Horror in the garden: Carnivorous plants take a bite out of pests

2013-05-16T00:00:00Z Horror in the garden: Carnivorous plants take a bite out of pestsJane Ammeson Times Correspondent
May 16, 2013 12:00 am  • 

With their sweet fragrance and pretty colors, pitcher plants beckon, inviting insects to partake of what must be the most delicious nectar nestled in the depths of the wide open red and green lined mouth. But the slope is slippery and tiny plant tentacles carry the insect down into depths making it impossible to come back up. This pernicious plant is just one of several carnivores growing in Northwest Indiana.

“Sundews also have hair like follicles coated with sticky stuff,” said botanist David Hamilla, who lives in Chesterton. “Once the insect gets stuck, the leaves slowly close — it takes about a half of a day — around it.”

The devious bladderwort works in a similar way. Floating on the water, it looks like a pile of seaweed or swamp muck with small yellow flowers. What could be less threatening? Au contraire, when an unsuspecting insect hits the tentacles on the plant’s bladder, it gets sucked in, the trap closes and the plants secretions began dissolving its prey.

If it all sounds like a horror movie, there’s good reason. Movie makers have long seen carnivorous plants as evil aggressors.

“I have a list of over 100 films and TV shows that featured real carnivorous plants as well as monster plants,” said Peter D'Amato of California Carnivores, one of the largest purveyors of carnivorous plants in the world. “The most famous are Little Shop of Horrors, Day of the Triffids, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Regular films have also had guest appearances of carnivorous plants like Katherine Hepburn feeding 'Lady' live bugs in Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer.”

But relax. These plants may be deadly for insects, but according to D’Amato, no people-eating plants discovered – at least not yet.

D’Amato has been a carnivorous plant devotee (he calls them CPs) since he was a kid in the 1960s living in New Jersey and ordered Venus flytraps through a magazine called "Famous Monsters".

“They promptly died,” he recalls. “Then a classmate told me he knew where CPs grew in the Pine Barrens and showed me pitcher plants and sundews, and I became addicted.”

So addicted in fact that D’Amato opened California Carnivores in 1989 and almost immediately, despite the skepticism of old time growers, the nursery was a success. He is also the author of "The Savage Garden", an award winning book about the cultivation of carnivores currently in its tenth printing with the revised edition due to be released by Ten Speed Press this summer. Besides that he is also at work on a horror novel called "From a Crevice in Hell", a botanical thriller about the mythological Lucifer Plant from Hell.

“While folks are attracted to CP at first because they don't just sit there and actively lure, catch, kill and eat insects and other little animals,” said D’Amato, “ultimately it's their unusual beauty that wins growers over.”

But no matter how lovely the look, when in the wild, they shouldn’t be picked.

According to Joy Bower, manager of Lake County Parks/Gibson Woods, both the pitcher (Sarracenia purpurea) and sundew (Drosera rotundifolia and Drosera intermedia) plants are on the Endangered, Threatened, Rare and Extirpated Plants of Indiana List and removing them can result in both a hefty fine and jail time.

“Since CP grow around the world they require different climates, but most CP come from temperate areas and the North America has more varieties than any place else in the world, especially the southeast,” said D’Amato. “So they require warm summers with a lot of sun and chilly to frosty winter dormancy. Some are native to the Great Lakes area and can be grown outdoors especially in bog gardens.

"Plants like Venus flytraps do best in sunny places during spring, summer and autumn and then must be placed someplace cool and even frosty for winter dormancy when they rest. Purified water or rain water is best for them. Tropical CPs do best in tanks as potted plants under grow lights and a few can adjust to sunny window sills.”

Chuck Roth Jr. at the family owned Chesterton Feed & Garden Center sells Venus flytraps and recommends growing them in a terrarium-like environment.

“They like humidity and grow around here in areas that are swampy like Pinhook Bog in LaPorte,” he said about the 580-foot Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore area which is open to the public by pre-arranged ranger tours because of its fragility.

Besides their curious factor, carnivorous plants also have medicinal value.

“Carnivora is an herbal product used to fight tumors and other growths — Ronald Reagan was on it and is produced from Venus flytraps, and tropical pitcher plants in Southeast Asia have been used for various ailments from menstruation discomfort to antiseptic use,” said D’Amato.

“When it comes to carnivorous plants," said Hamilla, “it’s a real neat strange world.”

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