“Feed me Seymour. Feed Me!!!” That’s what many of us think of when presented with the subject of carnivorous plants: a giant, alien-looking plant that feeds on flesh and blood. In the animal world a lion feasting on a gazelle, while unappealing, can be chalked up to animal nature but a plant that eats insects, that’s too strange. In reality, carnivorous plants are actually not as weird as we’d like to think but infinitely more fascinating than the common Petunia or Marigold. I, for one, find anything about insects interesting and entertaining. Spiders don’t bother me (unless they startle me) but snakes do. One of my favorite classes in college was entymology. I thoroughly enjoyed sorting the insects into families and classes; capturing, identifying and mounting many for my insect collection; and dissecting a cockroach to see its inner workings. Okay, I get that I’m probably in the minority here. But I’m not entirely alone. And I’m guessing most of you enjoy plants. So for me, when you mix insects with plants (my most favorite subject), it’s magic.
Probably the first carnivorous plant we think of is the Venus Flytrap (Dionaea muscipula). With its clawed leaves, it looks fierce and scary, if you’re a fly. Hard to believe the Venus Flytrap is native to sub-tropical wetlands in North and South Carolina. The Venus Flytrap, and most carnivorous plants, grow in poor soils, in this case-bogs. Most of their nutrients come from gases in the air and nutrients in the soil. However, they supplement their diet with nutrients from the insects they catch. Normally, the flytrap leaves are open. When an insect lands on them, their trigger hairs sense the insect and close, usually in less than a second. Eventually, the trap closes completely and the digestive fluids break down the insect, except for the exoskeleton which blows away once the trap reopens. If the insect is too large, the trap doesn’t ever close completely and the bacteria and mold on the insect cause the leaf to turn black and fall off. Non-insect objects, such as a rock, are spit out after twelve hours. Venus Flytraps prefer live insects. Please don’t feed them hamburger meat, no matter what you’ve read. Venus Flytraps are relatively easy to grow although particular about some things. They actively grow from May through October. They go into a dormant state the rest of the year, dying back partially or completely. Many people think the plant is truly dead and throw it out. During their growing period, they prefer being kept moist. It is important to use distilled, soft well, or rain water. Chemically treated city water is not good. They will grow indoors in medium to direct sunlight. In direct sunlight they can be set in a tray of water. In lower light, simply keep the soil moist. Repotting should be done in the spring before vigorous growth begins. A special mixture of 70% peat moss and 30% perlite or pumice is an ideal potting media. (Garland Nursery sells a Carnivorous plant potting mix). During the dormant stage, they should be kept slightly damp.
Oregon, too, has a native carnivorous plant: the Cobra Lily, a type of Pitcher plant (Darlingtonia californica). It looks like the snake it is named after. Near Florence is the Darlingtonia Wayside, “the only Oregon state park property dedicated to the protection of a single plant species” (according to the official state parks website-just Google “Darlingtonia Wayside”). My husband and I enjoyed visiting it in September of 2013. It was a drizzly, mid-week day and we were alone in the park. It was truly other-worldly. Although they are available for purchase, Garland Nursery has them very rarely.
Another fascinating carnivorous plant is the Sundew (Drosera). The name “Drosera” translates to mean “glistening in the sun”, which perfectly describes it. The trap portion has many gland-bearing stalks that secrete a sticky, dew-like substance. This sticky droplet traps insects like flypaper. Both the Sundew and the Venus Flytrap attract insects by a sweet, nectar-like odor. Once trapped, the insect is pushed toward the center of the leaf by tenacles. Doesn’t that sound scary?!
Besides the Darlingtonia, there are other Pitcher plant genuses. The other most commonly available in our area is Sarracenia. It is super cool. The pitcher, a specialized leaf, often has unusual coloration. I think some of the most colorful, common carnivorous plants are the Sarracenia. The insects, once lured down the pitcher, cannot escape and drown or die of exhaustion. Beyond the color of the pitcher, is the unique beauty of the flowers. They flower over a 2-3 week period in April or May. The flowers look like upside down umbrellas, with the stigma color often contrasting the petal color. Other beneficial insects transport the pollen to make more Pitcher plants.
Many carnivorous plants have been over-collected from the wild and are now endangered. It is important to purchase these fascinating plants from propagators rather than collectors. At Garland Nursery, we are proud to sell carnivorous plants from Cook’s Carnivorous Plants in Junction City, Oregon. There are other carnivorous plant genuses not covered in this blog. I hope that you find carnivorous plants as fascinating as I do. If you don’t, at least feel welcome to come view them, now, while they are in their glory.