Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
December, 2009
Regional Report

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The West Australian pitcher plant has a hungry look. Woe to the insect that finds itself prey to this beautiful carnivore!

Crazed for Carnivores!

I am positively mad for carnivorous plants. When I met my first Venus fly trap, it was love at first sight. Needless to say, I adore the movie Little Shop of Horrors. The fact that the dentist gets it in the end only adds to my appreciation.

My first fly trap was purchased from the local drug store as a novelty when I was about 11 years old. There were no growing instructions and no Internet back then to search for same. Consequently, the little plant was force-fed dead flies that I found on the windowsill. At that time I didn't know that fly traps were meant to be grown outdoors, or that they were very sensitive to minerals in the water. All I knew was that my plant failed to respond after a few feedings. It would probably have come back to life if I had simply set it outside to fend for itself, but I didn't know that at the time.

Peter D'Amato, author of The Savage Garden and owner of California Carnivores nursery in Sebastopol, held the same fascination with carnivorous plants at an early age but rather than cast them aside after his first failure, he became an expert on their cultivation. His nursery holds the world's largest collection of carnivorous plants, and it's right in our own back yard! According to D'Amato, carnivorous plants grow on every continent that has wet, boggy land, even those that freeze in the winter. Carnivores have adapted over time to find their own sustenance in locations void of nutrients.

I was feeling the need to try my hand at carnivore cultivation again after the vandals from the neighborhood bar stole my last collection of plants. My friends Joyce and Gary accompanied me for the short, one-hour drive across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sebastopol. The nursery was easy to find with the directions from the Web site ( and it was open for business. I danced through the doors like a child in a candy store!

Sundews, flytraps, butterworts, nepenthes, pitcher plants and bladderworts covered every bench. There was a dissection in progress that spilled the gory contents of a pitcher plant for all to see. What a greedy little pitcher plant it had been! The tube that was the leaf was packed solid with semi-digested insect bodies. I admired the big nepenthes, some with leaves 12 inches long. Nepenthes are probably the most evil looking of the carnivore family of plants, although the Australian pitcher plants came in a close second.

The darlingtonia (California Cobra lily) gave a very fair impression of a cobra snake poised to strike, complete with hooded head and forked tongue. Most pitcher plants want to be grown outdoors. With my history of plant-thieving vandals so near, I had to pass this entire family of plants.

Instead, I selected a windowsill collection of sundews (Drosera spp.), plants that have innocent looking leaves covered with a sparkly glue that will trap an unwary insect before digesting same with a sticky enzyme disguised as nectar. The three little plants will grow happily on the window sill in my office, keeping me company and the flying insect population under control.

California Carnivores is one of the most interesting nurseries I have ever had the pleasure to visit. Owner Peter D'Amato has a sense of humor which is evident throughout the premises. Signs stating, "Shoplifters Will be Eaten," giant plastic wasps dangling between the isles and faux body parts under the benches are clues to the type of plants that are grown there.

Please do plan a visit if you have the opportunity. At the very least you will be amazed at the diversity of this unique family of plants.

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