Beyond the poinsettia and the Venus flytrap

As people who have attended previous Triffid Ranch shows can attest, the one carnivorous plant that’s in short supply at shows is the Venus flytrap. It’s not that I have anything particularly against flytraps: the flytrap is, after all, the definitive carnivorous plant. It’s just that while everyone asks to see one, they generally don’t sell.

One of the reasons why they don’t sell, to be honest, is because of their bad reputation as a difficult plant. No matter the circumstance, when I bring up the plants in conversation, I get two responses. The first, big surprise, is “Have you seen Little Shop of Horrors?” (I have a very dear friend who is an exceptional soapmaker, and she’s as bone-wearingly tired of references to Fight Club as I am of references to Little Shop of Horrors. I’m probably the only person who could get away with cracking wise “This…is a chemical burn” when she gets a lye burn, but I last did that in 2003, before she’d actually seen the movie. If I tried that now, she’d make sure to let me see the inside of my brain before I died.) The other phrase that always comes with a discussion of Venus flytraps is “I used to have a flytrap, but it died.”

At this point, I have a checklist that’s now comprised of eight different possibilities that could have caused the demise of those poor flytraps, and I can usually hit the exact cause of death by the third. (In Dallas, I rarely go past “one,” but that’s because Dallas’s municipal water is so laden with salts that it’s best described as “crunchy”.) That complete list is for another day, but it highlights why I don’t recommend flytraps as a beginner’s plant. They’re very particular about their light levels, the quality of their potting mixes, and their water quality, and that’s before discussing their need for a winter dormancy. Instead of arguing, though, I’d much rather recommend other plants, such as spoon-leaf sundews (Drosera spatulata) or terrestrial bladderworts (particularly Utricularia sandersoni), that are much better for a beginner.

To be really honest, another reason why flytraps are a bit lacking at Triffid Ranch shows is because I really only need one. Everyone asks if one is available, but it’s solely to attempt to trip the traps. I really can’t stress this highly enough: tripping traps on a flytrap, just to watch them close, is a Really Bad Idea. As recent research has confirmed, every closed trap is a photosynthetic surface that’s unavailable to the plant until the trap reopens. Do it often enough, with or without prey, and the plant dies, as it uses about as much energy reopening the trap as it would have gained in photosynthesis over the leaf’s lifetime. When I explain that this really shouldn’t be done, and that the plant is better off catching its own prey in its own time, most people lose interest. Again, if the fascination is with the motion, Australian triggerplants will reset their blooms over and over after being set off, and won’t die if too many blooms get set off.

This month’s Today’s Garden Center magazine contains the last reason. Kevin Yanik’s article “Pushing Past the Poinsettia” sums up the issues many independent garden centers have every Christmas season, when big box stores in the US are overloaded with what are called “99-cent poinsettias”. At the end of November, those big stores are packed to the gills with pots of poinsettias, which may sell for 99 cents with or without a comparable purchase. Not only does this make things impossible for those stores that can’t get fantastic bulk discounts, but it also devalues the plant. Poinsettias are fascinating plants in their own right, but it’s amazing how they’re unappreciated when they only sell for 99 cents. It’s no wonder that more and more garden stores are looking at alternatives: they want to make sure that you’re happy with your purchase, not only one that lives longer than a month or two, but also one that makes a great impression upon you and upon passersby.

This is the same situation with standard flytraps. Grocery stores and hardware stores are full of flytraps around Halloween, and they’re meant to be as disposable as poinsettias in another two months. If they don’t actually die from inadequate instructions or inadvertent neglect with light or water quality, they go into winter dormancy around the end of November, and most people assume they’re dead and pitch them. There’s absolutely no reason why a flytrap can’t thrive for years with proper care, but they’re still presented as quick impulse purchases and are priced accordingly. Enjoy them for a couple of months, pitch them, and buy a new one the next fall.

Unfortunately, as we all see, a lot of new flytrap owners are so traumatized by the deaths of their plants that they never take a chance with another carnivorous plant. They don’t know what killed the first plant, and they don’t want to take a chance on another dying for the same unknown reason. That’s completely understandable, and why I went for over 20 years between my first flytrap and my second. There’s also that understandable suspicion about price: if it’s that cheap when on the shelf at Wal-Mart, then something must be wrong with it. When the plant dies two weeks after it comes home, that assumption is completely reasonable.

This is why you don’t see lots of flytraps at Triffid Ranch shows. I’m glad to bring them out for customers, especially those who want some of the more intriguing cultivars such as “Red Dragon” and “Cupped Trap”. I just also know that most of my customers are beginners, and I remember all too well what it’s like to be a beginner without any adequate knowledge on proper care of a new plant. Hence, it makes more sense to introduce fellow beginners to plants that can take a bit more roughhousing. They’re happy, I’m happy, and the plant is obviously happy. Now, when you’re ready, come back for the flytrap. I’m in no rush.

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