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Carnivores in the Conservatory

May 26, 2008
Jane Scurich

Summer’s here—what are your plans? How about somewhere exotic? Borneo? Madagascar? Have you checked out airfares recently? Ouch!!!

For a quick and extremely affordable journey to the tropics, how about a short drive across the Golden Gate Bridge to the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park? The Conservatory offers an opportunity to experience plants indigenous to equatorial regions between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn.
The orchid and bromeliad collections are breath-takingly beautiful, exotic and allow our minds to travel miles way from home. As my son, Scott, always says when he enters, “Aah, it smells like Hawaii.” Primeval cycads and ancient philodendrons welcome you to the lowland tropics.
So, how do you entice the small fry to be excited about visiting a “living museum?” How about an exploration of the carnivorous plants? Don’t get too close, or . . . .
The Asian pitcher plant, or Nepenthes, grows in both the highland and lowland tropics—terminology which relates to the relative temperature of the area based largely on altitude —think of the lowlands as ground level at the equator and the highlands as the cloud forests at about the five to ten thousand foot elevation. These vining carnivores thrive in areas with extremely poor soil, lacking in vital nutrients. Some have even been found growing in pure silica sand where vegetation has been destroyed by fire and the soil has washed away. In order to survive, the plants have been on a long evolutionary journey; developing pitchers to collect insects, and digestive enzymes to dissolve their catch and assimilate the nutrients.
The pitcher plants attract their prey with color, shape and nectar. The peristome, or rim of the pitcher, produces the highest concentration of nectar. The unsuspecting visitor is attracted to the sweet nectar and reaches for a treat—his last! The slippery, waxy rim offers a one way ticket to an inescapable pool of digestive enzyme—enzymes to digest its capture and nourish the plant.
While most pitcher plants attract small insects such as midges, flies and ants, the larger pitchers have been known to ensnare mice, rats, and even small monkeys. But capturing larger prey takes a toll on the digestive process of the Nepenthe, and often shortens its life span. Not unlike a steady diet of prime rib for our digestive systems!
The pitcher plant is a study in contradictions: the fluid which the pitcher contains acts to digest the flesh of its prey, but has also aided in the survival of explorers, who relied on the water in the pitchers to sustain their lives while on extended explorations. The fluid is also a habitat for a variety of mosquito larvae. Some pitchers have developed symbiotic relationships with frogs, midges and termites—lunching on chosen insects while providing habitat for others!
If you are eager to experiment with a carnivorous plant at home, let me caution you: the growing requirements of the most exotic ones require an investment in time; learning about their specific needs, and an investment in resources; the plants are often difficult and most always, expensive, to acquire. The growing conditions require diligent temperature and moisture monitoring. For real life advice on growing these exotics, visit “Nepenthes University” http://www.cpjungle.com/nepenthesuniversity.htm, an extensive and engaging exploration of the pitcher plant, written by a young man in my home town of Memphis, TN, who became enamored with carnivorous plants as a high school student in 1975.
After you visit the Conservatory and experience the rare and impressive collection of thriving Nepenthes, if you are interested in acquiring a specimen, check out http://www.orchidweb.com/nepenthes.aspx and do lots of research before embarking on this project.
These exotics, native to the tropical regions of the world, have evolved to survive extremes of many conditions, but over-pampering is a known killer. But, there are carnivorous plants, indigenous to the U.S., easily available and fun to grow. The Venus fly trap, native to North and South Carolina, is one of the easiest carnivorous plants to grow and can thrive in your home with modest requirements: high humidity, wet roots, poor acidic soil and lots of sun. These captivating plants are readily available at most local nurseries and on line at http://www.petflytrap.com.
And did I mention, Nepenthes is Old Greek for "soothing grief"? Tell that to the late unsuspecting fly!
Did you survive the carnivores? Now celebrate with a visit to the current Special Exhibit, The Butterfly Zone, where more than 25 varieties of free-flying butterflies cavort among the brightly colored blossoms, sipping nectar and distributing pollen. Night Safaris to search for mysterious moths start at 8 p.m. on the first and third Thursdays of the month May 1 to October 2, 2008, and are included with admission. On these evenings, the Conservatory will close at 9:30 p.m. The Conservatory hours are Tuesday – Sunday, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. For more information, visit www.conservatoryofflowers.org or call 415-666-7001.

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