Daily Archives: October 13, 2011

Absolute Surefire Steps to Kill Your Venus Flytrap: Step 3

Curious about the context? Check out the introduction.

Some of the content in this series appeared, in much shorter form, in Gothic Beauty magazine.

Step 3: Water it with tap water.

As related before, I constantly hear from kids who want to know why their Venus flytraps died, but they’re afraid that I’m going to yell at them about their mistakes. Anything but. In fact, I spend a lot of time talking down kids and teenagers who think I’m going to get angry. It’s not just because only an idiot yells at a kid who literally had no way of knowing better, especially when they were given bad care instructions in the first place. It’s also because I’ve been there myself.

My first experience with growing Venus flytraps, or attempting to do so, was similar to those of most kids in the 1970s. I was living in upstate New York at the time, and spotted a “growing kit” in a local Big N, a chain department store. One dollar later, and I had a styrofoam cup full of peat, a plastic bag for retaining humidity, and a basic instruction guide on the lid. Add water, it said, and put the cup in a sunny window and wait for the seeds to sprout. As with Big N itself, the end results were disappointing: the only seeds that germinated were for grass, and to this day, I have no idea whether the company selling these ever put any flytrap seeds in it in the first place. By the end of summer 1977, my cat Morris got the grass, the peat moss was dumped in the garden, and I was leery of any grow-your-own kit for nearly 30 years.

Two years later, my family was living on the south side of Chicago, and I saw my first live flytrap in a garden center. After poking through the flat of flytraps for the one with the biggest and most traps, I settled on one particularly hirstute specimen and took it home. It did rather well through the autumn, but was still green and presumably live when we moved to North Texas. And then everything went kerblooey.

What I didn’t know at the time was that Chicago’s municipal water was extremely soft at the time, particularly compared to what we were going to encounter. In Chicago, the flytrap was doing well, and it survived the move across country to Texas. In fact, it moved in the car along with a travel-loathing cat, a carsick dog, and four hyperactive kids, so I can attest that Venus flytraps are tougher than most people give them credit for being. However, it wasn’t ready for Texas, specifically a little wide spot in the road at the time called Flower Mound.

Now, there’s a lot that can be said about life in Flower Mound at the time, and one of these days I might be able to say it without peppering it with profanities. (This might be a challenge. According to family legend, I said my first words to my paternal grandmother, and those words were “Damn you”.) The one absolute is that Flower Mound got its municipal water from a combination of wells and from nearby Lake Lewisville, a reservoir constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers. 90 million years ago, Flower Mound resembled South Padre Island, being a narrow barrier island on the North American Seaway. Today, the area is mostly mesquite and live oak scrub, but a little digging turns up multitudes of fossil shells, gypsum crystals, and the occasional dinosaur.

The upshot of this is that both the wells and reservoir are in what used to be marine sediments, and those sediments were and still are loaded with salt. Lots of calcium and iron, too, to the point where the dissolved iron stained concrete and stucco a bright rust red on surfaces exposed to lawn sprinklers. Even today, the taste of the water is distinctive, and using municipal water for watering houseplants leaves the pots full of thick mineral crusts after a month or so. Sometimes the salt was strong enough to kill cactus after a while.

As I mentioned before, I didn’t know any of this at the time. All I knew was that while we were holed up in a hotel waiting for the moving truck to schlep our stuff from Chicago, I figured that my flytrap needed a touch of water. It went into the sink for a quick soak and drain, and I removed it and put it back in the windowsill.

An hour later, as I passed by, I saw that the flytrap wasn’t green any more. Flower Mound water had killed that plant in less than an hour, and with no warning.

23 years went by between my last attempt and my revival in interest in carnivores, and I never forgot what happened. Once I discovered what happened and why, when confronted with the “I used to have a Venus flytrap…” lament, I asked first of all “Were you using tap water to water it?”

Some individuals are lucky enough to have municipal water that’s sufficiently free of minerals such as salt or calcium that it can go directly onto their carnivores: both Chicago and Portland (Oregon) have municipal water that’s sufficiently pure to take a chance. Here in Dallas, though, I refer to the local water as “crunchy”. It’s good for showers and for drinking, but for carnivorous plants, you might as well spray them with napalm and Agent Orange with a Roundup chaser.

The discussion of water quality for carnivores, much like that of the proper potting mixes, can be a point of debate and even anger among enthusiasts. This is often aggravated by varying water authorities in given parts of a larger community, and different sources for said water through the seasons. (Both with friends in Louisiana and with a great-aunt in northern Michigan, they depended during the summer on well water so loaded with iron and copper that anyone drinking it for more than a month was left temporarily ginger. One of those friends had been drinking that well water for so long that she didn’t know she was blonde until she moved to Dallas and her hair faded out.) Therefore, some will swear up and down that their tap water is perfect for carnivores, and that everyone should use it. I just smile and nod, and put in more rainwater collection tanks. The summer of 2011 was so foul that 500 gallons (1,892 liters) of rainwater in early June was down to ten gallons by the time we saw any rain again in September, but using tap water simply wasn’t an option.

Okay, so to play it safe, no matter what: rain water or distilled water. What else?

  • Contrary to popular opinion, “steam distilled water” is not the same as boiled water. Steam distillation means that you boil the water to leave behind the calcium, iron, lead, mercury, and other contaminants in water and then recondense the steam into nearly pure water. This happens in another container, unconnected to the first. The only thing boiling water will do is kill microorganisms and volatilize dissolved gases. It won’t remove minerals at all, which explains why I was honestly gobsmacked when I came across a book on carnivores that advocated this. Boiling water to remove minerals will actually concentrate them in the liquid left behind. Do this for carnivores, and think of it as boiling maple sap of death to make death syrup.
  • Likewise, bottled drinking water is just as bad. Pure water tastes flat to us, so most of the time, bottled water is extracted from a good-tasting source. Said good taste comes from dissolved minerals and gases, many of which may be lethal to your plants in large quantities. Even better, many bottled water companies add various salts for flavor. If using commercially bottled water, make sure it reads “distilled water” instead of “drinking water”.
  • Even when using rainwater, consider the source. Minerals leach out of concrete or stone rooftops or gutters, and they’ll definitely leach out of concrete pools unless those pools are sealed well. Likewise, with the current understandable concern about collecting rainwater for summer use, make absolutely sure that your container is scrubbed and rinsed before it’s used for capturing water for carnivores. That 55-gallon rainwater barrel you liberated from the side of the road may have been used for transporting olives or soft drink syrup, but it may also have been used for transporting hydraulic fluid or soap. Ironically enough, the first two can be just as lethal to your carnivores as the latter.
  • Finally, reverse osmosis filters can be a godsend for those who can’t depend upon rainwater, but make sure that your unit can provide nearly pure water. More importantly, check the filter cannister and its prefilters on a regular basis. Dallas water is particularly rough on reverse osmosis filter operation, and the last thing you want to do is discover that the osmotic membrane blew out after you’ve used the output to water your prize-winning Sarracenia.

With all of this talk about water quality, you want the punchline? Remember that “Grow Your Own” cup I purchased in upstate New York? I’m glad that it didn’t work out. What I didn’t learn until I was older was that most of the available water had rather high levels of dissolved radium in it from the local granite in the Adirondack Mountains, and many of the mineral springs in Saratoga Springs have enough radium per liter that drinking more than a glass per week could lead to radiation poisoning. Just what the world needed: radioactive mutant Venus flytraps on top of everything else. Laverne & Shirley reruns were bad enough.

Next: Step 4 – Keep it in a terrarium.

Absolute Surefire Steps to Kill Your Venus Flytrap: Step 2

Curious about the context? Check out the introduction.

Some of the content in this series appeared, in much shorter form, in Gothic Beauty magazine.

Step 2: Plant it in your garden.

Running a carnivorous plant nursery means you get a lot of interesting phone calls and E-mail messages. This tends to double after a television or newspaper interview. I gleefully drop everything to help out the kids who call because they need help with recent carnivore purchases, because they were usually given nothing other than the “Really Eats Bugs!” schpiel, and they pay attention. (I’ve even had kids who asked for advice show up at Triffid Ranch shows years later, proudly showing off photos of their latest successes, and I suspect I’ll hear from a couple of Nobel winners in another twenty years.) The same is true for elementary and high school science projects, because I’m always amazed and awed by the originality and innovation of the students coming up with particular experiments. And then there are the, erm, others.

Some are just aggravating, such as the woman who demanded that I find a commercial greenhouse that would store her Boston ferns over the winter without charging her for the privilege. Others are a bit daft, such as the woman who needed map directions so she could come over to “buy carnivorous plant food,” and called me a liar when I pointed out that this is a market that hasn’t been touched by Ralston Purina. Yet. Some are a bit obtuse, such as with the woman whose husband saw a plant on television that “he can’t describe and he doesn’t know the name for it, but he wants to know everything about it.” Some elicit sympathy, such as the administrative assistants whose bosses expressed a vague glimmering of interest in getting a flytrap, and their jobs are on the line if they don’t have a plant on the boss’s desk on Monday morning. (Those actually hurt when they call in the dead of winter, and I have to tell them that my flytraps are all in dormancy.) And then there are the ones that leave me absolutely gobsmacked, such as the demand from one individual who drove all the way out to the Triffid Ranch maildrop and wanted me to reimburse me for his gas and mileage because I wasn’t there to let him “see your plants.”

(As an aside, I love you all. I really do. Unfortunately, I can’t offer tours of the Triffid Ranch, mostly due to liability issues. If you want to see the plants, you’re more than welcome to come out to a scheduled show, but private tours are something that won’t happen for a while. This had to be stamped in stone after the call from the woman who wanted to come out from Tyler to see plants at her convenience, and her convenience was at 2 in the morning. As I said, I get odd calls.)

The most common calls after “I want to see your plants,” though, are a mystery. At least once per month, and at least four or five times per show, I get a request for carnivorous plants. Not one or two or even a dozen, but pallets full of them. Once, this was for a birthday party where Venus flytraps were going to be given away as party favors. Most of the time, though, I heard the same sentence over and over: “I want to plant them in my yard to eat up all the bugs.” One guy wanted to put a solid line of them around his house to keep ants from getting through. Another wanted them to take out the mosquitoes in his neighborhood so they’d stop taste-testing him when he was gardening. All of them, though, seemed to think that putting carnivores in their yards would act as some sort of shield against insects, spiders, scorpions, hermit crabs, and any other member of the phylum Arthropoda that dared attempt to intrude on human territory. Heck, even my sister-in-law wanted to buy a stand of Sarracenia, because she thought they’d helpfully zap every last bug that came near her swimming pool.

I’m still clueless as to where this misapprehension on carnivores and their pest control powers comes from, unless the assumption is that anything that eats bugs is some arthropod Terminator. (I’ve come across the same assumptions with both purple martin and bat house purchases, even though both purple martins and bats go after much larger prey than mosquitoes. When I explain that the best biological control for adult mosquitoes requires a healthy habitat for dragonflies, they start this funny squeaking and chittering in horror.) I used to try to explain that because carnivorous plants can’t get out of their pots and chase prey, they have to attract insects as food, and said insects could very easily veer off and decide that humans or their food is much better. After one such call, where I was told repeatedly “Well, I was a doctor for 37 years, so I think you’re wrong,” now I just smile and nod and refer them to a much less organic pest control system.

This isn’t to say that you can’t use carnivorous plants as biological controls. You just have to look at a smaller scale, and understand that the bugs won’t leave for good unless you remove the factors that attract them. For instance, Peter D’Amato at California Carnivores relates that he’s heard of people using sundews and butterworts as organic flea traps. Set up a hungry sundew in the center of a room, and put a light directly over the sundew. When the room goes dark, the fleas gather at the light, jump at it and miss, and adhere to the sundew’s leaves. It works to feed the plant, sure, but a more conventional flea control is both more cost-effective and easier to maintain. (Likewise, I heartily recommend using lanceleafed and spoonleaf sundews to assist with controlling problems with fruit flies in kitchen areas. Set the sundew in the kitchen sink at night, remove the cover if it’s in a jar or terrarium, and leave it open all night. In the morning, close it up and put it back in its normal locale to photosynthesize, and each fruit fly it captures helps break the fruit fly life cycle. This, though, is in combination with one obvious fruit fly control: cleaning your kitchen so the fruit flies don’t have any reason to come back.)

The biggest issue with the whole “wall of flytraps” pest control method, though, involves planting them in your garden. Unless your garden is a sphagnum moss bog, with extremely acidic soil that’s nearly nutrient-free, a flytrap’s life expectancy in that garden can be measured anywhere from days to hours. Standard garden soil is usually too alkaline, too dry, and too salty for a flytrap to stay alive for more than a couple of agonizing days. Planting them alongside your tomatoes or chrysanthemums, or constructing a bug killer berm for them, is a waste of good flytraps.

To get an idea of what flytraps and most other temperate carnivores need, you don’t need to visit Tallahassee, Florida, but an understanding of its weather and soil is almost as good. Tally is situated on relative lowland, with a soil that’s usually about half sand and half humus. Because of the regular and intense storms, the more mellow of which would set off tornado sirens in Dallas, most of the soluble minerals and salts were washed out over thousands to millions of years. The top layer of most bogs in the area is a thick layer of live sphagnum moss, which secretes acid in an attempt to crowd out competing plants. In addition, what little nitrogen that was in the soil is usually trapped in evergreen needles, which is in a form pine trees can use but precious few other plants can touch. Carnivores bypass all of this by getting their nitrogen and phosphorus from insect prey, so their roots rarely get exposure to either element in large quantities. They’re also susceptible to salts, so with most of the phosphorus and nitrogen in garden soil being in the form of various salts (either in various salts in commercial fertilizers or urea with animal manure), standard garden soil will burn their roots right off before too long.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with making a bog garden specifically for carnivores and other acid-loving plants. That bog garden can be constructed inside a container, a large freestanding pool converted to the purpose, or even a specially constructed area that minimizes the effects of soil nutrient runoff from other areas. Just don’t expect it to offer a magical cure for your mosquito problem.

Next: Step 3 – Water it with tap water.