Observations: “Well, Bless Your Heart: The Carnivorous Creations Story”

Many lively and exotic cultures have terms that have completely different meanings based on the tone used when saying them. Texas, having a particularly exotic culture, is rightly famous for one phrase having multiple meanings based on tone, and some are so subtle that only lifetime residents catch the implied insult or putdown. The phrase “Bless your heart” may be an honest term of affection for a particularly thoughtful action or comment. If referring to an honest mistake or misunderstanding, “bless your heart” is the polite equivalent of “you loveable dingbat”. Other meanings, dictated by the tone used, range from “That’s another mess for me to clean up” to “what the hell is wrong with you?” to “You IDIOT”. As rampant and blatant use of profanity is considered vulgar in some circles of Texas society, a well-placed “bless your heart” is sufficiently acidic as to peel off tooth enamel in big floppy strips, and if the pronoun ever switches to “its” , this is the Texas equivalent of “that person is dead to me.”

This flexibility allows the term to be used quite often whenever the subject of the DuneCraft Carnivorous Creations carnivorous plant terrarium kit comes up. When kids ask me about how to get their kits up and going, I’m understandably sympathetic to their situation and try my absolute best to help out. When adults tell me that they’re thinking about getting one for a child who wants a Venus flytrap for Christmas, I wince and try to inform them of the implications of their purchase. And then there are the people who smugly tell me that they’re going to raise hordes of carnivores out of that one kit, and I blatantly steal from the author Harlan Ellison and his description of the guy who walks into a Mexican or Thai restaurant and assures everyone that “there’s no pepper too hot for me to eat.” Namely, “let them try, heh heh heh.”

Carnivorous Creations box

Carnivorous Creations box

While variations appear under different brand names (for instance, the Toys ‘R’ Us chain sells a setup with drastically different packaging, the sets are essentially the same. Each one features a high-domed terrarium with heavily-Photoshopped clusters of various carnivores, and the claims “Grow Over 10 Varieties of Carnivorous Plants!” and “Actually Eats Insects”, or some variation thereof, appear on the box in bright, lively text. The kit itself includes a terrarium base and “growing dome”, a bag of sphagnum moss/sand potting medium, a packet of carnivorous plant seeds, a small bag of blue gravel, three “bog buddy” plastic reptile and amphibian replicas, stickers to go on the outside of the terrarium base, and an instruction guide. Technically, it’s possible to grow a collection of carnivores from this kit, if you follow the instructions to the letter, and keep them alive for years. It’s the reality that’s slightly off.

Carnivorous Creations contents

Carnivorous Creations contents

Now, the problem with this kit, and in fact any kit that offers carnivorous plant seeds with promises of growing “bug-eating plants,” is that they technically offer the opportunity to do so. If you follow the instructions, and if you keep your terrarium in optimal conditions for carnivorous plant growth, and if you have a lot of patience, it’s possible to grow a batch of carnivores from a kit. The rub is in offering the optimal conditions for growth, and a lot of these factors are ones over which the fine folks at DuneCraft have absolutely no control. This is why I use “bless their hearts” to describe these kits than more earthy terms.

The first thing to consider, and something which most experienced carnivorous plant enthusiasts will note right off the bat, is that carnivores are, without fail, extremely slow-growing plants. One of the reasons why carnivores haven’t taken over every botanical niche on the planet is because the plants can use captured solar energy to produce the enzymes necessary for digesting animal prey, or they can use it for rapid growth, but usually not both. Almost all of the world’s known carnivores live in areas with extremely depleted soils, and their traps give them a strategic advantage in surviving in areas where other plants have an extremely hard time. The traps are also a curse, because the energy spent on growing them, producing attractants such as nectar, and producing digestive enzymes is that much less energy that can be used to outgrow competing plants. If the conditions in the growing area change, such as seeing a sudden influx of fertilizer, the carnivores have a decided disadvantage against grasses, trees, and other local plants, and they usually die off. (In areas where the local environment is regularly exposed to brushfires, such as in the Florida panhandle or native Venus flytrap habitat in North Carolina, the seeds from those dying plants will remain dormant in the soil until a brushfire burns off all of the competition.)

So what does this mean in practical terms? It means that seedlings are going to take a very long time to reach a decent size, and that time is aggravated by the size of the seeds. Most carnivore seeds are extremely small, meaning that they don’t have the stored reserves of energy found in, say, acorns or pumpkin seeds. Because the resultant seedling is equally small at germination, it is less likely to survive if local conditions change too much. Too little light for two to three days, and an entire batch of newly germinated seedlings can die and rot with almost no notice. Even if other conditions don’t pose a risk, one of the reasons why most commercially raised carnivores are propagated via sterile tissue propagation techniques instead of via seeds is that a full-grown Venus flytrap can be grown via cloning within months, while the same process by seed can take anywhere between three to five years. And you read that correctly: YEARS. This, more than any other reason, is why most experts recommend purchasing fully-grown carnivorous plants instead of messing about with seeds.

Carnivorous Creations inspection tag

Carnivorous Creations inspection tag

Another factor that isn’t considered, and that DuneCraft has absolutely no control over, is how that boxed kit was stored before its purchase. Take a look at the bottom of the box, and note the date on the “Packed for” sticker. Carnivorous plant seeds generally have a very high risk of failing to germinate after being in storage, and experts point out that if they can’t be planted within a few months, they should be stored in refrigeration to keep them viable. The “Germ. Rate” entry notes that DuneCraft had each batch of seeds tested for viability, and the result states how many actually germinated out of the test sample. The problem is that between the time the seeds were packed and the time the kit was purchased, the kit was probably stored in one of any number of warehouses without air conditioning, as well as being shipped in trucks and shipping containers in the same condition. Keep the seeds in temperatures above 107 degrees F (40 degrees C) long enough, and the likelihood of any of them germinating drops to the rate of World Series wins for the Chicago Cubs. The less time elapsed between the seed test date and the date of purchase, the better.

That said, one peeve with these kits that can be brought up with DuneCraft is the variety of carnivore seeds in the kits. For instance, Sarracenia pitcher plants generally do with much soggier conditions than Venus flytraps, so it makes much more sense to raise those plants separately. Since the seeds are all in one packet, then this is extremely difficult if nearly impossible. Worse, the packs include seeds from the cobra plant, Darlingtonia, which are extremely difficult even for professionals to raise from seed. (Truth be told, considering the temperature and dormancy requirements required for Darlingtonia, getting any seedlings to survive for more than a year qualifies as a minor miracle. For those who can supply the specialized conditions for these plants, purchasing fully grown plants grown from divisions is the sane option.)

The last thing to consider is that carnivores generally need a LOT of light, and the seedlings aren’t exempt from this. As noted elsewhere, human eyes are very good at lying about the actual number of photons reaching an available area, and most sunny windows are still too shady for anything other than certain adult carnivores. The light could be augmented with artificial illumination, but that comes with the equal risk of overheating the seedlings.

Now, let’s us say that you received one of these kits from a well-meaning relative for a birthday gift, or as a holiday present from a co-worker who knows that you’re “into plants”. It’s perfectly possible to use everything in a typical Carnivorous Creations kit, again, under the right conditions.

Firstly, try potting the seeds in an growing medium environment more amenable for success. Spread them out over three to four ProletariPots, and repot them in individual pots after their first year. With fresh seed, and full sun, the Sarracenia in the seed mix should grow to a size where they can capture their own prey within two to three years, with the sundews growing to maximum size much more quickly. If the seeds are too old and they don’t germinate, well, one of the benefits of joining the International Carnivorous Plant Society is having access to the ICPS seed bank, where fresh seed for most available species is available at a very reasonable price.

Likewise, the terrarium base and the humidity dome are pretty cool, but they aren’t going to work for plants that can grow up to a meter tall. There’s absolutely no reason why they can’t be used for starting other plants, such as tomatoes or peppers, in the middle of winter when the need for green is particularly strong. If the terrarium absolutely has to have a carnivorous plant in it, consider one of the few varieties that thrive on lower light levels than most, such as the sundew Drosera adelae, and augment the available light with a compact fluorescent fixture of at least 23 watts. Don’t use incandescent bulbs, as the heat will cook the plant and melt the terrarium.

While the Carnivorous Creations growing kit isn’t perfect, it’s possible to get some good results with it, with a bit of improvisation. Just don’t get me started on the “Gothic Garden” kit.

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