Carnivorous plants draw the attention of teenage boys

20130111_vsmyard_600
Drew Ells incubates Drosera capersis, Sundew, in a grow chamber in his Blue Bell basement. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

There is absolutely no scientific evidence that teenage boys are crazy about carnivorous plants.

Even so, Brandon Huber - at 23, not that many years beyond adolescence - swears it's true.

"Guys at that age, they want to grow plants but they want to grow cool plants. You certainly don't want to be known as a gardener growing flowers," he says, faking horror over those last three words.

There's also Mike Kratz, general manager of Rhoads Garden Nursery in North Wales, who's noticed the teenage boys lusting after these botanical oddities - and has his own experience to draw on:

"Having been one of those [teenage boys] once, I can tell you, there's something really cool and different about carnivorous plants. They eat bugs . . . and the Venus flytrap, when it's triggered, actually wraps around your finger. How cool is that?"

Very, if you ask Drew Ells, a precocious 15-year-old from Blue Bell, who's growing about 100 flesh-eating plants, including the ever-popular flytraps, in his house and garage.

Though he hates horror movies, Ells takes devilish delight in describing how the plants lure unsuspecting flies, gnats, crickets, and beetles - in some cases, though not in his experience, mice, rats, lizards, and frogs - onto leaves that are irresistibly sticky, stinky, slippery, brightly colored, or possessed of evil tentacles, hairs or "fangs" that glom on to trespassers and won't let go.

"It's an ingenious kind of trap," Ells says.

Once stuck in or on the leaves or, perhaps, having fallen or been sucked into a cavity of supersweet nectar at the bottom of a tube or stem, the hapless prey is killed by enzymes and digested by the plant, which grows in very acidic, nutrient-poor soil and needs the meat, guts, feces - everything those corpses offer up - to survive.

"Awesome," Ells says.

He'd get no argument from Tatyana Livshultz, assistant botany curator at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. "This is naturally fascinating, sort of a man-bites-dog story, where the plant eats an animal," she says.

But Livshultz does not believe this "story" is wholly owned by adolescent boys. "In my experience, everyone is fascinated by carnivorous plants," she says.

One reason: They're rare. Of the 250,000 known species of flowering plants, Livshultz says, only 630 are carnivorous.

They're truly weird. Depending on your sensibility, you might even consider them gross. Regardless: They're a natural conversation-starter, especially if you're a young male smitten by what's still perceived as a hobby or specialty dominated by females.

Really, what other plants are sold at reptile shows or featured in Halloween haunted houses, or get star billing in a movie? Remember Audrey II, the bigmouthed, bloodthirsty Venus flytrap in Little Shop of Horrors?

"There is an air of menace about them, all that gore and guts, and I'm not a cult person, but I think that kind of attracted me to them," says John Courtney, nursery manager at Aquascapes Unlimited in Pipersville, a wholesaler of native wetland plants, including carnivorous ones.

But he insists the carnivores are very lovable.

"For us, they're so beautiful and easy to grow in containers, we just don't understand why everyone doesn't have them in their garden," Courtney says.

Ells gravitates to carnivorous plants for another reason. "I like tinkering, figuring out how things work. With carnivorous plants, you get to see science and biology and evolution at work," he says.

Ells' favorite is the Drosera, or sundew, whose red (sometimes green) tentacles are covered with a sticky mucous-like substance (the "dew") for trapping prey. Many sundews look like exploding fireworks.

Ells sometimes tweezer-feeds bugs to his sundews, whether store-bought crickets or flies he catches himself. Sundews, too, make up the 20-plant terrarium he was asked to make for Wissahickon High School, where he's a sophomore.

Pitcher plants, with their narcoticlike secretions that knock bugs out, are another favorite. And bladderworts, which suck their victims into bladderlike structures. And butterworts, which have orchidlike flowers and sticky leaves.

"They're so deadly," Ells pronounces, with admiration in his voice.

He's remarkably like Huber was as a teenager in Northeast Philly, even down to the desire (someday) to pit his carnivores against others in the annual Philadelphia Flower Show. Huber has won 150 ribbons since 2006.

But while Ells is leaning toward a future in engineering (like Dad) or neuroscience, Huber's early fascination with carnivorous plants launched him directly into a plant career.

This May, he hopes to graduate from Temple University Ambler with a horticulture degree. He's already working at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's Meadowbrook Farm in Abington, caring for and propagating indoor retail plants.

In the carnivore world, Huber's partial to Sarracenia, the native North American pitcher plant that he displays around the small pond in his backyard or in small trays or pots. He also grows tropical pitcher plants, known as Nepenthes, under indoor lights.

Courtney, at Aquascapes, likes the native pitchers. With alarm, he notes that "only about 5 percent of [the pitcher plant's] habitat is left in the wild at the moment, which . . . equates to severe wetland degradation."

Though regulations are now in place, habitat historically has been lost through development and the timber and agriculture industries, he says.

More recently, breeders have been hybridizing Sarracenias, so that "now you'll find hot pink . . . others with a dark maroon netting and an almost chartreuse color to them. Others are ruffly and frilly.

"They make a really nice fall presentation," says Courtney, proof of the staying power of a teenage boy's infatuation with flesh-eating plants.

Huber's favorite plants now include succulents, orchids, and begonias, but clearly, he remains a fan of flesh-eaters. You can hear the excitement in his voice as he describes the praying mantises who prey on the prey of his pitcher plants in his backyard in the Northeast.

"They sit on top of the pitcher waiting to intercept the insects who come onto the tube," he says, adding yet another layer of carnivorous consumption to an already creepy tale.

Delicious!

 


Drew Ells explains how pitcher plants dispose of the insects that get trapped inside their tubes. www.philly.com/ginny


Contact Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.