Carnivorous plants don t care for people, but they love winged insects if they venture close by. (Dreamstime)

These hungry bug eaters put on a show

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — They look like they’re from another planet, and that’s part of their allure.

With neon bright hues, these unworldly plants twist their foliage and branches into strange shapes — tubes, pitchers, even snakes. Others are covered with dewy, sticky hairs; the better for killing prey.

They all have one thing in common; they “eat” bugs. And that makes carnivorous plants endlessly fascinating.

“The No. 1 question I get from kids: Will it eat my finger?” said Eric Trygg, longtime president of the Sacramento Bromeliad and Carnivorous Plant Society. “Adults always ask, will it eat mosquitoes?”

The answers: No and yes. Carnivorous plants don’t care for people, but they love winged insects — if they venture close by.

Thanks to social media, carnivorous plants have never been more popular. In recent years, hybridizers have developed wickedly interesting twists on a few basic species. Venus flytrap, the most famous bug-eating plant and native to the Coastal Carolinas, now comes in a wide range of varieties with evocative names such as B-52, Shark’s Teeth, Red Piranha and Fang.

Although they have exotic looks and reputations, many varieties of carnivorous plants can be grown in Sacramento, said Trygg, who is currently creating a bog garden at his Grass Valley, Calif., home.

“I raise my carnivorous plants outdoors year round,” he said. “The cold in winter really helps them. They go dormant, but come back strong. They’re the easiest plants to grow; they just need to stay moist.”

An example of a true California carnivore is the cobra lily (Darlingtonia californica), which grows wild along cold streams and boggy seeps in Northern California and southern Oregon. Originally discovered near the base of Mount Shasta, this pitcher plant forms tubular leaves that look like the heads of reared cobras with forked red tongues and fangs.

Cobras can be finicky; they prefer their roots to be cooled by fresh running water such as a mountain stream. Water quality is key to keeping any carnivorous plant happy.

“They can’t stand city water,” Trygg said. “Chlorinated water will kill them. They need distilled water or rain water with no minerals.”

Besides non-chlorinated water, carnivorous plants have few demands. They make their own fertilizer; that’s why they “eat” bugs. They prefer “bad” soil or no soil at all, growing in a mix of peat moss and sand.

Dozens of different pitcher plants are at home outdoors in the greater Sacramento area, Trygg noted. So are sundews and butterworts, which catch bugs with sticky hairs.

“There are about 650 varieties of carnivorous plants,” he said. “People don’t realize how many there are; all they see is the Venus flytrap. But when they walk into our show and see our displays, all they can say is, ‘Wow!’”

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