September 14, 2016

The Curious World of Carnivorous Plants

Oh those Gooey Glands and Hairy Appendages. A little sinister, bit scary and somewhat beautiful -the world of carnivorous plants attracts fans from all populations, from the youngest kids to the gnarliest biker dudes - as experienced this past weekend at the fall Carniverous Plant Show held by the New England Carnivorous Plant Society at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, MA.

I can't say that I've ever attended a carnivorous plant society show before, so this was new to me - but I had been forewarned that these shows are a bit crazy - crowded, busy and packed with enthusiasts of all ages. In fact, I was so encouraged by the scope of the crowd at this weekends' show, I have never seen so many young people (i.e. "folks under 40") attending a show, let alone so many kids.

These are popular shows, and it's no wonder why. Carnivorous plants are fascinating, to say the least. Not truly 'man-eating', these plants still offer enough interest to appeal to this very broad audience. It's fun to see second graders mingling with surgeons and tattooed bikers, yet at the same time, everyone shares a common interest - a passion for death and beauty. Who'd a thunk? 

Pitcher Plants, those within the genus Sarracenia, are highly collectable, and it's pretty clear why. Able to grow in pots and containers on decks and windowsills, they look beautiful for most of the year.

Personally, I've had a 'ho-hum' relationship with these plants. Always believing that they were more about novelty than botanical interest - but clearly they offer much, much more, and only by attending a show like this where collectors display pots, bowls, even shot glasses with tiny plants that eat fruit flies - these plants are like no other plants on earth.

So what do we know about carnivorous plants?  Well first and foremost - they eat bugs, right? That alone is pretty cool, even to a botanist. Second, they seem to all come with a built-in narrative - not unlike a horror movie, but one which lives on your windowsill. Drama, mystery and beauty round out the list. Not biologically sentient (they are 'alive' in a way, but not in the way your 9 year old may want them to be!).  As I heard one society member explaining to a heavily tattooed visitor at this weekends' Carnivorous Plant Show....

"you see..." as she pointed with a ball point pen to a fringed, leafy appendage on a Venus fly trap, 
"...they don't really have muscles, but rather, they react to pressure and vibrations. Like this..." as the plant's 'man eating parts' quickly wrapped around the tip of the pen to the delight of the twenty-something who asked the question.

Yeah. Carnivorous plants are cool. Even to me. Then again, I have many tattoo's. 

Maybe it's 'a thing'

Carnivorous plant shows attract a broad spectrum of enthusiasts, many naturally find these 'man-eating plants' edgy and

My first exposure to carnivorous plants was while I attended college in Unity Maine. A bog which housed a large northern population of Pitcher Plants - Sarracenia purpurea - lay behind the college, and it was my first job as a freshman to collect press some specimens for the college herbarium, which I tended to as part of my work-study program (the other part was cleaning the men's dorm bathrooms, a task a shall never try to recall again.). A bog of Pitcher Plants is an amazing sight to see in any season, but in autumn, the floating mats of sphagnum and deep red pitchers caught my imagination, and before long, specimens were not pressed, but living in buckets in our school greenhouse. 

Since then, I have survived through  a couple of carnivorous plant addictions. You know what I mean. I may have a relapse after this show. I just can't seem to stay away from them, once I see them in person.

If you know nothing about carnivorous plants, the more growable species can broadly be grouped into a few groups broadly speaking. These are the most collectible, and any visit to a carnivorous society web page will connect you with local nurseries which specialize in the plants, or to mail order sources. Also, I urge you to attend a local meeting of your closest society for these plants, as members all seem highly eager to share their passion with newbies, and at that point, you can decide if you want to join. Bring your kids too!

I would say that when one thinks of carnivorous plants, one first thinks of Venus Fly Traps.
But the more collectible groups are the showier ones - mainly, Nepenthes and Sarracinea - the pitcher plants, but never confuse these two genus as they are distinctly different from one another, even though botanically, they both produce 'pitchers'.

These beauties capture various prey (mostly insects and larvae), but one grows them more for their exotic appearance than flesh-eating show.  Nepenthes are warmer growing plants, better for indoors or a moderate greenhouse, but they grow perfectly well under lights or on a windowsill. Generally vining in habit they native to places like Borneo and South East Asia. Truly exotic looking, they are becoming easier to find, but like most plants, the nicest varieties are shared and sold amongst collectors and not at retail nurseries unless they specialize in these plants, so do some homework or get connected with collectors.

The genus Sarracenia however is generally more hardy, most can grow outdoors in a home-made bog or in frost proof containers, but the nicest ones will require a little bit of protection in the winter such as a garage which is unheated. This hardier clan can be kept outdoors in zones 6 and higher.

Kids can't help but be fascinated with carnivorous plants. What to engage your children and draw them away from their screens? Consider a tank collection of different carnivorous plants. 

I have never seen so many kids so interested in a plant society show before. Even the adult 'kids' were captivated as seen here by this boy looking at some very decorative Nepenthes pitchers.

Venus Fly Trap's are always a hit. And you ca see why. Now, I want to go home and plant a barrel of them, like this!

This one made it home with me. Utilizing a method called 'snap trapping' this Dionaea musical closes rapidly when the sensitive hairs on the leave lobes are stimulated. Ooh my.

Awww......How cute are these? Super-tiny Baby Fly Traps!

Nepenthes are always the kings of the show. There are many hybrids and crosses now, such as this N. lowii cross

Naughty and nice, some Nepenthes are downright scary-beautiful.

The Sundews or Drosera species always impress me when I see them in real life. I wonder why I am not growing any in the cold greenhouse? I wish I had grabbed some at the show, but I guess I'll really have to join the society, now.

Drosera are slow-catchers, rather than fast ones like the fly traps. The sticky goo first does the dirty work, and then the plant does the rest over time. One thing is for certain, all Drosera a good subjects for the camera.

A closeup view of this Drosera leave show the sticky glands.

Many drosera and others have beautiful flowers as well.

Pinguicula have the prettiest blossoms. They have  a 'flypaper' type of trapping mode, sticky mucilage excreted but glands on the surface of their leaves, but one notices their colorful blooms before they notice the dead flies.

Some collectors displayed aquatic specimens in trays of water. This Utricularia commonly known as a bladderwort, is part of a huge genus alone with nearly 230 species. 

A carnivorous plant show appeals to social media, as well. The younger crowd means there is more tech, more social media, and more sharing. Not a bad thing.

I really was impressed with this digital microscope on display, which seemed to be popular with the kids who are clearly more tech native than the older adults. Roll this camera over a specimen and .....
....you can see details of the plant on the digital device. I've been considering getting a digital microscope-camera myself, since they retail for around $100, the price of a good research book - what a great 'toy' for your child who might have a slight interest in science (or for your boyfriend?girlfriend/husband/wife). 

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