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.