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.

Wine Country Table

Taking us on a road trip that meanders from northern to southern California, James Beard award winner Janet Fletcher shows us how diverse the state’s growers and growing regions are in her latest book, The Wine Country Table: With Recipes that Celebrate California’s Sustainable Harvest. Accompanied by lush photographs by Robert Holmes and Sara Remington, the book was commissioned by the Wine Institute — a California wine advocacy group that received a grant to promote California’s specialty crops.

              “What really came home to me was that there are so many different climates here in California,” says Fletcher who not only visited a plethora of wineries but also cherry orchards and avocado farms. She also learned about the sustainable practices that growers are incorporating in a state previously hit with a long-running drought.

              Her recipes include suggested pairings with different wines and shows you how to recreate this type of casual but delicious dining at home.

Golden Beet, Pomegranate, and Feta Salad

SERVES 4

WINE SUGGESTION: California Gewurztraminer or Pinot Gris/Grigio

4 golden beets, about 1 1⁄2 pounds (750 g) total, greens removed

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar 6 fresh thyme sprigs

3 allspice berries

1 whole clove

1 clove garlic, halved

DRESSING:

11⁄2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

1 tablespoon finely minced shallot

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil Kosher or sea salt

1⁄4 head radicchio, 3 ounces, thinly sliced 1⁄2 cup chopped toasted walnuts

12 fresh mint leaves, torn into smaller pieces

2 to 3 ounces Greek or French feta

1⁄3 cup pomegranate arils (seeds)

Preheat the oven to 375°F.

Put the beets in a small baking dish and add water to a depth of 1∕4 inch. Add the vinegar, thyme, allspice, clove, and garlic. Cover and bake until the beets are tender when pierced, about 1 hour, depending on size. Remove from the oven and peel when cool enough to handle. Let cool completely, then slice thinly   with a sharp knife.

Make the dressing: In a small bowl, combine the wine vinegar and shallot. Whisk in the olive oil. Season with salt and let stand for 15 minutes to allow the shallot flavor to mellow.

In a bowl, toss the beets and radicchio gently with enough of the dressing to coat lightly; you may not need it all. Taste for salt and vinegar and adjust as needed. Add the walnuts and half the mint leaves and toss gently. Transfer to a wide serving platter. Crumble the feta on top, then scatter the pomegranate arils and remaining mint leaves overall. Serve immediately.

Little Gem Lettuces with Olive Oil–Poached Tuna

This dish requires a lot of olive oil for poaching, but you won’t waste a drop. Use some of the flavorful poaching oil in the salad dressing; strain and refrigerate the remainder for cooking greens or for dressing future salads. The strained oil will keep for a month.

WINE SUGGESTION: California rose or Sauvignon Blanc

1 albacore tuna steak, about 10 ounces) and 3⁄4 to 1 inch thick

3⁄4 teaspoon ground fennel seed

3⁄4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt

1 large fresh thyme sprig

1 bay leaf

1 clove garlic, halved

6 black peppercorns

1 3⁄4 to 2 cups extra virgin olive oil

DRESSING:

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (from the tuna baking dish)

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon salt-packed capers, rinsed and finely minced 1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 small clove garlic, finely minced

Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

11⁄2 cups cooked chickpeas (drain and rinse if canned)

1⁄2 pound Little Gem lettuce or romaine hearts 1⁄4 pound radicchio

1⁄2 red onion, shaved or very thinly sliced

3⁄4 cup halved cherry tomatoes

1⁄4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Preheat the oven to 200°F. Remove the tuna from the refrigerator 30 minutes before baking.

Season the tuna on both sides with the fennel seed and salt. Put the tuna in a deep ovenproof baking dish just large enough to hold it. Add the thyme, bay leaf, garlic, and peppercorns. Pour in enough olive oil just to cover the tuna.

Bake until a few white dots (coagulated protein) appear on the surface of the fish and the flesh just begins to flake when probed with a fork, 30 to 40 minutes. The tuna should still be slightly rosy inside. Remove from the oven and let cool to room temperature in the oil.

Make the dressing: In a bowl, whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, capers, oregano, garlic, and salt and pepper to taste. Add the chickpeas and let them marinate for 30 minutes.

With a slotted spatula, lift the tuna out of the olive oil and onto a plate.

Put the lettuce in a large salad bowl. Tear the larger outer leaves in half, if desired, but leave the pretty inner leaves whole. Tear the radicchio into bite-size pieces and add to the bowl along with the onion, tomatoes, and parsley.

Using a slotted spoon, add the chickpeas, then add enough of the dressing from the chickpea bowl to coat the salad lightly. By hand, flake the tuna into the bowl. Toss, taste for salt and vinegar, and serve.

Seared Duck Breasts with Port and Cherry Sauce

SERVES 4

Cooking duck breasts slowly, skin side down, helps eliminate almost every speck of fat. After about 20 minutes, the skin will be crisp and the flesh as rosy and tender as a fine steak. Serve with wild rice.

Duck breasts vary tremendously in size; scale up the spice rub if the breasts you buy are considerably larger.

WINE SUGGESTION: California Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot

SEASONING RUB:

8 juniper berries

2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme 2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

4 boneless duck breasts, about 1⁄2 pound each

SAUCE:

1 cup Zinfandel Port or ruby port

1 shallot, minced

3 fresh thyme sprigs

1 strip orange zest, removed with a vegetable peeler 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

24 cherries, pitted and halved

1⁄2 cup strong chicken broth, reduced from 1 cup 

1⁄2 teaspoon sugar

Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper 1 tablespoon unsalted butter

Make the seasoning rub: Put the juniper berries, thyme, salt, and peppercorns in a mortar or spice grinder and grind to a powder.

Slash the skin of each breast in a crosshatch pattern, stopping short of the flesh. (The slashes help render the fat.) Sprinkle the seasoning rub evenly onto both sides of each breast. Put the breasts on a flat rack and set the rack inside a tray. Refrigerate uncovered for 24 to 36 hours. Bring to room temperature before cooking.

Choose a heavy frying pan large enough to accommodate all the duck breasts comfortably. (If necessary, to avoid crowding, use two frying pans.) Put the breasts, skin side down, in the unheated frying pan and set over medium- low heat. Cook until the skin is well browned and crisp, about 15 minutes, frequently pouring off the fat until the skin no longer renders much. (Reserve the fat for frying potatoes, if you like.)

Turn the duck breasts and continue cooking flesh side down, turning the breasts with tongs to sear all the exposed flesh, until the internal temperature registers 125°F on an instant-read thermometer, about

3 minutes longer. Transfer the breasts to a cutting board and let rest for 5 minutes before slicing.

While the duck cooks, make the sauce: In a small sauce- pan, combine the port, shallot, thyme, orange zest, vinegar, and half of the cherries. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and simmer until reduced to 3∕4 cup. Add the broth and sugar and simmer until the liquid has again reduced to 3∕4 cup Remove from the heat and, with tongs, lift out the thyme sprigs and orange zest and discard.

Puree the sauce in a blender. Set a very fine-mesh sieve over the saucepan and pass the sauce through the sieve, pressing on the solids with a rubber spatula. Return to medium heat, season with salt and pepper, and simmer until reduced to 1∕2 cup. Stir in the remaining cherries and remove from the heat. Add the butter and swirl the saucepan until the butter melts.

Slice the duck on the diagonal. Spoon some of the sauce on each of four dinner plates, dividing it evenly. Top with the sliced duck. Serve immediately.

The above recipes are Wine Country Table: With Recipes that Celebrate California’s Sustainable Harvest by Janet Fletcher in cooperation with the Wine Institute, Rizzoli, 2019.

Jane Ammeson can be contacted via email at janeammeson@gmail.com or by writing to Focus, The Herald Palladium, P.O. Box 128, St. Joseph, MI 49085.

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