Below is a story I wrote for the fall issue of Ethos Magazine.
Story by Lacey Jarrell
Photography by Kyle McKee
It was the snap of spiny, fast-acting jaws and an affinity for meat that first attracted Patty Petzel to predatory plants. A freshman at Woodburn High School in Woodburn, Oregon, Petzel was intrigued after finding an advertisement for carnivorous plants (CPs) in a Natural History magazine. It was long before the days of Little Shop of Horrors featuring a larger-than-life, man-eating Venus flytrap, but Petzel was fascinated just the same. Excited for an opportunity to see the voracious plants in action, Petzel mail-ordered one Venus flytrap and one pink sundew with sticky, tentacle-covered leaves. When her plants finally arrived, she placed them on her bedroom windowsill where they quickly dried out and perished. But despite her initial failure, Petzel’s passion for CPs continued to flourish.
“People who get into CPs go nuts,” Petzel laughs. What began as an innocent horticulture experiment more than 30 years ago has developed into what she now refers to as her “habit.” Petzel admits her CP addiction has led her to collect nearly 30 species and sub-species of Sarracenia. “It was like a quest,” she says. “Once I got hooked, it became a true obsession.”
Passion for Plants
Since Petzel’s first introduction to CPs in the 1970s, a global community of enthusiasts has connected through organizations such as the International Carnivorous Plant Society. Petzel says the group’s quarterly Carnivorous Plant Newsletter remains a much-needed source of CP growing advice. Now nestled in a corner of her rural property outside Corvallis, Oregon, Petzel’s carnivorous garden thrives. Ten outdoor water troughs are home to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of elegantly fluted Sarracenia pitcher plants, while her nearby greenhouse shelters a handful of Venus flytraps.
Petzel says she perfected her growing system through years of trial and error before settling on the water-trough method. “Sometimes the plants would die, but I eventually found that Sarracenia were pretty tough,” she says.
Her plants are rooted in a peat moss mixture and potted in large, perforated Styrofoam containers that allow the Sarracenia to float up and down with the water level. Petzel says the constant deluge of water replicates the wet bog-like environment Sarracenia grow in throughout the southern US.
Jeff Dallas also caught the CP bug at a young age. He says he first discovered CPs in elementary school while completing a reading worksheet his instructor had incorporated the plants into. “I didn’t even think a plant like that could be real,” says Dallas, who was instantly smitten with the plants’ carnivory. Soon after, he purchased his first CP, and much like Petzel, saw disastrous results.
Despite his initial mistakes, through years of research and experimentation Dallas came to understand the special needs of each CP species. In addition to being adapted to water-drenched environments, Venus flytraps and Sarracenia thrive in soil lacking life-sustaining nutrients, such as nitrogen, and require a minimum of ten to 12 hours of sunlight per day. Equipped with this new knowledge, Dallas grew his childhood fascination into Sarracenia Northwest, a CP business specializing in Sarracenia in Sandy, Oregon. The business, which Dallas co-owns with Jacob Farin, sits on a quarter-acre lot that displays nearly 100 small outdoor pools brimming with colorful Sarracenia pitchers. Dallas says each year the Sarracenia die back during a dormant winter period, but the emergence of new pitchers in spring is well worth the wait. “It’s an unbelievable transformation,” he says. “As many times as I’ve watched them grow, it’s still jaw-dropping when it happens.”
Creatures who venture to the mouth of Sarracenia pitchers risk tumbling into what is known as a “pitfall trap.” This specially adapted pitcher lures insects with offerings of sweet nectar, and employs a waxy inner lining that prevents insects from easily attaching to the walls of the tube, making escape nearly impossible. Bugs, spiders, and small animals such as frogs that succumb to the slippery tubes are broken down by enzymes before being absorbed into the plant.
Though a pitcher plant’s ultimate purpose is to devour prey, each variety has developed its own sophisticated method of entrapment. In contrast to the elongated tubes of Sarracenia, tropical Nepenthes pitchers have round, cup-like structures filled with pools of digestive enzymes. These tropical plants are found in equatorial regions worldwide, and though Nepenthes employ similar pitfall tactics to American pitcher plants, not all are out to kill.
In 2011, researchers in Borneo discovered Nepenthes rafflesiana and Hardwicke’s woolly bats share a mutualistic relationship: The plant’s pitchers provide a safe place for the bats to roost and in return, the bat drops guano into the pitcher’s digestive fluid, providing the plants with much-needed nitrogen. A similar relationship was also found between Nepenthes rajah and tree shrews that provide droppings as they straddle the pitchers while collecting nectar.
Nepenthes are Dean Cook’s specialty. Last year he installed a 20-by-20- foot heated greenhouse at his Eugene-based business, Cook’s Carnivorous Plants. Cook says the sealed greenhouse was the only way to ensure the warm, high-humidity environment the plants require. Although Cook says it’s not necessary to “feed” CPs, he admits occasionally dropping a snail into a Nepenthes pitcher. “The additional nutrition acts similar to what a human would get from eating a multivitamin,” he says.
Into the Wild
Today, most people only catch glimpses of CPs through outlets like Internet-based vendors and online forums, and few realize that many species grow naturally right in their own backyards. Darlingtonia californica, better known as the cobra lily, can be found in southern Oregon and low-lying regions of the Coast Range. The plant’s bulbous caps and forked, tongue-like nectar gland give its pitchers a notable resemblance to venomous cobra snakes.
In 1991, Petzel traveled to Cave Junction, Oregon, where she found hundreds of Darlingtonia growing along a hillside stream. “I was awestruck,” she says. “When you see them grow in the wild, it’s hard to describe how you feel. It’s just so cool.” But despite Petzel’s happiness upon finding the plants, she remains reluctant to reveal the locations of any Darlingtonia bogs because of the mass poaching and habitat destruction the cobra lily and other American CPs have experienced in recent years.
She and Dallas note that opportunities to see these CPs in the wild are quickly disappearing. According to an estimate made in 1993 by the North American Sarracenia Conservancy, nearly 98 percent of Sarracenia habitat in the southern US has been razed for urban development and other sites are regularly looted by poachers. North and South Carolina are the only regions in the world where the famed Venus flytrap grows naturally, and its rarity has caused flytrap poaching to grow so extensive that US Fish and Wildlife agents now mark wild plants with ultraviolet ink. The dye is undetectable by the naked eye, but when illuminated by a black light, wildlife agents can identify plants as illegally harvested. “This has been a really serious issue in the Carolinas,” Dallas says. “The dramatic movement of the Venus flytrap causes them to be the highest demanded CP.”
Despite dwindling populations, the popularity of CPs continues to grow worldwide as enthusiasts and collectors seek out the plants for their unique appearance and fascinating eating habits. But Cook says aside from the visual allure of CPs, many people are interested in the plants as a means of pest control. To them, his response is simply this: “CPs won’t necessarily control insects, but it’s a heck of a lot of fun to watch how many they get.”
Another spring break brings another visit to Darlingtonia Wayside in Florence, Oregon.
Given the fact that it’s January, and very obviously winter, there isn’t a whole lot of plant action going on in my neck of the woods. The weather is cool and the plants are dormant, but even so, they are still magnificent in the artistry they can create through their natural form. Here are some photos from a frosty Oregon morning:
I’d like to give a shout out and special Thank you to Jeff Dallas and Jacob Farin, co-owners of Sarracenia Northwest, and Deryk Moore, a second-season employee, who with their undying patience and carnivorous plant expertise, made my trip to one of this year’s open house events an experience to remember.
As an avid carnivorous plant enthusiast and beginning collector, I reveled at the opportunity to pick their brains about CP growth habits and growing techniques at the open house. Dallas and Moore mingled among the guests (about 50 throughout the day) answering questions and offering advice. Although Moore has only been with the nursery a short time, I was able to gather info about growing conditions, hardening off plants, and reverse osmosis watering systems from him. After visiting with Dallas and viewing the outdoor grow operation, it’s clear that he stands behind the nursery’s motto of “No terrariums. No myths. No nonsense.” 100 percent.
All of the Sarracenia species were growing out-of-doors in small lined pools. Each pool contained several clusters of plants, each with their own elegant shape and colorful, distinct venation.
Throughout the day I admired and photographed the plants from different angles and in the changing light as I made repeated trips up and down the aisles of available plants, as well as the nursery’s private collection. Continuously, I found myself lost in the moment as each pass through revealed something new–the nursery was veritable treasure trove of botanical delights. Even after spending over three hours at the site, it was hard to tear myself away. This was my booty for the day:
Again, Thank you Jeff, Jacob, and Deryk, for opening the nursery to all of us that day, as well as for your amazing hospitality, and yummy Italian sodas ;) See you next year!!
To see more pictures from the open house, click here.
We were camped at Gold Lake, a year-round recreation area situated at about 5,800 feet in Oregon’s well-known Willamette Pass. It was the first day of the holiday weekend and of course, we were lost. Again.
Our mission you ask? To find and document native populations of Drosera anglica, Drosera rotundifolia, and possibly Pinguicula vulgaris that I had learned about in passing conversation a couple of weeks prior. The source was reliable (some might say an expert), but in my excitement to learn of another local community of carnivorous plants, I completely forgot to ask for details about the location. And this is how my S.O. and I found ourselves bush whacking through the forested banks of Gold Lake as dusk neared on the first day of our “vacation.”
Now, I’m all for back country adventure and all that other good stuff, but given the fact that plants in the Drosera family are small (typically rising only inches off the ground) I felt that our cross-country undertaking was leading us nowhere but in the wrong direction. You can imagine my relief when after navigating freezing-cold mountain streams, climbing over numerous fallen trees, and wading through chest-high grass, the landscape opened up and I found the first Drosera anglica; it was one of what would turn out to be a community of literally millions of plants.
Right away I noticed two key differences between Drosera anglica and Drosera rotundifolia: D. rotundifolia has round, spatulate laminae (leaf-like structures), while D. anglica bears flat, elongated laminae that are attached to long petioles (leaf stems), which make them a more erect species.
Observation also showed that D. rotundifolia at the site was growing in dense clusters. Although the D. anglica did grow close to each other, I would not define them as “dense.” However, both species did grow in similar places along the edges of knolls in the wet, peaty area.
Unfortunately, as I began to survey the area, I noticed that unlike the D. rotundifolia in the Santiam Pass that were just entering their reproductive cycle, these plants were at the end of it. Almost all of the plants exhibited dewless, receding pads and displayed the tall remains of their inflorescences (flowers), which had now matured into dried capsules full of seeds.
Even though the plants were all well past their peak, and although I was unable to find any species of Pinguicula on this trip, I am still pleased with the outcome. Hiking into these sites looking for Drosera has given me an opportunity to not only learn about the plants I enjoy so much, but to also learn about the ecology of our local habitats. Observing how these species interact with animals, as well as other plants and mosses around them, has helped me understand and appreciate their carnivorous specificity even more. Through research, I have also located two other sites in Oregon that host native populations of Drosera, as well a Darlingtonia Californica site. I’m guessing we have about three weeks of outdoor weather left this season, where should I go next?
Stubborn, stubborn, stubborn little plants.
That’s exactly what I thought to myself as I trekked through the highland meadow for the fourth time in search of Drosera rotundifolia’s flowers. It had been almost a month since I first found the population, and each week I returned in hopes of seeing its blooms. And after each of those weeks when I found the plants still were not producing, I would think to myself, “OK, one more week. How long can it take for one tiny little flower to bloom?” Little did I know how bull-headed D. rotundifolia can be.
After moving through about half of the (very large) area last weekend, we were only able to find a handful of plants that had flowers. Honestly, it was a little disappointing that after so many visits this would be all that we would find; but despite that, the overwhelming heat, and the mosquito swarms, it was still a pretty groovy experience. The flowers that we were able to find were white, very petite, and actually quite lovely. They are five-petaled, with what looks to be six stamens, and have radial symmetry.
Most people who have carnivorous plants know that when you least expect it, you can find the darnedest things snared in their traps. Looky what we found entangled with a wild Drosera rotundifolia (!) –
And just for a little splash of color..
So it wasn’t until after we revisited the site again this Saturday that I realized my mistake. I was certain that after seeing all of those flower buds ready to burst on our first visit, that my partner and I would be in for a real treat when we returned almost a week later. Much to my dismay, on our second visit, not one single Drosera rotundifolia was in bloom…
Upon re-inspecting the plants, I discovered that what I originally thought were flower buds are actually the pale-green backsides of new pads coming up.
This is what the flower buds actually look like:
The buds were actually really close on this visit, so hopefully by the time we make it back next weekend, we won’t have missed the flowers. Fortunately, even though we have to wait another week to see Drosera’s floral show, the trip wasn’t a complete waste. Because we didn’t get lost on the way to the site this trip (thank goodness!), my partner and I had a lot of extra time to explore around. What we found was pretty impressive. The population was much, much, larger than we thought, spanning several yards and hosting several thousand (if not over 1 million) plants in the wetland.
We also found a pretty blue moth being digested on top of a clump of Drosera:
After that, we came upon a dragonfly dipping quickly up and down in flight, laying eggs in an especially wet part of the marsh. I almost had the camera out when zip!, he flew into some sundews and got stuck!
Luckily, after a short struggle, the dragonfly freed himself. But because he had landed on the Drosera face-first, he had the sticky dew all over his legs and promptly stuck himself to some tall grass. Thankfully he eventually buzzed off, sticky legs and all!
In another area, I found this little dude when he scurried away from me while I was snapping some pics of Cascade lilies:
Overall, it was a pretty kick-ass day. Carnivorous plants, lizards, and good company. What more could a girl ask for?
In pursuit of Oregon native Drosera rotundifolia, I was lucky enough to come across some of nature’s other magnificent creations. Off and on my partner and I made good time throughout the day, but honestly I’m such a plant junkie anymore, it’s hard to get anywhere when I have my camera with me. Also, now that I’ve been learning the scientific names of Oregon’s plants, I have to stop to name each species while I point out their individual characteristics. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a good time being a nuisance ;)
Sunday was a wonderful day spent gallivanting around the Western Cascades. As many of you know, normal springtime conditions in our neck of the woods were nearly non-existent this year and summer was very late coming along. This poor combination made for long, dreary, and somewhat frustrating season changes, but has left the Western Cascades in full bloom even in late July/early August. (You can see wildflower photos from the trip here.) The hills were buzzing with bees, wasps, and other zippy creatures working to pollinate Oregon’s flora as we hiked through the forest in search of Drosera rotundifolia, a native Oregon sundew.
We reached our initial destination after only two mishaps–first hiking on what we thought was the wrong trail (it turned out to be the right trail, we just didn’t go far enough) and then forgetting the camera at said trailhead (we only realized this after we were five miles down the road). Luckily, the camera was still there when we went back. Anyhow, when we finally got to the right destination it looked very promising. Information I had found about D. rotundifolia led me to believe that we would find it bedded with bog clubmoss, a regionally widespread, yet somewhat endangered moss. We searched and searched in every mossy area we could find, but it wasn’t until we moved out of the moss (which is very dense) and into the grass (which is more sparse) that we had Success!
Meet Oregon’s Drosera rotundifolia:
The first population that we found was quite small, but as we began to circle farther around the area we found that they were everywhere!
It was really neat to watch the plants behave in their natural habitat and their sheer numbers, as well as their vibrant pink color and dewy tentacles, were AMAZING.
It took a little while for me to notice, but after a bit I realized that almost all of the plants were sending up flowers. (If you look closely at pics 1, 3, and 4 you can see the shoots.)** Stay tuned for part 2 of this post, “Oregon’s Drosera rotundifolia In Bloom!”
** See the post “Oregon’s Drosera rotundifolia (almost) in Bloom!” for the amended version of this observation.
The warm weather is still holding out in Oregon (knock on wood) and my plants are finally beginning to flourish. YAY! The outdoor American pitchers and the indoor Nepenthes are going gangbusters and I couldn’t be happier. The Nepenthes pitchers are still on a little on the small side, but they sure are pretty! This week will just be a few photos of the new pitchers and one artsy-fartsy photo I took of one of my newest additions, Pinguicula agnata x gypsicola. Enjoy!
Nepenthes Mirabilis x Kuchingensis Spotted Red: This is a plant I ordered off ebay about four months ago. After about a 10-week recovery period from shipping trauma (it came from Thailand, so it was in transit for about three weeks) it slowly began to produce new leaves. The recent temperature jump in the terrarium gave the plant the boost it needed to produce these beautiful red-spotted pitchers. This pitcher is about four inches in length from top to bottom, including the lid.
One of the features I like so much about this pitcher is its wide, flat, ribbed peristome. The peristome is the area around the opening and it’s where the nectar is produced. The tantalizing combination of a colorful peristome and yummy nectar is what attracts live prey to the pitchers. I’ve tried the nectar and it’s actually quite sweet. It tastes similar to that of a honeysuckle. Sometimes, for giggles (and education, of course) I’ll try to get house guests to try the nectar. They usually turn two shades of white and look at me like I’m out of my everlovin’ mind. Good times.
The following plant is also a Nepenthes Mirabilis x Kuchingensis, but I think it’s just a straight cross.
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Hello everyone! Sorry for the lack of posts lately, but life has been pretty busy, and honestly, mostly full of win and only a little bit of fail (thank goodness!). First off, last week I graduated community college with five of my cohorts from Linn-Benton Community College’s newspaper, The Commuter. Walking with the ladies, Alethea, Audrey, and Alyssa, as well as being accompanied by Frank and Jordan, at the ceremony was a great honor; I will truly miss working with you all. It was also the perfect way to finish off the year as I prepare to embark upon a new adventure: moving to the big city.
Secondly, the Oregon weather has finally realized that it IS spring, and in fact, almost summer, and warmed up a bit. The wonderful, but brief, warm spell is giving my outdoor plants the little push they needed and they are now producing quite nicely (albeit weeks late).
While the cobra has been showing some growth, the other American pitchers have been flowering. They are so beautiful I hate to cut them, but in order to save the pitchers, it must be done!
Sadly, while the outdoor plants are just starting to thrive, one of my indoor “Hummer’s Giant” Cephalotus follicularis croaked. Frankly, I’m quite confused about the whole situation because I have three small plants that came from the same shipment and presumably from the same plant because they were sold as one unit. They all have the same soil mixture, the same water, and the same light. I noticed the one that died was looking a little sad about two weeks ago when the pitchers started losing color. Then the leaves followed, and pretty soon the whole thing was brown and/or dead. This was an exceptionally sad day because Cephalotus, an Australian native, is one of the most unique pitcher plants one can buy and I was really looking forward to watching them grow into mature plants. This YouTube video posted by Sarracenia Northwest illustrates what makes Cephalotus so special, including its deep burgundy coloring, toothed opening, and long flower stalk:
As of now, the tank the Cephalotus are in is also housing three Pinguicula, all of which are doing fine. The temperature hovers around 72 degrees Fahrenheit with about 80-90 percent humidity and 12 hours of light per day. I’ve read differing information about growing Cephalotus, but most do say that it is the most difficult to keep alive. I guess at this point, only time will tell!
A couple of months ago I started thinking maybe it was time to give the babies a little something to snack on. It didn’t really need to be anything big because unlike what a lot of people believe, carnivorous plants actually don’t need to eat “meat” to survive; it’s just a fertilizer for them. They can actually sustain pretty well without the bugs, and sometimes poo, that they gather in their pitchers which primarily just provides nitrogen for them. I grabbed The Big Tweezers and ventured outside….
Moving some of the big flower planters, I found a veritable smorgasbord of goodies and I chose some small soft-bodied slugs because I figured they would be easiest for the plants to digest. I collected two of the inch-long mollusks and used The Big Tweezers to drop them into the pitchers of my Nepenthes alata. I learned two very important lessons from this experiment.
1. Do not put fresh food in pitchers that do not have any of their own fluid. The fluid contains a natural enzyme that breaks down and digests protein and if you only put distilled water in it (which is what I did) the prey will just decompose, essentially taking the pitcher with it.
2. Do not feed the plants slugs because the little suckers CAN and WILL crawl out. As you can imagine, this is bad for a number of reasons, but mostly because they will devour your beautiful plants the first chance they get.
Aside from slugs (which I highly DO NOT recommend) there are a ton of things you can feed carnivorous plants, what are some of your favorites?
It’s still pretty early in the spring season so I didn’t expect to see many flowers in bloom, but much to my surprise, there were quite a few flowers out. One specimen in particular completely took my breath away. I have never seen anything like this before – I don’t even know how much time I spent poking and prodding this poor plant – and it definitely go the bulk of my attention this afternoon.
Turns out it is called a Thalictrum occidentale, or Western Meadowrue, and it’s part of the buttercup family. I found this out (plus a couple of other interesting tidbits of info) by scouring my tattered copy of “Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast” as soon as I got home. The species has distinctive male and female plants, and the female plants actually don’t have any petals at all. The male Meadowrue (pictured) is the more flamboyant of the pair and offers the dangling chandelier-like stamens and purple anthers to attractant pollinators.
One other very exciting thing I discovered is that in addition to cobra lilies, there are two other carnivorous plants that call the Pacific Northwest home. drum roll please…. They are the round-leaved sundew, Drosera rotundifolia, and the common butterwort, Pinguicula vulgaris.
I found these little beauties under the heading “Oddballs” in “Plants of the PNW Coast” and according to the regional map, it looks like they are native to coastal regions as far south as Newport and as far north as the Cook Inlet in Alaska. Alaska? Can this be true? I have no idea, but I’m very excited by the prospect of it. Have you ever seen carnivorous plants in the Pacific Northwest region? And if so, where?