October 25, 2013
When I was a kid my parents bought me a venus flytrap. It promptly died, but, before it did, I thought it was the most amazing thing ever. I knew that a lot of insects eat plants, but a plant that ate insects was pretty cool. It helped that you can actually see a venus flytrap move, closing its trap around any unsuspecting beast that wanders in. I have vague memories of catching the latter part of a PBS documentary about pitcher plants before I got the venus flytrap, but I was too young to understand what was going on, and besides pitcher plants just sit there and eat whatever crap falls into them, just like my Aunt Lena.
I think even if my parents hadn’t bought me a venus flytrap I would have developed a fascination with carnivorous plants thanks to the kinds of movies and stories I liked. I think a fear of plants taking over is deeply rooted in all of us, which is probably why I–even now–occasionally have people tell me there are man-eating plants somewhere in Africa. This legend is probably a holdover from colonial times, and may have its origin in prospectors coming up with crazy stories as a way to scare away the competition, sort of like how Christopher Columbus exaggerated the difficulty of his first trip to the Americas, but that’s another story.
And it’s also why scary vegetables are a common theme in the annals of science fiction and horror, There’s John Wyndham’s classic book Day of The Triffids, which was adapted into a not-so-classic movie, which had some spectacular special effects, and not much else going for it. There was a the boy-eating tree in Poltergeist, the monstrous trees in Evil Dead, "The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill" from Creepshow, the creeping vines in Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors, the whomping willow, devil’s snare, venomous tentacula, and other horticultural oddities from the Harry Potter stories, the Ents from The Lord Of The Rings, Martian plants taking over the Earth in both War Of The Worlds and Doctor Who, who would later face the deadly Krynoid, and the vines in The Ruins.
True Monty Python fans are familiar with the legendary walking tree of Dahomey. Some of us remember Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes, and most of us would like to forget it. Hardcore science fiction and fantasy readers know that monster plants pop up in the works of Piers Anthony, Robert Heinlein, and Jack Chalker, although they rarely play a major part. Next to Audrey Jr. from Little Shop of Horrors my venus flytrap may have seemed puny, but, hey, it was real, and it was on my windowsill, which made it better than anything in the movies. There was also the Addams Family TV show, in which Morticia had a plant called an African strangler, which she fed raw meat. That’s what I fed my venus flytrap, which is probably one of the reasons it died after about a month. I’d try growing them again off and on through the years, and they’d always die pretty quickly, so I figured they were adapted to such specialized conditions that they weren’t suited to being grown at home. Then my wife found a book about growing carnivorous plants at a used bookstore and got it for me. And I learned that, with the proper care and attention, venus flytraps and other carnivorous plants will not only grow but will thrive when grown at home. And I became obsessed. So obsessed, in fact, that I’m pretty sure my wife went back to that bookstore to see if she could find a book on how to build a time machine so she could go back and stop herself from giving me that book.
I found a venus flytrap at a local garden center, repotted it, and put it on the back patio. Then I added a sundew. Sundews have sticky leaves that trap insects. Like venus flytraps most sundew species also move, folding the leaves over their insect prey, although unlike venus flytraps they don’t move that fast. They’re still cool, though, and when I found specialist nurseries that supplied plants by mail-order I added several more sundew species to my collection. Then, through the magic of this new thing called the internet, I started communicating with other growers around the country who traded plants. And I added pitcher plants to my collection. Pitcher plants hadn’t really interested me, but I kind of warmed up to them. Then I added butterworts, which have sticky leaves but don’t move. But I thought, hey, I might as well, since I’m working on a theme here. And butterworts are used to make cheese in Finland, which is always a popular thing to mention at parties. I also added bladderworts, which have tiny underwater or underground bladders that trap small prey. I thought they were kind of cool, and they added some color to my collection, because I could say to people, "This one has pretty flowers. No, really, let me get you a magnifying glass."
Pretty soon, though, my collection outgrew the house. It also suffered a massive outbreak of both aphids and whitefly. Since all my plants were crowded together there was no way to stop the infestation that wiped out almost my entire collection. There’s irony for you: insect-eating plants wiped out by insects. Even before that, though, caring for all those plants had become exhausting. If I’d limited myself to just a few plants it would have been fine, but my ambitions outgrew my abilities. Depending on where they’re being grown most carnivorous plants require a lot of care because they’re adapted to very specialized environments. They need pure water, and a lot of it, special soil, and most like a lot of sun and high humidity, two things our house doesn’t get much of. This isn’t to say they’re impossible to cultivate. My parents have an Asian pitcher plant, a species of nepenthes, currently taking over their lanai. The fact that they have a lanai should tell you they live in a distant and exotic place, known to the natives as "South Florida". In my case I was jumping into the horticultural deep end when my only experience was growing bean plants in paper cups in kindergarten. As I was in the throes of this obsession, though, I wondered if I wasn’t the one collecting the plants. I wondered if they were really collecting me. It’s easy to forget that the land we live on only makes up about a fourth of the surface of this planet, and we have to share it with everything else that lives on land. And it’s getting crowded. A lot of carnivorous plants are facing extinction in their natural habitats, but one way to safeguard against total extermination would be to convince humans to cultivate them. I think about this every time I meet people with greenhouses who spend hours tending to large collections of carnivorous plants or orchids or gesneriads or any other plant variety. If plants really are controlling our minds it would be pretty scary. And the most amazing thing ever.