The Captivating Attraction of Carnivorous Plants
Weird, cool and hypnotically beautiful, carnivorous plants add lively variety to a garden — and the country’s largest collection lives just north of Marin.
WITH THEIR BIZARRE, otherworldly ways, hues and shapes, carnivorous plants have long enthralled people of all ages — anyone enchanted by the prospect of a potted, manageable monster. And though many enthusiasts discovered their first Venus flytrap in the pages of ’60s and ’70s magazines, these days the country’s — and perhaps the world’s — largest public collection of carnivorous plants can be found at California Carnivores, just up Highway 101 in Sebastopol. We spoke to a few members of the local insect-eating-plant community and found that the hobby tends to catch fans young and keep them for life.
Who enjoys carnivorous plants? Like so many others, Peter D’Amato, who founded California Carnivores in 1989 in a small Forestville greenhouse, discovered Venus flytraps as a 12-year-old through Monsters magazine, from which anyone could order a (likely poached) specimen for delivery. Soon after he received his first plant in the mail, a classmate led him to a bog in the middle of his New Jersey hometown, where he saw his first pitcher plants and sundews and was hooked. Similarly, D’Amato’s business partner, Damon Collingsworth, was just 11 when bitten by the bug. “I got my first plant, a Cape sundew, from Peter’s booth at the Sausalito flea market,” he says, citing that meeting as the beginning of his obsession. Mill Valley resident Peter McIntosh was another childhood convert via Monsters and soon amassed an impressive collection in his south Florida bedroom. These days, carnivorous plants entice a far more varied population, from retired women to university students to, yes, 12-year-old kids.
What is it all about? “People tend to look at plants as passive things,” Collingsworth says. “Most plants aren’t going to have the charisma to pull kids away from video games and screens, especially these days. But our plants really do.” To qualify as carnivorous, a plant must do four things: lure in prey, trap said prey, digest it and absorb it. Because the plants get nutrients from insects they ensnare rather than from soil, they can grow in a range of places other plants cannot, including wetlands, swamps, even damp rocks and trees. Some lifelong hobbyists like McIntosh strive for perfection in their collections. He procures plants from around the world, favoring finicky, tropical specimens a bit challenging to obtain and using a series of misters and humidity sensors to keep his backyard 20-by-13-foot greenhouse group in its prime. “I want the plants to be happy, to produce and grow to their fullest potential,” he says. But novices should not be daunted, as Collingsworth insists carnivorous plants are easy to grow and maintain. “All you have to do is put your plant outside in the full sun in a tray of rainwater or distilled water,” he says.
When should I start growing? Most carnivorous plants go dormant between November and February, blooming again in March. So the ideal time to plant or observe them in all their glory is April through October. And though the plants do flower for seed production in spring, their most beautiful aspects tend to be the leaves, which double as colorful lures for prey.
Why give it a try? “Carnivorous plants are dynamic, and they have a purpose and a use,” Collingsworth says. “You can stick a pitcher plant on your patio and watch the flies, yellow jackets and wasps go in there all day long. For many of our customers, these become more like pets than plants.”
How to get started? The Bay Area Carnivorous Plant Society, cofounded in 1992 by D’Amato and now headed by a fresh crop of younger members, meets five times a year. Three of the meetings follow a standard format of keynote speakers and plant sales; the June meeting doubles as a plant show and sale; and members meet at California Carnivores for a summer potluck. Looking to learn between meetings? The Savage Garden, Revised: Cultivating Carnivorous Plants, by D’Amato, is the definitive text for collectors.
This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition with the headline: “The Plant Bug”.