The Savage Garden: Cultivating Carnivorous Plants

With their perfumed fragrance and lovely colors, pitcher plants beckon, inviting insects to partake of what promises to be the most delicious nectar nestled in the depths of their beguiling wide open red and green lined mouth. But the slope is slippery and tiny plant tentacles pull the insect down into dark depths making escape impossible.

The devious bladderwort works in an equivalent way. Floating on the water, it looks like a pile of seaweed or swamp muck with small yellow flowers. What could be less threatening? Au contraire, when an unsuspecting insect hits the tentacles on the plant’s bladder, it gets sucked in, the trap snaps shut and begins emitting secretions to dissolve its prey.

And don’t even get us started on Venus fly traps–those pretty little devils.

If it all sounds like a horror movie, there’s good reason. Movie makers have long seen carnivorous plants as evil aggressors.

“I have a list of over 100 films and TV shows that featured real carnivorous plants as well as monster plants,” said Peter D’Amato, founder and owner of California Carnivores in Sebastopol, California, one of the largest purveyors of carnivorous plants in the world. “The most famous are Little Shop of Horrors, Day of the Triffids, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Regular films have also had guest appearances of carnivorous plants like Katherine Hepburn feeding ‘Lady’ live bugs in Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer.”

But relax. These plants may be deadly for insects, but according to D’Amato, no people-eating plants discovered – at least not yet. Though there was a scare in Europe in the 1870s when rumors ran rampant about the Man-Eating Tree of Madagascar which was fed young female sacrifices.

D’Amato has been a carnivorous plant devotee (he calls them CPs) since he was a kid in the 1960s living in New Jersey and ordered Venus flytraps through a magazine called “Famous Monsters”.

“They promptly died,” he recalls. “Then a classmate told me he knew where CPs grew in the Pine Barrens and showed me pitcher plants and sundews, and I became addicted.”

So addicted in fact that D’Amato opened California Carnivores in 1989 and almost immediately, despite the skepticism of old time growers, the nursery was a success. He is also the author of “The Savage Garden: Cultivating Carnivorous Plants” (Ten Speed Press), about the cultivation of carnivores.

The book garnered awards from the American Horticultural Society and the Garden Writers Association of America, has long been the go-to for those interested in growing carnivorous plants. The latest edition (there have been ten so far) was fully revised to include the latest developments and discoveries in the carnivorous plant world, making it the most accurate and up to date book of its kind. Besides that D’Amato is also writing a horror novel called “From a Crevice in Hell”, a botanical thriller about the mythological Lucifer Plant from Hell.

“While folks are attracted to CP at first because they don’t just sit there and actively lure, catch, kill and eat insects and other little animals,” said D’Amato, “ultimately it’s their unusual beauty that wins growers over.”

“Since CP grow around the world they require different climates, but most CP come from temperate areas and the North America has more varieties than any place else in the world, especially the southeast,” said D’Amato. “So they require warm summers with a lot of sun and chilly to frosty winter dormancy. Some are native to the Great Lakes area and can be grown outdoors especially in bog gardens.

“Plants like Venus flytraps do best in sunny places during spring, summer and autumn and then must be placed someplace cool and even frosty for winter dormancy when they rest. Purified water or rainwater is best for them. Tropical CPs thrive in tanks as potted plants under grow lights and a few are able to adjust to sunny windowsills.”

But even bad plants can do good. Besides beauty, carnivores may have a healthy side effect.

“Carnivora is an herbal product used to fight tumors and other growths–Ronald Reagan was on it–and it’s produced from Venus flytraps, and tropical pitcher plants that grow in Southeast Asia,” said D’Amato, noting that it’s been used to treat various ailments from menstruation discomfort to antiseptic use.”

Above carnovire photos are courtesy of California Carnivores. and Peter D’Amato’s photo is courtesy of Ten Speed Press.

Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis

A compelling look at three talented women and their youthful time, separately, in Paris and the great city’s influence on their lives.

It reads like the plot of a novel – three women from different backgrounds spend time in the early 20s in Paris, returning to the U.S. transformed. One, raised in an upper crust East Coast society family and named “Deb of the Year,” would become the very polished and popular wife of a handsome president doomed to be assassinated. The middle class girl from a North Hollywood family became, after her Paris sojourn, a well-respected writer. The third, though she was raised as an African American in the segregated south, came from an upper middle class family and spent time in Manhattan studying at a private school. She eventually would be acquitted of murder as a member of a radical fringe group.

“If you reduce them to identity labels, they are the soul of diversity: a Catholic debutante, a Jewish intellectual, an African-American revolutionary, from the East Coast, the West Coast, and the South,” writes Alice Kaplan, a  Sterling Professor of French and Director of the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale University in her book, “Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis” (University of Chicago Press 2013; $26). “They have often been reduced to their images: a sheath dress and a double strand of pearls, a mane of black hair with a white streak, an afro and a raised fist.”

Kaplan explores the time each spent in Paris and how those experiences shaped them, making all three cultural icons and bringing all both fame – for Kennedy and Sontag and controversy – for Davis.

Kaplan, the author of such books as French Lessons, and Looking for “The Stranger,” earned a Ph.D. from Yale University with a major in French and a minor in philosophy and is a recipient of the French Légion d’Honneur as well the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in History (for The Collaborator) and the Henry Adams Prize (for The Interpreter).

“I wanted to find that existential threshold where you start to see what you can do with what you’ve been given,” Kaplan of this examination of a period in each woman’s life. And, Kaplan points out, while the men who spent time in France and came back in some ways different – think Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer, women like Kennedy, Sontag and Davis “have not had a place in the great American tradition of expatriate literature.”

Until now.

Author explores the partnership between Chicago chefs and the farmers who grow food for them

The stories behind 25 Midwest Farms and Farmers as well as the chefs who use their produce.

Profiling 25 Midwestern farms in her book Locally Grown: Portraits of Artisanal Farms from America’s Heartland, Anna Blessing tells the story of each including its history, roots in the community, scale, production and inner workings as well as the premiere Chicago chefs such as Rick Bayless, Stephanie Izard, Sarah Stegner and Paul Kahan who rely upon these food producers for what they cook in their restaurants.

“I wanted to share the stories of these amazing farmers,” said Blessing, a writer and photographer who also authored Locally Brewed: Portraits of Craft Breweries from America’s Heartland. “It’s so easy to forget where our food comes from and to take for granted the miracle of growing food. I want to celebrate the care that these farmers put into their craft, the respect they have for this work and the ways in which the intentional effort has had and continues to have both a dramatic and positive impact on the way our food tastes and the health of the environment in which it’s grown.”

Taking photos and talking to the chefs who buy from the farmers as well as getting the recipes they create from the farms, Blessing devotes a chapter to each farm but further organizes them into categories. 

For instance in Refashioning the Family Farm, Blessing takes us to seven farms including the fourth generation Gunthorp Farm in LaGrange, Indiana where Craig Gunthorp determined to keep raising pigs even though in 1988 he was selling them for less than the price his grandfather had gotten during the Depression. But then, after speaking about sustainable agriculture at a conference, Gunthorp was given the number of a restaurant looking for a pig farmer. The number turned out to be the late Charlie Trotter’s, who owned the famed restaurant bearing his name.

Part 2: Moving from the City to the Farm takes us to such farmers as Abra Berens who co-owned Bare Knuckle Farm in Northport, Michigan who attended Ballymaloe Cookery School in Southern Ireland. Berens,  who was nominated for Best Chef in the Great Lakes Region by the James Beard Foundation, is also the author of two bestselling cookbooks, Grist: A Practical Guide to Cooking Grains, Beans, Seeds, and Legumes and Ruffage: A Practical Guide to Vegetables. She now is the chef at Granor Farm in Three Oaks, Michigan.

Then Blessing takes us in the opposite direction with farming that moves to the city. Here she profiles, among others, Rick Bayless, owner and chef at Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, Lena Brava, Tortazo, and XOCO restaurants and also hosted the TV show One Plate at a Time, who has a 1000-square-foot production farm in his backyard.

“The chefs are so essential to promoting locally based eating because they are the ones with the voice and the ones who we as eaters look up to and want to learn from,” said Blessing, who in her book also tells the best places to find, buy and eat sustainably grown food and details on visiting the farms in her book. “When they say this is the best way to grow food and these are the farmers to support, it’s very strong endorsement.”

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