Carnivorous-plant expert will deliver all-ages talk at Chico State on Nov. 2
“Most people … might know of two carnivorous plants. One is the Venus flytrap; the other is Audrey [Jr.] from The Little Shop of Horrors.”
That’s Barry Rice’s take on the general public’s familiarity with carnivorous plants, a group of plants of various shapes and sizes, infamous for their habit of trapping—in a number of seemingly ingenious ways—live prey such as insects and consuming them slowly by means of the plants’ digestive juices.
Rice—an astronomer, botanist and carnivorous-plant expert—will be in Chico on the afternoon of Saturday, Nov. 2, to deliver a free lecture, titled “Murderous Plants,” at the annual meeting of the Friends of the Chico State Herbarium. He spoke recently by phone from his office at Sierra College in Rocklin (where he teaches astronomy). “During the academic year, I am an astronomer; during the breaks, I am a botanist” at the UC Davis Center for Plant Diversity, he explained.
In addition to the ubiquitous Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula) and Audrey Jr. (who is, according to the Little Shop story, a cross between a Venus flytrap and a butterwort plant), some people “might remember Morticia from The Addams Family” as well, he said. (Many TV viewers know that Morticia had a carnivorous African strangler plant named Cleopatra.) But, he pointed out, there are actually “several hundred species of carnivorous plants on this planet—on every continent except Antarctica. Every state of the U.S. has carnivorous plants; in California, sundews are very common.”
Rice has written two books on these “murderous” plants: Growing Carnivorous Plants and Monster Plants: Meat Eaters, Real Stinkers, and Other Leafy Oddities, a book aimed at kids, published by Scholastic. At his Chico State lecture, he will explain “what carnivorous plants are, why they’re carnivorous, and how they commit their nefarious botanical crimes.” He will also discuss “some of these dangerous carnivorous plants we have in the state of California,” he said, laughing, as well as “have some carnivorous plants on hand so people can meet them face-to-leaf. We’ll probably even do some ‘autopsies.’
“Really, though, carnivorous plants are amazing organisms!” he gushed.
Rice’s talk will be “intro level—suitable for everyone. However, I’ll tell ya—I know these plants. If anyone wants to geek out, I’m ready to answer any in-depth questions folks might have.”
Another well-known carnivorous plant is the cobra lily—Darlingtonia californica—also known as the California pitcher plant, which lures its prey into its deep “pitfall trap.” It is found only in California and Oregon, Rice said. “People come from around the world to see these things.”
The closest place to Chico to find a cobra lily? “Butterfly Valley, near Quincy.”
What do they eat? “Anything that moves—butterflies, moths, gnats, wasps, lots of flies.”
Circling back to the subject of Venus flytraps, Rice posed this question: Where are they native to?
“South America?” this reporter guessed.
“They are native to the U.S.,” he announced. “They are native to North Carolina.”
How did the Venus flytrap get its rather exotic name?
“I will tell you how at my lecture,” he said, adding, in a hushed voice: “It’s a naughty story. I will be revealing the sordid tale of how Venus flytraps got their name. It involves puritanical botanists.”
As for how to grow carnivorous plants successfully, Rice said: “Never listen to a nursery person.” As he explains on his website (go to www.sarracenia.com to access it), “Do not listen to the advice from people at the nursery where you bought your plant. They are usually as in the dark about these plants as you are.”
The biggest fallacy people have about carnivorous plants, he said, is “that they should be grown in their bathroom, where it’s humid and dark. People think they’re jungle plants.” The other common fallacy is “that they’re ultra-rare, that they’re grown in Madagascar or South America. They’re closer than you think. You [in Chico] are probably about 40 miles from carnivorous plants in the wild.”
The novice, he said, will come away from his all-ages talk with “an appreciation that our world is very strange and filled with bizarre life forms. I am sure I will fit into that category.” Also, he said, he will teach the basics on how to grow carnivorous plants, “if they dare.”
“I’ll give what the kids would say—the true shizznick,” Rice said of his talk “for all knowledge levels. … If I can make interstellar dust sound interesting, this is a walk in the park.”
Back on the subject of Venus flytraps once more, Rice posed a question: “Why is it that Venus flytraps are sold in hardware stores?”
His answer: “Probably because they’re the only plant that straight guys are ‘allowed’ to grow—Venus flytraps, and maybe cacti.”