Dionaea / Venus flytrap / Venus vliegenvanger
It is an herbaceous perennial that grows up to 17 inches high, with leaves about three to five inches long, with two layers modified at the end to form the trap.
The leaf sides have 15 to 20 bristles on the very edge, and three of the sensing bristles on the surface – the sensitive bristles, when stimulated by a hapless insect or the tip of a pencil, snap shut with the bristles locking closed.
The trapped insect is digested over about 6 days, after which the trap slowly re-opens.
How is it Used?
The entire fresh plant is used medicinally. Juice from the pressed fresh plant stimulates the immune system, has antineoplastic and antispasmodic uses, according to the Physician’s Desk Reference for Herbal Medicines; also according to this source, the chief active ingredient is believed to be a substance called plumbagin, and unproven uses include the treatment of Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma as well as solid tumors.
According to the American Cancer Society, it is also used in mixtures like Carnivora, a patented formula that includes many ingredients in addition to Venus flytrap extract. Venus flytrap extract, alone, is sold in capsule and liquid form to be taken by mouth and as an injectable liquid.
Is it Helpful in Cancer?
Multiple sources indicate a lack of evidence in support of the use of Venus flytrap extract for treating cancer.
The American Cancer Society states, “Available scientific evidence does not support claims that extract from the Venus flytrap plant is effective in treating skin cancer or any other type of cancer. Some side effects have been reported with its use.”
The cancer society states, “Most of the studies done on the herbal extract were conducted by the physician who patented the drug Carnivora, who also has a large financial stake in a clinic that administers the drug and in the company that manufactures the drug.” They also note that supporters also claim that Carnivora is effective for treating colitis, Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, neurodermatitis, chronic fatigue syndrome, HIV, and certain types of herpes.
The bottom line, for now, appears to be that, although animal and laboratory studies show promise, further studies are necessary to determine whether the results of existing studies apply to humans. If such benefits exist, the active compounds may be produced using biotechnology. A recent review of compounds isolated from natural plants or plant in vitro cultures included plumbagin, a compound found in venus flytraps, among potential anti-cancer agents that could be produced in laboratory cultures.
Precautions and Adverse Reactions
According to the PDR of Herbal Medicines, Venus flytrap extract, when delivered to the body in ways other than through digestion, has led to elevated body temperature, chills, and circulatory damage, with circulatory collapse a possibility. Adverse effects may be due to contamination with bacterial toxin. Skin contact with the fresh plant may also cause irritation.
According to the American Cancer Society, “Liquid extracts of Venus flytrap, including Carnivora, do not appear to be toxic when taken by mouth, but not enough is known about the active ingredients for scientists to ensure that they are safe.”
They also note that most of the liquid extracts of Venus flytrap contain between 25 percent and 30 percent alcohol, which may cause harmful interactions with medicines such as disulfiram and metronidazole.
Medicinal Properties of the Venus Flytrap
The Venus flytrap contains compounds that can benefit human health, including naphthoquinones, phenolic acids, and flavonoids.30
According to a 2013 review by Gaascht et al., more than 15 compounds have been isolated from the Venus flytrap, although most of these are also found in other plants. At the time of the review, only one compound thought to be unique to the Venus flytrap with medicinal potential had been isolated: diomuscipulone. This naphthoquinone, however, has apparently not been tested for its biological activity.
Many of the compounds found in the Venus flytrap, including the naphthoquinone plumbagin (also present in Plumbago zeylanica [Plumbaginaceae] and other plants) and the phenolic acids ellagic acid (also present in pomegranate [Punica granatum, Lythraceae] and many other plants) and salicylic acid (also present in Salix spp. [Salicaceae]), have been shown to modulate the NF-ĸB cell-signaling pathway. This may be significant because this pathway is involved in the development and progression of many types of cancers.
Several of the compounds found in the Venus flytrap, including salicylic acid and the flavonoids quercetin and kaempferol (which are both present in Ginkgo biloba [Ginkgoaceae] and many other plants), have been the subjects of pharmacokinetic studies and clinical trials. Though most studies show that these compounds have poor bioavailability, it has been shown that co-treatment with a natural compound like quercetin or kaempferol and a chemotherapeutic drug like cisplatin or etoposide is more efficient than a single treatment, probably because of the ability of the natural compounds to block a specific drug resistance mechanism used by cancer cells.
Plumbagin may be one of the most promising anticancer compounds present in the Venus flytrap.30 It has demonstrated anticancer and antiproliferative activities in animal models and cell cultures and has been shown to target a wide range of cancer types, including breast cancer, lung cancer, ovarian cancer, acute promyelocytic leukemia, and prostate cancer.
In addition, plumbagin and its derivatives appear to have antibacterial properties. A 2013 in vitro study showed that the plumbagin derivatives maritinone and 3,3’-biplumbagin (isolated from a plant other than the Venus flytrap) were 32 times more potent than the antimycobacterial drug rifampicin against a strain of Mycobacterium tuberculosis that was pan-resistant (i.e., resistant to all five first-line anti-tuberculosis drugs). The authors concluded that these two derivatives have the potential for development as new anti-tuberculosis drugs, especially against resistant strains.
In the 1970s, the German physician Helmut Keller, MD, observed a Venus flytrap while in a flower shop in Maine and wondered if the plant contained substances that could be used selectively against tumor cells. He eventually developed a patented extract of the Venus flytrap called Carnivora. Although some anecdotal evidence suggests that Carnivora may be an effective cancer therapy,34 it does not appear to have been the subject of any human clinical trials. According to the Carnivora website, its manufacturing process does not use any Venus flytraps from wild habitats.
Daniel Moerman’s Native American Ethnobotany, a highly respected compilation of the ethnobotanical uses of North American plants by Native American peoples, does not indicate that the Venus flytrap was used medicinally by Native Americans, but it does state that the Cherokee used a “small piece of plant chewed and spat on bait for fishing.”
Although the Venus flytrap does not seem to be a major part of the commercial herb trade, the plant does contain compounds with demonstrated anticancer effects and other potentially beneficial biological activities.
Gaascht F, Dicato M, Diederich M. Venus Flytrap (Dionaea muscipula Solander ex Ellis) Contains Powerful Compounds that Prevent and Cure Cancer. Frontiers in Oncology. 2013;3:202. doi: 10.3389/fonc.2013.00202.
Jamal MS, Parveen S, Beg MA, et al. Anticancer Compound Plumbagin and Its Molecular Targets: A Structural Insight into the Inhibitory Mechanisms Using Computational Approaches. PLoS ONE. 2014;9(2):e87309. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0087309.
Uc-Cachón AH, Borges-Argáez R, Said-Fernández S, et al. Naphthoquinones isolated from Diospyros anisandra exhibit potent activity against pan-resistant first-line drugs Mycobacterium tuberculosis strains. Pulmonary Pharmacology and Therapeutics. 2014;27(1):114-20. doi: 10.1016/j.pupt.2013.08.001.
Carnivora: Pharmacology and Clinical Efficacy of a Most Diverse Natural Plant Extract. WeeksMD website. Available at: weeksmd.com/2008/12/carnivora-pharmacology-and-clinical-efficacy-of-a-most-diverse-natural-plant-extract/. Accessed April 3, 2017.
Walker M. German Cancer Therapies. New York, NY: Kensington Books; 2003.
FAQ. Carnivora website. Available at: www.carnivora.com/faq.html. Accessed April 3, 2017.
Moerman D. Native American Ethnobotany. Portland, OR: Timber Press; 1998.