Tag Archives: Venus flytrap

Lullaby and good night, close your big bloodshot eyes…

For fellow residents of the United States, this week leads up to Thanksgiving and the real beginning of our main holiday season. (Although, to be fair, the real holiday season doesn’t start until Yak Shaving Day.) For the antipodes, everyone is looking forward to spring. For my Canadian brethren, the next week marks a day of general relaxation, where they celebrate their crafting skills by carving lawn furniture out of blocks of frozen nitrogen on the front porch. Out here at the Triffid Ranch, though, this week is extremely important, because this is the start of winter dormancy for all of the temperate carnivorous plants out here.

If in case emphasizing the importance of giving your Venus flytrap a good long winter nap wasn’t clear before, it’s time to let it rest. Let it die back. If it gets frostburned, don’t panic. Just so long as it doesn’t dry out over the winter, it should be fine, and don’t try to force it to remain active by putting it under artificial light. The same goes for your Sarracenia, your temperate sundews, and especially any temperate butterworts. Let them sleep, and they’ll reward you in March and April with blooms and new growth.

Not that this marks the end of activities at the Triffid Ranch for the rest of the year. Anything but. In fact, I’m currently trying to check with friends in the Portland, Oregon area about getting about two dozen of this season’s ginkgo nuts. I have a project that needs ginkgos to work, and they absolutely HAVE to be Portland ginkgos. You’ll understand when it’s done.

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Absolute Surefire Steps To Kill Your Venus Flytrap, Step 8

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 8: Keep moving it around.

Most of the appeal of carnivorous plants is in their appropriation of traits normally associated with animals. That’s also their doom. Since some are more active, from a human perspective, than most plants, we tend to ascribe feelings and impressions to them better suited to pets than ikebana. One of the most dangerous of these impressions is the assumption that since carnivores catch and digest prey, they need to be fed on a schedule and regimen more suited for a dog than a pitcher plant. The other, equally dangerous, is that they need to get out for a while.

By way of example, a friend of mine purchased a butterwort from me last year. He keeps a wide variety of reptiles, so he had a good grasp of the basic requirements for keeping a butterwort happy and healthy: good water, decent air circulation, and lots and lots of light. He went for a couple of months without any problems, and then he contacted me in a panic. His butterwort was collapsing in on itself, and when I tried to diagnose the trouble, he told me “I put it outside for a little while, so it could get some air.” In the middle of last summer’s heat wave.

Another example came from another good friend, who was very proud of her new Venus flytrap. Flytraps require lots of sun, high humidity, and good air circulation, of which you can get two out of those three during the summer. I combat this by raising flytraps outdoors in large glass globes: excess heat vents out the top, but humidity loss is kept to a relative minimum, and the flytraps just explode with new growth when given this option. Her flytrap was doing remarkably well for a while, and then she wrote me to ask about its health. It went into a sudden decline a couple of weeks ago, about the time the temperatures started to spike, and she couldn’t figure out why. I couldn’t, either, until she said that the problem came one day after she brought the plant “back inside” from where it had been during the day.

This is where the impression of carnivorous plants as animals with chlorophyll is dangerous to them. While protecting them from temperature and humidity extremes is recommended, most animals kept as pets have no problems with being moved around a bit for a change of scenery and some fresh air. The problem here is that the vast majority of animals get up and move when temperatures and other conditions fluctuate past “nominal”. Plants can’t do that, or at least they can’t do it quickly, and carnivorous plants are still just that: plants.

Part of the reason why we humans blank out on most of the incredible variety and diversity of flora around us is because it doesn’t move. We’re conditioned, from millions of years of evolutionary development, to seek out the lone animal in a panorama of green. Show a portraiture of prehistoric life, and the emphasis is always on the animals. If any plants show up, they’re purely background unless an animal is eating or climbing one. Carnivorous plants subvert that by their nature, so we tend to home in on the features of carnivores that look the most animal-like, such as the “mouths” of pitcher plants and Venus flytraps. (This also helps explain the odd connection in fiction between dinosaurs and man-eating plants, but that’s the subject of another essay.)

The danger here is that while carnivores may act like animals in some ways, they’re still vegetation. Nobody (or at least nobody sane) digs up a rose bush and carries it around with them in a gilt pot all day. Plants can move in any number of fascinating ways, but with the exception of floating varieties such as the aquatic ferns of the genus Azolla, they’re ultimately limited to the place where their roots first went down. Most plants generally move across the countryside either when they’re dead (tumbleweeds scattering their seeds) or in serious trouble (aloes trying to escape poor conditions by snapping free of their stems and rolling to new locales). They just don’t have the energy to move far on their own, and so they don’t have the adaptations animals have to deal with the changing conditions faced even ten feet away from where they were growing previously. They can deal with changes, but on a gradual basis, and moving your flytrap back and forth happens too quickly for it to adjust.

To give you an idea of how a low-energy organism like a plant adapts to this, imagine you’re at home, sitting on the couch. You’re in comfortable clothes, you have a cold drink in your hand, Spaced is on the television, and all is right in the world. You’re just getting into things when something moving too fast for you to see or even acknowledge picks you up and dumps you into a cold mud puddle out in front of the house. You’ve just had the chance to spit out water and wonder “What the hell just happened?” when you find yourself back on the couch. And then you’re tossed into the refrigerator. And then under an air conditioner vent. And then next to the oven. Then you’re thrown out into the sun, sans sunscreen or sunglasses. Just as you’re starting to burn, you’re dumped in a closet for a few hours with no food. Then you’re put out back in the sun, in the middle of a sunny July day in Phoenix. And then you’re put next to a swimming pool. And this goes on for days.

Now, you can move to adjust, but whatever is moving you is moving too fast for you to do anything. Reach for an available cup of water, and you’re swung out of range. Reach out for a blanket to deal with the chills, and suddenly your arm is snipped off with no warning. Ultimately, the stress of dealing with all of this is going to make you sick or depressed or both, and you’re going to run out of energy to fight the constant changes. If you’re lucky, that something will take pity on you and leave you alone until you get rid of the cold you got from being bounced in and out of air conditioning. If you’re not…well, you might be remembered fondly as you’re tossed into the garbage after you finally let loose one last scream before dying. That, in essence, is what you do to any plant if you move it around and transplant it constantly.

To be clear, I’m not saying that you should never move plants from adverse conditions. What I am saying is that you need to give them time to adjust. Just as how keeping you indoors under AC all summer and then expecting you to run a 100-mile bicycle race with no training and no opportunity to acclimate to the heat will probably kill you, swinging a plant back and forth between extremes will do the same thing. When you buy a flytrap and bring it home, pick a good spot for it to grow and leave it there. If you have to move it, do so only because the current space is an immediate threat to its health and continuing existence, and try to make the change as gradual as possible. You don’t want the Tralfamadorians to load up on sugar, go into full Cornholio mode, and toss you into a snowbank for a few hours, do you? Then why would you want to do the same thing to your flytrap?

Absolute Surefire Steps to Kill Your Venus Flytrap: Step 7

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 7: Keep it jammed in with other carnivores.

If you’ve been keeping up with the series so far, you might think that I’d never recommend that anybody keep Venus flytraps. That’s not true in the slightest. I’d never recommend them to beginners, for the same exact reasons I’d never recommend green iguanas, Sulcata tortoises, or Nile monitors as pets for anybody who’s never kept reptiles before. Venus flytraps are just as fascinating as any other carnivorous plant, but they’re just so particular about their light, their moisture levels, their potting mix, and choice of prey. I don’t tell a beginner “No, you shouldn’t get a flytrap.” Instead, I point out the merits, note the limitations on care and husbandry, and gently note that I know of a couple of carnivores much better suited for someone who’s never worked with one before. That person usually goes home with a Drosera adelae, and when I see that person again, s/he’s moved to any number of exotic varieties, and then starts experimenting with flytraps.

Back about eight years ago, a very short-lived trend started with bulk carnivorous plant sales to home improvement centers, and I’m glad the collapse of the economy stopped it. At the time, several companies offered carnivores to Home Depot and Lowe’s in the famed cubes of death, but there was one assemblage that just chilled the blood of anybody who knew enough about carnivores to be dangerous. Heck, it even scared me. This was a three-pack sampler, almost always with a Venus flytrap, an adelae sundew, and a Darlingtonia cobra plant jammed together into a cube.

For those who don’t understand, let’s put it into pet terms. Picture walking into a Petco or a PetSmart and seeing a one-cubic-foot package that contained a puppy, a parrot, and a pacu. The only thing they have in common is that their names start with the letter “p”, and these death cube collections of carnivores weren’t much better. As explained before in this collection of essays, Venus flytraps need high humidity and high lighting, but also good air circulation. The adelae sundew gets by on more constrained air than flytraps, as well as much less light, and it doesn’t need a winter dormancy period. The cobra plant needs a winter dormancy period, but it’s native to mountain seeps fed by snowmelt; most botanists consider it an alpine plant, as it needs cool water for its roots and the distinctive drops in night-time temperatures generally found in high mountains. You couldn’t find three more dissimilar species of plant if you tried, and like the puppy/parrot/pacu death cube, you might have one survive for a few months before it finally gave up.

Even with species of carnivore that live in the flytrap’s native or introduced ranges, you’ll find that they don’t exactly live together together. In the wild, flytraps may be found with a few species of sundew, but while they grow in bogs, they prefer more drainage than Sarracenia pitcher plants. Depending upon the species, many Sarracenia have no problems with their roots sitting in water (the parrot pitcher Sarracenia psittacina actually thrives on being submerged for a time in spring and early summer, and its traps apparently adapted to catching aquatic insect and tadpole prey while dunked), which is something that will kill flytraps in a matter of days. Flytraps like their soil kept constantly moist, but they cannot handle being waterlogged. Try to keep a flytrap in the same planter that best suits a terrestrial bladderwort or a Sarracenia pitcher plant, and you’re going to have mush before long.

As always, there are alternatives. In a large bog garden, putting flytraps so they remain at least six inches (16.24 cm) above the general water level works well, and the bog soil can be shored up to keep it from washing down into the rest of the bog during rains. In a large planter, I’ve actually had good results with putting a plastic tube at least six inches wide into the planter so the end rests on the bottom, filling it full of flytrap planting mix (the usual “one part sphagnum moss to one part silica sand” mix), and planting the flytrap above the general soil level for the other plants. In smaller containers and pots, though? Keep it by itself, but if various sundews start sprouting around it, leave them be. They won’t necessarily hurt the flytrap, and they can always be separated during repotting when the flytrap goes dormant for the winter.

Next: Step 8 – Keep moving it around.

Absolute Surefire Steps to Kill Your Venus Flytrap: Step 6

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 6: Feed it hamburger.

Were I to assume that the publishing business will be in anything approximating a decent shape in five years, I’d put together a little book full of stupid memes, tropes, and general comments that have no attribution whatsoever. I’ve already got a great list of them: “Put butter on a burn.” “Poke yourself with a pencil lead, and you’ll get lead poisoning.” “Put boiling water in your ice cube trays, and the water will freeze faster.” “Mosquitoes die as soon as they bite you.” “You’ll make more money if you give away all your goods, services, or content for free.” “George Lucas is a cinematic genius.” Hell, I could do the book just on the idiotic advice wannabe writers give each other, such as “Writers make an average of $37.50 an hour” or “If you’re afraid that someone’s going to steal your idea, write it up and mail it to yourself so you’ll have proof.” (This last one always comes from individuals who think that writing Absolutely Fabulous/Farscape slashfic is a great idea, and would do so if they had the time.)

One of the biggest ones on that hypothetical list, though, directly involves carnivorous plants. I don’t know who started the meme “Even eats hamburger!” involving Venus flytraps, but it’s everywhere. If it isn’t plastered on flytrap containers in grocery stores and home improvement centers, it’s repeated over and over in any number of poorly researched articles and children’s books. The cliche of Venus flytraps eating hamburger is as established as the comparison between the early “proto-horse” Hyracotherium and the fox terrier, and I have it spouted back at me over and over. The difference between flytrap/hamburger and Hyracotherium/fox terrier is that fox terriers don’t die because of that cliche perpetuation.

To take on this misperception and send it back to Hell, we’ll need to look at three separate considerations. Before I go there, I won’t deny that it’s possible to feed carnivorous plants by hand. Based on recommendations from Peter D’Amato, I’ve fed tiny slivers of chocolate to Cape sundews, solely to watch the response. (It’s remarkably like a human’s, where the leaf wraps around the chocolate and drools on it.) But hamburger? Get a bag of assorted nuts and bolts and feed them one at a time to your flytrap, because it’ll cause less damage.

The first thing to consider is that flytraps get their common name for a reason. Readers of a certain age may remember a series of Life magazine encyclopedias on the sciences, profusely illustrated with black-and-white and color photos from the magazine. In the volume The Plants, carnivores received two pages, with one being dedicated to a large photo of a grasshopper with its head caught in a Dionea trap. Yes, that one was staged (among other things, a grasshopper with its head caught in a flytrap wouldn’t suffocate, as grasshoppers and other insects breathe through their abdomens), but that led lots of first-time flytrap owners to assume that their new plants could handle prey of any size. Trying this, though, usually meant that the prey rotted, the trap turned black and slimy, and ultimately the whole leaf fell off.

The reason for this has everything to do with the square-cube law: square the size of an object, and you cube its volume. A flytrap’s typical prey in the wild ranges from flies to small spiders to large ants because they’re large enough to offer a sufficient return. Flytraps and other carnivorous plants don’t capture and digest insects for energy the way animals do. They’re already getting plenty of energy from standard photosynthesis, and they’re eating insects for the additional nitrogen and phosphorus necessary for growth that they can’t get from the local soil. Any carnivore that produces its own digestive enzymes (and some don’t) has to take energy from maintenance, growth, and reproduction to secrete those enzymes, and they’re very energy-intensive. Hence, if the prey is too big for the plant to digest fully, it rots.

The second consideration? Flytraps can’t chew. For the last 600 million years or so of multicellular life on Earth, animals have some way to shred, crush, liquefy, or dismember food items, so those items get improved exposure to digestive juices. Spiders inject venom that liquefies prey from the inside, and scorpions both inject venom and use their claws to pulverize their prey. Millipedes and grasshoppers have shredding and pulping mouthparts. Mosquitoes, lampreys, and vampire bats all have specialized structures to draw up liquids from their food items. Birds carry gizzard stones that mash food before it’s passed to the intestines. Many carnivores, including Komodo dragons, pull their prey apart before swallowing the chunks. Even animals that swallow their prey whole, like pythons, have strong gastrointestinal muscles that crunch up and squeeze their food so the surface area exposed is increased. If you want a direct example, put your finger on your jaw joint and move your jaw from side to side. This motion allows your teeth to move laterally as well as vertically, thereby shearing and crushing food too bulky for simple up-and-down mastication to work. That side-to-side motion, along with the enzymes in your saliva, allow that lump of food, known as a bolus, to be digested that much faster than if you’d simply swallowed everything whole.

This, right here, is why we don’t have man-eating plants, as much as people nag and nuhdz me about growing them. It also explains why reported incidents of vertebrates being caught in carnivorous plants are so rare, and not just because insects and other arthropods outnumber us vertebrates by 9:1. Not a single carnivorous plant on the planet can chew, mash, chomp, or otherwise masticate its food. That’s not to say that they can’t do so with help: many animals, from spiders to crabs to frogs and geckos, live among carnivores and help themselves to excess prey. Green tree frogs live within Sarracenia pitcher plants and snag prey before it ever gets into the pitcher. Similar frogs are well-documented among the Heliamphora pitchers of South America, and some species of Heliamphora even have a slick spot within the pitcher that’s perfectly suited for a frog to camp for the day. The Borneo pitcher plant Nepenthes bicalcarata even encourages ants to nest within special chambers within its leaves, and the ants rapidly daisy-chain down into the pitchers and tear apart prey. Best of all, the South African Roridula can’t digest prey on its own at all, and depends upon a symbiotic species of ambush bug to feed upon prey animals caught on its leaves.

All of this sounds unfair to the plant, but it’s not. With N. bicalcarata, the ants live in a commensual relationship with the plant: the plant offers a living space and nectar for additional food, and the ants clean up large prey and attack anything dumb enough to molest the plant. With the tree frogs in Sarracenia and Heliamphora, they defecate into the traps while hanging out, thereby predigesting prey into a more easily accessible form of nitrogen. Some Nepenthes not only encourage this behavior with frogs, but with tree shrews and bats. And then you have the other commensual animals that live inside of traps, such as midge larvae and the like…

The poor Venus flytrap, though, has no such option. Once it ascertains that the item within its trap is potential food, it closes all the way, and seals the edges of the trap like a purse to retain digestive fluid. Nothing gets out, but nothing gets in, either, to help it. Even with sufficiently-sized prey, a couple of days of particularly cloudy weather, or some obstacle that prevents it from getting full sun, and the trap goes black and slimy. However, the odds of successful digestion are much better at that point than with something, say, the size of your thumb.

And the third consideration has everything to do with fat. As a general rule, as a food source, most insects are incredibly lean compared to most commercially raised and harvested livestock, and some individuals advocate following the lead of much of the world in more commercial farming of insects as food because of this. Really lean meat, such as scraped beef heart, is as fat-scarce as most of the insects consumed by Venus flytraps; again, the flytraps aren’t eating for energy, so they don’t have the need for large amounts of fat nor the enzymes necessary to digest it.

And hamburger? Oh, big cheeseburgers get called “cardiac arrest in a bun” for a reason. Really lean hamburger can run as low as seven percent fat, but most of the good stuff runs anywhere between 15 and 20 percent. Several local grocery stores sell big five-pound bullets of “fine ground beef,” and the fat content? At least 30 percent. We can bypass this a bit by grilling our burgers so the fat melts and runs off, but you’re still looking at a rather high percentage of fat in the final burger. The moment you see a flytrap grilling its food before it digests it, get a picture FAST.

Okay, so let’s recap. Very theoretically, you could feed your flytrap hamburger. It would have to be large enough to be worth the plant’s time and small enough to be digested without issue, and it would need to be extremly fat-free. If you think you can get just the right size, every single time, and make sure it was fat-free, go for it. Letting the plant catch its own insects, though, might be a much easier and saner option. Just saying.

Next: Step 7 – Keep it with other carnivores.

Absolute Surefire Steps to Kill Your Venus Flytrap: Step 5

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 5: Set off its traps with your finger.

Home improvement stores are dangerous places to be when you’re married to the Czarina. On any given day, she has one interesting project or another that’s cooking, from making new necklace displays to building mobile bead tray racks, and that means the folks at the local Home Depot and Lowe’s stores know us on a firstname basis. If she’s not buying up PVC pipe and walnut molding, I’m buying up epoxy putty and Gorilla Glue. What’s scary is that I can exclaim, in my best Red Green voice, “Today on Handyman’s Corner, we’re going to reverse the polarity of the neutron flow!”, and I hear loud and robust laughter from the checkout clerks. At our local traditional hardware store, I had to explain who Red Green was, and this was a store that was hosting an autographing and photo session.

Anyway, I tend to wander through the garden section at those big stores as well. Most of the time, it’s to rescue some poor neglected Dendrobium orchid or random succulent in the deep discount rack, but every once in a while, it’s to see the latest trends in carnivorous plant packaging. Not in variety, nor in propagation methods, but in packaging.

As mentioned a while back, my father was, before he retired, a packaging engineer of some reknown. Every time you see one of those aluminized Mylar packages of Doritos or Fritos in an office cafeteria vending machine, you’re looking at my dad’s work. As also mentioned a while back, the family was hoping that I’d be another Larry Ellison instead of a Harlan Ellison; not much rubbed off from the family’s fascination with engineering. However, just enough rubbed off that I can appreciate the commercial horticulture trade’s attempts to protect its Venus flytraps.

One night, I saw a beautiful example of this in action. I was in a Home Depot picking up some extra garden hose gaskets, and peeked in the garden section. That section was hosted by a girl who was maybe 19 if a day, and she was standing in front of a big rack full of Venus flytraps. These were in those sad plastic containers that were popular at the time, with one clear dome atop a flimsy clear cup, and she was popping them open one at a time. I stepped closer, and I realized she was setting off every trap on each plant with her finger. Once every trap was closed or closing, she recapped the cup and moved on to the next one, and when she saw me, she waved me over. “Watch this,” she said, as she set off another trap.

At that point, I winced. “You really shouldn’t do that. That’s not good for the plant.”

“Oh, it doesn’t hurt it,” she said, going back to molesting the flytraps. Seeing from her badge that she was the garden center manager, I decided that arguing with her was a waste of time, and I simply left.

Right there, with that manager, the entire fascination with flytraps stands revealed. Here is a plant that closes up mouth-like traps, not under any touch such as with Mimosa pudica, but under the specific stimulus of setting off trigger hairs within the trap. The Venus flytrap can count and keep track of time, as the trap won’t close unless two of those trigger hairs are set off at the same time or one is stimulated twice within ten seconds. Even better, if the trap was triggered by something inedible, such as a raindrop or a twig, or by something too big for it to catch and hold, the trap gradually re-opens over the space of hours or sometimes days.

Well, that’s the popular legend, and it’s all true. It also leaves out a lot of particulars that can kill the plant if ignored.

Firstly, when looking at a Venus flytrap, it’s easy to see the trap as something growing off the end of a leaf. In actuality, the trap is the leaf, and the “leaf” is actually what’s called a petiole. Although the leaf’s secondary adaptation is to catch and digest small prey, it’s still a photosynthetic surface, no different from a maple leaf in that regard. The reason why flytraps just sit there and wait for prey is because, like all other plants, they’re relatively low-energy organisms compared to animals. They can afford to wait because their main source of energy comes from the classic conversion of sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water into sugars and connective tissue.

What this means is that if a trap gets set off with prey inside, the plant benefits from the nitrogen and phosphorus in the bug being digested (possibly along with trace elements, but I haven’t found any research to ascertain what else they may absorb), but the actual photosynthetic surface of the leaf is out of commission until the digestive process is complete and the trap re-opens. If the trap closes without capturing prey, yes, the trap will re-open. The problem is that the return on captured nitrogen just barely makes up for the energy expended in re-opening it, and an empty trap doesn’t even get that. Close enough traps at the same time, and wondering why the plant dies is like holding you down, clamping your nose and mouth shut, and wondering why you’re turning purple.

Incidentally, this also ties into a regular complaint I hear about how “my flytrap won’t eat.” The closing process is a very ingenious use of topography, but opening is a simple growth process. Picture it as opening a mostly-closed door by shoving wedges into the crack between hinges until it pops back open. Add enough wedges, and the door can’t shut at all. After a flytrap’s trap has been set off about four or five times, the trap curls slightly and now acts as nothing but a photosynthetic surface. In that regard, it’s perfectly suited for its job, but no force on earth or heaven will get that trap to close ever again.

This doesn’t explain why flytraps kept in colder conditions, such as those going into winter dormancy, are so loath to close, but it doesn’t have to. Between lower temperatures and lower light levels during winter, any trapped prey in a dormancy-bound flytrap will rot before it ever gets a chance to be digested, so don’t worry about feeding your flytrap over the winter. Giving it plenty of light before snow or ice kill off the current year’s traps is good enough.

Next: Step 5 – Feed it hamburger.

Absolute Surefire Steps to Kill Your Venus Flytrap: Step 4

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 4: Keep your flytrap in a terrarium.

I have a lot of reasons for hyping fellow carnivorous plant sellers, besides the idea that we’re all in this together. I view Jacob Farin and Jeff Dallas of Sarracenia Northwest as the crazy cousins I never had (well, I have crazy cousins, but not horticulturally inclined crazy cousins), and I enthusiastically turn friends and cohorts in the direction of northwest Oregon when Jacob and Jeff host one of their biannual open houses. This isn’t just because they know their plants and obviously love them. It’s because they’re constantly challenging me. In my old age, I’ve become more convinced than ever that it’s better to be correct than to be right, and they’ve taught me too many times to shut up, listen, and make sure that any questions I ask or comments I make weren’t already answered a week ago. (They also have better stories. I only have to worry about treerats digging up the dragonfruit and geckos hiding in the pitcher plants. They get Pacific treefrogs laying eggs in their aquatic bladderwort tanks and piglets sneaking through the fence from their neighbor’s lot and playing in their lot. The only way I’m ever going to top this is by getting that crocodile monitor after all.)

Anyway, the Sarracenia Northwest tagline is “No terrariums. No myths. No nonsense.” It’s succinct and accurate, and one of the reasons why Jacob and I may be found by palaeontologists 90 million years from now, still locked in combat like the Mongolian fighting dinosaurs. It’s not that he’s wrong. He’s just lucky in that he and Jeff live in a locale where humidity levels aren’t so obscenely low.

One of Jacob’s tenets is that most carnivorous plants can and should be grown outside, in full sun, just the way they do in the wild. He also posits that most carnivores are much tougher than most people assume, and that most adapt to outdoor life much better than expected. He and Jeff offer living proof at their open houses, with growing pools just overloaded with big, bright, sparkly Sarracenia that make my guts ache with jealousy to look at them. Flytraps, bladderworts, and even their beloved Darlingtonia cobra plants…all outside, or maybe under fabric covers if the plant is particularly sensitive to strong summer sun.

To give you an idea on their commitment to researching proper growing traditions, they went into the wild to visit feral stands of Darlingtonia. Tourists may know of the Darlingtonia State Natural Site southwest of Portland, but Darlingtonia californica can be found among seeps throughout the mountains of Oregon, Washington State, northern California, and parts of British Columbia. Darlingtonia is one of the big El Dorados in the carnivorous plant field, having a reputation for being particularly temperamental and likely to die if you look at it cross-eyed. In fact, one of the absolutes that was taught to most carnivore enthusiasts, myself included, is that they can’t handle heat for any length of time. Jacob and Jeff decided to challenge this, taking temperature measurements in prime Darlingtonia habitat and showing that Darlingtonia can handle Dallas-like daytime temperatures in daylight hours with aplomb. (The secret to raising Darlingtonia is that it’s technically an alpine plant, and that it grows in seeps in the mountains fed by snow melt. The assumption was that it needed cool water on its roots at all times: the real issue is how cool the area gets at night. In North Texas, that means lots and lots of air conditioning, because it depends upon the steep temperature drops in the mountains at night, even during the summer.)

This has led to many friendly arguments about whether terraria should ever be used for carnivores. Jacob in emphatic that terraria aren’t necessary, and that he has customers who raise bog gardens in the desert and get great results. I respond that as much as I agree with him anywhere else, some carnivores can only survive in Dallas in an enclosed container. Not only do we receive almost twice as much sunlight as Sarracenia Northwest gets, due to the SN nursery being above the 45th Parallel North, but we also have a dessicating south wind that stops only between October and March. Even on good years for plant-raising, the area regularly drops below 50 percent relative humidity. In bad ones, such as this year, Dallas has lower relative humidity than Phoenix.

Now, you may ask yourself “What does this have to do with the price of cheese?” It’s time for another digression, and a short one this time. Back in 1985, I picked up a 29-gallon aquarium at a garage sale, and promptly drove everyone around me insane with my sudden passion for freshwater tropical fish. While co-workers were sneaking home to read Hustler before their wives and girlfriends caught them, I was sneaking home with the latest copy of Tropical Fish Hobbyist before my roommates knew what I was planning. In the process of learning just enough to be dangerous (and this included keeping, for a very short time in Wisconsin, a red-bellied piranha named “Bub” that would come to the surface to get his nose rubbed), I noted that different authorities gave different advice about the same fish, sometimes in the same book or magazine. That’s when the owner of the sadly defunct shop Neenah Tropical told me “You should never trust the books, because the fish don’t read.”

That’s absolutely true for carnivorous plants, as well. Always take my or anybody else’s advice on keeping carnivorous plants with a healthy skepticism born of actual knowledge. Those of us with expertise will try our absolute best to help, but there’s always the odd exception. If you’re smart, you’ll accept the unique conditions and circumstances in your area that allow success when everyone else falls on their faces. For years, I was able to keep a batch of Darlingtonia raised from seed alive and healthy in Dallas, and I didn’t smirk about how I had special understanding or superpowers. Instead, I stood back and exclaimed in surprise and delight that I’d somehow beaten the odds. And when this kidney stone of a previous summer took them away from me, I took it as an object lesson.

And here’s where I have my very friendly dispute with Jacob and Jeff. I don’t dispute that Venus flytraps are best kept outside. At times, though, they need a touch of help.

In my own experience, I’ve discovered that flytraps grow best when the relative humidity around them stays, day and night, above at least 60 percent. When the humidity goes below 50 percent and the temperatures go above 95 degrees F (35 degrees C), they tend to produce small or nonfunctional traps, and won’t produce new ones until either humidity jumps or temperatures drop. When the temperatures stay this high and the humidity drops below 30 percent, which it did quite regularly in North Texas last summer, the plants simply can’t handle the strain and they die. It doesn’t happen right away, and they can recuperate if conditions improve when they start to fade.

Since a typical Wardian case offers that sort of control, the automatic response to this sort of humidity fluctuation is to put flytraps into a terrarium of some sort. As understandable as this is, this is also dangerous for a flytrap. What I’ve discovered the hard way is that flytraps not only require a lot of sun (at least six to eight hours of direct sun) and a lot of humidity, but they also require a LOT of air circulation. This is why Jacob and Jeff recommend raising flytraps outdoors, where they can get the air circulation they need. Put one in a standard terrarium, and the combination of stagnant air and decreased light intensity are doubly lethal.

A second consideration: even if your flytrap does well during the summer, remember that it’s going to need a winter dormancy period. This leaves you with one of two options. You can put the terrarium outside during the winter, which removes any opportunity to enjoy it during the season where you’ll need a touch of green the most, and risks its being damaged by cold or ice. Alternately, you can remove the flytrap and put it into artificial dormancy in a refrigerator, and then spend the winter looking at the hole in the terrarium where the flytrap used to be. Instead, you might be better off enjoying a tropical carnivore such as a tropical sundew: it may slow down over the winter, but it won’t actually require a full dormancy.

A third factor to consider against a standard terrarium: since the air circulation is so poor in most smaller, seemingly flytrap-friendly terraria, putting one in direct sun is a great way to produce Venus flytrap pottage. Terraria, Wardian cases, greenhouses, and just about any other enclosed space can be used to demonstrate the square-cube law. The smaller the volume, the larger the surface area in proportion to that volume. Put a 100-foot greenhouse in the sun as a two-cup terrarium, and the terrarium reaches killing temperatures much faster.

At this point, you again have two options. You could fit your Wardian case with a solar-powered fan, thereby taking care of the immediate air circulation issue. This, though, does nothing about the dormancy situation. Or, or, you could try a container that helps simulate the best conditions for best health for a flytrap. I’ve discovered that large glass bowls, such as very large brandy snifters or even goldfish bowls, tend to work well in combating Dallas-level low humidity. The container can be put in full sun, where excess heat escapes out the top. Humid air is heavier than dry air, so the humidity stays around the flytrap. Best of all, it can be left outside all year, only pulling it under cover when there’s a risk of snow or ice.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say that there was one more catch. This catch is that while flytraps like moist conditions, they cannot handle standing in water for any appreciable length of time. With that in mind, if you try a large bowl, go for one that’s strong enough to handle the peat/sand mix that’s required for flytraps. Again, many experts recommend against using perlite around flytraps under any circumstances, but I’ve found a layer about one inch (2.54 cm) on the bottom, followed by about four inches (10.16 cm)of equal parts milled sphagnum peat moss and high-quality silica sand, works best. Dress the top with long-fiber sphagnum, wet everything so that it’s moist but not soggy, and plant the flytrap on top. Under most circumstances, flytraps in this sort of enclosure seem to do much better during dry summers than unprotected flytraps, and MUCH better than ones in greenhouses or other covered enclosures. But that’s just me.

Next: Step 5 – Set off your flytrap’s traps with your finger.

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.