Little floating stomachs would be an apt description of bladderworts, the largest and most wide-spread genus of carnivorous plants. These minute aquatic beasts are found from Alaskan swamps to tropical regions, making their homes in wet, mossy trees, fast streams and seasonal deserts. When drought strikes, they transform into tiny tubers to ride it out.
The prolific and varied blooms of Utricularia can look like miniature orchids, irises, pea blossoms or buttons. Some of the 214 known species even have free-form blooms that can't be likened to anything particular [source: D'Amato]. They flower in a wide range of colors and color combinations.
Lurking beneath the lovely blossoms, scattered among hair-like stems, are hundreds of pinhead-sized carnivorous bladders trailing trigger hairs into the water. The hairs alert the bladder that prey is near. Bladderworts feed on small aquatic insects such as water fleas, and larger unfortunates like mosquito larvae and tadpoles.
First, the prey tickles the trigger hair. Lightning fast, the bladder opens a trap door and sucks the animal inside, where digestive juices dissolve it. The larger meals don't fit into the bladder. They get caught like an animal in a foot trap and are digested slowly, by millimeters. When the part inside the bladder is fully digested, the trap door opens and sucks a little more of the still-living victim inside. This continues until the entire animal is absorbed. The strong vacuum of the trap and the speed with which it acts eliminate any chance of escape.
As sinister as they are, plant enthusiasts value bladderworts for their flowers. They're rootless, their stems and leaves are unimpressive, and when not blooming, the plant looks like slime. But when they are blooming, they're irresistible. All types, aquatic, terrestrial and epiphytic (growing on another plant, but not as a parasite) are easy to grow as houseplants. Orchid bark and sphagnum moss create a good home for epiphytic plants. Use a half-and-half mix of peat and sand for terrestrial species, and add a cup of peat for each gallon of water your aquatic species will inhabit [source: D'Amato]. Most species need sunny conditions to thrive and flower. You can feed and water them at the same time if you use pond water. It contains the microscopic creatures Utricularia depends on for survival.
Would you rather grow something unique, but less hungry? Consider the big, brilliant, definitely out-of-the-ordinary flowers on the next two pages.