Going To Extremes.

Since Spring has sprung Venus flytraps have started popping up in garden stores and big box stores and grocery stores and convenience stores and pet stores. They’re everywhere in stores which is ironic because in the wild the Venus flytrap is endangered. This is because it’s adapted to a very specialized habitat—humid, sunny, highly acidic swamps—and its habitat is rapidly disappearing under encroaching development. That’s the downside for any organism that’s adapted for a very specific environment: it’s hard to adapt to change when it comes, and it always does. And it’s why I’m always irked whenever I watch a nature documentary and the narrator gets breathy and swoons over plants and animals that survive in “hostile” or “extreme” environments. Some organisms are even labeled “extremophiles” because adapted to live in places like active volcanoes or under Antarctica, and, sure, to us that seems badass, but think about things from their perspective. To the starfish that’s used to crawling along the bottom of the Mariana Trench, seven miles under the sea, the beach seems like an extreme environment.

Fortunately for the Venus flytrap it’s very easy to grow and will thrive in cultivation as long as its specific needs are met which is why most of the ones for sale are also endangered. Most people who buy one don’t have the patience to do all the care and feeding, or at least the care since the feeding is the coolest part of owning a Venus flytrap and pretty much the only reason most people buy one. And a few people who buy one will make the effort to make their Venus flytrap thrive, which may be part of the plant’s plan.

I remember reading about the Venus flytrap in an issue of National Geographic when I was a kid, and I was fascinated. A plant that would lure in insects and then trap and digest them seemed like something out of science fiction. Maybe they didn’t pull up their roots and walk around but they do move. Some time after that my parents gave me one that they found at a garden store. It eventually died because I didn’t know how to take care of it, but that fascination stayed with me and as an adult I’d get another one. And then I branched out to growing all kinds of carnivorous plants. I filled pots with peat and sphagnum and trays with distilled water and my wife helped me put up shelves with lights because our house mostly gets what plant growers call “indirect semi-shade”. The ideal place to grow such specialized plants is a greenhouse or, well, the wild, but I did the best I could to recreate their bright, humid environment. I ordered plants from strange and distant places like Oakland, California. The Venus flytrap may be the coolest one because it’s the only one that you can really see trapping its prey, but I liked growing sundews too. It was pretty fun watching their mucus-covered tentacles snag a mosquito and slowly wrap around it, suffocating it and eventually digesting it. That’ll teach you to suck my blood, I’d think, although I really didn’t care whether the mosquito had bitten me or even planned to. I liked growing pitcher plants too—both the North American varieties that grow their pitchers straight up in rosettes and the Asian nepenthes that send out vines and grow pitchers at the ends of their leaves. Although all pitcher plants do is just sit there and let insects fall in and slowly drown they’re interesting to look at. And once I’d made that commitment I started adding others. I grew butterworts which don’t eat much but their flat sticky leaves are used to make cheese in Scandinavia, so I don’t know why they’re not called “cheeseworts”, and put up pretty flowers so I could plausibly pass as a bona fide horticulturist and not a garden-variety psychopath taking pleasure in miniature dramas of life and death, mostly death.

For a while I even tried my hand at orchids, following a family tradition: my grandfather grew orchids in a greenhouse he built himself, and anything else he wanted to grow, including a pineapple plant from a pineapple he brought back from a trip to Hawaii, although he probably could have grown one from canned pineapple since he had a green thumb, a green hand, and a green arm pretty much up to his elbow, but that’s another story.

Eventually my plant collection would suffer a triple attack of aphids, whitefly, and neglect—my ambitions outstripped my patience with the difficulty of growing unusual greenery and everything I had died, but there are some growers who will devote their lives to the careful cultivation of rare and endangered plants like the Venus flytrap, and who will even succeed, which brings me back to the idea that the plants themselves have a plan. Imagine a species that, sensing its impending extinction, cultivates a somewhat symbiotic relationship with a more successful species. Is it really miraculous that we see the Venus flytrap as such a cool plant, or is that just one of the ways it’s adapted to survive an increasingly hostile environment?

 

12 Comments

  1. SkyeEnt

    Now you’ve taught me something new. Butterwort grows locally here and I never knew that it was useful. I wonder whether flytrayps would like my polytunnel?

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      That’s fascinating that butterwort grows locally there–although it’s quite a widespread plant that’s found everywhere from swamps to deserts. The Scandinavians make a cheese with it by just dipping the leaves in raw milk.
      And flytraps would love your polytunnel. They like it warm, bright, and humid, with a winter dormancy. Most of the ones in the shops will die but they’re known as one of the easiest carnivorous plants to cultivate.

      Reply
  2. Tom

    Prior to today I would have thought it impossible to mention a Venus flytrap without saying “Feed me, Seymour” or mentioning WKRP at least once. Kudos on proving me wrong. Oh, and I’ve been to Oakland a time or two and though it may not be particularly distant it is most assuredly strange.

    Great post, compadre, I enjoyed your story of extreme collecting!

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      I wish I had mentioned WKRP–Venus Flytrap was a great guy. And I think I’ve mentioned “Feed me, Seymour” enough times. I was even Seymour, complete with an Audrey Jr., for Halloween one year

      Reply
  3. mydangblog

    Are carnivorous plants sentient? And if they are, what about other plants? Now I feel lousy pulling up weeds! But I find the whole ‘extremophile’ thing fascinating–the naked mole rat is another one of those–it has acid for blood, kind of like an Alien.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Are carnivorous plants sentient? I think we need to define “sentient”. They can certainly make decisions. So do other plants. Just remember that a weed is just any plant that grows where you don’t want it. Seriously, I used to know a guy with a greenhouse of carnivorous plants and he had some very exotic species that he called “weeds” because they did so well he had to trim them back to stop them from spreading.
      That’s fascinating about the naked mole rat. It reminds me of the horseshoe crabs–they’re true bluebloods, you know.

      Reply
  4. Ann Koplow

    I’m just trying to figure out what is “the more successful species.” Thanks for another successful post, Chris.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      I think your comments are a successful species all by themselves.

      Reply
  5. Rakkelle

    Very informative post. I didn’t know much about the Venus Flytrap at all and it was cool to learn more.

    Your mention of orchids made me think about my Mom, who has a hell of a green thumb. She even has a nursery in her backyard.

    Sorry your own green thumb didn’t turn out like your grandfather’s but hey at least you tried and you obviously still have an interest in such things. I still can’t even keep my house plants alive. 😕

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Venus flytraps really are fun plants to grow even if you don’t feed them bugs.
      And that’s really cool that your mother has a nursery in her backyard, but a little sad that you can’t keep your own house plants alive. I’d say maybe the green thumb skips a generation, but then I’d have inherited my grandfather’s growing ability. Maybe when we retire, though.

      Reply
  6. theorangutanlibrarian

    Very interesting post!

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      I’m glad you found it interesting. And you’ve reminded me that while I don’t grow any plants anymore I do have several books about them. The pictures of plants in the books always looked better than anything I grew and didn’t need watering.

      Reply

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