One of the many joys of walking in the take District is the abundance of plant life encountered and, in particular, the seeking out of unusual or even rare species which occur in the Lakeland habitats. From lake shore to tam, meadow to moorland and scree to crag, there is an infinite variety and each terrain has its specialities.
For example, while most plants derive their nutrition from the soil and through photosynthesis, there are some, such as sundew, which thrive in poor and acid soils and which augment their meagre diet in other ways, such as by trapping insects.
Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) has a short and slender rootstock and bears its small round leaves, often about 1cm in diameter, on stalks. The upper surface of each leaf is covered in numerous red and viscid hairs, each bearing a tiny gland at the tip. The flower stem is erect, thin and wiry, with a simple and sometimes forked raceme or spike of tiny white flowers. The glands secrete a sparkling clear fluid, which is extremely sticky. The hairs are sensitive to touch and to chemical stimulus and, when an insect comes into contact with one secretion, is stimulated and surrounding hairs bend inwards adding their liquid too. Once the process is triggered, the chances of escape are minimal. The strength of the adhesive is such that even damsel flies and dragonflies are doomed when once it is touched. The liquid contains protein-digesting enzymes which dissolve the soft tissues of the insect body, and this ‘solution’ is then absorbed by the leaf. Each plant can 'catch' hundreds of insects in a season.
In Cumberland and Yorkshire sundew was once known as moor grass; it has had other local names in the past such as 'red rot' and 'sticklebacks' in Somerset and 'youth grass' in Lancashire. While D.rotundifolia is by far the most common species, D.anglica and D.intermedia may also be found.
Like so many 'herbes', sundew has quite a history and was once credited with magical and healing properties and a number of superstitions, In 1568, for example, William Turner wrote in his Herbal that it was “good for consumption, swooning and faintness of the heart". It was said to have strengthening and nourishing properties “especially if distilled with wine".
Next time your boots tramp over boggy ground, look out for sundew!