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Attack of the killer plants

Sept./Oct. 2007 California Country magazine

Inside California Carnivores in Sebastopol, vicious bug-eating monsters have taken over the 11,000-square-foot greenhouse, which maintains one of the world's largest collections of carnivorous plants.



Peter D'Amato's Sonoma County nursery is a botanical graveyard of decaying bug corpses.

Sure, his beautiful and exotic plants look just as harmless and passive as any old ficus, and that's probably what the buzzing fly thought when it ventured a bit too close and—snap!—became lunch for one of his many Venus flytraps.

Inside D'Amato's little shop of horrors, also known as California Carnivores in Sebastopol, vicious bug-eating monsters have taken over the 11,000-square-foot greenhouse, which maintains one of the world's largest collections of carnivorous plants. The hundreds of species on display include varieties native to the United States, such as the Venus flytrap, as well as hybrids and other forms from all over the world.

Some plants, such as the cobra, named for its resemblance to the serpent, look ferocious, while others, like the butterwort, are part-time succulents.

Sundews, with their delicate tentacles and sticky leaves, sparkle like little droplets of jewels. When an insect gets caught, the tentacles and leaves curl up and slowly digest it. One of D'Amato's Australian varieties was even featured on an episode of the television crime drama "CSI."

"These catch lots of insects," said D'Amato, pointing to a pitcher plant, which has long, tubular leaves capable of ravaging large insects and even small animals such as rodents and frogs. "A pitcher plant like this kills insects pretty hideously."

The predatory plant lures insects with its narcotic-laced nectar. Drugged by the nectar, the uninhibited insects either fall into the pitcher, where they drown in digestive acids and enzymes, or they enter a one-way trap that tricks them to their grave.

Carnivorous plants generally grow in very nutrient-poor soil. To supplement their diet, they catch insects and animals to get the minerals they need in order to survive where other plants can't.

"In fact, these plants are so sensitive to rich soils that in much of the country you can't even use your tap water to water them," said D'Amato. "The water often has to be purified, like rainwater, or distilled."

It is no surprise that D'Amato's own lifelong obsession with carnivorous plants was born from his love for classic sci-fi and horror flicks.

"In fact, I've even thought about writing a book called ‘Invasion of the Little Shop of Triffids,' because carnivorous plants have appeared in innumerable horror movies as monster plants but also as regular plants, too," said D'Amato, who authored the book "The Savage Garden," now considered a bible among carnivorous plant lovers.

(Ching Lee is a reporter with the California Farm Bureau Federation. She may be contacted at (800) 698-FARM or by e-mail at clee@cfbf.com.)


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