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.”