Plants with a mean streak

  • Bellavida Pope, left, and her brother Thunder, 5, touch a carnivorous plant at California Carnivores along Old Gravenstein Highway on Thursday, March 27, 2014. The San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers is opening a new exhibit this month called Chomp, which will feature plants and the terrariums from the Sebastopol nursery. (Conner Jay/The Press Democrat)

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."

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