Saturday, February 26, 2011

Don't be afraid of carnivorous plants

Neeli Reamer is The Roanoke Times' gardening columnist. Her column appears twice monthly in Extra.

Neeli Reamer

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About Neeli

Neeli Reamer is a Master Gardener who has a bachelor's degree in journalism and mass communication and a master's degree in counseling, where she focused heavily on horticultural therapy techniques.

She believes gardening isn't about being perfect, it's about having fun.

I was in a big-box store recently and noticed an assortment of carnivorous plants for sale. The bright packaging featured "Little Shop of Horrors"-looking cartoon plant creatures with word balloons that screamed, "Feed Me!"

This took me back, many summers ago, to a family vacation in North Myrtle Beach, S.C., and to my first and only carnivorous plant: a Venus flytrap.

I was about 8. My parents purchased the Venus flytrap at a souvenir shop for my younger sister Meredith and me.

Meredith and I put the plant on the windowsill of our double efficiency motel room. We searched high and low for dead bugs to offer the flytrap. Dad even gave us pieces of raw hamburger to supplement its diet.

As I recall, the directions that accompanied the carnivorous plant warned not to touch it too much; but my sister and I just couldn't keep our hands off the tiny, "teeth"-lined traps.

The Venus flytrap began to turn black before our trip ended. Unfortunately, it wasn't kid-proof enough to survive us.

Their techniques differ

In short, a carnivorous plant is a plant that "eats" insects and other very small arthropods.

These plants attract, capture, digest and absorb their prey.

Carnivorous plants live in nutrient poor soils and use unsuspecting visitors as snacks to help meet their nutritional needs.

The leaves of carnivorous plants may look like nectar-rich flowers or rotting meat in order to lure insects.

According to the informative new book "Bizarre Botanicals: How to Grow String-of-Hearts, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Panda Ginger, and Other Weird and Wonderful Plants" (2010) written by Larry Mellichamp and Paula Gross, there are more than 600 species of carnivorous plants. Many of them can be divided into five types:

Pitcher plants have hollow, tubular leaves, often with hoods. Insects fall in, and they can't get out.

Leaves of sundews are covered in glistening, gluelike hairs.

Butterworts have slimy leaf surfaces that insects stick to.

Bladderworts grow in waterlogged soil or water. They produce small, bladder-shaped leaves that inflate and suck in microscopic prey.

Finally, there is the Venus flytrap, the most famous carnivorous plant. Its jawlike leaves snap shut upon prey when a "trigger hair" inside is touched twice in 20 seconds (or if two hairs are touched).

Venus flytraps tips

Venus flytraps (Dionaea muscipula) are native to wet, pine savannas and bogs within a 60-mile radius of Wilmington, N.C., the southeastern part of the state.

The herbaceous perennial averages 3 inches tall by 3 inches wide. Its red tinged traps are seldom more than an inch long. Humans have nothing to fear!

Successfully growing a Venus flytrap isn't impossible, but it's not exactly a day at the beach either.

"Bizarre Botanicals" provided some great tips. The key is to replicate the plants' natural habitat.

Grow Venus flytraps outside in full sun. Plant them in a dish garden in a mixture of 60 percent peat and 40 percent sand. Keep them constantly moist, but not soaking wet. Drainage is necessary. Do not grow Venus flytraps in enclosed terrariums in direct sun.

Venus flytraps are hardy to zone 7. (Roanoke is in zone 7. Visit the USDA Hardiness Zone Finder at and enter your ZIP code to discover your zone.) If you live in zone 6 or below, bring your plant inside for winter before the first frost.

I also contacted "Bizarre Botanicals" authors Mellichamp and Gross directly.

"Venus flytraps cannot dry out and prefer to grow outdoors in sun. ... I think lots of folks would like to grow these indoors as curiosities, but the plants just don't thrive there, often due to not enough light," Gross said. "Long term, the plants need a winter dormancy, as well."

She also said it is fine to move them to a slightly protected location (for example, against the house) in winter, but re-emphasized that Venus flytraps "are not equipped to deal with periods of dryness."

Try not to tease the traps shut without feeding them. Traps usually reopen within 24 hours, but will quit working if they open and close too many times.

Another excellent source of information on Venus flytraps is "Carnivorous Plants of the United States and Canada" (2002) by Donald E. Schnell.

He writes, "Do not overfeed the Venus' flytrap -- no hamburger or table food and no more than three or four insects per plant in a season."

This might explain what happened to my flytrap. It never stood a chance.

Neeli Reamer's column runs every other Saturday in Extra.

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