Carnivorous plants nip insects in buds Varieties popular as houseplants

By Michelle Fitzhugh-Craig

The Arizona Republic

Nov. 15, 2002

Coming home to find a houseplant infested with creepy-crawlies is enough to make any gardener, especially a novice one, look for another hobby. But before you give up, there may be a solution.

Although most plants are helpless against bugs, there are some that bite back.

Carnivorous plants supplement their nutrition by capturing and eating insects. They grow naturally in bogs and can survive in tropical and subtropical climates. With more than 500 species worldwide, most of which are found in the United States and Australia, these "meat-eaters" are known to dine on any insect, spider, worm, frog or lizard that may venture too close to their trap.

"It's not something you would normally think," says Kathleen Moore, an instructional specialist of urban horticulture with the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension in south Phoenix. "Plants normally make their own food, so it's interesting to see how evolution came about to help these plants survive."

Carnivores are growing in popularity as houseplants, says Marilee Maertz, co-owner of California Carnivores in Sebastopol, Calif.

"There's a huge renaissance going on right now," she says, attributing the growth to the ability to mass-produce the plants. It wasn't until recently that growers could use tissue culture, or cloning, to speed the growing process.

"These are extremely beautiful ornamental plants," Maertz adds. "They're easy to grow outdoors and make excellent windowsill plants."

Carnivores need little attention because they catch their own food. It is best to keep them in non-draining containers or an indoor terrarium. Although extreme weather can be harmful, climates in which there are brief freezes or high temperatures are suitable for most.

Moore says growing carnivores locally can be a challenge. She suggests keeping plants in a moisture-controlled condition to achieve the best results.

California Carnivores' Maertz says some of the most popular carnivores are:

Venus' flytrap - Native only to parts of North and South Carolina, this species is the most recognized carnivore. When tiny hairs inside the plant are stimulated, its hinged halves close.

American pitcher plant - These plants are ravenous and often underappreciated in horticulture. Brilliantly colored, these carnivores can sometimes catch thousands of insects such as flies, ants and wasps.

Nepenthes - Available only recently to plant enthusiasts, these plants usually grow as climbing or scrambling vines. Most species are found in Southeast Asia.

Maertz began working with carnivorous plants in 1989 when her business partner, Peter D'Amato, brought his collection of Venus' flytraps to a garden show in San Francisco. She was amazed at the number of people who wanted this and other species of carnivores for their gardens and homes.

Unfortunately, she says, the misconception is you can grow these plants from seed. Instead, it is best to buy potted carnivores from a reputable grower. On the average, most plants cost between $7 and $20, but can go higher.

Although most carnivores will survive occasional overfeeding, it can shorten the life of one of the most popular species, the Venus' flytrap. It is not uncommon to find people who are fascinated with the plant and want to feed it different items to watch it eat.

Classrooms are a favorite home for carnivores. However, Maertz says, "a lot of these plants they (students) think are so amazing are endangered." She says capturing Venus' flytraps in the wild is illegal.

In August 2001, the U.S. Postal Service issued four stamps to commemorate the endangered species.

Reach the reporter at (602) 444-8671

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