At first glance, the nursery of Scott Vergara looks like any other. Brightly colored plants sway in the breeze. Some even grow in festive kiddie pools. A happy-go-lucky dog, Chip, ambles among the stock.
But Woodland Gardens, Vergara’s Port Orchard nursery, is anything but petunias and roses. It’s a killing ground where unsuspecting visitors are lured with the promise of a sweet reward — only to meet a gruesome end.
But don’t call the FBI just yet.
These victims are houseflies, gnats, mosquitoes and other flying and crawling insects that are the food source for Vergara’s business and hobby: carnivorous plants.
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“They are deceptively devious,” Vergara says. He’s talking about his plants, not the customers he sells to at the Saturday Gig Harbor Farmers Market and at garden events.
People, Vergara says, have varied reactions to the meat-eating plants. “Some are horrified, some think it’s cool,” he says.
Vergara talks about his avocation with the fervor of a plant geek and the vocabulary of a horticulturist. He has degrees in plant genetics and breeding. He’s been the director of a Portland botanical garden and the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden in Federal Way and taught college courses.
“I’m passionate about plants in general, but I’m really passionate about carnivorous plants,” Vergara says.
It’s those plants that cover every bit of open space at his nursery and fill a large greenhouse he rents. Vergara grows only hardy varieties, which surprises many people.
“The first thing people think is that they’re house plants … My job is to dispel that myth,” Vergara says of the three types of carnivorous plants he grows: pitcher plants, Venus flytraps and sundews. The plants require winter dormancy to stay healthy. They also need sun and water. Lots of water.
Vergara keeps his smaller specimens in trays and his larger ones in kiddie pools. All of the plants are soaking in water.
“You don’t need any specialized skills to water,” Vergara says. Because carnivorous plants live in bogs and swamps and other wetlands they must keep their roots wet at all times.
Living outdoors also gives the plants access to all the meals they can catch.
When a visitor leans in for a closer look Vergara pipes up.
“They’ve been known to eat other things besides insects,” Vergara says.
The visitor leans back.
Vergara ticks off the plants’ prey: flying and crawling insects, arthropods (spiders), tadpoles, fish, slugs.
People are not on the list. “Little Shop of Horrors” was not a documentary.
Carnivorous plants do make food from the sun like other plants and can live without insect meals. But they require the extra nitrogen from bugs to grow and reproduce.
“It’s a horrifying thought.”
Vergara has just finished describing the process of how the elegant pitcher plant captures and digests its prey.
Imagine sliding down a tube at Wild Waves Theme Park, the smell of cotton candy and fudge wafting up. But when you hit the bottom, all you find is a compost bin. Try to climb back up and you discover the way is blocked by thousands of sharp spikes all pointed in your direction.
For insects, it’s much the same. They are attracted to the mouth of the pitcher plant by a sweet aroma. Once the insect enters the vertical shaft, it falls to the bottom. Downward facing hairs prevent the insect from climbing back out.
“I swear you can hear them screaming as they fall,” Vergara deadpans. “Once you’re in, you’re going to die.”
The fall is only the beginning for the hapless insect. One variety of pitcher plants is filled with water and produces a surfactant that causes the victim to sink below the surface.
Sometimes there’s a lot of buzzing while the hapless insect struggles to free itself.
“I’ve had people reaching for their phone,” Vergara says.
In due time the plant absorbs the nutrients from the soft, inner parts of the insect.
And that’s only the beginning of the pitcher plant’s murderous rampage.
“Once the bodies accumulate it attracts anything that’s attracted to dead stuff,” Vergara explains. Those insects don’t have any better luck than the nectar-loving victims do.
“It’s an automated compost pile,” he says.
The plants are so effective at what they do, a group of pitcher plants could catch an entire yellow jacket nest, Vergara says. The “tube” of a pitcher plant is actually a specialized leaf. Just one of those leaves can catch 100 bugs or more per year.
Despite the exotic look of pitcher plants, they are native to the United States from Texas to New Jersey, growing mostly along coastal areas. One type grows as far north as Canada.
Vergara sells three genera of pitcher plants: Nepenthes, Sarracenia and Darlingtonia. Sarracenia has 14 species (he has all of them) while Darlingtonia has only one: californica.
Darlingtonia, a native of Northern California and southern Oregon, is often referred to as the cobra lily for its resemblance to the venomous snake. The back of the plant’s opening has white circles that trick an insect into thinking it can fly through. It can’t.
“Once an insect sees those, it’s doomed,” Vergara says.
If all of this isn’t enough to amaze, pitcher plants have flowers that rival orchids in their drama. When the flamboyant petals drop off the alien-looking seed pod will last for months.
While pitcher plants passively wait for their prey to take a deadly plunge, Venus flytraps actively trap their victims.
There’s only one species of flytrap, Dionaea, but there are many cultivars. Some are red, some are green. Some are miniscule, some are king-size.
The plants are native to a small area in North Carolina. Vergara only grows plants of nursery origin. Wild collecting of flytraps is a federal crime.
Flytraps have six sensor hairs, three on each side of the “jaws” which are specialized leaves. When two or more are touched, the two sides quickly close, trapping the bug inside.
The struggling bug stimulates the trap to close tighter and form a hermetic seal. It then produces the enzymes and acids that digest the soft parts of the insect.
At Vergara’s nursery a visitor sticks his finger in one of the traps, causing it to close. Vergara smiles, but he’s just being polite.
“That’s called teasing. We don’t recommend that,” he says. In order to reopen its trap — whether it has a bug in it or not — it has to grow. It can only do that three times.
A walk through Vergara’s greenhouse reveals many closed traps.
“When they’re like that it means somebody’s in there getting digested,” Vergara says. “Sometimes you’ll see legs waving in the air.”
When the plant is finished eating it reopens ready to catch more. A breeze or rain will remove the dried-out corpse. Walking through Vergara’s greenhouse reveals dozens of open traps holding desiccated bugs like macabre trophies.
Sundews are native to Puget Sound and every continent except Antarctica. The plants come in a wide variety of structures. Some are branched. Others have orbs. All of them are covered in short sticky hairs.
The plants are fascinating, Vergara says, because they are leaf, branch, photosynthesis device and insect eater all rolled into one.
An insect’s fate might come as a slow realization when it first lands on a sundew. Insects are attracted to the sweet but sticky substance the plant produces from glands on the ends of the hairs.
First the insect finds itself stuck to just one or two hairs. As it struggles, the glands produce more goo and bend toward the struggling insect to seal the bug’s fate. Enzymes then flow from the glands to digest the bug’s juicy parts.
It’s as if Free Slurpee Day at 7-Eleven has turned into a horror story.
Back at the greenhouse, Vergara rescues a bumblebee from a pitcher plant. He admits he seldom does that. He usually sides with his plants in the bug versus plant battles.
After a career involving countless types of plants he’s now almost exclusively focused on carnivorous plants.
“How many other things can you open up and see dead bugs?”