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Carnivorous plants, sold by Sebastopol-based California Carnivores, don’t loft steak knives and forks and dive into plates of rare beef ribs. The plants do eat critters — mostly insects. One species, the Nepenthes attenboroughii pitcher plant discovered in jungles of the Philippines in 2009, dines on the occasional rat.

The plants evolved by adapting to spots that had scant nutrients, such as acidic wetlands, sandy deserts and even bare rock, supplementing their nutrients by digesting insects they trap and kill.

The crafty plants snare insects with traps that snap or use suction, pitfalls or sticky fly paper. Many such plants drown their insect prey before digesting the meal.

The Cephalotus, native to Australia, has pitchers that hold what appears to insects to be water, but nope. The liquid is actually digestive juice — enzymes and acids that slowly dissolve hapless insects. The collar of the pitcher is baited with nectar to lure prey, but the edge is slippery.

When insects land to feed, they often lose their footing and tumble into the juice. Flies and bees have hooks and sticky pads on their feet, but even they are often caught. Climbing out of the pitchers is daunting, as the collar has sharp, downward-pointing bristles.

White trumpets (Sarracenia leucophylia, white-leaved) are gorgeous American pitcher plants, with pitchers up to three feet tall and wavy lids lined with bristles. The plant’s pale leaves glow like lanterns in moonlight, attracting gobs of bugs. The plants grow in the Florida panhandle, southwestern Georgia and southern Alabama and Mississippi. California has sundews, bladderworts, one species of butterwort and the cobra plant.

A South American pitcher called Heliamphora hosts frogs that hang out nearby because the plant secretes nectar and attracts insects. The plant then benefits from frog droppings, which provide nutrients. American pitcher plants work well for insect control in a home or business.

Damon Collingsworth, co-owner of California Carnivores since 2009, admits to a personal obsession with propagating the fascinating life form.

“Almost everybody has killed a Venus fly trap,” Collingsworth said of the popular carnivores sold in many stores. “They are not hard to grow.” The company still sells plenty of Venus fly traps. One grower hybridized teeth (dente) into the fly trap instead of the common “dionaea eyelashes.”

“A friend of mine made an all-red one, Red Dragon,” he said. “There are at least 200 different cultivars.”

“I go through sub-obsessions within the main obsession” about carnivorous plants, Collingsworth said. In 2013, he rekindled his interest in the Venus fly trap, which has just one species. Now he’s fond of butterworts and sun pitchers (Heliamphora), which have delicately sculpted vases and tall-stemmed flowers, “rare things that haven’t been offered in the U.S.”

The tough plants adapted to high winds and no soil atop Tepui mountains of Venezuela. “They are sheer plateaus with 3,000-foot cliffs,” he said. “They grow on top.” The frigid plateaus receive 50 to 90 feet of rain per year, drenching the sun pitchers. “It’s a weird, tropical, cold rain desert,” he said.

Carnivorous plants, adapted to bad or missing soil, need rainwater or distilled water. Any dissolved minerals or other nutrients work to their detriment, often killing the carnivores. Tap water usually kills them. The aquifer reached by a deep well at California Carnivores holds water that happens to be ideal for the plants.

In 1988, when he was age 11, Collingsworth met founder Peter D’Amato, who opened the nursery in 1989. “He sold me a Cape Sundew at the Sausalito flea market,” recalls Collingsworth, who was instantly hooked. Cape Sundews grow large, with showy pink flowers on tall stems and dramatic leaves. They catch gnats, fruit flies and other flies.

The business has a third partner, Mickey Urdea, who works in the biotech industry. Urdea founded Halteres Associates, a biotech consulting business in Emeryville, as well as Tethys Bioscience, acquired by HDL. Some 20 years ago, Urdea invented a viral-load assay for hepatitis and immunodeficiency viruses.

California Carnivores has 10 employees and revenue of about $500,000. Most sales are online. The most expensive go for $300 to $500. Most of the plants are small, and fit into pots that are only two inches to four inches across. The company has an offsite laboratory in addition to its 10,000-square-foot nursery.

There are about 700 different species of carnivorous plants going back some 70 million years, according to Collingsworth. “They hybridize together,” he said. “Every day, we make new types here —crazy breeding. The little butterworts that Kate (Halpin) is working on, that’s a genus I’m popularizing.”

Halpin, a plant systematist, has a master’s degree in botany and has worked at the company for three years. Plant systematics is the study of biological organisms and their interrelationships.

“Making new stuff is really fun,” Collingsworth said. The plants become dear, like botanical children. “I would keep them all if I could. I can’t. I make amazing stuff.”

Butterworts, which resemble small African violets, have almost no root structure. “They are hummingbird-pollinated in the wild,” he said. “Carnivorous plants have to get around this hinky thing — how do I pollinate when I eat pollinators, though they don’t usually eat honey bees.” Pitcher plants send up flowers first, allowing pollination, then pitchers grow to trap bugs.

So far, most insects have not figured out how to sip pollen from carnivorous plants and evade their traps. “Honey bees are really smart,” he said, and navigate the tricky curves of the pitcher plant with ease. “Once a fly has eaten nectar on a pitcher plant for 30 seconds, you can wave your finger around the fly. It keeps eating the nectar.” The flies are dazed then killed by the toxic nectar.

Spiders sometimes sit on the pitchers and devour drugged bugs. “There are so many bugs. Everybody feasts. It’s a bug planet,” he said.

The plants don’t have eyes. “They are trapping things that they don’t know exist,” Collingsworth said.

“It’s built-in intelligence. If you want to see what a bee thinks is beautiful, look at a flower. That flower has been trying to be beautiful for that bee for 120 million years. That is the physical embodiment of beauty to a bee. I started growing carnivorous plants because they catch bugs. That’s what caught my interest. Now I grow them because they’re beautiful.”

James Dunn covers technology, biotech, law, the food industry, and banking and finance. Reach him at: james.dunn@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4257.