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.

Carnivores one and all

As a young boy in The Netherlands Cor Schipper’s class was shown a carnivorous sundew (Drosera) plant by his teacher – a spark that has ignited a lifelong passion for the retired entomologist.

Cor, now 81, and wife Hetty left their homeland in 1963, living in Australia and Samoa before coming to New Zealand and, after a stint in Wellington, settling in Rotorua in 1971.

A founder member of the New Zealand Herpetological Society, Cor kept snakes, toads and lizards in Australia – “but we started a family there so that was a different kettle of fish” – and in Samoa rescued baby fruit bats after their mothers had been killed for food. “We reared them on chocolate milk, which it turns out they like,” he says. “We taught them to fly by moving the chocolate milk further away each time. When they could fly, we let them go.”

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Cor Schipper with a Nepenthes vine. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Cor has always been interested in the natural world so it’s not surprising that his hobbies and work – mass breeding insects for research and working on biological controls – sometimes overlapped. His collection of bromeliads, which began in Holland, was thanks to a gift of tropical frogs – it turned out they would lay eggs only in a bromeliad.

Although he had sundews in Holland, his life-long passion for carnivorous plants was fully realised when he came to New Zealand, and listening to Cor describe the mechanisms used to trap prey – primarily scent, colour and nectar – it’s easy to see why he finds them so fascinating.

But why have these plants evolved in such a striking fashion? Although they can be found in a wide variety of climates and elevations in many different countries, they all have one thing in common. They grow in nutrient poor soils or water-logged conditions and so need to extract minerals and nutrients for growth from another source.

Another commonality is long-stemmed flowers, well above the plant, to protect pollinators from falling victim to their deadly “charms”.

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Sarracenia pitchers. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Sarracenia (pitcher plants), found in boggy areas of the eastern United States, “dope” their nectar with coniine, a chemical found in hemlock. “If you put nectar in a petri dish with ants, the ants go all wobbly,” Cor says. “The hairs of the Sarracenia tube face downwards to guide the ants down, then there’s a slippery patch on the tube wall so they fall into the liquid at the bottom. The liquid has a surface like soapy water, so instead of floating the ants fall straight through, and the chemicals in the liquid take care of the body.”

The flowers of the Sarracenia, like many carnivorous plants, grow high above the plant so pollinators don’t fall victim.

A Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula) won’t react if the hairs inside the hinged trap are touched once. Touch them twice, however, and it snaps shut in a fraction of a second. “The plant wants nitrogen, phosphate and potassium so it removes the enzymes it needs from its prey but leaves the exo-skeleton. When the process is finished the trap opens ready for the body to wash out in rain.”

Don’t be tempted to set the traps off – do it more than twice on the same trap and it will likely die.

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Nepenthes pitchers. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Nepenthes lowii (a pitcher plant vine) from Borneo exudes a sweet, fatty substance to attract small mammals – as the animals feed they excrete into the pitcher and so feed the plant.

“The variety of carnivorous plants is astonishing,” Cor says. “In the Nepenthes family alone there are well over 100 species with pitchers that range in size from 3cm long that specialise in catching falling compost from trees, often carrying insects, to Nepenthes rajah, the largest carnivorous plant in the world which has pitchers the size of a rugby ball.

“While most Nepenthes attract ants, there is one that attracts termites and some that can digest small rats and shrews if they fall in – that happens generally during a dry period when  animals come to drink from the pitchers but are a bit weak and fall in.”

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The floating trap system of Utricularia intermedia, a bladderwort. The tiny hairs in the water are sophisticated suction traps (bladders) designed to provide a nutritious animal meal for these rootless floaters. The size of the bladder is microscopic, ranging anywhere from 0.1 mm to 5 mm, depending on the species. Photo: Sandra Simpson

One of the most fascinating carnivorous plants, in Cor’s view, is also one of the smallest. The rootless Genlisea family (corkscrew plants) set their traps underground. “It’s semi-aquatic and grows in moss or mud and although it has leaves above, it also has modified leaves extending below the plant. Each ‘leaf’ has forked, hollow spirals that exude a chemical to attract prey. The prey climbs up the spiral with the hairs growing upward to guide it.

“In Brazil in the last 5 years they’ve found Philcoxia minensis, a carnivorous plant that flowers above the soil but has all its sticky leaves underground where it catches nematodes.”

Over the years Cor has done some of his own breeding, particularly of Sarracenias. “I’ve been working on one for about 25 years, but when you work on your own it’s not always done as scientifically as it should be in terms of record keeping. I lose patience sometimes.”

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Sundews coat themselves in drops of nectar. Once an insect is stuck, the leaf  rolls up around it to digest it. This is Drosera cisitflora, native to southern Africa. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Living on a hill above Rotorua, his home cops some decent frosts but the Sarracenias and Venus flytraps stay outside year-round. “They can both freeze but will come back in the spring, no problem,” he says. “And most of the sundews have a winter dormancy, although Drosera auriculata, a New Zealand native, has a summer dormancy

“There’s a huge temperature-tolerance variation among all the families so it’s worth researching – for instance, most Nepenthes are tropical and need to be kept inside but there’s one from a mountain in New Guinea that can stand a bit of frost.”

His rare Darlingtonia californica, still a tiny plant, requires special attention. Closely related to Sarracenias, it grows only in northern California and Oregon on the sides of streams fed by meltwater. “It’s very difficult to grow because it likes warm leaves and cool roots, maybe a difference of 15°C. I have to feed it ice cubes every day.”

Unfortunately, carnivorous plants aren’t the answer to a garden’s whitefly, ant or mosquito problem. “Research has shown they collect about 5 per cent of what’s around,” Cor says. “So they’re not a great biological control – instead, enjoy them as another example of nature’s wonder.”

Growing Tips:

  • Pot in a mix of peat moss and coarse sand, or peat moss and pumice (perlite) or plant in plain sphagnum moss; plants generally prefer a low pH mix.
  • They don’t like hard tap water so use rainwater whenever possible. Many grow in swampy areas so like to be kept moist and prefer to stand in water (hanging pots should have a fitted saucer).
  • Check whether your plant needs summer-level watering over winter (most don’t, but some do).
  • Before putting a plant outside, check whether it is frost tolerant – many are, but many aren’t.
  • Plants outside don’t need to be fed. But for indoor plants catch flies and cockroaches to feed the plant. Don’t use flyspray to kill insects you intend to feed to the plant.
  • Cor keeps small, delicate plants, such as sundews, inside “otherwise blackbirds peck them out of the pots and I lose the plant”.

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

Hooked on plants

Fun, educational, even pretty. Are we talking about flesh-eating plants? Tauranga enthusiast Elizabeth Bailey reckons that once you’ve grown one carnivorous plant successfully you’ll be hooked – if not consumed – by this group of specialised plants.

“People buy a Venus flytrap for a child and because the plants are inside at garden centres they keep them inside but the plants die and they never bother with a carnivorous plant again. It’s such a shame.”

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A Sarracenia flower. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Elizabeth started growing carnivorous plants about 10 years ago when she was working in a garden centre and saw one in a bargain bin.

“I took it home and got it going again. Cor Schipper in Rotorua grows his own, including some of his own hybrids and I used to swap some of my orchids for his plants.”

The only requirements most have are full sun and standing in water, preferably rainwater – they don’t need to be fed as they catch their own nourishment. Most also don’t mind the cold, although Nepenthes which come from the tropics, prefer winter cover.

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Sarracenias. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Sarracenias are attractive tube-like plants native to the swamps of the eastern United States and these form the bulk of Elizabeth’s collection.

“Sarracenias will die back in winter so cut them back hard. Some will put up winter growth, which is like a strappy leaf and not carnivorous. These strappy leaves die back at the end of winter and as the new pitchers appear the plants come into flower. And the flowers are really lovely.”

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The flower of a Pinguicula. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Different plants catch their insects in different ways:

  • Sarracenia produce nectar around their mouths to attract insects while the hoods misdirect the insects into the tubes lined with downward-facing hairs that make it impossible to climb out. The bottom of the tube contains digestive acid.
  • Pinguicula (butterwort) have leaves coated with a sticky substance to trap insects. The leaf rolls up to digest the prey.
  • Nepenthes produce nectar as an attractant. They hold water in the pitcher to drown their prey, as well as digestive acids.
  • Drosera (sundew) have shimmering droplets of water on fine “tentacles” to attract insects. When one is caught in the glue other tentacles move to secure it. On some types the leaves roll up around the prey.

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A sundew or Drosera. Photo: Sandra Simpson

New Zealand has native carnivorous plants (move the slider to the right to see the link) – seven sundews (about half of the family are native to Australia) and two Utricularia (bladderworts), which suck in insects that touch trigger hairs on the “bladders”.

This article was first published in the Bay of Plenty Times and appears here with permission.