A small crowd of adults and children watched, rapt, as Aidan Fox used a pair of tweezers to transfer freeze-dried crickets, one by one, from a plastic jar to the hungry mouths of a large tray of Venus flytraps.
“They’ll be gone in about a week, leaving just the wings and exoskeleton,” said Fox, age 15, as he deftly lowered another morsel. Silently, the plant sprang shut on it, so suddenly that the spectators collectively flinched.
“Oh no,” said a little girl. The crowd laughed, with a touch of relief.
Fox and his audience had come out for New England’s 12th annual Carnivorous Plant Show, held for the first time this year at Boylston’s Tower Hill Botanic Garden. This year’s gathering, which drew nearly 2,000 attendees over last weekend, felt like a cross between an ordinary flower show and an amateur production of “Little Shop of Horrors” — and offered a peep into the subculture of people fascinated by plants that feed on animals.
There are hundreds of species of carnivorous plants, which collect energy from the sun like regular plants but also find nutrition by luring, capturing, and consuming insects and other small creatures. Many more hybrids can be produced by cross-pollinating them. At the show were tables of hanging pitcher plants, which attract and drown their prey with a sugary nectar; jars upon jars of lush, delicately tenticalled sundews, which use sticky glands to trap insects; murky tanks of aquatic waterwheels; butterworts, which trap food with sticky, flypaper-like leaves; bladderworts; corkscrew plants; and, of course, great bogs of the iconic Venus flytrap.
Carnivorous plant sales were brisk, with seedlings available for just a few dollars and some fully grown plants for substantially more. Emily Miller, a student who lives in Worcester, said she came to the show because she has been considering growing some carnivorous plants of her own.
“We’re likely to bring something home, if we find the right pitcher or flytrap,” Miller said.
The show was organized by the New England Carnivorous Plant Society, founded in the early 2000s by about a dozen carnivorous plant enthusiasts who met online. The ranks have since swelled, with nearly a hundred members now organizing not just the yearly show but also meetings where members swap cuttings and gardening tips, plan educational trips to schools, and organize conservation efforts. This year, they plan to formally register as a nonprofit.
“What I found fascinating was how unique it is that they capture nutrients from living animals,” said Donald Gallant, who joined the Society about seven years ago with his wife. He now serves as librarian for the organization and gave introductory talks about carnivorous plants on both days of this year’s show. “If something’s growing where it can’t get nutrients from the soil, nature finds a way.”
Others are less philosophical about the plants’ appeal.
“You can feed ’em,” said Timothy Estep, another Society member, with a laugh. “You can give ’em bugs.”
Shaun Montminy, the Society’s treasurer, was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a cartoon of a hapless gardener looking on at a dog being eaten by an outsize carnivorous plant, under bloody, dripping letters that read “Extreme Gardening.” Montminy identified the plant as Nepenthes bicalcarata, commonly known as the fanged pitcher plant.
Ever since he obtained his first Venus flytrap during a family vacation to Canada at age 7, Montminy said, he’s been fascinated by how carnivorous plants fill an obscure biological niche by augmenting a nutrient-poor habitat with a diet of spiders, insects, and even occasionally small amphibians and mammals. He sometimes leaves one of his carnivorous plants by the fruit bowl in his kitchen in order to keep the population of fruit flies under control.
“I’m just fascinated by the symbioticism of it,” said Montminy, whose day job is in photovoltaics.
Some carnivorous plants are easy to care for, but others demand constant attention and resources. Throughout the day, visitors approached Montminy, who was wearing a pin reading “Ask me about carnivorous plants,” with horticultural questions.
“How do you feed them in the winter?” asks one woman, gesturing toward a display of Venus flytraps. “I bought one in the winter and it died.”
“It might have just been dormant,” Montminy said, explaining that many species require little food during stretches of cold weather.
Besides the collection of hungry plants, the show featured prizes for specific species, hourly feedings, and a variety of presentations on growing techniques, specific genera, scientific research on the enzymes found in certain carnivorous plants, and how to legally import specimens from overseas.
The show was also a destination for commercial growers. Ryan Georgia, who runs an online store called Native Exotics where he sells exotic plants, including many carnivorous species, drove to the show from Trumansburg, N.Y., to set up a stand and sell specimens to attendees.
“I’m drawn to the lure of the really difficult plants to grow,” Georgia said. “It’s like card collecting.”
Another grower, Jeremiah Harris, flew in for the Boylston show from Colorado with plastic bags of homegrown tropical pitcher plant seedlings in his checked luggage. His affair with the plants goes way back.
“When I was 4 or 5, I got a Venus flytrap and just fell in love with it,” he said.
Harris’s day job is in rental properties, but he finds time to care for upward of 10,000 specimens, representing some 700 species, that he grows in three greenhouses with a high-tech automated control system. He’s traveled to remote regions of the Philippines and Papua New Guinea to locate rare or unknown species of carnivorous plants; last year, he believes he discovered a completely new species of Nepenthes in rural Papua New Guinea, though it has not yet been officially named.
“It’s a fun little hobby,” Harris said, with an ironic grin that acknowledged the massive time and resources he has devoted to his passion.
Back at the Native Exotics stand, a passerby wondered out loud what would happen if she put her finger in one of the pitcher plants.
“If you left it in there for about two weeks, it would actually dissolve your finger,” Georgia said. “You’d have to be very patient.”
Jon Christian can be reached at email@example.com.