Observations: “The Perfect Starter Carnivore”

One of the biggest hesitations by beginners on raising carnivorous plants, as with orchids, is that they’re presumably hard to keep and easy to kill. In some ways, they’re correct, but it has to do with the varieties being sold. Just as the reptiles sold by pet shops as “beginner pets” are invariably some of the hardest to care for (nobody needs a red-eared slider or a green iguana as their first herp, and any pet dealer who gives a beginner a box turtle or a baby boa constrictor or Burmese python should be shot in the face), most of the carnivores offered for sale really aren’t suitable for beginners. Venus flytraps are intended as impulse purchases, but they tend to be rather fussy about their growing conditions, and one good soak with municipal water that’s overly mineral-laden will send them to the compost heap before you realize what’s happened. (Here in Dallas, where our municipal water is best described as “crunchy”, watering with rainwater or distilled water is the only way to keep them alive.) All of your North American pitcher plants get too big, need too much light, and require enough growing space that keeping them in small containers isn’t a good idea for a beginner. Bladderworts are beautiful, especially the various terrestrial varieties, but you aren’t going to see them capture prey without a microscope. Asian pitcher plants need lots of room. Butterworts have possibilities, but they also tend to be susceptible to nematode attacks, and they have real problems with low humidity. And while I’m proud to show off the Darlingtonia cobra lilies I grew from seed five years ago, I’m also smart enough to know that I’m incredibly lucky: any mature cobra lily I’ve purchased, no matter the source, has died on me in a matter of days or weeks.

Even if you follow the books, and I have as extensive a library of books on carnivores as anybody else in the field, you’ll note that beginners need a reasonably easy plant to start with. Since precious few people live in a place where they can just put a carnivore into the ground and expect it to grow, it’s up to the grower to provide the proper conditions of light, heat, humidity, and soil. That’s why I recommend sundews, and one sundew in particular, for beginners to get a feel for working with a carnivore.

The genus Drosera, which includes all of the true sundews, is the most cosmopolitan of all of the carnivores, being found on every continent but Antarctica. Drosera was studied by Charles Darwin from native populations in England, and the tribe has plenty of specializations necessary for growing in less-than-optimal climes. For instance, the tuberous sundews of Australia live in areas extremely susceptible to fire in the summer, so they produce large tubers (which sometimes look like tomatoes) and go dormant during the summer, only returning to activity once the autumn rains return. You have giant sundews in Florida big enough to capture grasshoppers, and tiny sundews that produce sprouts (called gemmae) that are actually spring-flung from the mother plant when they reach a certain size. However, all of them have a series of characteristics that distinguish them from other plants: they all have distinctive hairs that secrete mucilage from their tips that snag prey, and those hairs (known officially as “tentacles”) have the capacity to move in order to further ensnare prey and press the prey against the leaf. From there, specialized glands on the leaf surface produce enzymes to digest the prey: some even have enough mobility to twist or wrap their leaves around larger prey, mostly to increase the amount of leaf surface area available for digestion. Other carnivores, such as Byblis and Drosophyllum, may also ensnare prey, but they don’t have that touch of mobility.

(As an aside, the famed Venus flytrap is a member of the same family, as all it really is is a highly specialized sundew that no longer produces mucilage. With some varieties of sundew, you can see similar leaves that give important clues as to how Dionea‘s traps originally evolved. Just to let you know.)

Anyway, while sundews are a good start for an incipient carnivore gardener, many are still not quite perfect. Most sundews from areas with distinctive seasons need a dormancy period in either winter or summer,and preventing the sundew from going dormant, as with most carnivores, will lead to its death. This means that anyone wanting to set up a small terrarium for work or home has no choice but to leave the terrarium outside during the winter or take out the plant and put it in the refrigerator for three months, and what good is a terrarium you can use only nine months out of the year? Others, such as the Cape sundews of South Africa, are incredibly fecund in their abilities to self-pollinate, to the point where they fill a terrarium full of seeds and seedlings, and they require a bit of headroom to grow to their greatest potential. That’s why I recommend one sundew, Drosera adelae of Australia, as a first plant for the beginning carnivore enthusiast.

As I write this, I have a carnivore terrarium on my desk: it’s a little two-liter glass cookie jar with an adjacent 23-watt compact fluorescent light. That light won’t produce enough light for a lot of carnivores (Venus flytraps, for instance, usually request more light), but little D. adelae thrives on it. You know it’s happy when its tentacles turn red and each one has a nice fat glob of mucilage on the end: that mucilage requires a lot of energy to produce, so it’s a great indicator of light levels in the terrarium. In fact, adelae doesn’t much like direct sun, and it tends to die back if it gets too much light. It’s ridiculously easy to get established, as each stem will throw off long grey moldy-looking roots (the “mold” is actually the root hairs, and the hairs can be impressively long and bushy) at any opportunity, and new plants emerge from the roots on a constant basis. Best of all, as opposed to the Cape sundews, having to trim flower stems is not necessary, as adelae only produces flowers when conditions are just right. A few wingless fruit flies or ants every month sprinkles onto its leaves, and it and its sprouts will grow for years.

Now, if you’re asking about outdoor or at least open-air carnivores, that’s a different story, and one for a different time. However, if you’re looking for a gift for a child who might have problems with a flytrap, or if you feel that you don’t have enough confidence to keep a carnivore alive, take a look at an adelae.

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