When we were kids, my siblings and I would often shriek, “Feed me, Seymour!” and then pretend to devour each other with huge, snapping mouths made with our arms. In our homage to the movie Little Shop of Horrors, we all played the soul-voiced carnivorous plant Audrey II. Somewhere in this Hollywood-infused childhood blur, I became convinced that there were carnivorous plants that actually ate blood, and would snap shut on a human body part to get some. Well, folks, just in case you haven’t thought about it too carefully yourself—carnivorous plants are real, but they do not eat people. They are, however, really cool to grow with your kids.
The most commonly recognized meat-eating flora is probably the Venus flytrap. These guys sense insects walking on their taco-shaped leaves and snap them closed. The pitcher plant, with its long tube leaves that prey fall into, is also carnivorous. There are many species of pitcher plants, which all have different shapes and colors. The Venus flytrap and a pitcher plant or two would be perfect to start your “flesh-eating” garden. You can often find these at your local nursery.
Carnivorous plants have a reputation for being tricky to keep alive, but if you follow a few basic rules you can be successful. You and your kids should grow the plants inside, where conditions are easier to control. Plus your little gardeners can watch them all the time, waiting for a bug to crawl by.
High humidity is good for these plants. Their natural habitat is swampland, which—if you don’t live in a swamp—could be a good research topic for your youngins. If your bathroom has a window that will let in some light, grow your plants in there so they can thrive in the shower moisture. Alternatively, you can grow them inside a terrarium. If you choose this route, leave an opening in the container or mold and mildew can take over. In an extremely dry climate, it might help to run a humidifier near the plants. It certainly won’t hurt.
Green carnivores need a lot of light, so place your containers in a bright, sunny room. More light will bring out more red pigments in your plants’ leaves too. The right soil can be a challenge. In natural conditions these plants live in nutrient-poor earth. Gardening peat or soil can actually be too rich for them. A mixture of sphagnum peat moss and sand is recommended by horticulturalists. If this is gibberish to you, just ask someone at your nursery. They should be able to point you in the right direction.
Unlike over-feeding the fish, your kids can’t really over-water their plant beasties. Carnivorous plants like the earth to be damp all the time. Again, you’re replicating their bog habitat. But, water them with collected rainwater or distilled water. Regular tap water has too many minerals in it. Also make sure the soil is draining well. Containers with holes in the bottoms, nested in saucers, are ideal. If the plants are sitting in water, the roots can rot.
If the occasional bug in your kitchen is a problem, having some carnivorous plants around could help. But if there are no creepy crawlies in your spic-n-span abode, never fear. These kinds of plants have chlorophyll and make energy from sunlight just like others. However, your kids can drop a fly or ant in once in awhile to see some trap snapping action. You can even feed the plants freeze-dried insects from a pet shop. The occasional buggy treat will help your carnivorous plants flourish and your kids squeal with macabre delight.