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Feed Me! Carnivorous Plants and the Bloody-Fingered People Who Love Them

Touch it, if you dare: The dangerously beautiful Venus flytrap
Jessica Miller

One hot afternoon in Alhambra, the Los Angeles Carnivorous Plant Society’s monthly meeting comes to order and insects across the city tremble with fear. It’s dark in the room at the Chamber of Commerce, with a slight musky odor. Is it the people or the plants? Or perhaps the couple of dogs snoring through the slideshow? Lord knows the venus flytraps would eat those Chihuahuas — and kittens, too — if given half the chance. The guy at the projector scrolls through photos of quaking bogs, bladderworts, sundews, a man paddling through a lake on an inflatable raft, struggling to snap a shot of a carnivorous plant growing on a floating log. People “oooooh” and “aaah” and shout out things like, “Tell us about the Pinguiculas if you would.”

A few have even brought in their plants for show-and-tell, like the guy sitting two seats down from me, who’s lugged in a massive, testicular-looking pitcher plant swathed in red fur.

Anyone can join the Society. A willingness to talk, share, learn, live and breathe carnivorous plants is all that’s required. People become known for the type of plant they’re drawn to after a while. One fellow, Art, likes to grow plants as big as he can get ’em. Ivan Snyder, or Dr. Frankensnyder to his friends, likes to make mutations and cross breeds. He’s the mad scientist. One of the founding members of LACPS, he is known for creating the plant cultivar called “Ivan’s Paddle,” a green sundew with leaves shaped like canoe paddles. It’s small enough to fit inside a shot glass. Cultivars are trendy right now in the carnivorous plant world.

“It’s a cute little plant,” says Dr. Frankensnyder, admiring his handiwork. “Here you can see where the leaf is turned over.”

A woman sighs, “I love when they do that.”

Discussion turns to flies, a perennial favorite among Society members. “Do you feed one leaf at a time?” someone asks. “Meaning, on one plant, would you only put one fly on one leaf?”

“Do you feed the flies dry?” asks someone else.

“I don’t feed the flies at all,” Dr. Frankensnyder quips.

“You wet it, then feed it,” another member advises.

“But don’t get the flies wet or you’ll get all kinds of mold growing in there,” someone cautions. “You can get sick from sniffing it.”

“Don’t be sniffing your dried flies, guys!” still another knowledgeable member of the society chimes in.

Clearly this is a world that deserves further digging. I decide to talk to two of the society’s prominent members to learn more.

 

The Mad Scientist

Dr. Frankensnyder lives in a small one-bedroom apartment in Inglewood, a sparsely furnished bachelor pad that he rents from the family of one of the other Carnivorous Plant Society bigwigs, Ed Read, who manages the greenhouse at Cal State Fullerton. Dr. Frankensnyder lives a simple, unmaterialistic life; he’s 48 years old but already retired, having burnt out on being a vet (“my specialty was euthanasia,” he says) and a lab worker. Today he’s wearing khaki shorts, flip-flops and a gray T-shirt. In the bedroom, among the many other plant specimens and mementos of the places he’s traveled, there is a framed photograph of him as a strapping adolescent with a 25-pound lobster big as a house cat (he caught it himself) pressed to his bare chest. He still looks mostly the same as in that photo — tall, tanned, gangly, with short brown hair and intense blue eyes. Somewhere down the hall of the apartment building, the neighbors are blasting rap music.

Otherwise, it’s just him and his plants. The tiny collection of tiny, tiny plants lives on a metal shelf hooded by fluorescent tube lights. Each plant sits in its own plastic condiment cup. Beneath are all of Dr. Frankensnyder’s accouterments: microdissection forceps, tweezers, magnifying glasses, a jug of distilled water, a plastic tube crawling with sterile wingless fruit flies. Snyder raises the flies to feed his plants.

“I humanely kill a fruit fly and cut its butt off.” He grabs a fly by the head with tweezers and squeezes it against his thumbnail. Half the fly continues to move. “See? It’s dead, but it doesn’t know it yet.” The butt tips are, Snyder says, “the most nutritious part of the insect.” He knows this because he’s run experiments on the topic; it’s a concept I don’t fully grasp but am willing to take on faith. “That’s my real passion,” he says, “science.”

Each day, he comes home, sits down and studies his rows of plants. It’s surprising that a guy who’s such a big a deal in the carnivorous plant world prefers the cheapest ones. “It’s hard to explain why,” he says. “The very valuable ones are rare and protected in nature.” He examines one plant under a magnifying loupe, delicately removing a desiccated fly clinging to its leaf.

Many years ago, Dr. Frankensnyder was walking around in Florida when he saw a purple pitcher plant on the side of the road. He dug it up. He wrote about it on the Internet and got blasted because these types of plants are getting rare in nature. But then, three years later, developers bulldozed the site and built a strip mall.

“So I was redeemed,” he concludes. “I rescued it.”

To this day, descendants of that exact plant exist in the thousands all over the world. “It feels pretty good knowing that,” he says, leaning back on the sofa. “Yes. Highly satisfactory.”

They’re kind of like your children, I say, or pets. Do you give them names?

“No way!” he says. “That’s creepy! We don’t give each of our plants cutesy names. Nobody does that.”

“Ivan’s Paddle” is as close as he’ll get to naming a plant. Snyder loves to tell the story of how a zaftig woman admired his cultivar at a meeting and, bending over to look at it, said with her butt in the air, “Oh, how cute! I’d like a little paddle.”

Flies aren’t the only thing his specimens eat. Like most people who own carnivorous plants have at one point, he’s fed his plant boogers. In a bit, he fishes out an old blood-sugar testing kit. Carnivorous plants will eat anything, including human blood. Nepenthes are the ones known for eating rats. “What is that smell?” asked Ivan once, walking into a friend’s greenhouse. A pitcher plant had eaten a rat. There were partially digested bits of rat hair swimming in a soup of digestive fluid. Dr. Frankensnyder pricks his finger now and drips blood onto one of his Venus flytraps. “This is the initiation for joining LACPS,” he says.

“Really?”

“No.” The plant snaps shut on his bleeding finger, lightning fast. “Aaah! It’s got me! Call 911! Just kidding. It’s an actual man-eating plant now. Theoretically, you could raise a plant entirely on human blood. I could chop you up into little bits and feed my entire collection of carnivorous plants. Go ahead, touch it.”

“No.”

“Touch it.”

“No.”

“Touch it.”

“I absolutely will not, will not touch that plant.”

As I’m touching the plant, its leaves snap shut. It is the brush of a very strong, leathery eyelid.

“I’d never tell a woman I grow carnivorous plants in my apartment,” Dr. Frankensnyder says, grinning. “That’s a deal breaker. I tell her that when I want to break up.”

 

The Plant Prodigy

“He really fed them his blood?” says Wesley Hicks a few days later, collapsing into giggles on his bed. Hicks, at 18 years old, is one of the younger members of the Carnivorous Plant Society. “That’s so Ivan. Have you seen the shirts he made for LACPS?” Hicks digs around in his dresser. The shirts are neon green and say “Horticulture on the Edge” in a drippy vampire font. Snyder’s old design involves a giant plant eating people eating a hot dog. His new shirt design has the plants eating a woman’s dog. Hicks, being an artist as well, also designed a shirt — a more conservative one — which was well received but ultimately declined. It’s for the best, Hicks says. He didn’t want to ruffle Snyder’s feathers.

To Hicks, his room is just an average teenager’s bedroom in Covina, filled with origami creatures, hats, polymer clay sculptures, drawings, butterflies mounted in cases — evidence of a creative yet methodical mind. But to the plants, the area underneath the window in front of Hicks’ bed is a lowland zone, equivalent to the base of a mountain at sea level in the tropics. His carnivorous plants sit in nifty little jars and pots he made in ceramics class. Hicks is into science fiction and fantasy, and carnivorous plants are the closest you can have to a fantasy plant.

The plants are the last thing he sees when he goes to sleep at night and the first thing he sees in the morning when he wakes up. A pet chameleon used to live in the tank, but then the chameleon died. In came the Venus flytraps. He and his dad will be building an ambitious new tank system soon that will span the entire wall and be tall enough to house some of the bigger pitcher plants.

Hicks can get stuff to grow that other people can’t. Like the Genlisea hispidula. He made a little fence for them with plastic cross-stitch tiles and a hot-glue gun. When his parents gave him a Wii for Christmas, he repurposed the plastic packaging into plant labels.

Not long ago, a dragonfly emerged mysteriously from the soil. It fluttered around inside the tank, a lone unsuspecting wretch in a tank of lovely monsters who’ve evolved over millennia the sneakiest way to eat him. After two days, the dragonfly disappeared.

“I’m thinking about studying botany, plant genetics, that sort of stuff,” Hicks says. “Maybe at UC Berkeley.”

Another kid in the Society, 10-year-old Brendon, is getting seriously into plants. For a while, Hicks was babysitting Brendon’s Drosera scorpioideses. Brendon calls Hicks every day for plant advice. “Nooo!” cries Hicks, when Brendon gets impatient and tries to acclimate a plant to low humidity too quickly. “You have to cover it in a bag, then just hunker down, and open it an inch every few days.”

There are so many plants to collect. It’s tough to decide. Nepenthes bicalcarata looks like it has fangs, which ooze with nectar. Hicks likes the new hairy red variant of Nepenthes hamata, which was discovered last year. A single plant costs $150, sports wicked-looking violet hairs and has a pitcher lip that looks like it has black razor teeth. These teeth trap snails, which slither into the pitcher ... of doom. But they don’t grow in the climate of Hicks’ room. “People have grown them in small wine refrigerators, or a tub of water that you half fill with ice every night. Or you use refrigerator coolant tubes. You have to put it into your schedule.”

He was online the other night at midnight, shortly after he’d shut off the tank lights and given his plants a snack of brine shrimp and their usual 11 p.m. misting. He got into a bidding war with someone else in the society on eBay over a fuzzy pitcher plant. It went to the other guy for $25. Oh well. Good thing Hicks is also interested in a Nepenthes bellii, a small climbing pitcher plant that likes to scramble horizontally along the ground while it’s young.

“It’ll be all dramatic,” he says, “and I’ll be very proud of it.”

Los Angeles Carnivorous Plant Society, monthly meetings at Alhambra Chamber of Commerce, 104 S. First St., Alhambra, www.geocities.com/lacps.


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