Love for flesh-eating flora

A love of plants often passes down through the generations but for Ross Taylor his love of carnivorous plants began with a schoolboy yearning for a female more than twice his age!

Ten-year-old Ross had talked his way on to a night computer course at Nelson Polytechnic and was delighted when “corporate goddess” Helen, 24, took the next-door terminal – and even more thrilled when she offered him a ride home on a rainy night. Making conversation, he asked about her interests. An invitation to see her collection of carnivorous plants  altered the direction of his life.

Ross recalls the visit in vivid detail. “Helen lived up a long, steep driveway. I was frightfully unfit, and stopped to compose myself on several occasions, so I wouldn’t look like a sweaty school-boy. Finally, I made it to the top but she was nowhere to be found and instead there was a tall, dark-haired man, wearing a black leather jacket.”

On learning this was Don, Helen’s husband, Ross says, “my heart crumbled”.

Ross Taylor, doing his best impression of Hannibal Lecter, in his new Geraldine greenhouse. Photo: Ross Taylor

However, in the greenhouse the boy was “transfixed” by the sight of a collection of endangered North American Sarracenia (pitcher plants). “They were like nothing I had ever seen – they had a ‘wow’ factor that has never left me,” Ross says. “Suddenly, my infatuation with the blonde goddess took a back seat, and the plants stepped into the driving seat.” Helen, Don and Ross, by the way, are still good friends 31 years later.

The next year Ross started his own carnivorous plant nursery in Nelson and by the age of 15 was supplying eight or nine garden centres in the district.

“They’re great plants for children to grow,” he says. “as they demonstrate how plants survive in a competitive world – carnivorous plants naturally grow in poor soil and take few nutrients from the ground – and they’re an organic form of fly control which is very, very effective.”

Sarracenia are commonly known as pitcher plants. Photo: Ross Taylor

By the time of another major upheaval – this time of the planet, not the soul – Ross was well-established in Christchurch, supplying plants by mail order in limited numbers all over the country, selling at markets and opening his nursery to the public by arrangement. The devastation of the Canterbury earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, although enormous, triggered an unusual reaction in him.

“Many of the tray-like benches in my 50m-long glasshouses collapsed and none were able to hold water, with most being damaged beyond repair. I had 15,000 plants, a lot of which were tipped all over the place, and seeing my life’s work reduced to chaos was heartbreaking.”

But, despite all that, Ross was oddly relieved. “Growing carnivorous plants had originally been a hobby, but became more of a commercial endeavour to try and cover costs and with the intention of making a dollar. But standing in the mess, I realised it wasn’t fun at all. When I should have been enjoying the plants, I was working my insides out, just to recover from the earthquakes and cover costs. The thought of rebuilding didn’t make me happy and I decided to change direction.”

With his ground lease about to expire, Ross came across a property in Geraldine that was perfect. “The size of it required me to streamline and I decided to go back and focus on the North American pitcher plants that had first taken my breath away. Over the years I had ended up growing a bit of everything because that’s what people wanted, but this was my chance to purge the collection, to retain the best of the best, to specialise in what I love – and I took it. It is the best thing I’ve ever done.”

The attractive, nodding Sarracenia flowers are borne on tall stems. Photo: Ross Taylor

Thinning his collection and relocating has taken 3 years but he believes he now has one of the best Sarracenia collections in the world. “There’s probably only one other grower in New Zealand who has a collection as complete as mine, and there are a few noteworthy international growers, especially in Britain. We’re all friends and like to help each other.

“I spend a lot of time ensuring the very rare forms are kept alive through my personal collection and while I think I have almost everything I want now, it has taken 30 years to achieve this – and there are always new varieties to tantalise the senses.”

As Sarracenia are herbaceous perennials, similar in growth habit to peonies, every June Ross uses an electric hedge trimmer to cut down old pitchers. “In their natural snowbelt habitat, the weight of the snow crushes the old growth so the new can come up unimpeded. I’m just imitating that to keep the plants tidy and free of disease.”

He is equally ruthless when it comes to his cross-breeding – invariably, out of 1000 seedlings, 950 are immediately culled, then another 45 a year later. The rest are grown on for 4-5 years … and often none will be kept. If he decides to keep one, it “may” be named.

Photo: Ross Taylor

Ross has been working with his friend, Don Gray of Auckland, another hobbyist with an excellent collection, to selectively breed Sarracenia and to preserve endangered species. Between them, in 30 years the pair have registered only one or two new plants with the International Carnivorous Plant Society. “For us to name something, it has to be exceptional,” Ross says. “We are both motivated to grow the finest forms and see little point in growing anything that doesn’t express excellence and the best characteristics inherent in the species.”

Sarracenia primarily trap flies – houseflies and blowflies – but at various times their diets change slightly. People with one or two plants may think that because the pitcher is always open nothing has been caught but, Ross says, unlike Venus flytraps and sundews, the pitchers don’t have to do anything except be open. Nectar around the neck of the trap attracts insects which then slip and fall in to the stomach of the hungry plant. Slippery sides and downward-facing hairs prevent prey from climbing back out.

“If you autopsy a plant’s pitchers you’ll find that by mid-season, the pitchers are full – even in a greenhouse. They’re very efficient at what they do. Even when there are 15,000 plants, each with between six and 10 traps, the vast majority of traps will be full.”

“For a plant to be truly carnivorous, it must be able to attract prey, catch it, and then to digest it. We’re incredibly fortunate to be alive at a time when they’re working perfectly and to be able to enjoy them in action.”

Sarracenia synopsis:

  • Native to North America with the main areas being Mississippi through to the Carolinas and the Florida panhandle.
  • Cool-growing, ground-dwelling plants that naturally die down in winter with new pitchers (traps) emerging in spring.
  • Plant in sphagnum moss (live is best but rehydrated dried sphagnum will do) or peat moss.
  • No fertiliser needed (they catch their own food), nor misting or heat. Can be grown inside or outside and will do well on a sunny windowsill.
  • Sit the pot in 2cm of water year round, tap water is fine but rain water is better.
  • Plants range in height from 12cm-1.1m, depending on the species. There are only 8 species but numerous sub-species, hundreds of hybrids and probably thousands of cultivars.
  • Plants flower in spring but only when mature (about 8 -12 years on average in Geraldine, less in the upper North Island). In nature different species flower at slightly different times to prevent cross-pollination.
  • Poaching from the wild is a major problem, as is the loss of natural habitat to agriculture and concrete.
  • The first Sarracenias arrived in New Zealand in the 1970s.

This article was originally published in NZ Gardener magazine and appears here with permission.

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