Surprising Beauty: Carnivorous Plants in the Garden

This piece was originally published in August of 2009, but beautiful plants are always worth revisiting, especially in high summer. Enjoy.

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Have you noticed how the concept of beauty evolves as you grow older or as you garden longer? Just ten years ago, if you had told me that I would consider a bouquet of carnivorous plants as lovely a sight as I had ever seen, I would have replied (politely, I hope) that I was really more of a pansy, peony or poppy girl. So no-one was more surprised than I was when I recently encountered a bouquet of carnivorous plant spent flower heads and traps and I thought to myself that they were some of the most strikingly lovely plants I’d ever seen. It’s not that I have forsaken peonies, not at all. Rather, I can happily attest that one of the benefits of growing older as a gardener (and as a person) is that your concept of beauty deepens and widens to include all manner of beauty. Photo: A sample of David and Cathy Walther’s carnivorous plant collection, including the double-flowered, speckled white trapped Sarracenia leucophylla ‘Tarnok’.

David Walther, co-owner with his wife Cathy of Spring Fever Nursery in Yankee Hill, has been intrigued by carnivorous plants and been growing them in his home garden for close to 10 years. His collection currently includes many plants comprising multiple varieties of half a dozen or so species. I first saw David’s collection in mid-spring, when a handful were beginning to bloom. I visited them again in late-summer and their dramatic colors, structures and over-all interest were still going strong. While many carnivorous plants have very attractive and showy flowers, it is the traps and the spent seed heads that persist and that, in my opinion, hold multi-season interest for the gardener. Photo: Sarracenia flava, the tall plant with dangling yellow flower petals, in bloom and Sarracenia leucophylla x. willisii ‘Dana’s Delight’ in bud.

Evidence of carnivorous plants dates back to the Cretaceous Period (1144 to 65 million years ago). Currently, botanists believe that there are close to 600 species of carnivorous plants and fungi, from something like 15 genera and 7 families, and which live around the world. Several carnivorous plants are native to California including the California pitcher plant (Darlingtonia californica) and a sundew (Drosera). Photo: A small venus fly-trap (Dionaea muscipula)

Carnivorous plants could also be referred to as insectivorous plants, as insects of all kinds are their normal prey. Carnivorous plants the world over have evolved at different times in response to impoverished circumstances – be it very dry soil without sufficient nutrients or very wet and acidic bog conditions. As result of poor growing conditions, the plants could not derive the nutrients they needed in order to survive and reproduce and so they developed means of getting their nutrients from nutrient-rich insects in the vicinity. The technical definition of a carnivorous plant is one that attracts, captures, kills and digests its prey, but many plant people include as carnivorous plants that just do some of these steps. Photo: David cut open a Sarracenia trap for me to demonstrate how many bugs the plant has digested. While they do capture a lot of bugs, they are not actually effective bug control.

In general, carnivorous plants attract different insects for food than they do for the purposes of pollination. Furthermore, carnivorous plants do not use their reproductive parts (flowers) in order to capture or digest insects and their digestive parts are not involved in pollination or reproduction. Photo: An ant crawling on the operculum or lid of a pitcher trap. The shape of the operculum helps to protect the trap from overflowing with rainwater and helps to direct bugs into the trap.


Beyond botanical classifications, carnivorous plants are categorized by their degree of carnivory – full-time, meaning they do not obtain any of their nutrients from the soil, or part-time, meaning they get some of their nutrients from their soil/water and some from insect prey. They are also categorized by the kinds of traps that they use – active or passive fly-paper (wherein bugs are attracted to a sticky liquid on the plant’s leaves that binds them like glue), pitcher/pitfall and lobster-pot traps (wherein insects are attracted by a scent inside of cup or pitcher which they cannot get back out of) and steel or snap-traps (wherein the traps actually close around the trapped prey, such as the venus fly traps), and finally mousetraps, which are only found on aquatic carnivorous plants and are in the form of a bladder which when triggered inflates itself and sucks in water and its prey. Wow. Amazing, but less lovely in a bouquet, I would think. Photo: David points out the structure of a Sarracenia flower. The petals are the yellow parts hanging down the longest, the sepals are less long and hang down over the petals. David is lifting one up. The stigmas (pointing up and tucked under the petals) are all joined together by an upside-down umbrella-shaped style to form a little basin beneath the pollen-bearing anthers and filaments.

While some plants have been recognized as carnivorous for a very long time, other plants have only recently been recognized as such, including some species of Bromeliads. You might have noticed that bromeliad leaves often form a little cup, which prior to the 1980s was believed to be only for conservation of water. In the 1980s it was discovered that some bromeliads actually absorb and use the nutrients of the insects that (inadvertently or by design) drown in these little water basins. Some other plants’ flowers – like the famed dutchman’s pipes (various Aristolchia) or jack-in-the-pulpits (various Arisaema), look a lot like carnivorous traps, but they are in fact flowers trying to attract pollinators, not traps trying to attract food. Photos: Carnivorous looking non-carnivores. A Dutchman’s Pipe on the left and an Arisaema on the right.

David Walther’s carnivorous plant collection has developed a little each year since he originally became interested in them. Since many carnivores grow naturally in peaty or boggy conditions, David grows his planted in old wine-barrel halfs, which he fills with 50% sand and 50% peat or sphagnum moss. These he keeps watered well. “It’s not that they drink a lot of water, but more that they like wet feet and the materials in which they are planted retain a lot of water, so I don’t actually water these more than I water my other plants,” explains David. Because they generally grow in humid as well as moist conditions, and thrive under stress, David also plants his containers quite tightly, and then overseeds them with a small delicate grass or restio. This grassy cover helps to keep water from evaporating too quickly and keep the plants’ roots cool. While the conditions should be wet, they should not be stagnant. David has mesh-covered drainage holes in his barrels and he prefers his wooden containers over plastic ones because they allow for respiration and evaporation. Photo: David inspecting his carnivorous plants.

Most carnivorous plants are delicate when it comes to replicating their desired conditions. David’s carnivorous plants generally like good amounts of bright light. They do not like being fertilized and he makes sure to water them with rested water – meaning water that you have let sit out in a watering can or a bucket for 12 – 24 hours. This helps to ensure that any added chemicals like chlorine have dissipated. Photo: Two of David’s carnivorous plant containers. David does not cover or take his plants in in winter and they do fine each spring at his 2300 foot elevation location.

Because carnivorous plants allocate their energy perhaps even more carefully than other flowering plants, their structures are fascinating. Unlike other flowering plants that grow leaves primarily for photosynthesis and flowers primarily to attract pollinators so that they can reproduce and ensure the survival of their species, carnivorous plants have to do at least twice that and get it done with less: they grow their traps as well as their flowers, produce their sticky liquids and muscillage to attract insects as well as the enzymes to kill and break the bugs’ down into nutrients. In the winter, when light is low, temperatures are low and bugs are scarce, many carnivorous plants send up leaves called phyllodes not related to the plant’s traps but just for the purpose of additional photosynthesis. Photo: The speckled pattern on Sarracenia traps.

“It is amazing how the many parts all work together – beautifully – towards the ultimate goal of capturing food,” David says to me with evident respect for his plants. He goes on to explain: “Most of the pitfall or lobster-trap style plants have a sort of top – called an operculum – which helps to keep the trap from overflowing with too much rainwater. Most operculum are shaped in such a way that they also help to direct and funnel potential prey in the direction of the trap.” Photos: Left, photo courtesy of David and Cathy Walther: A little frog peeking out of a trap – waiting for a snack. Right: A spider dealing with a bee beneath a spent Sarracenia flower head.

While most bugs should use caution in the presence of a carnivorous plants, some creatures have developed an understanding of how to work with them and take advantage of other insects being attracted to them. While examining some traps, David and I see a green spider that has set up its web on the lip of a Sarracenia’s spent flower head. It is very busy wrapping a bee for later. “Small frogs will creep into a trap backwards and wait for their dinner to come to them,” David tells me. “The business of evolution and survival is ingenious.”

And oddly enough, it is strikingly beautiful at the same time.

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Carnivorous Plant Societies:

International Carnivorous Plant Society: www.sarracenia.com/faq.html

Bay Area Carnivorous Plant Society: www.bacps.org/ Photo: Sarracenia rubra.

Carnivorous Plant Books: (of which there are many, so look around) Photo: David showing which traps go with the Sarracenia leucophylla ‘Tarnok’ flowers.

Carnivorous Plants of the United States and Canada, Donald E. Schnell; Timber Press, 2002.

Glistening Carnivores: The Sticky-Leaved Insect Eating Plants, Stewart McPherson; Redfern Natural History Production, 2008.

Carnivorous Plants – Care and Cultivation, Marcel Lecoufle; Blandford Press, 1990.

The Savage Garden: Cultivating Carnivorous Plants, Peter D’Amato; Ten Speed Press, 1998.

Insectivorous Plants, Charles Darwin; originally published in London in 1875; re-issued most recently: University Press of the Pacific, 2002 (paperback).

Carnivorous Plant Nurseries: Photo: One of David’s fork-leafed sundews (Drosera).

Spring Fever Nursery, Yankee Hill. Open by Appt: 5683 Wendy Way Yankee Hill, CA; 530- 534-1556, also at the Chico Saturday Farmer’s Market and the Paradise Tuesday Market.

Magnolia Gift & Garden, Chico (www.magnoliagandg.com) 1367 East Avenue, Chico; 530-894-5410. They carry a selection of Spring Fever’s carnivorous plants.

Hortus Botanicus, Fort Bragg – (www.hortusb.com/) 20103 Hanson Road, Fort Bragg, CA 95437; 707-964-4786.

California Carnivores: www.californiacarnivores.com/
Photos: Sunlight through a Saracenia trap, left; Sarracenia minor, right.


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In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In A North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.

Jennifer Jewell
In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.
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