Saturday, June 30, 2012

You eat what?!?

I previously mentioned one of my some-time hobbies – "some-time" because I no longer have time for it but hope to again sometime – growing carnivorous plants. They're not that rare, you know? There are nearly a thousand different species and they're found on every continent except Antarctica. But I thought I'd explain a little about the different species. They can be divided into two different kinds: active traps and passive traps. Active traps are less common and actually move to catch their prey, like Venus flytraps. Passive traps just sit there and catch bugs, which doesn't sound as exciting but they're usually better at it and frequently much more beautiful. (For info on Venus flytraps, please see my prior post.)

First of all, my favorites: the pitcher plants, particularly the American pitcher plants (Sarracenia). They're native to the American East and Gulf Coasts and they grow in wet and boggy places – not swamps, but bright and sunny wetlands. Most of them have a funnel-shaped leaf (they're sometimes called "trumpet plants") with the opening at the top and can be as tall as 3 to 4 feet or low and horn-shaped. Bugs are attracted by the colors and a nectar the plants secrete and they fall into the tube where they die and are digested. It's that easy, and it happens a lot! The plants I grew often caught dozens of bugs, and I'm told in the wild they'll fill all the way up till the leaf falls over with the weight. I think they're the prettiest, both the leaves and the flowers, and I would love to see them in the wild!

There's another American pitcher plant that grows in Northern California and Oregon, the Cobra Lily (Darlingtonia). It's similar to the Eastern pitcher plants, but the top is hooded with a small opening underneath. It looks a bit like a snake and is pretty cool, but it's moderately difficult to grow. Darlingtonia doesn't have digestive enzymes like Sarracenia, but uses bacteria to break down what it catches.

There are also tropical pitcher plants from around the world, the most well-known (and most likely to be offered for sale) are what is sometimes called Monkey Cups (Nepenthes). They can grow into huge vines and produce pitchers on the ends of their leaves. Some are fascinating and amazing, and some grow large enough to catch rats and even birds (although that's uncommon). Nepenthes grow mostly in Indonesia, the Philippines, and south-east Asia. There is also the Sun Pitcher (Heliamphora) from the Venezuelan highlands and the Australian Pitcher plant (Cephalotus), but I didn't grow either of them.

Sundews (Drosera) have tiny little hairs on their leaves called tentacles with sticky droplets on the end of each hair. They are especially good at catching smaller insects, and sometimes the leaves will even curl around the prey, but slow enough that you won't see it. They grow worldwide but again, they're wetland plants. Charles Darwin was so fascinated with the American Round-leaf Sundew that he wrote a book about his experiments proving they actually ate what they caught. Some of the most impressive species come from South Africa and Australia. One type I especially enjoyed growing were the Australian pygmy sundews which could be smaller than a dime.

Similar to sundews are the butterworts (Pinguicula) which usually have bigger leaves but smaller hairs. You'll often see numerous dead gnats on their leaves and they have a greasy feel to them. Some are exceptionally pretty, especially their flowers, but they're not as flashy as other species. The Mexican butterworts are some of the most commonly-grown. I once dropped a mosquito that was full of my blood onto a leaf and over the next month the plant doubled in size – it sounds gross but it was really cool!

Other than flytraps, the only active traps are the bladderworts (Utricularia) and the waterwheel plant (Aldrovanda). Most of the bladderworts are aquatic with lightning-fast little round traps which suck up insects in less than 1/1,000th of a second! The only problem is that they're tiny – only a couple millimeters and their prey is almost microscopic. Their best attribute – in my opinion – is their almost orchid-like flowers. The traps of the waterwheel plant are similar to a flytrap, but only a few millimeters – but they're fast like the bladderworts, closing in 1/50th of a second.

There are a few others but they're uncommon and mostly similar to the plants above. At any rate, carnivorous plants are a lot cooler than regular old houseplants! Occasionally I've seen them in stores like Home Depot, but there's not much variety unless you buy online from specialty sellers. I'll explain how to grow them and list some good books about them in another post. (And thanks again to Barry Rice's excellent photos – I looked through mine but they were pathetic in comparison.)

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