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Carnivorous appetite

25 February 2022
Ross Taylor in one of his carnivorous plant tunnel houses.

Carnivorous plants are addictive, in more ways than one, and a Geraldine grower has a vast collection to prove it. Words & photos: Rebecca Lees.

At 10 years of age, Ross Taylor was given a tiny sundew plant by a friend. He thought the plant was extraordinary, but it was after visiting a greenhouse full of North American pitcher plants that he became infatuated.

“They looked like something unearthly, and architectural, almost like a cathedral pipe bell. The plants are truly remarkable in their design. For a plant to be carnivorous it has to be able to not only attract, but also to catch and digest its prey. These plants are able to do all three of these things, simultaneously.”

Ross was so enamoured with the pitcher plants’ abilities, he had to have more. He sold his toys, his bike, and began picking tomatoes to raise money to buy more. A lifelong love of carnivorous plants was born and Ross now has the largest collection of North American pitcher plants in New Zealand.

“Many species of pitcher plants are critically endangered or extinct in the wild, and all of them are categorised as endangered species,” says Ross.

Ways of entrapment

Carnivorous plants are incredibly interesting creatures. Take Sarracenia flava, the yellow pitcher plant, one of Ross’s favourites. Nectar on the hood of the plant contains an intoxicating substance. This substance has no effect on people, but it is very addictive to flies. The fly lands on the plant to eat the nectar, but ends up dining on narcotics. The insect may fly away, but they become so hooked on the substance that they most often come back to the plant for more, quite quickly.

The hood of a pitcher plant acts as both an umbrella and the main insect landing platform.
The hood of a pitcher plant acts as both an umbrella and the main insect landing platform.

Eventually, the fly migrates underneath the hood, onto the neck of the pitcher. It is in this position where there is a much more abundant supply of the intoxicating nectar. As they absorb the narcotic into their system, the fly becomes quite dopey. (“You can almost touch them with your finger,” says Ross.) The fly becomes so intoxicated that it ultimately falls down into the pitcher tube.

Once inside the tube, the fly can’t escape. The tube is covered in a waxy substance, which clogs up the fly’s feet. Flying out isn’t an option either, as flies require a runway to take off and this space is far too confined. Once the fly is in the tube, it’s there to stay. Eventually, the fly dies and is dissolved as the plant’s digestive enzymes reduce it to proteins and amino acids. This ‘soup’ is food for the plant and makes up for the nutrient-deficient substrate in which the plant is growing.

In some species, the hood of the pitcher plant is specifically designed to funnel rain away from the mouth of the plant. This ensures the plant liquids required for digesting flies don’t get diluted and that the trap doesn’t topple over because of the weight of the water in its tube.

Other species of pitcher plant work in very different ways to capture their prey. The tube of the Southern pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea ssp. venosa), for instance, works in the opposite way to most pitcher plants. In this species, its pitchers fill with water when it rains. Some insects have the ability to walk on water, so this plant creates enzymes that remove the meniscus from water so nothing will float on top of the water, allowing the plant to catch its prey through drowning. The plant also has downward-pointing hairs on the tube, which makes it more difficult for the fly to get a foothold and come back up the trap.

International reputation

Ross eventually turned his love of plants from his childhood into a semi-commercial business based in Christchurch. In his heyday, he had raised over 100,000 plants in glasshouses. Ross was loving his work and doing well, and his plants were thriving – until disaster struck. On February 22, 2011 the Christchurch earthquake badly affected his infrastructure and many plants died as a result.

“Benches filled with plants collapsed. Broken glass was throughout the collection. Irrigation became impossible, and thousands of plants were upturned and a great many died. It was soul-destroying.”

Ross managed to keep his remaining plants alive for a few years, but it was a real struggle. He needed a fresh start. A property he liked came up for sale in Geraldine, South Canterbury. Ross closed his business down, packed up the best of his plants and moved south. There he returned to being a hobbyist once again.

Ross’s love of the plants remains, and his knowledge and reputation continues to grow. He has regular visitors to his property, many travelling from around the world to see his collection, and New Zealand residents are able to purchase a few to take away with them.

On entering Ross’s tunnel houses, I was amazed. The rooms are packed with a vast array of pitcher plants, their tubes ranging in size from over a metre down to smaller, dwarf-sized plants with a height of just a few centimetres. An array of colours – reds, purples, greens, browns and whites – fill the tunnel houses. The sight was like seeing thousands of hungry mouths, all wide open, waiting patiently to be fed.

With more than 15,000 plants growing, you would wonder how they all survive on insects alone. “All of these plants thrive here and I don’t feed them anything. There are plenty of flies to go around.”

Ross had several visitors while I was there, and all of them seemed awestruck by the sight. I couldn’t help purchasing a plant for myself, and I have been caring for it ever since. It’s doing well. At first my daughter and I caught flies to feed it, but we needn’t have bothered. Its main tube is already about three-quarters full of flies, with another tube growing. By the end of the season it should have between 5 and 10 tubes.

Sundew carnivorous plant
Drosera is one of the largest genera of carnivorous plants – commonly known as sundews, they can live for up to 50 years.

Hooked?

Try these tips from Ross for growing a healthy pitcher, Venus flytrap or sundew plant.

  1. Choose strong, well-grown plants
    Mass-produced plants are available in abundance, but I have learnt that purchasing choice and strong stock is essential to developing a good collection that’s likely to flourish and look amazing. Personally, I avoid tissue-cultured plants, preferring plants that are grown naturally with a proven robust habit and vigour. A tissue-cultured plant may take just months or a year or so to grow, whereas the plants that I sell are divisions off plants that are several decades old. They have become strong, resistant to disease and are simply stunning.
  2. Water is very important
    North American pitcher plants, Venus flytraps and sundews should stay moist and not be allowed to dry out. In hot months, they will do best if left to sit in about 1cm of water continuously; 1–2cm of water is best, but more can make the soil go sour. Humidity and light affect growth. The more humidity, the taller the plants will grow. Good air flow reduces any risk of sooty mould forming on the plants.
  3. They do best in full sun
    If there is insufficient light, plants may develop sappy growth. An unheated greenhouse, conservatory or a well-lit window are great places to grow these plants, but equally they can grow outside in pots or in a bog garden. Sarracenia species originally came from swamps in North America and Canada and, as such, can withstand temperature extremes of –30°C to summers of 45°C. They enjoy a good cold winter and love a hot summer. They’re very well suited for Central Otago and Canterbury, or, indeed, New Zealand in general. In Geraldine, we regularly get down to –8°C and the plants thrive here.
  4. Don’t fertilise
    Fertilising your plants is strongly discouraged as this can burn the roots and eventually kill the plants. There is no need to fertilise; the plants get all the nutrition they need from flies. Any insect pests or disease can be addressed by using Yates Super Shield, malathion or any other rose spray.
  5. Use sphagnum moss
    In my opinion, sphagnum moss is the ideal potting media, not soil or potting mix – just sphagnum moss (alive, not dried) that can be wrapped around the rhizomes. Peat also works well but is not an environmentally sustainable product, so many growers prefer not to use it. No other moss is suitable to be used. To divide pitcher plants, simply separate the rhizomes, then wrap the rhizome in sphagnum moss and pot up – no soil is required. Pot the rhizome with moss firmly, but not too tight. Generally, I only divide pitcher plants every 10–15 years because, left alone, they just get better and better.
  6. Let rest over winter
    These plants will go dormant over winter. The pitchers will die back and can be pruned off in July. Venus flytraps will shrink into a small rosette over winter, until the following spring. Trying to force the plant to continue to grow over winter isn’t good for it; plants should be left outside to rest over the winter, without being disturbed, but still in full sun and kept moist.

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