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When Feeding Venus Flytrap, Skip the Burger

Otherwise, the Carnivorous Species Is Happy to Be a Nonstop Consumer

April 21, 2001|JULIE BAWDEN DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Although my first plant was a coleus, I have to credit my Venus flytrap (Dioneae muscipula) for getting me hooked on gardening. While watching the prehistoric-looking plant eat flies and other wayward insects, I became enamored with nature and its possibilities.

When we become adults, childhood discoveries sometimes lose their luster. Not Venus flytraps. These carnivorous plants continue to amaze gardeners of all ages.

"Venus flytraps appeal to the kid in everyone," said Chris Barnhill, who is in charge of plant collections at the Fullerton Arboretum. "The flytrap looks like it's been brought down by aliens, and it moves."

A small plant, Venus flytrap gets about 6 to 8 inches in diameter. The leaves consist of toothed traps that lure and digest insects. When trigger hairs inside a trap are touched, the plant responds by closing on its prey.

It takes up to a week for a flytrap to digest a fly and other insects. The trap reopens to display the evidence--a shriveled insect carcass.

Although they look like they come from a distant locale, Venus flytraps are native to the United States. In nature, they can be found only within a 100-mile area along the coast of North and South Carolina.

There is only one species of Venus flytrap, but many cultivars, said Leo Song, curator of the biology greenhouse complex at Cal State Fullerton, where he keeps a collection of carnivorous plants.

"Plant experts are continually coming out with new types of Venus flytraps," said Song, a member of the International Carnivorous Plant Society. "At the university, we've discovered a flytrap that resembles a shark and we're calling it 'Jaws.' It's still in production and should be available commercially in two to three years."

The flytrap is a warm weather plant active from April through October. It goes dormant in the winter, requiring the cold days of December and January to store energy and remain healthy, said Peter D'Amato, co-owner of California Carnivores in Forestville, Calif., a mail-order company that specializes in Venus flytraps and other carnivorous plants. The company will have a display at the Southern California Spring Garden Show at South Coast Plaza May 3-6.

"When it's dormant, the flytrap can withstand very cold temperatures, but the 40s and 50s are ideal," said D'Amato, author of "The Savage Garden" (Ten Speed Press, 1998, $19.95.)

Flytraps can often be found at local nurseries and via mail order. Grow them outdoors in our mild climate, or indoors in containers. Keep the following tips in mind:

* Provide ample light. The flytrap is similar to a succulent in its light requirements.

Place in full sun outdoors. During especially hot days of summer, you may want to move it into partial shade. Indoors it requires at least two to three hours of sun a day.

Place in an unobstructed eastern, southern or western window, or any combination of these locations.

* Water properly. Flytraps like to be kept moist and the right type of water is critical. Don't use regular tap water on your flytraps, as it is too high in salts and minerals. Softened water should also be avoided. Good water choices include deionized water, reverse osmosis water, distilled water and rainwater.

Unlike other plants, Venus flytraps should sit in standing water. Keep pot in a dish that contains about an inch of water at all times. Although the dish can be allowed to dry out, the water should be replaced as soon as that occurs. The soil should never go dry.

* Feed well. Most experts recommend not fertilizing flytraps. The plant receives its nutrients from the insects it eats. Outdoor plants will catch victims, but those grown indoors require feeding.

Good food choices include flies, sowbugs, ants, small moths and spiders. Avoid using hamburger, cheese and similar foods, as they will rot the traps. Make sure to touch the tiny trigger hairs inside of the trap, which activates it to close.

You can't overfeed your flytrap. The more you feed it, the stronger the plant will become.

"On each plant at least one trap should be feeding on something at all times," said D'Amato.

During its growing period, a flytrap constantly produces new traps. Most traps last a month or two before turning black and falling off.

Although it's tempting, refrain from teasing the flytraps closed. Falsely closed traps can take 24 hours to reopen and this can cause them to blacken prematurely.

* Repot every two years. This is best done at the tail end of dormancy in January or February.

The soil mix recommended by most experts is two parts peat moss and one part perlite or silica sand. Moisten the mix before planting. Flytraps do best in plastic pots.

* Move outside for winter. If you choose to grow the plant indoors, take it outside during winter months so it receives adequate chilling. Watch that it doesn't become waterlogged during winter rains, though, or it could drown.

* The Fullerton Arboretum, 1900 Associated Road, Fullerton, (714) 278-3579.

* ICPS Inc., PMB 330, 3310 E. Yorba Linda Blvd., Fullerton; e-mail: icps@carnivorousplants.org.

* California Carnivores, (707) 838-1630, http://www.californiacarnivores.com.

* International Carnivorous Plant Society Inc., http://www.carnivorousplants.org.

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