Sav­age gar­den

Meat-eat­ing plants turn the ta­bles on bugs, trap­ping and di­gest­ing them alive

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - ADRIAN HIG­GINS

Some­where along the evo­lu­tion­ary time­line of bog-dwelling an­giosperms, the plants gath­ered to­gether and de­cided they wouldn’t take it any longer.

No more would in­sects see plants as the ul­ti­mate salad bar. The time had come to fight back. The time had come for the plants to start eat­ing the bugs.

All right, it may not have been that cin­e­matic. Our fa­vorite plant car­ni­vores turned to meat be­cause their cho­sen evo­lu­tion­ary niche — soggy and acidic peat­lands, for the most part — didn’t pro­vide enough soil nu­tri­ents. And al­though this may be a more pro­saic read­ing of their botan­i­cal ori­gins, the way veg­gie car­ni­vores have en­gi­neered them­selves to con­sume an­i­mals is gen­uinely won­drous and amazes each gen­er­a­tion that grows up to dis­cover this phe­nom­e­non.

Michael Szesze was 10 in the early 1960s when he came across the bizarre Venus’ fly­trap, which ap­pealed to young minds be­cause it seemed to be a plant well on its way to be­com­ing an an­i­mal. Not only did it digest in­sects, it clasped them like a bear catch­ing salmon. It was an­i­mated.

“The con­cept of a plant that gets back at bugs got me in­ter­ested,” he says. Al­most six decades on, Szesze (pro­nounced sez-ee)

has turned a 25-acre for­mer Christ­mas tree farm — tucked away in the Ca­toctin Moun­tain ridge of Mary­land — into one of the rich­est nurs­eries for car­niv­o­rous plants in the coun­try.

Back when he was a Cub Scout, the mail-or­der fly­trap was most likely the wild species that grows in the bogs and pine bar­rens of the Caroli­nas. Grade-school­ers or­dered Venus’ fly­traps from their fa­vorite mag­a­zines, and the plants would ar­rive and soon die from abuse, ne­glect or too much love. Mon­sters can be sen­si­tive.

To­day, for a num­ber of con­verg­ing rea­sons — the age of so­cial me­dia, the pop­u­lar­ity of eco­log­i­cal gar­den­ing and the breed­ing of vari­ants — the in­ter­est in car­niv­o­rous plants has never been more in­tense or wide­spread.

Szesze, 65, fills about 50 or­ders a week, and the suc­cess of his nurs­ery, he says, is tes­ta­ment that “it’s not just geeks buy­ing the plants.”

He shows me the odd­i­ties grow­ing in the benches of his 900-square-foot green­house. From one species of Venus’ fly­trap — there is only one species, Dion­aea mus­cip­ula — breed­ers have gone to town, and Szesze’s Car­niv­o­rous Plant Nurs­ery sells more than 30 va­ri­eties. Their names sug­gest their at­tributes — Shark’s Teeth, Red Pi­ranha and Fang among them.

Vir­tu­ally ev­ery as­pect of the fly­trap species has been al­tered by hy­bridiz­ers. The hinged traps are big­ger or smaller, they’re red­der or greener, the guard hairs are longer or minia­tur­ized, and so on. Th­ese sub­tle dif­fer­ences cap­ti­vate col­lec­tors. Among those with the largest traps — ap­proach­ing the size of a half dol­lar — are King Henry and B-52.

The green­house benches are full of other jew­els, in­clud­ing but­ter­worts and sun­dews. But­ter­worts re­sem­ble fleshy leafed suc­cu­lents, but when you study them you see tiny dew­like dro­plets on the leaves, which are the eat­ing ap­pa­ra­tus for their meal. In his home, Szesze keeps one near the ba­nana bowl to take care of fruit flies.

At least one car­niv­o­rous plant is na­tive to Ar­kan­sas, the dwarf sun­dew (Drosera bre­v­i­fo­lia). It is found in the far south­ern part of the state.

Sun­dews are found around the world, and they come in dif­fer­ent forms, but they are all dis­tin­guished by tiny hairs capped with a sticky se­cre­tion that en­snares the prey and then ab­sorbs it. They are typ­i­cally ground-hug­ging, such as the pin­wheeled pink sun­dew, found in south­east­ern states. Species from the South­ern Hemi­sphere can be con­spic­u­ously taller and branched, no doubt to catch fly­ing food. In one sec­tion of the green­house, Szesze points out staghorn sun­dews from New Zealand, whose ten­ta­cles are borne on an­ten­nalike stems.

The green­house is used for prop­a­gat­ing plants and as a home for the ten­der car­ni­vores that wouldn’t sur­vive a win­ter out­side.

Th­ese in­clude the trop­i­cal pitcher plants, many of them tree-dwelling vines, and with pitch­ers so large and sin­is­ter-look­ing that they have en­thralled Western botanists for cen­turies.

I am par­tial to hardy North Amer­i­can pitcher plants, if only be­cause they are some of the pret­ti­est peren­ni­als in the gar­den. They are con­spic­u­ous with alien-look­ing nod­ding flow­ers and hooded pitch­ers of ex­quis­ite form and pat­tern­ing, ris­ing to 36 inches or taller.

The pitcher plant’s showy flow­ers are held aloft like balled flags, fac­ing down from tall stems. They bloom be­fore the pitch­ers fully emerge — it wouldn’t do to eat your pol­li­na­tors. Some flow­ers are acid green, some ma­roon and some a deep crim­son. They are all spec­tac­u­lar.

Three species have pro­vided the most com­monly grown dec­o­ra­tive va­ri­eties and hy­brids. Sar­race­nia flava, the yel­low pitcher, has char­treuse flow­ers and pitch­ers, though of­ten with marked ve­na­tion and nat­u­ral vari­a­tion. It is na­tive to south­east­ern states but is hardy in a swath of the East Coast that stretches to Mas­sachusetts.

Sar­race­nia leu­co­phylla, the white-top pitcher, is an­other south­ern pitcher and per­haps the showiest, with the white up­per ar­eas of the tubes con­trast­ing strik­ingly with darker ve­na­tion. Fanciers re­fer to th­ese pat­terns as win­dows.

The pur­ple pitcher plant, Sar­race­nia pur­purea, is a north­ern species but quite dif­fer­ent: The pitch­ers are low, squat and clus­tered.

All three species — and their vari­ants — are win­ter hardy along the Mid-At­lantic coast, as are fly­traps and many sun­dews.

On the grassy slope above the green­house, Szesze has ar­ranged most of the pitch­ers and other hardy plants in 24 flooded grow­ing beds, most of them 4-by-16-foot, rub­ber-lined troughs. The bulk of his 10,000 plants in­habit this out­door realm.

A mea­sure of how the pitch­ers have been de­vel­oped by breed­ers is that he has pur­ple pitch­ers that are yel­low and yel­low pitch­ers that are pur­ple.

The tubes lure in­sects with sweet se­cre­tions, but once the crea­tures lose their foot­ing and fall into the tube, en­zymes con­sume them. (Cue sin­is­ter laugh from Vin­cent Price.)

Yel­low pitch­ers pro­duce two or three pitch­ers in the spring, but their main sea­son of dis­play is from late sum­mer into fall, when an es­tab­lished clump might put up a dozen tubes.

Szesze is tall with sil­ver hair and mut­ton chops; his is the sort of pa­tri­cian head to have graced a Vic­to­rian coin. His path to car­niv­o­rous plants may have started when he was a boy, but it formed later in a ca­reer in pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion. As a high school sci­ence teacher, he fig­ured out that car­niv­o­rous plants would en­liven his classes on botany.

Much of the na­tive habi­tat of car­niv­o­rous plants is un­der threat; rep­utable nurs­eries prop­a­gate without harm­ing wild pop­u­la­tions. Once you ex­plain the nat­u­ral grow­ing en­vi­ron­ment of the fly­trap or sun­dew to stu­dents, “they im­me­di­ately un­der­stand the value of the wet­lands,” he says.

“I would give talks at teacher con­fer­ences about how to use the plants to mo­ti­vate stu­dents. A com­mon ques­tion was, ‘Where can I get some of th­ese plants?’ It dawned on me what the an­swer should be.”

Szesze and his wife, Pamela (also a teacher), es­tab­lished the nurs­ery in 2004 from their home in Rockville, Md., but moved to north­ern Mary­land more than five years ago when they both re­tired. Their prop­erty, which has a Smiths­burg ad­dress, is a few miles west of Camp David. The nurs­ery is open by ap­point­ment.

They also sell com­pan­ion plants that grow in moist en­vi­ron­ments, in­clud­ing such del­i­cate beau­ties as gen­tians, bog or­chids, two species of vi­o­lets and even cran­berry shrubs.

The Wash­ing­ton Post/BERT GF SHANKMAN

Pitcher plants are car­niv­o­rous bog plants found from the Gulf Coast to Hud­son Bay. They are named for the tubu­lar leaves that con­tain in­sect-di­gest­ing en­zymes. But the flow­ers are just as bizarre. Th­ese are the blooms of the pur­ple pitcher plant.

The Wash­ing­ton Post/ BERT GF SHANKMAN

This is a

species of sun­dew, which traps prey with sticky hairs that re­sem­ble ten­ta­cles.

The Wash­ing­ton Post/BERT GF SHANKMAN

The yel­low pitcher plant is a South­ern species, with more slen­der and taller pitch­ers.

The Wash­ing­ton Post/BERT GF SHANKMAN

This is the B-52 Venus’ fly­trap.

The Wash­ing­ton Post/BERT GF SHANKMAN

The pur­ple pitcher plant is dis­tin­guished by its plump, squat pitch­ers.

The Wash­ing­ton Post/BERT GF SHANKMAN

Many va­ri­eties of pitcher plants, sun­dews and fly­traps have been de­vel­oped by grow­ers. This is a red form of the yel­low pitcher plant.

The Wash­ing­ton Post/ BERT GF SHANKMAN

The co­bra lily is a type of pitcher plant na­tive to north­ern Cal­i­for­nia and named for the way its hood re­sem­bles the snake.

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