Tag Archives: butterworts

Winter Carnivore Cleanups – Sundews and Butterworts

Backstory: it’s January, we don’t have any distractions, and the plants need us. Therefore, it’s time to discuss methods to clean up carnivorous plants for spring. For details, go back to the beginning.

For the first cleanup project, it’s time to start with two Triffid Ranch show stalwarts: the spoonleaf sundew (Drosera spatulata) and the primrose butterwort (Pinguicula primulflora). Although not even closely related, they both make excellent beginner plants, being very easy to keep indoors under artificial light. In the Dallas area, due to our wildly variable humidity, they’re best kept enclosed, and their small size makes them suitable for small containers such as glass jars or bottles. Of course, the combination of bright light, high humidity, and milled sphagnum peat for a growing medium means that sphagnum moss spores will germinate and spread. Normally, this is extremely desirable, as not only does the sphagnum look nice, but the moss exudes acid into the soil, interfering with the germination and growth of other plants. In this case, though, the sphagnum grows faster than the plants inside, and occasionally it needs to be trimmed back or moved so it doesn’t choke out everything else inside of the container.

For this exercise, the following tools or their analogues are highly recommended:

  • Garden mat or old towel
  • Isopropyl alcohol, bottle or wipes
  • Hand cloth or paper towels
  • Spray bottle filled with rainwater or distilled water
  • Narrow garden shears or garden scissors
  • Long tweezers
  • Bonsai root rake or old fork
  • Tamper

The really important tools here are the scissors, the long tweezers, the root rake, and the tamper, and many bonsai tools combine tweezers or rake with a tamper end for flattening and smoothing soil. A nice extra tool to have on hand for tall and narrow bottles is a narrow-mouth alligator forceps, sometimes called an ear polypus because its narrow mouth is perfect for reaching foreign objects caught in human ears. (Hey, I’m not judging here.) With these standard 2-quart (1.89L) jars, you probably won’t need it, but if you do, they’re available in stainless steel from American Science & Surplus.

To start, spread out your mat or towel across your work surface: wet sphagnum can sometimes stain or damage furniture finishes. Next, clean your tools before use with isopropyl alcohol to disinfect them, and set them within easy reach. The last thing you want to do is fumble your plant while trying to reach a misplaced tool. Once you’re done, open the lid if your container has one and give it a good serious look before doing anything. Get an idea of what you want to do and what you want the inside to look like, so you’ll know what you want to add and what you want to remove. If container decorations don’t move you any more, or if you want to add something to accent what’s already there, this is the time.

Before doing anything more, you need to clear out excess sphagnum strands to see what’s underneath. That’s where the forceps come in: CAREFULLY tease and pluck sphagnum away from the plants, and odds are pretty good that you’ll find more sundews than you expected. With the excess sphagnum, you can put it to the side in the container, discard it (it’ll be perfectly fine in a standard compost pile or bin), or save it to jumpstart sphagnum growth in other carnivore containers. Further away from the plant or plants, use a bonsai root rake or an old fork to pull up excess sphagnum: since it doesn’t have roots, pulling at a sufficiently thick chunk of sphagnum will just pull it up like a piece of rug.

When you’ve cleared away sphagnum to your satisfaction, now is the time to clear away any dead or dying sundew leaves. If they’re really old and moist, many old ones can be removed with a quick pull with the tweezers, but the fact that not all of them will is a good reason to use scissors instead. After each cut, wipe your blade with isopropyl alcohol to prevent bacterial or fungal infection, and pull the sundew chunks out of the container and dispose of them elsewhere. While clipping dead leaves, check on the living ones: as this picture shows, sundews getting sufficient light and humidity have the energy to produce mucilage, the adhesive each hair produces for attracting and capturing prey. With most species, a REALLY happy sundew produces bright red hair tips (fun fact: the official name for these hairs in sundews is “tentacles”) within the mucilage as an additional attractant.

Now that the sundews are clear, let’s work on the rest of the container. Sphagnum can climb the walls of most plastic and glass containers, and grows big “pillows” given half a chance, but mashing it down doesn’t hurt it at all. You don’t need much force: a gentle finger is enough to squish it in place. Said sphagnum also grows layers of algae, though, so if you don’t like the feel of slime, a tamper gets the job done, too. My handmade tamper has both a big fat end courtesy of a wine cork glued to it, and a standard blunt end for occasional gentle prying as well as tamping. If ornaments such as stones or plastic figures are in the way, feel free to pull them out and set them aside while tamping: now is a good time to give them a stout rinse in clean water before putting them back in.

With the primrose butterwort, the process above works very well with one very big caveat. Sundews reproduce both by seed and by growing new plants from their roots: give them the right conditions, and a container could fill with sundews, all genetic clones from the original. Butterworts go about things in a slightly different way. They bloom as well, and butterwort blooms are a big reason why the whole genus Pinguicula is getting so much attention these days from carnivore enthusiasts, but for reasons not well understood, dying leaves tend to sprout new plantlets that are also clones of the original. Butterworts also tend to have very weak roots, so be very careful working around a parent or pup butterwort so as not to uproot it. With luck, by the time you need to do this again, you could have anywhere between one and five new plantlets of various sizes, and if you’re VERY careful, you can move plantlets to your choice of locations within the container to do everything from highlighting a rock in the container to spelling out words. It’s your call.

Finished? Okay, now mist the container well before closing the lid, partly to replace what moisture it lost while the lid was off and partly to circulate the air a bit. Put the lid back on and put the container back underneath a light, and know that you’re ready to do this again whenever the plant needs it. And if you want to separate out plants and put them in other containers? That’s a different how-to guide for another time.

To be continued…

I’m Living In My Own Private Tanelorn: Canadian Carnivores

For those encountering carnivorous plants for the first time, they tend to be shocked by the sheer range of environments in which carnivores live. There’s the automatic assumption that they all live in hot, swampy jungles, and express shock at discovering the number of species found in North America alone. The shock spreads when they discover that Venus flytraps can be found a day’s drive from Washington DC, and they really lose it when they discover the variety of carnivores in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. Best, though, is when I tell them about Canada.

Canada may not be as rich in carnivores as the United States or Mexico, but it has considerable charms. The most famous, of course, is the purple pitcher plant, Sarracenia purpurea, the flower emblem (the Canadian equivalent of the US’s state flower) of Newfoundland & Labrador. S. purpurea isn’t isolated to that area: it ranges due west from Newfoundland across Ontario (with that range extending south to Michigan and Minnesota) all the way to eastern Alberta, and then north to just short of the border with Alaska. On the west coast, the cobra plant, Darlingtonia californica, ranges well along the coast of British Columbia and south into Washington, Oregon, and Northern California. Canada also has a wide range of sundews and butterworts in a wide range of habitats, and one of the most interesting places to view carnivores for sheer spectacle is in the Canadian Rockies of Alberta.

Alberta and Texas have a lot more in common than most people would expect. In fact, when getting off the plane in Calgary from Dallas, it’s hard not to wonder if the plane just circled around Iowa and landed where it started, especially if you travel to Calgary in time for the Calgary Stampede. During the Stampede, the only way you can tell Calgary and Fort Worth apart for sure is that one has more cactus and one has more Mounties. If you see lots of mesquite trees, you’re not in Calgary. That similarity stretches across most of the province: driving near Drumheller, for instance, the plains are so flat and the scenery so similar to North and West Texas that the only way to be sure that you’re in Canada is that the highway signs list kilometers and are written in English and French. All that fails if you head sufficiently west: I recommend doing it the way I did, in the middle of the night when the moon is rising, and you realize that something took a big bite out of the moon and won’t give it back. At that point, you’ve hit the Rockies.

When you’re that far west, there’s absolutely no reason not to visit Banff National Park, especially for those of us fascinated with geology and natural history. However, for butterworts, stop in the town of Canmore just outside of Banff, and head out to Nordic Provincial Park in the mountains overlooking Canmore. That’s where you’ll find treasure.

Backstory: my last trip to Nordic Provincial Park was in 2006, as part of a trip with my wife’s family. I’d never been to Alberta before (my grandparents were from Ontario, but I’d never been that far west), but had dreamed about it ever since learning about the gigantic bone beds around Drumheller and Edmonton as a kid. Caroline and I were already outliers in the family as far as cultural markers were concerned, as they looked at us like dogs being shown a card trick when we noticed a new bicycle trail freshly opened that was named “The Riders of Rohan.” The worst, though, was when heading up one trail, we came across the leftover bracket from a long-removed gate still attached to a tree, and Caroline asked what kind of spigot that was. “That’s for collecting pine syrup,” I told her. “Real Canadians eat their waffles with pine syrup, and maple syrup is just the crap we give to Americans who don’t know any better.” My sister-in-law has never forgiven me for telling her that, because she spent the rest of the trip asking for pine syrup and getting angry that the locals wouldn’t share.

Anyway, half of the family split up to take one trail that led to a mountain lake at the highest easily accessible elevation in the park, and the other half went on the other. This trail’s vegetation thinned as we climbed higher, with spectacular views of the valley and the whole of Canmore. Best, though, was the waterfall on an adjoining peak that blasted mist across the gorge and onto our trail.

Finally, at one point, we stopped to admire the waterfall, up against a boulder about the size of an SUV that had rolled down at some time in the reasonably recent past. It was still reasonably clear of vegetation other than some moss, but it also had a flash of blue-violet at the top. I got closer to investigate the blue, and discovered, snuggled in a patch of soil about the size of a toonie, were a pair of butterworts. Pinguicula vulgaris, to be precise.

This was reason to stop alone, but we figured “Let’s keep going up and see what everyone else found.” Well, that mountain lake was just covered with butterworts: the soil was little more than rock dust, with no real nutritive value, so the butterworts were at home, just blooming away.

As it turned out, they were a great example for people who were afraid of raising a carnivorous plant because they couldn’t keep one warm enough. If a P. vulgaris butterwort can survive an Alberta winter, it can definitely survive a Texas winter. And to this day, when doing slideshow lectures for garden shows and classrooms, I still use the same shots of those butterworts to demonstrate that they can be found in all sorts of odd places:

Lullaby and good night, close your big bloodshot eyes…

For fellow residents of the United States, this week leads up to Thanksgiving and the real beginning of our main holiday season. (Although, to be fair, the real holiday season doesn’t start until Yak Shaving Day.) For the antipodes, everyone is looking forward to spring. For my Canadian brethren, the next week marks a day of general relaxation, where they celebrate their crafting skills by carving lawn furniture out of blocks of frozen nitrogen on the front porch. Out here at the Triffid Ranch, though, this week is extremely important, because this is the start of winter dormancy for all of the temperate carnivorous plants out here.

If in case emphasizing the importance of giving your Venus flytrap a good long winter nap wasn’t clear before, it’s time to let it rest. Let it die back. If it gets frostburned, don’t panic. Just so long as it doesn’t dry out over the winter, it should be fine, and don’t try to force it to remain active by putting it under artificial light. The same goes for your Sarracenia, your temperate sundews, and especially any temperate butterworts. Let them sleep, and they’ll reward you in March and April with blooms and new growth.

Not that this marks the end of activities at the Triffid Ranch for the rest of the year. Anything but. In fact, I’m currently trying to check with friends in the Portland, Oregon area about getting about two dozen of this season’s ginkgo nuts. I have a project that needs ginkgos to work, and they absolutely HAVE to be Portland ginkgos. You’ll understand when it’s done.