Carnivory: Meat-Eating Plants and Their Enthusiasts

the top of a carnivorous pitcher plant, with red veins intersecting a green-and-white body

White-top pitcher plant | Ryan McGhee



BUFFALO, N.Y. — Fatal attraction.

No two words better describe the bond between carnivorous plants and the insects they seduce and then devour.

For centuries, these plants have attracted the attentions not only of their prey, but also of humans fascinated by the concept of flora feasting on fauna. In the 1800s, Charles Darwin, the eminent naturalist, conducted experiments on several species, stimulating them with raw meat, drops of milk and bits of hard-boiled egg.

Generations later, these ravenous plants have lost none of their allure, as evidenced by the establishment of the Western New York Carnivorous Plant Club.

Kenny Coogan and Ryan McGhee, two enthusiasts in their 20s, founded the group this summer to create a place for hobbyists to delight, together, in the unsettling world of plants that gorge on blood.

The group has built a Facebook following of more than 80 fans. Monthly meetings have drawn crowds of about 20 devotees.

At the last gathering, in early October, members convened at Menne Nursery on Niagara Falls Boulevard in Amherst, N.Y. to dissect pitcher plants, whose leaves curl to form cups resembling champagne flutes.

red pitcher plant that resembles a tubular balloon

Pitcher plant with ants inside | Ryan McGhee

Bugs that wander onto the lips of these cavities topple in, sliding down slippery inner walls into pools of liquid that drown the creatures. Digestion then begins.

It’s an elegant death trap, as club participants discovered when they sliced the pitchers open.

“It’s amazing how many insects are really in there,” said Teresa Mazikowski, a horticulturist at the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens who took part in one operation. “I expected to see maybe three or four, and it was just a tube of squished up bugs … probably a couple dozen.”

Mazikowski thinks the dissection activity would be popular with children—boys, in particular—who visit the botanical gardens. She may repeat the exercise with younger students to engage them in learning about carnivorous pitchers.

She has been impressed with the way Coogan and McGhee have handled the plant club, providing educational information at each meeting.

September’s session focused on the proper cultivation of finicky Venus flytraps, and November’s will discuss some plant varieties’ need to enter a state of dormancy, or “torpor,” in winter months.

The resting period is normal—an accommodation that helps plants survive the cold season. But gardeners who don’t know about this latency often throw away their sundews or flytraps when the weather turns, thinking that the plants are dead, Coogan said.

He and McGhee, who works at Menne Nursery, started their group in part because they saw how many people struggled to grow even common, meat-eating species.

“They’re so fascinating, because they’re misunderstood,” said Coogan, an aquarist at the Aquarium of Niagara.

a young man holding a many-pronged carnivorous plant

Kenny Coogan holding a scarlet belle pitcher plant | Ryan McGhee

Among other unusual attributes, carnivorous plants require rainwater or distilled water. As Coogan explains, minerals found in tap water can actually over-fertilize and kill carnivores, which typically live in nutrient-poor environments.

Even terra cotta pots, which contain minerals, can overwhelm the plants. Better to go with cheap plastic containers, Coogan counsels.

This and other quirks—including carnivorous plants’ disquieting tastes—derive from the fact that the plants have evolved over generations to survive in acidic bogs and other places where soil and water are low in nutrients such as nitrogen.

The plants’ internal machinery is synchronized with an inhospitable world, resulting in the wild adaptations that enable them to trap and break down prey.

Carnivorous bladderworts, including aquatic species, use a vacuum mechanism to pull invertebrates into a chamber called a “bladder.” Venus flytraps, on the other hand, grow clamshell traps that snap shut when insects brush against tiny trigger hairs on the traps’ inner surface.

Sundews, dubbed “octopus plants,” snare victims by yet another means: Glandular tentacles on leaves secrete a sticky mucilage and flex to further envelop any prey that becomes mired in the glue.

leaves curled against each other in the shape of a heart

Fork-leaved sundew | Ryan McGhee

In his 1875 book “Insectivorous Plants,” Charles Darwin expressed wonder at the sundew’s death grip, writing that, “It is surprising how minute a particle of any substance, such as a bit of thread or hair or splinter of glass, suffices to cause the tentacle to bend.”

The peculiar needs of carnivorous plants make husbandry a challenge, a point of attraction for growers like club member Scott Straus, who said early failures only heightened his desire to cultivate the plants successfully.

As a kid, Straus raised and unwittingly killed a few Venus flytraps. In 2003, Straus, a quality control technician for a pharmaceuticals firm, endeavored to try again after seeing some flytraps in the greenhouse section of a Home Depot.

“This time,” he decided, “I’m going to do whatever it takes to get it right.”

Through information and discussion forums on the Internet, he managed to master the flytraps. He now has a collection of hundreds of carnivorous plants—so many that he says “there’s no way to quantify them.”

He says the plants intrigue him in part because “they’re different.”

“I consider myself somewhat of a geek or a nerd, and this appeals to people like that — that are not entirely mainstream,” said Straus, who brought several specimens from his home garden to the September meeting for other members to see and touch.

Straus’s show-and-tell and the pitcher plant dissection are just a couple of ways through which the Western New York Carnivorous Plant Club has given Buffalonians the chance to experience carnivorous plants up close.

At the group’s first meeting, every attendee received a baby sundew that Coogan and McGhee grew. Participants who showed up for the September session got a packet of sundew seeds.

Gifts help make the gatherings fun, as do Coogan’s stories about odd occurrences in the world of carnivory, such as a news item he shared with members about a pitcher plant in England that apparently swallowed a bird.

Other discussions within the club are more serious. With poaching threatening the survival of some species in their native lands, Coogan said, he hopes his group can help combat wild harvesting by fostering a plant-sharing network in Western New York.

By mixing the lighthearted and educational, Coogan and McGhee have created an organization with personality—a club as offbeat and distinct as the peculiar plants its members revere.

a bunch of clamshell traps on a Venus flytrap

Venus flytrap | Ryan McGhee


The next meeting of the Western New York Carnivorous Plant Club takes place at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 2 at the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens at 2655 South Park Avenue in Buffalo. Contact Kenny Coogan at wnycpclub@aol.com for information about the club.

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