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Sex, Death, and Plants

The subtle, dangerous seduction of carnivorous plants

UNTIL I VISITED CALIFORNIA CARNIVORES, the largest carnivorous plant nursery in the United States, I didn’t know there was a world of these plants beyond the Venus flytrap. I’d grown up seeing flytraps—with a warning not to touch—in museum gift shops or nurseries. When the plants sense a meal on their serrated mouths, they close their jaws and form a stomach. Their leaves secrete enzymes, and they digest their prey. When the leaves open, only a husk of chitin—the insect exoskeleton—is left. The plants shouldn’t spend their energy closing around nothing. That’s why you’re not supposed to wantonly touch them.

The greenhouse is a humid, tropical riot of reds, oranges, yellows, greens. I’ve stepped into another world. It smells sweet and wet, musty like a bedroom after sex. The plants beg me to trail my finger down their waxy leaves, through their dew, to trace the outline of their strange flowers. It’s forbidden. I can’t stop wondering what it would feel like all the same. They make me think of sex, or maybe I’m already thinking about sex and the plants are just the medium through which my thoughts are expressed. It’s difficult to articulate in a way that doesn’t feel vaguely X-rated.

There are rows of flytraps and other plants in the same family. Sundews grow rosettes of leaves, the ends dotted with what look like water droplets but are lethal snares. It’s hard to believe these plants come from the same planet as I do. It’s even harder to believe that they don’t just grow in exotic tropical locations but have been near me my whole life. Sarracenia, carnivorous pitcher plants, grow throughout the eastern United States from the coast all the way into the Great Lakes area and Canada.

No matter where they live, carnivorous plants don’t like fertile soil. That’s why peat moss, which holds water but is low in nutrients, is the preferred growing medium. The plants get what they need from insects that surrender to them.

The plants shouldn’t spend their energy closing around nothing. That’s why you’re not supposed to wantonly touch them.

I START A CARNIVOROUS PLANT BOG of my own soon after my visit to California Carnivores. I buy a hard-shell pond liner and bury it in the soil. Then I fill it with peat and sand and jug after jug of the recommended distilled water. I remember to keep the bog from getting too dry in the hot summers; abundant Pacific Northwest insects and rainwater take care of my hungry plants the rest of the year.

It’s no wonder these plants, which combine desire and death in an irresistible combination, are often referred to by Latin and Greek words in their feminine form. Dionaea muscipula, the Venus flytrap, is named for the goddess Diana. Sundews, the genus Drosera, got their name from the feminine form of droseros or “dew.” The plants are as sensual as a woman’s body. Hapless insects are drawn to their mouths, their secretions, or climb down the slippery pitcher walls to get a taste. They never come back up again.

The plant that fascinates me most, the nepenthes, I am incapable of nurturing. They have pitchers like sarracenia, but theirs hang from tendrils suspended on the end of each leaf. Nepenthes is native to the Malay Peninsula and the rainforests of Borneo. They want heat and enough moisture in the air that it feels like sweat. The cups are tumescent, bulbous yellowy bottoms that redden toward their thick lips. The entrance is covered by a hood not unlike a clitoris. I am fascinated by them, so familiar and yet unmistakably other, like a word forgotten on the tip of my tongue. But the nepenthes I purchased proved too finicky for my tending. The air was too dry, and I wasn’t committed to misting and feeding as it would have liked. Eventually the plant stopped producing its large pitchers and shriveled away to nothing.

I tell a friend about my carnivorous plants, that I couldn’t keep the one that needed the most care from dying.

He laughs. “Is that a metaphor?”

It probably is. I’ve lost track of the number of things I’ve fallen in love with that I couldn’t keep alive. Yet most of these plants require so little. I can give them that. Maybe this is why they make me think of seduction rather than romance. They offer alluring encounters but want nothing more lasting than a meal.

I can’t help but admire the way these carnivorous plants summon their prey rather than chase it down. They are content to wait, knowing that what they need will be drawn to them eventually. Sometimes metaphors are just the facts of life.

This piece is from Orion’s Winter 2023 issue, Romance in the Climate Crisis. Special thanks to the NRDC for their generous funding of this issue.

Tove Danovich is the author of Under the Henfluence: Inside the World of Backyard Chickens and the People Who Love Them. She lives in Portland, Oregon.