Slippery surfaces of carnivorous plants: composition of epicuticular wax crystals in Nepenthes alata Blanco pitchers

Planta. 2003 Nov;218(1):87-97. doi: 10.1007/s00425-003-1075-7. Epub 2003 Jul 19.


Plants in the genus Nepenthes obtain a substantial nutrient supply by trapping insects in highly modified leaves. A broad zone of the inner surface of these pitchers is densely covered with wax crystals on which most insects lose their footing. This slippery wax surface, capturing prey and preventing its escape from the trap, plays a pivotal role in the carnivorous syndrome. To understand the mechanism of slipperiness, the present investigation aimed at an ultrastructural and physico-chemical characterization of the wax crystals in pitchers of N. alata Blanco. Scanning electron microscopy revealed that entire platelets protruded perpendicularly from the surface. Methods were developed that allowed the mechanical removal of wax crystals from the pitcher surface. It could be shown that the sampling was selective for the epicuticular wax, relevant for plant-insect interactions. The crystals consisted of a mixture of aliphatic compounds dominated by very-long-chain aldehydes. Triacontanal, at 43% the most abundant constituent, was largely responsible for crystal formation. Solubility data indicate that the Nepenthes crystals contained polymeric forms of this aldehyde. The resulting mechanical properties of the polymer crystals and the mechanism of slipperiness are discussed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Chromatography, Gas
  • Insecta
  • Magnoliopsida / physiology*
  • Magnoliopsida / ultrastructure*
  • Microscopy, Electron, Scanning
  • Predatory Behavior
  • Waxes / chemistry
  • Waxes / isolation & purification*


  • Waxes