Pitcher plants are carnivorous bog plants found from the Gulf Coast to Hudson Bay. They are named for the tubular leaves that contain insect-digesting enzymes. But the flowers are just as bizarre. These are the blooms of the purple pitcher plant. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Bert GF Shankman
Many varieties of pitcher plants, sundews and flytraps have been developed by growers. This is a red form of the yellow pitcher plant. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Bert GF Shankman
ther plants have developed different leaf structures to eat insects. This is a species of sundew, which traps prey with sticky hairs that resemble tentacles. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Bert GF Shankman
Somewhere along the evolutionary timeline of bog-dwelling angiosperms, the plants gathered together and decided they wouldn’t take it any longer.
No more would insects see plants as the ultimate salad bar. The time had come to fight back. The time had come for the plants to start eating the bugs.
All right, it may not have been that cinematic. Our favorite plant carnivores turned to meat because their chosen evolutionary niche — soggy and acidic peatlands, for the most part — didn’t provide enough soil nutrients. And although this may be a more prosaic reading of their botanical origins, the way veggie carnivores have engineered themselves to consume animals is genuinely wondrous and amazes each generation that grows up to discover this phenomenon.
Michael Szesze was 10 in the early 1960s when he came across the bizarre Venus’ flytrap, which appealed to young minds because it seemed to be a plant well on its way to becoming an animal. Not only did it digest insects, it clasped them like a bear catching salmon. It was animated.
“The concept of a plant that gets back at bugs got me interested,” he says. Almost six decades on, Szesze (pronounced sez-ee) has turned a 25-acre former Christmas tree farm tucked away in the Catoctin Mountain ridge of Maryland into one of the richest nurseries for carnivorous plants in the country.
Back when he was a Cub Scout, the mail-order flytrap was most likely the wild species that grows in the bogs and pine barrens of the Carolinas. Grade-schoolers ordered Venus’ flytraps from their favorite magazines, and the plants would arrive and soon die from abuse, neglect or too much love. Monsters can be sensitive.
Today, for a number of converging reasons — the age of social media, the popularity of ecological gardening and the breeding of variants — interest in carnivorous plants has never been more intense or widespread.
Szesze, 65, fills about 50 orders a week, and the success of his nursery, he says, is testament that “it’s not…