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.

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