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Snack Dragons : Cal State Fullerton Greenhouse Is the Carnivorous-Plant Fanciers' Dream

January 26, 1991|CLARK SHARON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It says something about the workings of a boy's mind to admit that it was a crushing disappointment when, at age 10 or so, I learned there really were no plants that could eat kittens, let alone an occasional African explorer.

Such floral predators had been a delightful horror to think about at that age. I used to muse that if a plant could be trained to eat a man or maybe a horse, then perhaps through applied science it could someday manage an elephant--or an entire baseball team.

But the sure knowledge that carnivorous plants could not devour a pachyderm or the New York Yankees--in fact, could not even nibble a turkey leg--distressed my young imagination.

What they could eat were bugs. It seemed somehow ignoble. I stayed disappointed for about a year.

My spirits were lifted when I ordered my very own Dionaea muscipula from an advertisement in the back of a comic book. At the time, I was thin on my Latin and so only knew it as a Venus flytrap.

It was a wonderfully weird plant to have around the house. Unfortunately, I eventually killed it, as I did a couple cacti. I was sorry to see it go. It was the first pet I ever owned that ate flies instead of Alpo.

I never tried to raise another flytrap. But the fascination I felt for these strange plants stayed with me.

I am not alone, said Leo Song, who runs the greenhouse complex at Cal State Fullerton.

This hive of glass and latticework buildings houses one of the largest carnivorous plant collections in the United States. Nearly 100 of the world's 500 natural species can be found.

Some of those species look as if they dropped from a visiting spaceship.

Aquatic bladderworts drift in shallow ponds ready to vacuum any passing meal. Pitcher plants tower over their trays, bunched together like choruses of cobras frozen in mid-sway.

There are tropical carnivores with bulbous, dangling pitchers big enough to catch a rodent or small bird. And tiny sundews whose tentacles glisten with droplets of sticky insect glue.

All in all, a stroll among the elevated planters at Cal State Fullerton is like stumbling upon the real-life counterparts of a primeval hallucination. The bizarre plants on display are hardly typical of what you would expect to find among the suburban flora of Orange County.

Yet Orange County is at the very center of the carnivorous plant universe, and has been since 1982 when the International Carnivorous Plant Society was founded at Cal State Fullerton with the help of Song. Today, the society boasts more than 900 members scattered from Brunei to Belgium and 20 countries in between.

Society membership is open to anyone with an interest in the plants who is willing to invest $10 annual dues ($15 foreign). The Orange County roster includes back-yard gardeners, biologists and even a Westminster fireman. Actually, there are more society members here (13) than in all of France (9).

Also published from Cal State Fullerton is the society's quarterly journal, "Carnivorous Plant Newsletter," edited by Song. Awash in Latin genus names, accompanied by enough italics to blind a hawk, the newsletter serves as an informational fountainhead for all things carnivorous and leafy.

While dissertations titled "Evolutionary Patterns in Drosera " and "Propagation of Utricularia by Leaf Cuttings" are admittedly not for everyone, Song believes there is a mystique about carnivorous plants that appeals to most people, even those non-flora types who wouldn't set foot in a garden.

"Everybody seems to be interested in plants that can catch their own meals," he explained.

Especially plants like the Venus flytrap--the superstar of carnivorous vegetation.

The Venus flytrap has been the public's darling ever since Charles Darwin described it more than a century ago as "the most wonderful plant in the world." The famous scientist was impressed not only by the plant's alien aesthetics, but by the speed (about half a second) with which its reddish-green pods can trap unsuspecting prey.

Potential meals spring their own doom by brushing against tiny trigger hairs inside the trap. But don't trust what your eyes tell you. The sudden snap of the pod halves is actually accomplished without any hinge action.

"For a trap to close, the cells on the outside expand longitudinally," Song explained. In a sense, the trap curls itself shut. "To open, the opposite happens. The cells on the inside grow. By the time a trap opens and closes, it has actually grown a little bit larger" due to this cell expansion.

Which doesn't mean you can expand a flytrap into the size of a waffle iron by continually tickling its trigger hairs. After several false alarms, the trap will cease working.

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