April 2023

The Nation Reviewed

Little club of horrors

By Sasha Gattermayr
Illustration by Jeff Fisher
The passions of carnivorous-botany enthusiasts go well beyond Venus flytraps, the “gateway plants”

In the back room of a small church on a leafy side street that branches off a major truck route in Yarraville, in inner Melbourne, sit six men, a woman and 17 potted plants. Together they comprise this month’s meeting of the Victorian Carnivorous Plant Society.

I should have come last time, one member tells me, shaking his head. There had been so many in attendance that latecomers had been forced to perch upon the pews lining the walls. As it is, we sit comfortably at the two trestle tables in the middle of the room.

The sole woman, Beryl, is busy opening packets of chocolate-chip muffins and setting out paper teacups on the ledge of a cafeteria window at the far end. When she returns, I realise I have taken her seat and stand to offer it back to her. But she shakes her head and pulls up a different chair.

“Couldn’t do that to a new face,” she says.

Steve, the president, tells me later that there are much younger members of this state chapter of the national society, but the regulars who turn up to monthly meetings tend to be older representatives of the community.

“It’s not a young person’s hobby,” another says, drawing a collective chuckle around the table. Nonetheless, most collectors’ first experience with carnivorous plants was when they were a child. The group’s treasurer, Ken, says he first started collecting plants as a kid after seeing them advertised in the back of a comic book. In his early twenties he came across a woman in Lara, south-west of Melbourne, who was growing hundreds of Venus flytraps (VFTs, as growers call them) at the back of her house.

“VFTs are everyone’s first plant,” Steve says.

Among carnivorous plant collectors, Venus flytraps are mere gateway plants. These hobbyists are more interested in rare exotic specimens or never-before-seen variations of Australia’s abundant natives.

The meeting begins with the usual formalities before diving into esoteric plant discussions. The non-human attendees blocking my view across the tabletop have been brought in by members of the group to trade or discuss with others.

The most confident looking of these plants are the Brocchinia: tall, flattened bamboo-straight shoots that crowded together resemble the upright hair of a Troll doll. Less domineering but more dramatic are the Cephalotus: purple, swollen ground-dwellers with round bulbous drums below a gaping trap. Least assuming of them all are the Catopsis: thick, flesh-eating shards splayed outwards from their spine, like the top of a pineapple.

Scattered around the table are a whispery native sundew with a mosquito caught in its sticky tentacles; a pitcher plant from the Philippines that a man called David had forgotten about on the floor of his own greenhouse (which turned out to be a fortuitous mistake, as his neglect caused it to bloom heavy sacs that cascade over the rim of the terracotta pot); and a lichen-like mound that draws sighs of awe from around the room. Its owner, society secretary Andrew, explains it is an example of a large Utricularia, a plant in the bladderwort family that conceals its traps below the earth’s surface and can be either aquatic or terrestrial.

All microclimates are different, Steve says, leaning back in his chair. Different types of glass for growing houses, and different shade-cloth systems and watering processes, are all required to calculate the precise environment in which the plants are able to survive. Steve talks about constantly tweaking the set-up of his new home greenhouse to get the conditions just right.

Camaraderie is strong among these predatory-plant collectors. Members rely on each other to complete their carnivorous collections, using the society’s seed bank and swap nights to find new specimens to fill in gaps. Today they ooh and aah and raise eyebrows, swapping stories of failed crossbreeding experiments and offering suggestions to those who can’t make a plant behave.

The supportive nature of the enthusiasts is shared by academics in the field.

“Most of the people in the carnivorous plant community communicate fairly well so there’s not a lot of stepping on each other’s toes,” says Greg Bourke, curator-manager of the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden Mount Tomah and one of only a few carnivorous plant researchers in Australia. “Most of the researchers know what I’m working on and they leave it alone.”

He is speaking to me from the Blue Mountains inside a tunnel house specially built for his 1500-strong specimen collection of carnivorous plants.

“‘Carnivorous’ means an enzyme-producing plant that attracts, captures and then digests the prey,” he says, in the relaxed and casual tones of someone who has devoted themselves to a life of contented solitude among vegetation.

He explains that most prey is alive when it’s captured and will slowly begin to disintegrate as the digestive juices start leaking into the trap. Eventually the ensnared species will suffocate from the acid liquid if it hasn’t already been burned alive. Most plants take an hour or two to kill their prey, but some, such as sundews, can take up to a day. “It’s a last resort to be carnivorous,” Greg says. “It’s really expensive for the plant and really hard to do.”

Carnivorous plants also catch vertebrate prey by accident: mice, frogs and even small birds get caught in the plants’ sophisticated traps, though their digestive systems are not designed to process big and complicated anatomy. “It’s such a large piece of meat to consume at once. It rots a bit in the plant before it can fully digest.”

Sometimes, Greg tells me, he feeds his sundews fish food or dried blood worms. He says he likes sundews the most because of their resilience and diversity of form. “You’ve got some that live in the margins of salt lakes right through into the fringe desert country. Some of them are climbing, some of them are small rosette plants, they’re just so unusual and varied.”

He describes a trip to Western Australia a few weeks earlier where he discovered a new carnivorous species at a popular tourist site, just a hundred metres from a little picnic area. To date, Greg has only officially described four new species, but he has between 15 and 20 new ones he’s currently working through publishing. He found one 20 years ago that he’s only just getting around to writing about now.

I ask Greg if he might name one of his discoveries after himself to mark a lifetime of work in the field. “The animal people are really notorious for naming stuff after themselves,” he says, “but it’s really heavily frowned upon in the botanical world.” There’s an international code of nomenclature regulations one has to follow. He will, however, shortly be naming one after his wife.

“The amount of time she’s put up with me on the side of the road running off looking for plants, I think she’s earned it,” he says with a laugh.

In Australia’s skeletal landscape it’s every piece of vegetation for itself. Due to the harsh weather, ancient soils and diversity of climates, the continent shelters 250 native carnivorous species and counting – the most of any country. By contrast, with relatively few nutrient-poor environments in Europe, carnivorous species tend to be limited to dwelling in bogs.

Greg says that climate change might actually benefit the population of carnivorous plants, as the increased number of erratic weather patterns will wipe out existing biodiverse environments.

“They’re opportunists,” he says. “Carnivorous plants rely on disturbance events to thrive – bushfires, landslides, any event that causes change in the environment – and they’re often the first plants to arrive in that disturbed habitat.”

This kind of vicious, apex Darwinism flourishes in wastelands, where there is no competition.

“They can get a quick burst of growth, hopefully catch a bunch of prey and then set their seeds and perhaps disappear until the next bushfire or the next disturbance,” Greg says. “We see it in Central Australia as well, where the seeds will sit dormant for years and then you’ll get a massive flooding event. Suddenly, there’ll be heaps of carnivorous plants germinating.”

Urban development is the main threat to endemic species in most parts of the country. But in South-East Asia poaching is a big threat. In parts of Malaysia and Indonesia, a single exotic plant can fetch up to US$1000 on the black market. Other than a recent spate of poaching incidents of the endangered Albany pitcher plant in Western Australia, it remains unusual here.

Back in the ancillary room of the church, I overhear two society members talking about an impending “drop” of new specimens on a popular Facebook trading group. Others debate the merits of buying on eBay. All bemoan Australia’s strict biosecurity laws that prevent easy imports of tropical varietals. And at the end of the discussion, Steve shows me high-definition photos on his phone of a delicate scarlet VFT with yellowish spines encircling its trap.

In the past 20 years, the number of VFT variations have exploded, he tells me, swiping the screen left and right to display different angles of the trap. “The weird ones don’t come from the wild.” Selective breeding and tissue culture practices by professional or amateur growers produce the exotic variations. Alien, spiky ball, crocodile and werewolf are just some of the names coined by registered cultivars through the Plant Breeder’s Rights index, an IP register for patenting new varietals.

When the meeting is adjourned for a tea break, it’s grown dark outside. The buzzing, fluorescent lights in the low-ceilinged room create the atmosphere of a reptile incubator, the moss-coloured carpet becoming a dullish brown under its glare. All I can see out the night-soaked window is a collection of thick shrubbery, their limbs scratching against the glass in the wind as if to catch the attention of their mates on display inside.

While we fetch Anzac biscuits and milky tea, I talk to Beryl about the wispy green and yellow sundew she brought today. Beryl had sat on the far edge of the meeting table away from the other members, listening quietly as they all chatted. Her gangly sundew, which she has been growing on her windowsill, is impossibly tall for how skinny its stems are. I couldn’t work out how it stayed upright. It will earn a few votes in the end portion of the meeting when members raise a show of hands for the best in show. But ultimately it will be dwarfed by the more unusual or spectacular pots.

Afterwards, I follow treasurer Ken into the dark street where our cars are parked. “A lot of us come a long way for this,” he says as he cracks open the driver’s door. He is heading back to suburban Oakleigh, but others have come from the city’s fringes or nearby towns.

I drive home along a wide, empty road parallel to the shipyards. The still silhouettes of hulking steel cranes gleam in the moonlight, their mechanical limbs stretched out like giant insects suspended in the tentacles of an invisible sundew.

Sasha Gattermayr

Sasha Gattermayr is a writer, editor and journalism student based in Melbourne.

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