Category Archives: Absolute Surefire Steps to Kill Your Venus Flytrap

Interlude: Venus Flytrap Blooms

It’s started considerably later than in most years, mostly because of the late-season freezes North Texas saw in February and March, but the Venus flytraps are finally blooming. They’re also catching considerably more prey than in past years, too: I’d almost be worried if house flies were rare.

Flytraps in Autumn – 4

One issue with raising carnivores that doesn’t get as much coverage is the issue with weeds. Since almost all carnivores need moist and acidic conditions, that means that the overwhelming choice for potting mixes involves peat. Whether it’s long-fiber sphagnum for top dressing or milled spaghnum for large pots, even ostensibly sterilized sphagnum has unavoidable seeds and spores, sometimes ones preserved within the peat for decades or even centuries. Give them the right conditions and they’ll come right up, and if not kept under control, they’ll take over and choke out the carnivores with whom they share space.

Exactly what comes up depends upon the source and the general conditions. For instance, most sphagnum has plenty of sphagnum spores, and if cared for, this can be a dependable source for live sphagnum moss. Likewise, in indoor enclosures, the main invasives are ferns, which are either cosmopolitan species whose spores moved on the wind or ones endemic to the area in which the sphagnum was collected. (Because of years of use of New Zealand long-fiber sphagnum, Triffid Ranch enclosures tend to get a wide range of native New Zealand ferns sprouting at odd times.) Outdoors, the main pests are marsh grasses, which attempt to produce large root mats on the bottom of pools and pots. Some of the invasives can even be other carnivores: sundews are famed for spreading seeds far and wide, and some people complain about the number of bladderworts that take over carnivore collections. (SOME people. Others look at it as getting two carnivores for the price of one, especially when the bladderworts bloom in spring.) Most aren’t a particular problem, but many varieties of invasive marsh grass need to be cut back before they’re impossible to remove.

As mentioned before, the biggest problem with grasses and ferns is the root system. Especially when they circle the interior of a pot, they form impenetrable webs that can’t be unraveled easily, and they flow out the bottom of the container if given the opportunity and spread. They’re also extremely tough, and attempting to tear off root balls like the one above is more likely to damage the plant you want to save. Worse, simply pulling the top growth on the plant just encourages new growth from the roots, so the roots need to go.

This sort of work requires a knife or other cutting device, and preferably one with serrated edges to rasp through especially tough roots. In this case, my best friend gave me a very nice Hokuru hori hori knife as a best man present at his wedding, and this beast is even better than the hori hori knife I’ve sworn by for nearly two decades. This one has a stainless steel blade that dulls much more slowly than the carbon-steel blade of my old knife, and it comes with both straight and serrated cutting edges. Suffice to say, the neighbors started to worry about the screams of “Sap and rhizomes for my lord Arioch!” coming from the greenhouse, and Mournblade here was a big factor. (If you don’t want a big knife like this, can’t grip a big knife like this, or want something that fits into smaller spaces, pretty much any serrated knife will get the job done. Spare steak knives at thrift stores are a great option, just so long as you aren’t expecting to use them for steak in the future.)

I imagine that this blade cuts through Pan Tang hunting tigers and Elenoin as well as it does through grass root balls, but that’s not something that’s going to be tested soon. Alas.

With a combination of slicing and pulling, the interior of the root ball is now exposed, and once the roots have been peeled from about half of the root ball, the flytrap inside is easily liberated and repotted. The rest can go into the compost pile or just on the lawn to be chopped up with the next mowing. Just beware if the removed plant has flowers or seed pods, and make sure to dump them well away from your carnivores unless you want to risk it happening again. Oh, it’ll probably happen again, at the worst possible time, but the idea here is to keep things to a dull roar so greenhouse collection cleanup is measured in minutes instead of days. As for sterilizing the sphagnum so it doesn’t happen again at all…well, do you have a spare thermonuclear device that isn’t working hard?

Flytraps in Autumn – 3

One of the best things about cleaning up the greenhouse in November is the color. Dallas isn’t known for brilliant fall foliage colors: with the exception of the occasional crape myrtle going red or purple, most of our tree colors range toward pastels. Carnivores, not being from the area, aren’t subject to the pastel rule, and occasionally go wild with late autumn color, as these Venus flytrap “Aki Ryu” cultivars demonstrate.

It’s not only flytraps going for brilliant color, either. The Sarracenia outside are also going into winter dormancy, and the S. leucophylla and its hybrids aren’t shy about brilliant patches of color as they’re shutting down. It certainly makes up for the temperate carnivores whose dormancy habits consist of going brown and shriveled in a week.

Flytraps in Autumn – 2

Every temperate carnivore shown at Triffid Ranch events has an ID tag that includes common name, Latin name, light requirements, a notice stating “Rainwater or distilled water ONLY,” and a second notice reading “Put into dormancy in winter.” The first question is always “so how do I put it into dormancy in winter? Do I put it in the garage?”

For the most part, in most places in North Texas, you can leave flytraps in dormancy in the same places that they frequented in summer. They still need full sun for at least 6 hours every day, and they still require rainwater or distilled water. They don’t need to stand in water, and in fact that’s a good way to kill them, so if you move your flytrap, move it to a place where its container won’t fill up with water during the inevitable winter rains. Otherwise, leave them outside: if temperatures threaten to get really cold, such as below 15F (-9.4C), move them to a place where they’ll be protected from wind, such as a covered porch, but otherwise leave them alone. Flytraps are mostly found in northern North Carolina (with patches in South Carolina and the Florida panhandle), so they’re adapted toward surviving rougher winters than anything we’ll see in North Texas more than once every 30 years or so. Whatever you do, don’t bring them inside for the winter: that winter dormancy is so essential for storing energy for spring that most temperate carnivores can survive a winter without that dormancy, but they generally won’t survive two winters.

The second question asked about dormancy is “how can you tell it’s gone dormant?” With most temperate carnivores, that’s easy: they stop growing and most of their trapping structures die off. Flytraps are a little more subtle, but just as fascinating.

The image above is of a clutch of the “King Henry” flytrap cultivar. “King Henry” is one of the largest available flytraps cultivars, and it’s specifically bred to produce oversized traps, usually at least twice the size of “typical” flytraps. During the summer, flytraps produce both short-stemmed traps that remain close to the ground and long-stemmed summer traps that raise well off the ground, and “King Henry” summer traps are some of the longest ones available. By the end of October in the Northern Hemisphere, the summer traps start dying off and shriveling up, and they won’t be back until the middle of May.

The summer traps may be collapsing, about now, but the traps around the crown of the plant are still growing for as long as temperatures allow. Even this late in the season, the traps may catch an occasional bug, but those bugs are going to be rare, and the trap may not get enough light to digest any prey that’s caught. All too soon, though, those traps will be there for nothing other than catching light, and older traps will even curl outward to maximize the amount of surface area able to intercept sunlight. Younger traps may still be able to close when stimulated, but usually no force on Earth will get a flytrap trap to close in the dead of winter, and you shouldn’t try, either. Even in winters so cold that the smaller traps die off, the crown of the plant remains green and continues with the mission of harvesting light.

About four months from now, we get to find out how successful dormancy was. This usually starts with new traps growing from the center of each plant, with older traps gradually dying off as they’re replaced by a new generation. If you’re really lucky, you may see a strange shoot coming from the center: these generally grow about a foot (about 30 1/2cm) high and then open tiny white flowers at the tip. Now you have something else to look forward to seeing in spring.

Flytraps in Autumn – 1

Here in the Northern Hemisphere, the days are shorter, the light is more diffuse, and the daily temperatures steadily head toward their average low, which means for most temperate carnivorous plants, it’s dormancy season. For American audiences, a good thumbnail for the duration of that dormancy is “from Thanksgiving to St. Patrick’s Day”: for everyone else, generally winter dormancy in the Dallas area is between the last weekend in November to the middle of March. Between that time, flytraps, North American pitcher plants, cobra plants, and temperate sundews, butterworts, and bladderworts slow down, die back, and otherwise settle in for a long winter nap. They don’t completely die back: most at least keep a few leaves in order to photosynthesize all winter, but they’re not bothering to attempt to capture prey because there’s little to no prey for them to capture, and the expenditure of energy on trap growth and digestive enzymes is more than what they’d get from converting water and carbon dioxide into sugar and oxygen.

Because of their slowing growth, winter is an excellent time to get temperate carnivores in order. Snipping off dead leaves to discourage animal pests is an obvious one, and if temperatures dropped early, as they did in Dallas this autumn, repotting and weeding is another. It’s also an excellent time to evaluate how the plant will get through the winter. If it’s in a pot that wouldn’t survive a hard freeze such as with our weeklong blizzard in February, now is a great time to move it out of said pot and into temporary accommodations that can handle a week or more of freeze stress. (Toward the beginning of March, when we’re reasonably sure that we aren’t getting a major storm, it can go back into the pot, with new potting medium, while it’s still dormant.)

Late autumn is also an excellent time to assess summer damage. The 2021 summer in North Texas was relatively mild and mellow until the beginning of September, when we had a combination of temperatures more typical for August and six weeks of strong winds and sunny skies, meaning that local humidity dropped through the floor until nearly Halloween. If we got rain, it was very quick, as in over and done in less than five minutes, so patchy as to be completely unpredictable, and rapidly evaporated in the south wind. Because of all of this, several flats of Venus flytraps intended for next year’s shows were badly burnt in mid-September, and they weren’t expected to live. The plan in November was to go through them all, toss pots where the flytraps were expired, and try to nurse the survivors so they’d get through the winter. Considering the damage, I expected maybe one pot out of every ten might be salvageable.

Well, in a classic example of “don’t throw out your plants until you KNOW they’re dead,” most of those burned flytraps came back. Flytraps and their sundew cousins regularly produce new plants from offshoots from their roots, and while the main plants burned off in September, their roots survived and came back. Fully eight of every ten not only recovered but produced whole clumps of tiny flytraps, happily catching as much light as they could.

The real surprise was the size: most of these could have passed for seedlings. Since they’re already established, though, most of these will reach full size by next summer, and let’s see what happens after that.

As for the greenhouse, it’s now full of a wide variety of Venus flytrap cultivars. I may need to schedule more shows to find homes for them all.

“It’s got what (carnivorous) plants (don’t) crave!”

A little sidenote between shows and new enclosures: a friend and Day Job coworker took recommendations on carnivorous plant care in Dallas to heart and came across something that would have slipped between the cracks otherwise. As related elsewhere, the municipal water in the greater Dallas area is best described as “crunchy”: seeing as how we’re situated on what used to be North American Seaway ocean floor about 80 to 90 million years ago (with big areas of Arlington, Irving, and Flower Mound peeking up as barrier islands akin to today’s Padre Island), water out of the tap is full of dissolved salt and calcium carbonate. Up in Flower Mound, the water is also so full of dissolved iron that you can tell which residents have lawn sprinklers by the wide rust stains on driveways, sidewalks, and sides of houses. All of these are really bad for carnivorous plants, and a lot of people have issues with them, too, so Dallas people tend to drink a lot of bottled water. (Not me: I actually like the flavor, and the only bottled water that catches my interest is the even more mineralized Mineral Wells product, and I’m fairly sure that when I die, my bones will glow in the dark from the dissolved radium I imbibed as a kid in Saratoga Springs.)

Anyway, my friend noted the regular Triffid Ranch admonishment “Rain water or distilled water ONLY” with a recently purchased Cape sundew, and found what she thought would be a great source of distilled water with a new brand called Zen WTR. It makes a promise that it’s “100% vacuum-distilled water,” but not is all as it seems.

Let’s start by noting that for this discussion, we’ll take all of Zen WTR’s claims at full face value. No snark, no arched eyebrow, nothing. The claims of using 100 percent recycled plastics is a noble one, as well as using only ocean-salvaged plastics. (I’m currently working on a Nepenthes enclosure that asks what plastics would look like after 50 million years of burial, and the reality is that nobody’s quite sure what’s going to happen to all of the various plastics we’re turning into signature fossils for the Anthropecene.) I have no reason to doubt that the water isn’t 100 percent vacuum-distilled for maximum purity, either. But is it safe for carnivores?

Well, the first tipoff was noting that the contents at the bottom of the bottle read “Vapor distilled water with electrolytes for taste.” Even discounting the obvious jokes (which I imagine the crew of Zen WTR is as sick of hearing as I am of Little Shop of Horrors references), my heart sank upon reading “…with electrolytes for taste.” Flip over the bottle to read the ingredient list, and…

…and we get “Calcium chloride, magnesium chloride, potassium bicarbonate (electrolyte sources for taste).” None of these are bad in drinking water. If you ever get the chance to drink true distilled water, such as that used for topping up car batteries or keeping steam irons clean, you’ll note that while it’ll hydrate you, it’s not necessarily going to win any taste tests, and a big tall glass of lukewarm distilled water served to friends on a hot day is a good way to guarantee they never to come to your house again for summer activities. (Since cold water holds more dissolved gases than warm water, really cold distilled water is okay, but as with vodka left in the freezer, you’re more likely mistaking the chill for any actual flavor, but that also isn’t necessarily a bad thing.) Spring waters are popular because of naturally dissolved salts and other minerals as part of their makeup, and most bottled water has a pinch of various salts per bottle to improve their flavor and make sure you buy more. Zen WTR does the same thing, and for us humans, there’s nothing wrong with this.

(A little aside, sometimes water that’s too pure can be dangerous in other ways, and not the ones you suspect. When I lived in Portland, Oregon in the late 1990s, the city made a big deal about how the Bull Run reservoir, filled from snow melt, was some of the purest municipal water in the world. What was left out was that it was so pure that it tended to leach chemicals and various metals out of plumbing, and if you lived in a house or apartment in Portland built around the turn of the last century, as my ex and I did, odds were good that Bull Run water and lead pipes put in before World War I and never replaced led to tap output with potentially dangerous levels of lead and cadmium when drunk for long periods. This wasn’t always limited to metal, either: while I haven’t found any confirmation one way or another, small amounts of salt in bottled water may possibly have an effect on the amounts of plasticizer, the chemicals added to give plastics, well, their plastic and flexible properties, from leaching into the bottle’s contents. A bonus fun fact: with most plastic packaging, such as bread bags and Fritos packages, the “Best if used by…” date isn’t the predicted date when the contents go bad, but the predicted date when levels of plasticizer and solvent are detectable within.)

Now, humans are very good at removing minerals from our ingested water: as anybody suffering from kidney or bladder stones can tell you, sometimes we’re a little too good. with most plants, a little salt is completely beneficial, and most accumulations wash out with the next rain. The problem with carnivores is that most live in areas inundated with enough regular rains to wash out most dissolvable minerals after a few thousand years, and more live in sphagnum bogs, which both exude acid and a polymer that bonds to magnesium. In a pot or container, those salts, as little as they are, tend to accumulate. It may not happen right away, and it might not even happen soon, but eventually enough salt will build up in a captive carnivore that it will start burning the roots. In a remarkably quick time, that salt content goes from “minorly irritating” to “lethal,” and with precious little warning.

A few more astute readers may note that technically rainwater can have similar problems with dissolved minerals from dust atop roofs and in containers, as well as dissolved dusts and pollutant accumulated while falling. That’s completely fair, but these are in considerably lower levels than those from Texas tap and drinking water. Please: keep drinking Zen WTR if you enjoy it, but keep in mind that it eventually won’t be safe for your Venus flytrap. And next time, we’ll discuss reverse-osmosis filters and “drenching”…

Gothic Gardening: “Six Easy Steps to Kill Your Venus Flytrap”

(Background: this essay was one of several columns commissioned for the magazine Gothic Beauty between 2009 and 2011. Since the magazine hasn’t published a new issue in years, it’s time to drag up a few of these old columns so they can find a new readership.)

Previously published in Gothic Beauty #29

It’s a lament anybody who raises or sells carnivorous plants hears on a regular basis. Right after the inevitable Little Shop of Horrors jokes, after asking if they carry any man-eating plants, the comment is always the same: “I used to have a Venus flytrap, but it died.” Some people state it as if they were relaying the weather, figuring that all plants die and flytraps are just fussy. Some are almost accusatory, as if it’s the dealer’s fault that mere mortals can’t keep them alive for more than a few weeks or days. A lot of kids apologize, as if they’re going to get yelled at for the plant dying. It still translates to a basic assumption: no matter what you do, Venus flytraps always die. 

Now, it’s hard not to be fascinated by carnivorous plants of all types, and the Venus flytrap (Dionea muscipula) is the quintessential carnivore as far as the public is concerned. Ask ten people to name a carnivorous plant other than a flytrap, and you’ll be lucky to get one who might bring up “sundew” or “bladderwort”. Walk into any garden shop, hardware store, or general nursery, and odds are that you’ll see big displays of Venus flytraps in those little plastic cups or cubes, with a big sticker reading “Really eats bugs!” on the front. Nearly everybody encounters the heartbreak later, as that once-thriving plant gradually goes black and dies. What most garden shops won’t tell you, and what many of their proprietors honestly don’t realize, is that Venus flytraps are some of the most temperamental and fussy carnivores you can get this side of some of the really obscure varieties. Not only wouldn’t I recommend them to beginners, but I can point to a good dozen species that are both easier to keep and more interesting to raise. 

Now, I could tell you exactly how to keep your Venus flytrap alive and healthy, just like the one I have in my greenhouse that’s been thriving for the last four years. It doesn’t take any special care, and anybody can do it with a basic understanding of what a flytrap needs for survival. Instead, I’m going to give a good thumbnail guide on precisely how to kill your flytrap, and kill every other flytrap you come across. This way, not only do you know what not to do, but also you can take that same knowledge and apply it to other carnivores. If you can keep a flytrap growing and even blooming, there’s no reason why you couldn’t also raise American and Asian pitcher plants, butterworts, terrestrial bladderworts, and even Portuguese dewy pines. 

Step 1: Buy your flytrap at Halloween. About a month before Halloween, garden shops and grocery stores start carrying flytraps as impulse purchases, usually in a larger bowl with two or three other species of carnivore sharing the space. Even if the plants don’t die right away from other reasons, the flytrap will gradually go black and appear to die off in November and December, and it gets pitched or dumped on the compost pile as a bad job. 

The funny thing is that the flytrap, unlike the parrot in the Monty Python sketch, really is resting, and not dead after all. Flytraps are native to a small area in North Carolina, with a possible relict population just south of Tallahassee, Florida, and regularly deal with at least one to three months of freezing temperatures in the winter. When sunlight levels start to drop in autumn, the plant prepares by growing a bulb below ground instead of new leaves. If the winter is mild, then the trap keeps its existing leaves, and the traps are really just modified leaves, for photosynthesis through the winter before growing new ones in spring. If the winter isn’t, then the leaves die off and the plant looks dead. Wait about three to four months, until temperatures and day length increase, and it’ll come back, hale, hearty, and ready to feed. 

Now, that dormancy period is critical: if the flytrap doesn’t get it, it will die later, and usually with almost no warning. Almost all other carnivores from temperate climes also need that dormancy period. It’s not a matter of “may”: it’s a matter of “will”. If you absolutely have to have a carnivore on display in the depths of winter, consider an alternative such as an Asian pitcher plant (Nepenthes alata, for instance) or a tropical sundew (Drosera adelae from Australia is an excellent choice). 

Step 2: Plant it in your garden. Unless your garden is in a sphagnum moss bog, with incredibly acid soil that’s almost nutrient-free, planting a Venus flytrap in a standard garden is a good way to kill it. Now, there’s nothing wrong with making a bog garden specifically for carnivores and other acid-loving plants, but planting them alongside your tomatoes or chrysanthemums is a waste of good flytraps. 

Step 3: Water it with tap water. In the wild, flytraps get regular intense rainstorms, and those regular rainstorms over the last half-million years or so have left their preferred soil almost completely free of dissolvable minerals. Some individuals are lucky enough to have municipal water that’s sufficiently free of minerals such as salt or calcium that it can go directly onto their carnivores: both Chicago and Portland (Oregon) have municipal water that’s sufficiently pure to take a chance. Here in Dallas, though, the local water is best described as “crunchy”, and some areas have so much dissolved iron in their water that it stains the sides of houses and sidewalks. That’s why, for safety’s sake, I always recommend watering carnivores with rainwater or distilled water, and I have two 60-gallon rainwater tanks solely to capture water for my carnivores. That warning about tap water is important, because insufficiently pure water can and will burn a flytrap’s roots right off, killing it in days or even hours. A reverse osmosis filter can render tap water safe for carnivores, but boiling it does absolutely nothing to remove those minerals (unless you’re running a steam distiller), and water softeners merely replace calcium salts for sodium salts, which are just as dangerous. Likewise, stay away from spring water or drinking water, as they usually have salt added for flavor, and that will kill flytraps just as dead as watering them from the tap. 

Step 4: Keep it in a terrarium. Some carnivores can take life in a terrarium, at least for a while, but Venus flytraps are best raised outside. Not only do they need the winter dormancy mentioned before, but they weaken and die unless they get at least six to eight hours of direct sun per day. They won’t get this in a terrarium, nor will they get this by keeping them in a window. If you absolutely have to keep one indoors, for whatever reason, a sunroom or greenhouse that gets that level of sun will work quite well. A terrarium getting that much sun, though, will usually heat up and cook everything inside. 

Step 5: Set off its traps with your finger. Nearly everyone’s response to seeing a flytrap for the first time is to stimulate the inside of the trap with a finger to get it to close. The closing process is an interesting example of topography, but the plant’s re-opening of the trap is a regular growth process. Set off a trap too many times, and the trap will refuse to close any more and will become just another photosynthetic leaf. Set off all of the traps too many times, and the energy lost in re-opening the traps will weaken or kill the flytrap. 

Step 6: Feed it hamburger. Carnivorous animals capture prey for energy and for various compounds necessary for growth. Carnivorous plants capture prey to get nitrogen and phosphorus they can’t get from their soil. Therefore, they only need to be fed occasionally, and not as if they’re a dog or hamster. In the wild, a flytrap’s prey is going to be about the size of a fly or small spider, and very lean: hamburger is far too fatty for a flytrap to process, and dropping hamburger in a trap will invariably cause the trap to decay and die. If the decay spreads, it can kill the whole plant. 

Step 7: Keep it jammed in with other carnivores. Finally, flytraps are particular about their growing conditions, but that doesn’t keep some nurseries from selling them in cubes that also contain Australian sundews (which don’t need a dormancy period) and cobra plants from the Pacific Northwest (which need cooler nighttime temperatures). Usually, the stresses of keeping one plant alive will guarantee that the others will die, and the flytrap is usually the first casualty. If you’re feeling adventurous, or if you have prior experience with carnivores, feel free to separate all three and put them in separate pots, but please don’t keep them together in the same pot. 

Naturally, this isn’t a comprehensive list of requirements, but follow any of the mistakes above, and I guarantee that your flytrap will die in a horrible manner. If you avoid them, though, your plant will probably live, thrive, and even bloom. After all, what’s the point of buying a beautiful plant like a full-grown Venus flytrap if all you’re going to do is scrag it? 

Postscript: if this list looks familiar, it’s because it was the basis for the Absolute Surefire Steps to Kill Your Venus Flytrap series. If it doesn’t, then you have more flytrap care tips to read. Either way, we all win.

Absolute Surefire Steps To Kill Your Venus Flytrap, Step 8

Curious about the context? Check out the introduction.

Some of the content in this series appeared, in much shorter form, in Gothic Beauty magazine.

Step 8: Keep moving it around.

Most of the appeal of carnivorous plants is in their appropriation of traits normally associated with animals. That’s also their doom. Since some are more active, from a human perspective, than most plants, we tend to ascribe feelings and impressions to them better suited to pets than ikebana. One of the most dangerous of these impressions is the assumption that since carnivores catch and digest prey, they need to be fed on a schedule and regimen more suited for a dog than a pitcher plant. The other, equally dangerous, is that they need to get out for a while.

By way of example, a friend of mine purchased a butterwort from me last year. He keeps a wide variety of reptiles, so he had a good grasp of the basic requirements for keeping a butterwort happy and healthy: good water, decent air circulation, and lots and lots of light. He went for a couple of months without any problems, and then he contacted me in a panic. His butterwort was collapsing in on itself, and when I tried to diagnose the trouble, he told me “I put it outside for a little while, so it could get some air.” In the middle of last summer’s heat wave.

Another example came from another good friend, who was very proud of her new Venus flytrap. Flytraps require lots of sun, high humidity, and good air circulation, of which you can get two out of those three during the summer. I combat this by raising flytraps outdoors in large glass globes: excess heat vents out the top, but humidity loss is kept to a relative minimum, and the flytraps just explode with new growth when given this option. Her flytrap was doing remarkably well for a while, and then she wrote me to ask about its health. It went into a sudden decline a couple of weeks ago, about the time the temperatures started to spike, and she couldn’t figure out why. I couldn’t, either, until she said that the problem came one day after she brought the plant “back inside” from where it had been during the day.

This is where the impression of carnivorous plants as animals with chlorophyll is dangerous to them. While protecting them from temperature and humidity extremes is recommended, most animals kept as pets have no problems with being moved around a bit for a change of scenery and some fresh air. The problem here is that the vast majority of animals get up and move when temperatures and other conditions fluctuate past “nominal”. Plants can’t do that, or at least they can’t do it quickly, and carnivorous plants are still just that: plants.

Part of the reason why we humans blank out on most of the incredible variety and diversity of flora around us is because it doesn’t move. We’re conditioned, from millions of years of evolutionary development, to seek out the lone animal in a panorama of green. Show a portraiture of prehistoric life, and the emphasis is always on the animals. If any plants show up, they’re purely background unless an animal is eating or climbing one. Carnivorous plants subvert that by their nature, so we tend to home in on the features of carnivores that look the most animal-like, such as the “mouths” of pitcher plants and Venus flytraps. (This also helps explain the odd connection in fiction between dinosaurs and man-eating plants, but that’s the subject of another essay.)

The danger here is that while carnivores may act like animals in some ways, they’re still vegetation. Nobody (or at least nobody sane) digs up a rose bush and carries it around with them in a gilt pot all day. Plants can move in any number of fascinating ways, but with the exception of floating varieties such as the aquatic ferns of the genus Azolla, they’re ultimately limited to the place where their roots first went down. Most plants generally move across the countryside either when they’re dead (tumbleweeds scattering their seeds) or in serious trouble (aloes trying to escape poor conditions by snapping free of their stems and rolling to new locales). They just don’t have the energy to move far on their own, and so they don’t have the adaptations animals have to deal with the changing conditions faced even ten feet away from where they were growing previously. They can deal with changes, but on a gradual basis, and moving your flytrap back and forth happens too quickly for it to adjust.

To give you an idea of how a low-energy organism like a plant adapts to this, imagine you’re at home, sitting on the couch. You’re in comfortable clothes, you have a cold drink in your hand, Spaced is on the television, and all is right in the world. You’re just getting into things when something moving too fast for you to see or even acknowledge picks you up and dumps you into a cold mud puddle out in front of the house. You’ve just had the chance to spit out water and wonder “What the hell just happened?” when you find yourself back on the couch. And then you’re tossed into the refrigerator. And then under an air conditioner vent. And then next to the oven. Then you’re thrown out into the sun, sans sunscreen or sunglasses. Just as you’re starting to burn, you’re dumped in a closet for a few hours with no food. Then you’re put out back in the sun, in the middle of a sunny July day in Phoenix. And then you’re put next to a swimming pool. And this goes on for days.

Now, you can move to adjust, but whatever is moving you is moving too fast for you to do anything. Reach for an available cup of water, and you’re swung out of range. Reach out for a blanket to deal with the chills, and suddenly your arm is snipped off with no warning. Ultimately, the stress of dealing with all of this is going to make you sick or depressed or both, and you’re going to run out of energy to fight the constant changes. If you’re lucky, that something will take pity on you and leave you alone until you get rid of the cold you got from being bounced in and out of air conditioning. If you’re not…well, you might be remembered fondly as you’re tossed into the garbage after you finally let loose one last scream before dying. That, in essence, is what you do to any plant if you move it around and transplant it constantly.

To be clear, I’m not saying that you should never move plants from adverse conditions. What I am saying is that you need to give them time to adjust. Just as how keeping you indoors under AC all summer and then expecting you to run a 100-mile bicycle race with no training and no opportunity to acclimate to the heat will probably kill you, swinging a plant back and forth between extremes will do the same thing. When you buy a flytrap and bring it home, pick a good spot for it to grow and leave it there. If you have to move it, do so only because the current space is an immediate threat to its health and continuing existence, and try to make the change as gradual as possible. You don’t want the Tralfamadorians to load up on sugar, go into full Cornholio mode, and toss you into a snowbank for a few hours, do you? Then why would you want to do the same thing to your flytrap?

Absolute Surefire Steps to Kill Your Venus Flytrap: Introduction

Some of this series appeared, in much shorter form, in Gothic Beauty magazine.

It’s a lament anybody who raises or sells carnivorous plants hears on a regular basis. Right after the inevitable Little Shop of Horrors jokes, after asking if they carry any man-eating plants, or asking about a plant that could eat the questioner’s ex-spouse, the comment is always the same. “I used to have a Venus flytrap, but it died.”

What happens next varies. Some people state it as if they were relaying the weather, figuring that all plants die and flytraps are just fussy. Some are almost accusatory, as if it’s the seller’s fault that mere mortals can’t keep them alive for more than a few weeks or days. A lot of kids apologize, as if they’re going to get yelled at for the plant dying or for doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. Some people relate that this happened decades ago, with a plant they purchased from a roadside stand, and others talk about the flytrap they purchased at a Home Depot a few weeks earlier. It still translates to a basic assumption: no matter what you do, Venus flytraps always die.

Now, it’s hard not to be fascinated by carnivorous plants of all types, and the Venus flytrap (Dionea muscipula) is the quintessential carnivore as far as the public is concerned. Ask ten people to name a carnivorous plant other than a flytrap, and you’ll be lucky to get one who might bring up “sundew” or “bladderwort”. Out of those ten, maybe seven will be amazed to discover that any other carnivores exist, and of the remaining three, they’ve definitely never had the opportunity to examine one. Walk into any garden shop, hardware store, or “home improvement center,” and odds are that you’ll see big displays of Venus flytraps in those little plastic cups or cubes, with a big sticker reading “Really eats bugs!” on the front. Nearly everybody encounters the heartbreak later, as that once-thriving plant gradually goes black and dies.

What most garden shops won’t tell you, and what many of their employees honestly don’t know, is that Venus flytraps are some of the most temperamental and fussy carnivores you can get this side of some of the really obscure varieties. Not only wouldn’t I recommend them to beginners, but I can point to a good half-dozen species, of at least three genera, that are both easier to keep and more interesting to raise. Sarracenia pitcher plants get much larger, sundews and butterworts are easier to feed, and triggerplants move even faster when set off. That said, I can understand exactly why flytraps have such an appeal, and they’re an essential part of any properly stocked carnivorous plant collection. You just can’t have a carnivore collection without one.

Now, I could tell you exactly how to keep your Venus flytrap alive and healthy and thriving for years. It doesn’t take any special requirements, and anybody can do it with a basic understanding of what a flytrap needs for survival. Instead, I’m going to give a good thumbnail guide on precisely how to kill your flytrap, and kill every other flytrap you come across. This way, not only do you know what not to do, but also you can take that same knowledge and apply it to other carnivores. If you can keep a flytrap growing and even blooming, there’s no reason why you couldn’t also raise American and Asian pitcher plants, butterworts, terrestrial bladderworts, and even Portuguese dewy pines.

Over the last few years, I’ve built up a list of basic questions to ask when I’m told about a customer’s dead flytrap. With very few exceptions, I can usually pinpoint the cause of death within three questions, and most require no more than two. Over the next few postings, I’ll share those points, so that you can kill your own flytrap with the best of them. Or prevent that from happening, as the case may be.

Step 1 – Buy your flytrap at Halloween.

Step 2 – Plant it in your garden.

Step 3 – Water it with tap water.

Step 4 – Keep your flytrap in a terrarium.

Step 5 – Set off its traps with your finger.

Step 6 – Feed it hamburger.

Step 7 – Keep it with other carnivores.

Step 8 – Keep moving it around.

Now these are the main things to watch for when trying to kill your flytrap. Pay attention to these tips and avoid them, and you’re likely to have a flytrap that lives a very long and healthy life. Most of all, you’ll be the envy of your jealous friends, all of whom will tell you about how “I had a flytrap, but it died.” If you’re a real friend, you’ll pass on what you’ve learned, and they’ll have happy and hearty flytraps, too.