Green And Mean

THE REAL DIRT

September 05, 1993|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

The voice on the phone was deep, gruff and anonymous.

"You wanna knock off those guys?"

Pardon?

"The bugs that are wrecking your garden," the caller snapped. "You wanna get rid of them or not?"

Of course I want to get rid of them. It's no secret that I've been battling bugs all summer. I've used all the best agricultural ammunition, to no avail. I've done everything but put out a contract on those slugs.

"Forget all that stuff. It doesn't work. There's only one way to stop pests from eating your plants."

Which is?

"Grow plants that bite back."

What I need, the caller said, are some carnivorous plants in the garden. Plants whose diets range from beetles to grasshoppers. Plants that eat raw meat. Plants like the cobra lily, which resembles a snake with a blood-red tongue.

Ecch.

"It sounds gross, but it works," the caller said. "In my garden, the bugs go out for a snack and don't come back."

Then he hung up.

At first I dismissed his babble as that of a gardener who has spent too much time in the sun. But then I thought: What if he's right? What if the answer is to hire a few green gunslingers to clean up the garden and chase the bugs out of town?

The idea sounds just goofy enough to work.

My only concern is: What if one of the carnivorous plants turns on me? Hey, I saw the movie "Little Shop of Horrors." I don't want to end up as a meal for a hungry Venus' flytrap.

That has never happened, says Stephen Williams, a member of the International Carnivorous Plant Society: "These plants won't eat people, unless you cut them up in very small pieces."

Most carnivorous plants feed on small insects, including flies, ants, mosquitoes, earwigs and even slugs, says Williams, a biology professor at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa. Some of these plants can digest small frogs. The Asian pitcher plant has been known to digest large rats. But people? Never, says Williams.

"One of those nutty tabloid newspapers reported a woman being eaten by her Venus' flytrap, but it never happened," he says.

In fact, the Venus' flytrap seldom eats flies, preferring sow bugs, ants and beetles instead.

Many carnivorous plants, including flytraps, pitcher plants and sundews, can be grown in containers or home gardens, provided they receive enough water and are not overfed.

People who buy them tend to stuff these plants full of meat, when an ant may be a more appropriate meal. "Most plants will catch what they need to eat," says Williams.

Some species move their leaves in eerie attempts to envelop their prey; others simply wait for supper to fall in, and digest it. Carnivorous plants have no teeth, relying instead on enzyme secretions to absorb food.

It can be a slow and gruesome process.

"A Venus' flytrap will finish a meal in seven to 10 days," says Peter Keller, a retired firefighter who grows 100 carnivorous plants in his home on Long Island, N.Y. "But I don't really watch; I'm not that much of a ghoul."

Christoph Belanger, a college student from Toms River, N.J., raises carnivorous plants in his dormitory room at Colgate University. He keeps them in a terrarium near his bed. Does his roommate approve?

"I don't have a roommate," says Belanger.

Uh-oh.

"No, no. I've never had a roommate."

The plants need to rest periodically in a cool, dark place. So, each winter, Belanger puts his carnivorous plants in -- where else? -- the refrigerator.

Some carnivorous plant collectors have really been bitten, so to speak, by the bug. Bill Scholl, an ironworker from Richmond, Va., has trekked to Venezuela and climbed 10,000-foot mountains in search of rare specimens.

Yet it was Scholl who discouraged me from raising these plants in my own back yard.

"You've got to realize that many of these plants also eat beneficial insects," he said. "You can't blame them for that.

"Carnivorous plants aren't out to make our lives comfortable, they're just trying to make a living."

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