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Beastly beauties: Carnivorous plants lure fans with bright colors, unique shapes
BY CANDACE RENALLS
Knight Ridder Newspapers
Creepy, hungry things grow in Charles Lamb's house.
Sticky, hairy plants with pouches and traps lure flies, gnats and spiders to their demise. Bog-loving plants in aquariums also have an appetite for insects.
Carnivorous plants that capture, kill and digest other life forms provide most of the greenery in Lamb's Duluth, Minn., home. The rarer and more unusual the plant, the better.
"They have a beauty," insists Lamb, 41. "Most of it is the shape."
With elaborate clamshell traps, fluted leaves and bristled stems, carnivorous plants are living sculptures, he says.
"I'm fascinated by evolution and these are plants that evolved
because they were in inhospitable circumstances," explains Lamb, who for several years ran Waxwing, a business that sold orchids and carnivorous plants.
Because most carnivorous plants grow in the poor soil of wetlands, it's believed they adapted to survive. They needed nutrients and turned to insects and other small creatures.
These plants conjure up images of Morticia of the "The Addams Family" feeding her plant, Cleopatra. In the 1960s sitcom, the exotic plant eagerly snapped up meatballs and burgers. It also had a fierce stranglehold.
Like Morticia, Lamb liked to feed his carnivorous plants when he started growing them 20 years ago. He used crickets, flies and other bugs found around his house until he learned the plants do just fine without forced feedings.
"Insects will find their way to the plants," Lamb says.
HOW THEY WORK
The plants lure insects with bright colors and sweet nectar. Then they trap them. The sundew's tiny spikes slowly lock around the insect while the butterwort's sticky leaves envelope and suffocate prey. Like a bear trap, the claw-like leaves of the Venus flytrap snap shut, locking in their victim. Insects slide down the slippery flutes of the pitcher plant into a pool of water from which they can't escape.
Plant juices break down the insect so the plant can absorb the insect's minerals. In the case of some pitcher plants, bacteria in the water dissolves the quarry.
"You always find remnants of the insects, the skeletons," says Lamb, who has about 50 carnivorous plants. "The soft parts are absorbed into the plant."
But don't expect the plants to control an insect problem in your home, he says. It can take days before the plant is ready for its next meal.
The world's more than 600 species of carnivorous plants have
developed brilliant ways to capture their supper. The plants range from microscopic fungi consuming amoeba to huge tropical pitcher plants that can devour small vertebrates such as rats, lizards and frogs, though insects are their typical fare.
"We've all had Venus flytraps as kids ... that we killed," Lamb
says. "Most people don't realize there are more carnivorous plants than Venus flytraps."
In the Northland of Minnesota, many carnivorous pitcher plants and sundews grow in the Sax-Zim Bog near Cotton. Pinguicula, a species of butterwort, inhabit the breaker in Grand Marais. All are protected and illegal to gather, Lamb says.
Jerry Fischer, owner of Orchids Limited in Plymouth, Minn., has grown and sold carnivorous plants since 1990.
"When I started, I was one of the few sellers in the country," he says, explaining there are now a half-dozen well-known suppliers and several big growers in Florida.
Over the past 15 years, Fischer has seen the interest grow while prices have fallen.
"There's tremendous interest in them," Fischer says of carnivorous plants. "They're fascinating plants to look at. They're grown easily once you understand what they need."
A small Nepenthes truncata, a species of tropical pitcher plant, cost $125 years ago and now costs $25. Tropical pitcher plants start at $15 and go to $200 to $300, Fischer says.
Popular Venus flytraps start at $5.99 and go as high as $400 for a rare mature one, Lamb says.
Many carnivorous plants are endangered or threatened, in part because their wetlands have been displaced by development, Lamb says.
"You cannot dig up carnivorous plants," Lamb says. "All grow in extremely vulnerable environments. Whole populations can be wiped out."
Like orchids, they're propagated in laboratories and nurseries using tissue cultures such as root sections. Hobbyists usually buy them through the Internet from reputable growers, importers or vendors such as Orchids Limited or California Carnivores in Forestville, Calif., Lamb says.
CARNIVOROUS PLANTS NEED PAMPERING
To grow carnivorous plants in your home, you need to know their unique needs.
"You have to change your frame of mind with carnivorous plants," says Charlie Lamb, an avid grower. "Some like to sit in water, in boggy conditions. Some like wet but well-drained soil. It takes doing some homework."
Lamb suggests consulting care charts on the International
Carnivorous Plant Society's Web site (www.carnivorousplants.org).
While most people start with a Venus flytrap, the plant is difficult to grow. The challenge is getting it through the winter. The plant's rhizomes should be dug up, cleaned off and stored in a plastic bag in a refrigerator's crisper drawer. Come spring, the rhizome is replanted for a new season of growth.
A good starter plant is a tropical pitcher plant (Nepenthes). It
grows best in high humidity, which can be created with a pot set in a terrarium.
Jerry Fischer, owner of Orchids Limited in Plymouth, Minn., suggests buying a nursery-raised plant that is more adapted to growing indoors and easily established.
"They select varieties that grow well and are vigorous," he says.
Fischer recommends setting the plant in an east window and keeping the soil moist. Move it to a south window from late October to late January, when the light is low.
Lamb suggests a south-facing window in the basement because tropical pitcher plants need much lower temperatures - about 34 degrees - in winter.
Here are more growing tips:
Generally, carnivorous plants can be grown in soil that is half peat and half sand or perlite. Plain sphagnum moss is another option. An exception is tropical pitcher plants. They need a looser soil, which requires adding fine orchid bark, charcoal, vermiculite and long-fibered sphagnum moss.
Use plastic or glazed pots, not terra-cotta pots, which absorb and hold mineral deposits lethal to carnivorous plants.
Plant roots must be kept moist, so place the potted plants in a plastic tray containing water or set them in an aquarium, terrarium or large glass container such as oversized brandy snifter.
Use rainwater or distilled water, never tap water, which contains harmful chemicals. "Tap water will wipe out a carnivorous plant in a week," Lamb says.
Don't fertilize. The plants are used to nutrient-poor soil.
Plants should be near bright light, such as an east window or under fluorescent lights.
Most carnivorous plants don't like temperatures higher than 80 degrees and can handle temperatures as low as 32 degrees. Many can be put outside in the summer. "They love it," Lamb says. "Leave pitcher plants out in summer and they get full of insects."
Carnivorous plants and their traps:
NORTH AMERICAN PITCHER PLANT
With fluted foliage, the common pitcher plant looks like a colorful vase. Prey is attracted by a sugary nectar on leaf rims. With inner hairs pointing downward, an insect is led down the slippery inner slope and ends up trapped in a pool of water at the bottom. Considered passive traps, the plant catches its prey purely by design.
TROPICAL PITCHER PLANT
Native to humid jungles and other exotic locations, tropical pitcher plants produce hollow pouches that resemble a fruit. They attract and digest their prey - which can include rats, lizards and frogs - similar to the North American pitcher plant.
Glistening leaves sticky with plant juices attract insects that get caught by hairs on the leaves like flypaper. Leaf edges curl over an insect as it struggles.
With the most active trap among carnivorous plants, this small plant looks like a cluster of bear traps. When its inner hairs are triggered more than once (so it's not activated by wind or a small pebble), a trap snaps shut within 20 seconds. Digestive juices fill the closed trap and the victim drowns. The trap reopens after several days. In nature, the plant is only found in a bog near Wilmington, N.C.
The butterwort has pretty flowers and sticky, fuzzy leaves that insects get stuck on. Their struggle gets the plant's digestive juices flowing. Leaf edges fold inward, suffocating the insect.
This tiny plant is the size of a letter on a typewriter and lives in shallow water. Leaf stalks, which resemble partly inflated balloons, are the traps.
For more information:
"The Savage Garden" by Peter D'Amato (Ten Speed Press, 1998)
"Carnivorous Plants of the United States and Canada" by Donald Schnell (Timber Press, 2002)
"Carnivorous Plants" by Tony Camilleri (Kangaroo Press, 1999)
www.carnivorousplants.org: Web site of the International Carnivorous Plant Society, which also publishes the Carnivorous Plant Newsletter.