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April 21, 2019

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Garden of Eatin’: Carnivorous plants are savage survivors

Venus flytrap

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A Venus fly trap devours its prey.

Carnivorous plants aren’t a product of nightmares so much as they are a product of evolution. When plants growing in bogs and other wetlands couldn’t find enough nutrients in the soil around them, they had to diversify their diets, so they evolved to use their leaves as traps, catching small prey such as insects, tadpoles, frogs, lizards and other creatures. Even more remarkable is the fact that they evolved independently around the globe instead of from one single ancestor. American pitcher plants, tropical pitcher plants, Australian pitcher plants and American carnivorous bromeliads are great examples of convergent evolution—all of these plants consume their prey in a similar fashion, but are unrelated. But pitchers are just scratching the sticky surface of these incredible organisms. Botanists have identified more than 800 species of carnivorous plants around the world.

What do they eat?

Carnivorous plants are inclined to feast on smaller prey including insects, tadpoles, frogs, lizards and other creatures.

Homegrown Horrors

North America’s native temperate carnivorous plants can’t get too hot or too dry, and they need cold weather to go into dormancy, so growing them at home in a desert climate can get a bit tricky. Anywhere beyond their preferred boggy habitat, carnivorous plants will need to grow in pots. Sarracenia Northwest, a carnivorous plant nursery out of Oregon, suggests the following tips for caring for a Venus flytrap and other species:

• Indoor care: During the growing season, place your flytrap on a windowsill that receives four or more hours of direct sunlight.

Pro tip

According to carnivorous plant expert Peter D’Amato in his book, The Savage Garden, many more subtropical and warm temperate species, such as cape sundews or Mexican butterworts can grow on a windowsill year-round, as long as they stay warm and humid. Try a south-facing window in winter, then an east- or west-facing sill for spring and summer.

The most popular way to raise carnivorous plants, D’Amato notes, is in terrariums and tanks. This way, conditions can be altered to fit the plants’ needs. Tanks should be outfitted with grow lights, but after that can be heated or unheated, potted or classically planted, and filled with all sorts of temperate to tropical cultivars.

• Dormant season care (December-February)

1. In December, un-pot your flytrap and cut off all leaves.

2. Spray the bulb with a sulfur-based fungicide.

3. Wrap the bulb in live sphagnum moss or in damp paper towels.

4. Seal the wrapped bulb in a plastic bag or container.

5. Place in the refrigerator.

• Outdoor care: Keep your plant in a large amount of standing water using a shallow tray to increase the ambient humidity around the plant. Position it in an area where it can get up to four hours of morning sun, then indirect light the rest of the day.

Important note: Never collect specimens from the wild. Most carnivorous plants are rare. Over-collection and habitat destruction are two huge conservation threats to carnivorous plants around the world. Instead, seek out reputable growers who use responsible methods of propagation.

Kinds of carnivores

Venus Flytrap (Dionaea muscipula)

• Native to eastern U.S.

• Found in coastal plains and pine savannas

• Most culturally well known of all carnivorous plants and the first suspected of being carnivorous. Consumes insects and arachnids.

Cobra Lily (Darlingtonia californica)

• Native to northwest U.S.

• Found in bogs, borders of springs, wet areas with cool running water

• Tubular shape and colorful “tongue” gives the plant its name and nectar attracts prey, including Pacific chorus frogs.

Bladderworts (Utricularia)

• Found in ponds and waterlogged areas throughout the world except most oceanic islands and the Arctic

• Looks like slime with orchid-like flowers

• Bladder trapdoors are the size of a pinhead or smaller and can catch prey in ten- to fifteen-thousandths of a second.

Sundews (Drosera)

• Located on almost every continent of the Earth.

• Clear, sticky droplets at the end of tiny hairs mimic nectar to attract insects, with many species able to curl around and trap prey.

Dewy Pine (Drosophyllum lusitanicum)

• Native to coastal Portugal, southern Spain and northern Morocco

• Prefers dry, sandy, gravel hills

• They smell like honey and sticky, oily drops overwhelm and suffocate prey.

Tropical Pitcher Plants (Nepenthes)

• Found primarily in Southeast Asia but can also be found in Australia and New Caledonia, India and Madagascar

• Only genus known to have devoured whole rats

Mechanisms carnivorous plants use to trap their prey

Did you know?

Carnivorous plants employ digestive enzymes and bacteria, breaking down prey into chemical compounds and nutrients that can be absorbed by the plant.

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.