Home & Garden Columns

Garden Variety: Plants That Turn the Tables

By Ron Sullivan
Friday March 14, 2008
A nepenthes trap-a leaf part, not a flower-welcomes little bugses in with gently smiling jaws.
Joe Eaton
A nepenthes trap-a leaf part, not a flower-welcomes little bugses in with gently smiling jaws.

Coming up on 35 years, our relationship gets ever more harmonious. I have a stapelia—a starfish flower that attracts flies to pollinate it—on the office windowsill, and Joe has a collection of carnivorous plants on the front porch. When my stapelia blooms, I cope with its decidedly rank fragrance by putting it on the porch with the Venus’ flytrap and the sundews and the various sarracenias and they all have a party. 

Most of Joe's modest collection comes from California Carnivores in Sonoma County. When we first visited, over a decade ago, Peter D’Amato’s nursery was in a building just behind a winery. Some folks were grateful to fortify themselves with a drink before entering.  

The enterprise has since relocated to a space next to a newer, if more conventional nursery and a stone’s throw from a couple of the area’s surviving antique shops. It’s just off the Gravenstein Highway between 101 and Sebastopol, so it’s handier to us than ever. This could lead to economic difficulties: Joe’s better at resisting temptation of that sort than I am, but I’m reflexively a cheerleader, OK, an accomplice when it comes to plants. 

If you visit right now, you’ll see a lot of brown, as many of the plants are winter-dormant. Enough individuals of the junglier sort are awake all year, though, to keep it entertaining. If you’ve ever visited the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers, you’ve seen the like: baroquely ferocious sarracenias, with their red- or white-dappled hoods; variations on flytraps; glistening butterworts and prismatic-jeweled, inviting sundews; various nepenthes that might be Klingon codpieces.  

Some species of that last genus get big enough to trap and digest small rodents in their dangling wells. It’s at that point that people tend to start taking it all personally. 

D’Amato has always had a flair for appropriate décor, and it’s traveled to the new location intact. I suspect he and Ron Cauble of The Bone Room must swap Martha-Stewart tips, and/or shop at each others’ stores. (If not, they should.) So you’ll see tillandsias planted in little ceramic skulls, and plenty of odd bones, plastic serpents, reptile replicas, and Hallowe’eny tchotchkes strewn artfully among the plants. 

Joe got a crucial Hot Tip from D’Amato when we visited the first location, and it’s repeated in the latter’s excellent book The Savage Garden. The way to keep most carnivorous plants alive is to keep their pots standing in water-distilled water. Carnivory is an adaptation to living with a paucity of nutrients, especially nitrogen.  

The plants usually hail from bogs, fens, or swamps whose water, contrary to stereotype, is naturally quite clean. It might be dark, as in Florida’s Blackwater River, but that’s tannic acid, like the stuff that colors your cup of tea.  

It’s not very expensive to get a five-gallon jug of distilled (or “purified”) water from the delivery guy every month or so in summer; Joe’s plants do fine on rainwater in winter. What the heck, it’s not like buying live mice for your nepenthes. Not quite.  


California Carnivores 

2833 Old Gravenstein Highway, South 


(707) 824-0433 

Open Thursday-Monday 10 a.m. 4 p.m. 



The Savage Garden 

Peter D’Amato, 1998 

Trade paperback $19.95 

Ten Speed Press 

ISBN 0-89815-915-6