I lived in Maine for several years before discovering that it had a unique group of plants that one normally associates with warmer climes: carnivores.
I had learned about insect-eating plants while a high school biology student in New Jersey. The information, however, was abstract. I had never seen a carnivorous plant and never really expected to.
But as a kid reared on monster movies like “The Day of the Triffids,” in which humongous mutant plants take over the world, the very idea had great appeal.
And who could forget “Little Shop of Horrors” and the insatiable Audrey II, whose appetite went well beyond flies?
And then, one day, I saw a display of Venus’ flytraps in an A&P. They were small, young plants, in containers with clear plastic domes. For $2.98, how could I go wrong?
I took one home and reared it until one of the traps matured. I tried to insert a fly I had captured, but it flew off, so I substituted a BB-size piece of chopped meat, which the plant clamped down on with great enthusiasm.
Two weeks later, however, my flytrap shriveled up and died. I later learned that the Venus’ flytrap is native to the wetlands of North Carolina. The transplantation to Jersey City must have been too much.
Years passed. The US Navy intervened, followed by a move to Maine. One day I was hiking in the woods, along the shore of a remote pond. When I came to a swampy area I paused to figure out how to navigate it. And then I noticed a patch of red, waxen flowers, each of which was surrounded by a rosette of tube-shaped leaves.
Instantly my high school biology class leapt to the fore and proved its worth. I recognized the species: Sarracenia purpurea, the northern pitcher plant. There were hundreds of them, in close quarters.
Each of the “pitchers” was filled with rainwater, and if I looked close, I could spot the occasional fly or beetle afloat.
That small adventure rekindled my interest in these unusual plants. I soon learned that, in addition to the pitcher plant, there are two other species of insectivores in Maine: the tiny sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) and the aquatic bladderwort (Utricularia macrorhiza).
What all of these plants have in common is the need to obtain certain nutrients, especially nitrogen, from outside sources.
I have seen the sundew in Maine bogs. It is so diminutive that, in order to find it, one must know exactly what one is looking for. The sundew’s leaves have, at their ends, rounded platforms with tiny hairs, each of which secretes a droplet of sticky liquid that sparkles in the sun. (Hence the plant’s name.)
Should a fly alight, it is held fast, and the hairs turn inward, pressing the insect against the leaf, where it is digested.
The bladderwort is considered invasive in Maine. Despite this label, I can’t help but welcome the opportunity to see the plant in action.
The bladderwort is a floating plant with tiny sacs, or bladders, each of which has trigger hairs. Should an insect larva, aquatic worm, or other tiny swimmer touch one of the hairs, the bladder swells, creates a vacuum, and – shoop! – sucks the unwitting creature in, where it is forthwith digested.
By far my favorite of the Maine insectivores is the pitcher plant, for two reasons: It is relatively large and therefore easy to find and observe, and it is particularly lovely with its deep-red blush and dark-red nodding flower.
The fringed collars of the pitchers are lined with nectar glands and tiny hairs. When a curious fly enters for a taste, it soon finds that the downward-pointing hairs are the ultimate slippery slope. It falls into the pitcher’s liquid and dissolves.
I tried, on one occasion, to transplant a pitcher plant to the bank of the river on which I live. But it was no-go. The growing conditions for these and all carnivorous plants are very specific.
It would be easier to raise a pitcher plant or a sundew or a bladderwort in a container than to simply plop it down outside and hope for the best. But a recent development in my area has made all designs at carnivorous plant domestication moot.
A few years ago, a visionary University of Maine professor, along with his students and other supporters, built a boardwalk through a local bog. Before that time, the land, with its natural treasures, had been largely ignored.
Overnight, thanks to the boardwalk, it became a crown jewel of the region. For me, the exclamation point of the project has been the opportunity to observe carnivorous plants in the wild, and right in my own neighborhood.
I go there often with my son. Meat-eating plants hold unremitting fascination for 12-year-old boys. And, I might add, the 12-year-olds that reside in their fathers as well.