawn Sanders from the University of Gothenberg for adding extra context to this module through a variety of videos. These are linked through the module, but are grouped together in the video below.

Further sources of information:

  • Two good introductions to this fascinating subject are the books The Curious World of Carnivorous Plants: A Comprehensive Guide to Their Biology and Cultivation, and The Savage Garden, Revised: Cultivating Carnivorous Plants.
  • A more detailed paper, grounded in Darwin’s original work, is Ellison, A. M. and Gotelli, N. J. (2009). Energetics and the evolution of carnivorous plants—Darwin’s ‘most wonderful plants in the world’. Journal of Experimental Botany, 60(1): 19–42. [Link]
  • The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species [Link].
  • The International Carnivorous Plant Society: Conservation Policies and Statements [Link].
  • The letters sent between Mary Treat and Charles Darwin concerning carnivorous plants can be viewed online [Link].
  • The Science and Plants For Schools website also has information on using sundew and Venus flytrap [Link].

With thanks to...
Author: Dr Dawn Sanders
Original Editing & Layout: Mair Shepherd
Contributions: Michael Holland, Aaron Ellison & Clarisse Hart
Updated by: Joe Burton