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Woe to the insect who finds its way into Peter D'Amato's little greenhouse of horrors.

Arrayed on tables in his steamy nursery in Sebastopol are hundreds of bizarre and strangely exotic plants, sitting in boggy water, ruthlessly awaiting their next meal.

They are natural born killers, plants that adapted to life in some of the world's poorest soils by turning to meat, so to speak, for survival.

Here are Venus flytraps, Pitcher plants, cobras, sundews and butterwort, with leaves like flat sticky flypaper that catch gnats and fruitflies. All are equipped with ingenious mechanisms for luring their living prey. If you're a bug, you're better off meeting your end mercifully under a boot than being slowly digested within the traps of a ravenous plant.

For a quarter of a century D'Amato, who fell in love with (but sadly killed) his first Venus flytrap as a kid in the 1960s, has cultivated and specialized in savage flora, slowly building his California Carnivores business into the largest retailer of carnivorous plants in the country.

So when the Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park began planning its new exhibit featuring insect-eating plants, it turned to D'Amato to supply the goods.

As Conservatory spokeswoman Nina Sazevich quips, "Chomp: They Came from the Swamp," is bound to be The City's "most fatal attraction" this year. It opened yesterday and runs through mid-October.

Though you may assume these mysterious meat-eaters would live only in far-off and exotic places, they're quite common in the U.S., which boasts the widest variety of carnivorous plants in the world.

California has its own native species, like the cobra plant, with a bulbous green head, twisted red tongue and long, tubular pitchers. It baits its prey with nectar trails running up its exterior or along its tongue. Sun shining through a series of transparent light windows in the hood then draws them inside. Bad move. An inner collar traps the victim. After a struggle, the insect invariably tumbles down a tube to an interior lined with sharp, slippery hairs. At the bottom they drown in a pool of water secreted by the plant.

"These were the plants that really mesmerized Charles Darwin," says D'Amato, who established California Carnivores 25 years ago this month. "He claimed in a letter he wrote that he cared more about sundews than all of the origins of all the species of life on Earth. He joked with his wife that he thought they were disguised animals."

In his newly revised book, "The Savage Garden," regarded as the definitive guide to the cultivation of insectivorous plants, he is not kind in his description of how these "deceptively innocent looking plants with their delicate leaves sparkling with the promise of nectar," do in their victims.

"The foolish insect curious enough to give a sundew the slightest touch will suddenly find itself caught in a living nightmare. Doomed to a horrible death, the insect may struggle for a blessed few minutes or suffer for untold hours as it tries to break free of ensnaring, suffocating glue, grasping tentacles and burning acids and enzymes; meanwhile, its precious bodily fluids are slowly sucked dry."

Carnivorous plants are voracious.

"We do plant autopsies which always cause people to be amazed and scream," said D'Amato. "When they are outdoors, they can catch thousands of insects. One trumpet can hold maybe 2,000 house-fly-sized bugs and they'll produce a dozen or more trumpets."

They grow in nutrient-poor soil in boggy areas. So in growing your own, put them in a something like sphagnum peat moss, sold in packages as a soil additive. Break it up and mix it with water until it resembles a soft, wet mud. Avoid any mosses that have fertilizers added. D'Amato maintains his plants in pots that include water low in dissolved mineral salts.

After a lifetime of studying, collecting and observing these ferocious plants, D'Amato's heart has softened to their victims. Their appeal becomes not just their strange habits but their singular beauty.

"In my old age, I rescue little things all the time," he confesses.

"When I was a little kid I got a kick out of feeding flies to them," he said. "Now it unnerves me. If a pitcher has caught a lot of ants and then a little harmless house fly or moth falls in, it's like a person falling into a greased well loaded with rats. I use my forceps and pull it out and pull the ants off and set it free."

<em>You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.</em>