Tag Archives: carnivorous plants

safely in pots

Pitcher plants going crazy in the bog garden
Pitcher plants going crazy in the bog garden

The bog gardens have been looking really good this spring. Plants that I got as single-growth divisions are establishing themselves, and smaller seedlings are starting to approach their awkward but exciting teen years.

Magic Gopher Hole
Magic Gopher Hole
Compared to the rest of the garden–which this year has had the worst plague of gophers in recent memory–the bogs have grown up safe in their little green zones, insulated from the subterranean horrors of the garden by four inches of concrete. Apparently gophers aren’t great at chewing through four inches of concrete. Who’d have thought.

Rather than drag you down the rabbit gopher hole, let me show you some of this year’s successes in the bogs.

The bog by the upper waterfall pond
The bog by the upper waterfall pond
The planting above the pond features mostly taller, green-tubed forms of carnivorous species like Sarracenia alata and flava. There’s isn’t easy access to this garden, so the tall, green plants read nicely from a distance against the dark leaves behind them. This used to be a pond that leaked, but now filled with dirt and then plastic tubs buried up to their necks in the dirt and planted with the bog plants. The plants seem pretty happy.

The upper bog, closer up
The upper bog, closer up

Lower bog
Lower bog

Another failed pond morphed into this other bog, using the same planting techniques as the upper pond bog. These plants share the same tub of growing medium as five or six other plants. This bog you can walk right up to, so it features smaller growing plants are almost eye level. This is where many of the small all-green plants go, along with species or hybrids that really need to be viewed up close to appreciate them.

Two clones of Sarracenia (courtii x Green Monster), Robert Co hybrids
Two clones of Sarracenia (courtii x Green Monster), Robert Co hybrids

The bog bench
The bog bench
And then there’s this, the main growing zone, a long seating area that I built with an integrated wet bog. Basically the bog is a long rectangle, built up with eight inch sides, and waterproofed with pond lining. The plants each get their own pots and stand in a thumbnail’s depth of water.

This is where a lot of the big, splashy numbers go. These are plants that look good from across the garden or bear inspection from close-up while seated on the bench.

Up close and personal with Sarracenia flava var. ornata, Prince George County and Sarracenia excellens
Up close and personal with Sarracenia flava var. ornata, Prince George County and Sarracenia excellens

Yah, it’s been a tough year, with life sending us nettles and then gophers. But at least the plants in containers are thriving.

more than last month

After posting on Nasher Sculpture Center’s Sculpture garden–very much a rarefied 1%er’s kind of garden–it’s really comforting to return to the garden I call home. It’s April 15 in this 99%er’s garden, and time for this months Garden Blogger’s Bloom Day meme, hosted of Carol at May Dreams Gardens.

Every time I do one of these posts I worry that I’m showing you the same things. But since I stare at these plants for hours on end I hope you don’t mind the repeat appearances of some of the things that are still blooming. But in addition to the forever bloomers there are a lot of new things starting up this month.

Here’s an overview of the irrigated raised bed. There’s a native coyote bush in the back that I raised from seed, and it seems fine with this somewhat moist location. In front of it are some blooming exotics: a potted Euphorbia lambii with its chartreuse flowers, an Arctotis hybrid “Big Magenta” in the lower left, Salvia microphylla ‘Hot Lips’ to the right and a honey bush (Melianthus major) in the background, right, with its dark red bracts.

Euphorbia lambii detail.

There’s a lot from California (or very nearby) in bloom:

Verbena lilacina (from nearby in Mexico)

Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum) livening up the edges of the veggie plantings.

Some of the last flowers on the black sage, Salvia mellifera.

Takes 1-3 of Salvia clevelandii ‘Winnifred Gilman.”

A red monkeyflower seedling from a cultivar that died a couple of years ago.

The local stinging lupine, Lupinus hirsutissimus.

The local coastal sea daisy, previously called a coreopsis, I’m trying to get used to its new name, Leptosyne maritima.

Another ex-coreopsis, Leptosyne gigantea.

The local bladderpod, Isomeris arborea, with one of its bladder-like seedpods to the right.

Island alum root doesn’t so incredibly well for me. I suspect that I’m not watering it enough to make it bloom like mad like I’ve seen it do locally.

A fremontia that we have in East County, Fremontodendron mexicanum. It’s a plant that’s been imprisoned in a gallon pot from a plant sale last fall, waiting until I figure out where to put a really big plant.

The giant island buckwheat (Eriogonum giganteum) in bud. Last year the gophers got to it. I thought it was doomed. Looks like it’s pulling through.

San Miguel Island buckwheat (Eriogonum arborescens).

A succulent dudleya that you find out in the eastern parts of the county, Dudleya saxosa ssp. aloides.

Carpenteria california, in bloom since December.

The California poppies started up last month. They’re close to peaking.

This plant, a spreading form of chamise (Adenostoma fasciculatum) known as ‘Nicholas.”

And from other places we have:

Verbena bonariensis.

An unknown red aloe or aloe hybrid.

Three takes on santolina, S. chamaecyparissus, more in bloom than last month.

The rose geranium in the herb garden is a total monster. Pretty in lavender-pink, though. And it’s pretty easy to pull up.

Yah, yah, yah, this protea all over again…

You’re witness to the final moments of this Mexican evening primrose. It’s a noxious weed in the garden, and I pulled it up five seconds after I put down the camera.

Nile, oblivious to all my weeding and survey work in the garden.

Another weedy plant, Homeria collina. Not nearly as bad as the previous one, so it usually gets to live and reproduce in my garden unless it comes up in a seriously bad spot.

Fortnight iris, Dietes iridioides. Another pretty but really weedy plant. It’s still coming up from seed left by plants a decade ago. This is a flower on the one plant that gets to live.

A couple of takes on blooming graptopetalums.

Silver jade, Crassula argentea, just coming into bloom.

But of the exotics, the most splashy right now are the American pitcher plants, the sarracenia. These carnivorous plants have leaves modified into the bug-catching tubes that are often mistaken for flowers. But you’ll see the floppy mop-top flowers that these guys produce.

S. alata and flowers.

A natural hybrid, S. ‘Leah Wilkerson,” flowers and new pitcher.

A hybrid of S. flava by S. oreophila. The pitchers are just opening, and will turn a much more intense combination of red and yellow.

Happy Bloomday, every’all. For more gardens check out Carol’s April 2012 Bloomday post [ right here ].

what’s eating you

No garden project seems to ever be complete, but we did put the finish on the bog bench we’ve spent a lot of time working on.

We used this stuff, Superdeck. It took already good-looking wood and turned it into something almost like a nice finish on furniture. Over the last few years we’ve tried various ways to finish ipe used outdoors and this stuff seems to give it the most durable and attractive finish. They haven’t paid me a cent to say this. I like the stuff.

Twenty feet from the bog bench Stapelia gettleffii has opened its first flowers of the season. I’ve mentioned before how this plant is one of an informal group of carrion-scented plants that are pollinated by flies.

Back at the bog bench this Sarracenia alata, veinless form, is having a hard time hiding the fact that it’s had a lot of bugs–most of them flies–as meals this season. Just look at how the pitchers suddenly turn dark as you go down the tube. Dead bugs inside. Lots of them.

Midsummer’s edible highlight is the ripening of the figs, and this one is about thirty, forty feet from the bog bench..

One of the annoying nemeses of fig growers is this shiny little guy below, the fig beetle. It has the unpleasant habit of breaking the fig’s skin and then feeding off the succulence inside. I can’t say that I blame them, but I want the figs all to myself.

For some reason they seem captivated with this one plant in the bog, the “green” form of Sarracenia leucophylla, a form that lacks the ability to make the reddish anthocyanin pigments. I’ve noticed that the pitchers of this plant have a distinct damask-rose aroma. Maybe the scent reminds the beetles of the floral notes of figs?

Whatever the case, at least one of the beetles got a little too interested in this pitcher and fell in. It was gruesome to watch as it tried to fight its way back out of the pitcher, struggling so hard it kicked a big hole in the side of this tube. It took at least three days to die.

There’s a certain streak in many carnivorous plant aficionados that seems to delight in the bug killing aspect of these plants. I’m not one of them. My father spent much of his life as a Buddhist, and I’m sure some of its tenets of non-violence against the universe rubbed off on me. I found it unsettling to walk by the pitcher and watch this happening. A slow death by starvation and dehydration, head-down into a pile of dead bugs–not the way I want to leave this earth.

So I put on my rosy goggles of denial and look at the plants in the bog. This is one of the more spectacular ones right now, named ‘W.C.,’ it’s a polygamous hybrid involving S. leucophylla, S. rubra and S. psittacina.

Still, I’m reminded of the oblivious pet-owner’s line: “He’s a cute puppy isn’t he? Why, no, it doesn’t bite.”

Yah right. Pretty, evil things…

from seed, the labor-intensive version

While my last post was dedicated to an easy seed propagation project, this one details a couple that were a little more labor-intensive. Still not hard, just a little bit more work to pull off.

Sarracenia Night Sky, a hybrid of S. leucophylla and S. rubra gulfensis.

I’ve posted about my pitcher plants a few times before–Sarracenia species from the American South and some hybrids–and this is the first year I’ve tried sowing my own seed. All eight species (or nine, or ten or eleven, depending on the expert you listen to) are inter-fertile, and hybrids between all of them are possible and have been made at one time or another. The hybrids, too, are generally fertile, and you can go crazy with the genetic possibilities.

Sarracenia Dainas Delight, a complex hybrid of S. xWillissii and S. leucophylla.

For creative sorts you can arrange garden plants in interesting ways, but with this genus you could also design the very plants that you grow. If you live in the heart of pitcher plant country, this might be a problem. Bees could carry pollen from your hybrid plants to nearby native species and create some new unnatural hybrids. But the genus never crossed to this side of the Mississippi River so Californians can play Doctor Frankenstein all they want without worrying about messing with the native population beyond our castle walls.

A ripe Sarracenia flava seed pod, picked mid-November.
Mature seed pod of Sarracenia flava.

So…I began in the spring making some hybrids, and the pods began to ripen in August, with the last pods just finishing up ripening right about now.

Closeup of the previous Sarracenia flava seedpod. This one contained almost 500 seeds. You can see them practically jumping out of the pod.

The seeds require a cool, damp period in order to germinate. I emptied the pods and put the seed in a plastic bag with a few strands of moist chopped sphagnum moss, one bag for each cross. And into the fridge they went for four weeks.

After this period of cold stratification I sowed the seed on the surface of chopped sphagnum moss which I’d layered on the top of post filled 50/50 with a sand/peat mixture.

Next, I put the pots into a clear plastic box, poured in half an inch of standing rainwater, closed the lid, and put them near a window that faces south-southeast. If everything goes well–and it looks like it did–the seedlings begin to emerge in two to four weeks. Warmish weather is best, though you don’t have to be too fanatical. This batch experienced the recent 90- to 100-degree days as well as many cooler days in the 60s. As long as the seed think it’s spring, they’ll begin to germinate.

That’s pretty much it. Some people place the seedlings under constant bright lights and 70-plus degree temperatures for up to three years to speed them up to maturity. I’m hoping that bright daylight in a warmish interior spot will give them enough of a boost that I don’t have to resort to the equivalent of putting the plants on steroids.

Yearling sarracenia seedlings of the cross S. (Melanorhoda, Triffid Park x rosea luteola).

And here you see the reason why people might try to accelerate growth. These are year-old seedlings from a cross by Brooks Garcia that I sowed a year ago, thinking I’d practice on someone else’s cross before attempting my own. I grew these in my unheated greenhouse which has fairly low, less-than-ideal lighting conditions. They did get some bottom heat during the coldest months of the year.

Drosophyllum lusitanicum, a couple months old.

The other carnivorous plants I’m propagating this fall are of this Mediterranean-region species, Drosophyllum lusitanicum. While virtually all carnivorous plants are creatures of swamps and bogs, this one is unique in that it comes from fairly dry areas with be limited summer rainfall. Unlike the preceding sarracenia bog plants, this species could actually thrive in California’s wet-winter, dry-summer climate without too much additional life support.

Its common name is “Dewy Pine” because the leaves have little tentacles tipped with sticky bug-catching fluid that looks like dew. But Barry Rice mentions a much cooler moniker: Its Portuguese name translates into “Slobbering Pine.”

This plant and the preceding Sarracenia do catch insects. It’s a contradiction I’m trying to come to terms with. I plant a lot of California native plants, which provide nectar and other food for all sorts of winged and crawling creatures. And then I have these little monsters that actively trap and consume them. Call me a man of contradictions. In the end I hope I’m doing lots more good than bad.

I only know of one seller who ships Drosophyllum so you pretty much have to grow your own from seed if you want one. (I got my seed from the seed bank of the International Carnivorous Plant Society.) The little black seeds have a hard coat that slows down germination. If you have some 220-grit sandpaper around that’s not a problem. Just lightly–and I mean lightly–rub the seed between two sheets of the sandpaper until a patch of the black seed coat is worn away to reveal the white layer underneath. Then pop them on top of the same mixture you’d use for germinating Sarracenia and keep the mix moist with good-quality water. Germination for me was about two to six weeks, no cold stratification necessary.

There you have it. With both of these kinds of plants it was a little more work than my last post growing bladderods from seed. But really, it isn’t that hard if you’re patient.

leaves more amazing than flowers

Sarracenia Leah Wilkerson pitcher and flower

Today I feature some striking pitcher plant leaves to mark the occasion of April’s Foliage Follow-Up, the blog meme begun by Pam of Digging.

The story goes that the early settlers mistook the carnivorous trumpet-shaped leaves for flowers. And how could you blame them? These tall tubes formed from modified leaves feature interesting shapes and colors in the green-yellow-white-pink-red range, often with the colors forming striking patterns. They’re easily as interesting as most flowers.

Botanist Donald E. Schnell writes in Carnivorous Plants of the United States and Canada, “there seems to be nothing subtle about pitcher plants. Their general appearance begs attention, and when we encounter them we are almost startled. But once we look for awhile, then wander among them, we can begin to peel apart layers of subtlety and see many little secrets that collective fit these plants so neatly into their bog habitat–and we still do not know all their secrets.”

Schnell has divided the carnivorous pitcher leaf into 5 different zones, each with a different morphology. The scary insect-eating and -digesting carnivory takes place down in zones 3 and 4, the lower parts of the pitcher. But these photos concentrate on the backs of the top lid of these pitchers, the entire lid being what Schnell calls zone 1.

The top of the pitcher of Sarracenia Leah Wilkerson
Sarracenia Mardi Gras
Sarracenia leucophylla, red, Franklin County, Florida
Sarracenia leucophylla 'Tarnok'
Sarracenia mitchelliana. Within a few weeks the pitcher will be entirely maroon.
Sarracenia (flava x mitchelliana). Plants with brownish leaves are often a hard sell, but I think this plant makes a good case that they can look rich and wonderful, not like dead leaves.
Sarracenia Judith Hindle
Sarracenia W.C.
Sarracenia Red Sumatra. This early in the season it looks more like Pink Sumatra, but the color will darken before long.

Even though my sarracenia plants get to live in a cushy USDA Zone 10 garden (not to be confused with the zones of a sarrecenia pitcher), their internal clocks seem more tuned in to seasonal cycles of daylength or relative temperatures than to absolute temperatures. Most of the species and hybrids have been suspicious of San Diego’s warm climate and keep their flowers and foliage developing in the rhizomes all winter. Only now are most beginning to bloom and send out leaves, though maybe a little bit earlier than in the American Southeast, where these plants originate.

As the season progresses, these leaves will often develop different colorations. The veins in some will grow more pronounced, some pitchers will go all-red, others will show a golden underglow. The brief burst of spring flowers in these plants is great, but the foliage makes for months of really cool leaf-viewing.

For all sorts of other foliage happenings in the garden world, check out the links in this month’s Foliage Follow-Up post at Digging. Thanks for hosting, Pam!

“plants are up to something”

I loved this banner at the Huntington. Hanging outside the instution’s conservatory building, it announces that the exhibits inside might be more oriented towards education than the gardens that make up the rest of the grounds. The conservatory also houses plants that might have special needs beyond the “just add water” plantings located in the subtropics outdoors.

Pass through the front doors and you step into a greenhouse space containing a miniature tropical rainforest, a cloud forest and a bog garden, along with lots of educational signs and interactive exhibits scattered throughout the space.

For me most greenhouses and conservatory gardens suffer from being examples of nature-in-a-can, and to me they tend to look and smell and feel very similar in their hermetically sealed spaces. If only the Huntington were located on some barren snowy tundra plain, where entering a tropical rainforest on a cold winter day might be a stunning revelation.

Even on this cool December Southern California afternoon, the temperature differences between inside and out weren’t that pronounced. And the lush plantings outside the front door seemed to mirror the lushly planted indoors. Still, lacking the stunning contrasts that might help to set the conservatory apart from the outdoors, it was a fun place to connect with a lot of cool plants. When the Huntington’s giant corpse-flower (Amorphophallus titanum) blooms, there is where you’ll find it. It wasn’t blooming, but there were lots of other interesting things inside.

The bright red-orange trunks of the sealing-wax palm, Cyrtosstachys renda were pretty amazing.

My visit was two days before Christmas, so there were this holiday display of poinsettias and amaryllis. At first they seemed like gratuitous holiday decorations but then the aha moment struck me that these plants originate in the tropical and subtropical belt of the Americas.

Floral parts of a large anthurium species…

This carnivorous Asian pitcher plant (a species of Nepenthes) greeted visitors as they entered the cloud forest display.

And dropping down into the bog garden, American pitcher plants, Sarracenia, and sundews, Drosera sp., let viewers see other ways plants have taken up carnivorous ways. (Do you detect a theme of the conservatory playing up the idea of scary, creepy plants, going from these carnivorous species to the stinking giant corpse flower that lines up visitors by the hundreds when it does its thing?)

At this point the blogger rambles on a bit: These days it almost seems that every botanical collection feels to have its very own giant corpse flower plant that will draw the visitors when it blooms, something of the way medieval churches tried to draw pilgrims by having unique relics of saints, or how many temples in Asia will claim to have preserved hairs of the Buddha. So it seems that the giant corpse flowers has become a modern secular botanical relic. It’s a little odd, since you can occasionally find the plant for sale on eBay–granted for a good chunk of change–but still nothing much more than you’d pay for a pair of high-end jeans.

Okay, now back to the trip…

I’m coming to the realization that greenhouses always scare me a bit, like I’m entering a world that’s on perpetual life support. Upon leaving the conservatory I stepped outside into the bright December afternoon. Not far away a reader was seated in warming sunlight on a Lutyens bench, enjoying the moment. I’d had a good time on my visit to the synthetic tropics, but returning to the real sunshine and real weather outdoors I suddenly felt free.

tomatoes are carnivorous plants?

Tomato carnivore

One of the carnivorous plant lists I’m on has been buzzing a bit lately about an article that appeared in the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, “Murderous plants: Victorian Gothic, Darwin and modern insights into vegetable carnivory.” (See the abstract: here.) What really got things going was a sensationalized story in the London Telegraph, with the catchy title: “Tomatoes can ‘eat’ insects!” (The exclamation point is mine, but it seemed right for many titles published by the Telegraph.)

The basic premise is that hairs on tomato plants can catch and kill some small insects. The dead insects fall to the ground and nourish the plant. The botanical technique is called “passive carnivory,” in opposition to the active carnivory practiced by plants like sarracenia that have means to both capture and digest prey.

It’s kinduv a stretch, pulling a number of plants into what before was a select club of carnivores. The Telegraph article mentions “petunia, ornamental tobacco plants, some varieties of potatoes and tomatoes, and shepherd’s purse, a relative of cabbages.” The Linnean Society abstract goes on to mention plants “such as Stylidium (Stylidiaceae), some species of Potentilla (Rosaceae), Proboscidea (Martyniaceae) and Geranium (Geraniaceae), that have been demonstrated to both produce digestive enzymes on their epidermal surfaces and be capable of absorbing the products.”

That got the carnivorous plant folks to stretch the definition further. What about New Zealand’s bird-eating para ara tree? Maybe even the California fan palm with its hazardous sawtooth petioles? While I’m at it I might as well add one of my own nominations: eucalyptus, the Australian widow-maker. After our windstorm Monday night I noticed all sorts of eucalyptus branches on the ground. If you were around when some of the eight-inch-thick branches fell off, you’d be on your way to being nourishing compost for the plants!

my carnivores in december

December carnivore trimmings

As winter approaches many of the plants in the bog garden are starting to retreat into dormancy. Sunday I filled part of a bucket with the trimmings from the bog and two trays of potted carnivorous plants.

I have mostly American pitcher plants, sarracenia, and I’ve been starting to learn the rhythms of the different species and hybrids. Many put out their main flush of growth in the spring and look progressively scrappier and scrappier as spring turns into summer, and summer into fall. Many of these are now tidied up in the bottom of this bucket.

Sarracenia leucophylla Titan in December

Sarracenia leucophylla Tarnok in December

Others sync up with hurricane season, presenting their most spectacular pitchers in late summer and fall when heavy rains can be expected in the American Southeast. The white-topped pitcher, Sarracenia leucophylla, is the most charismatic of these. At least two clones have been tissue-cultured and are commonly available, ‘Tarnok’ (to the left) and ‘Titan’ (to the right). In spring, a mature Tarnok will produce big red double pompoms of sterile flowers that will persist long into the year. The flowers being sterile, this could be considered a cultigen, a plant incapable of reproducing itself except by seducing members of the human species to keep it alive via division or cloning. ‘Titan’ is supposed to have the unusual ability to produce pitchers over three feet tall, though in my too-dry, less than ideal conditions, it’s not as good a grower and clumper as Tarnok.

Sarracenia Judith Hindle in December2

‘Judith Hindle’ is another tissue-cultured, commonly available plant. I called this Sarracenia Trader Joe’s for a year because that’s where I bought this no-label plant. But I’ve decided it’s Judith Hindle because there was a whole big display of plants that looked just like this one, and I’m fairly certain that it’s the only hybrid that’s been tissue-cultured that looks and behaves like this. Like its leucophylla grandparent, it gives up its best pitchers in the fall.

Sarracenia alata Red Lid in December

Another plant that’s still got a few nice pitchers this late in the year is this red-lidded versions of the species S. alata.

Sarracenia Super Green Giant in December

And this hybrid, ‘Super Green Giant,’ seems to be doing well late in the season, though I’ve only had it since August and can’t vouch for what it’ll look like the rest of the year. Also, it’s lived a coddled life in a pot standing in water, not one loosed in the outdoor bog with these other plants.

Drosera capensis Red Form in December

Not everything is pitcher plants. This is the very easy-to-grow (some would say “weedy”) Drosera capensis, red form, a sundew from wet spots in South Africa. If you let it flower it will set seed. And if it sets seed, it can spread throughout your collection. I’m trying to figure out which of the bog plants can get by with less than boggy conditions. So far this is one of them.

Potted carnivores in December

In addition to the bog garden, I have two tubs of water with other plants. A very few are still looking presentable this late in the year. Three hybrids in this tub combine to make a lively red-and-green display: ‘Mardi Gras,’ ‘W.C.’ and a primary hybrid, x mitchelliana, made by Jerry Addington of Courting Frogs Nursery and retailed by Karen Oudean of Oudean’s Willow Creek Nursery. All of these hybrids are one half or at least one quarter leucophylla, so they retain some of its abilities to look nice in the fall. They also involve other species that tend to have a stronger year-round presence instead of retreating to a rhizome for the winter.

Tub of bog plants after the rain

These trays of plants have moved from the unheated greenhouse, hopefully to trigger the dormancy that most of these plants needs to thrive. Another hope is that they’ll get a taste of rain and not yet another drenching of reverse-osmosis water. After many weeks with nothing, they finally got treated to our first big storm of the season. When I came home last night the trays had almost three inches of water in them. Real water. Free water from the sky. At last!

sarracenia: an appreciation

So many interesting plants, so little time and space to grow them. My current plant obsession is the American pitcher plant genus, Sarracenia. I’m not alone in my obsession. Brooks Garcia even has a firm dedicated to the genus which bears the name Sarracenia Obsessed. It’s hard to explain what causes a personal obsession but let me try.

The plants of this genus of eight to eleven species all have evolved modified leaves that form tubes that attract and capture prey. A fly or an ant and goes for the nectar that the plant offers at the tip of the pitcher, and every few of the unfortunates slips on the slippery surface and is directed down farther into the tube by downward-pointing hairs on the inside of the leaf. Many of the species have a tube filled with digestive enzymes that await any creature that makes it to the bottom of the tube. The insect eventually drowns, and is digested by the plant. Dinner.

Evolutionary biology has devised a number of unpleasant ways its creatures can meet their ends. Being lured into a nectar-bated trap, then directed by needle-sharp hairs towards a nasty fluid that will start to eat you while you’re still a little bit alive sounds like one of the more gruesome exits to make. (I’ll never complain about another grueling dinner party again…)

There are people who grow these plants where all this carnivorous unpleasantness is the main attraction. A lot of these enthusiasts are men. Are carnivorous plants a guy-thing? All this eat-or-be-eaten machismo, Rambo nonsense, I wonder? But I guess I’m a little defective as a guy—I love to cook and I watch Project Runway for godsakes—and what really attracts me to these is how seriously gorgeous and interesting these plants are.

Take the case of the yellow pitcher plant, Sarracenia flava. This species features an extended upright tube (back to that guy thing again, sorry) that’s capped by an attractive lid that hovers over the opening. These plants live in bogs in lands of many rains, so the lid helps keep rainwater from diluting the nasty fluid inside the tube. The basic structure carries from one form of the species to the other, but subtle variations in shape and extreme ones in coloration could keep a collector occupied for decades.

In my little collection I have several of the colored variations that have been described. The pitchers look best in the spring and are a little ragged this time of year. But you can get a basic idea of some of the differences between plants of this species.

Sarracenia flava variety maxima

Sarracenia flava var. maxima sits at one end of the spectrum, color-wise. The leaves are all a clean greenish yellow color—leaf color—with the only pigment being little patches of reddish coloration at the growing point of the rhizome.

Sarracenia flava wide mouthed variety

S. flava var. flava takes the basic pitcher background color of var. maxima and adds some striping to the leaves. This is a version of this variety with an extra-wide maw.

Sarracenia flava coppertop

S. flava var. cuprea is also called the “copper top” variety. The back of the lid can have a light bronze to dark chocolate coloration. Sometimes the color stays for the life of the pitcher, sometimes it fades to green. In prolonged full-sun conditions this plant can have a wonderful dark chocolate top, plus some of the heavy veining you’d find in some of the more heavily colored varieties.

Beyond these, there’s a var. rugelli, which has all-green coloration accented with a maroon bloth in the throat, var. rubricorpa, the “red tube” which has a red body topped with a veined hood, and var. atropurpurea, which has such a heavy suffusion of red that the entire tube looks that color.

And that’s only one species. There are seven to ten others, depending on the taxonomist you’re talking to, with each of the others presenting their own interesting variations on the bug-eating pitcher theme. And all of these species can interbreed, leading to huge numbers of hybrids. Check out all the Sarracenia photos of species and hybrids at The Carnivorous Plant Photo Finder. You may end up spending hours at this one site alone and never find a way out of this obsession.

on the road: visiting california carnivores

On our recent trip we had only one nursery on the list of must-visit locations: California Carnivores in Sebastapol.

California Carnivores sign

Specializing in carnivorous plants from around the world, proprietor Peter D’Amato has assembled a collection of species and hybrids that run the gamut from venus flytraps and American pitcher plants to really cool sundews and bladderworts.

Sarracenia Danas Delight

One of the first plants that you encounter is this massed group of the hybrid, Sarracenia x Dana’s Delight. It’s a fairly common plant, but gather together several dozen pots of it in a massed display and there’s nothing common about it. The pitchers color up to a most amazing purplish red when grown in strong sunlight.

Sarracenias California Carnivores

Here’s another pitcher plant that had some gorgeous coloration. I forgot to note the name–sorry–but I think it might be a form or hybrid of S. flava.

Darlingtonia californica at California Carnivores

If there’s a pitcher plant that I covet it’s this one, the California and Oregon cobra lily, Darlingtonia californica. I’ve killed one already, and won’t attempt another until I’m more confident that I can offer it what it needs to survive.

California Carnivores propagation ponds

To grow so many different kinds of plants requires a lot of space. Here’s a shot of the propagation ponds.

Carnivore collection

I left the premises with three plants, a couple more than I really have room for in my bog. I posted yesterday about the amazing fly-catching capabilities of the sundew I bought (Drosera filiformis ssp. filiformis ‘Florida giant’). Another plant was a division of an albino hybrid, Super Green Giant.

Sarracenia flava

The third purchase was this beautifully colored version of the yellow pitcher, Sarracenia flava. Here it is from the front…

Sarracenia flava clone from behind

…and here it is from behind.

Sarracenia flava pitcher

…and for contrast, here’s a form of this species with minimal coloration, ‘Maxima.’ I love its yellow-green coloration.

The basic element of a pitcher plant is a highly developed leaf structure that contains a reservoir of fluid that insects fall into. The bug eventually drowns, and the the digested insect turns into food for the plant.

The more I look at pitcher plants, the more I appreciate the differences between them. It’s like musical variations on a theme, where you start with something simple and recognizable, and then go off into all sorts of amazing directions.

Jenny was out to this coast for a family visit, and was along for this plant trip. Her purchases were two: a small but very pretty and cute bladderwort, Utricularia livida, and a distinctive little venus flytrap, Dionaea muscipula.

The husband’s reaction when we got back to the hotel went something like, “You bought a venus flytrap? To take all the way back to South Carolina? Where venus flytraps come from?” But Jenny is a a curious plant person herself, and the flytrap she picked was a nicely grown specimen that had striking red coloration unlike the typical versions of the species. Like pitcher plants, flytraps can have their own sets of cool variations on the basic theme.