Plants with special needs: Caring for potted carnivores
The world’s acquired a lot more gardeners in the pandemic. There’s talk of ficuses, monsteras and snake plants galore. But there’s a tribe of planters that would turn their noses up at this gentle greenery. They prefer plants with special needs — carnivorous plants that feed on insects, giants that grow in water, and epiphytic ones that can only grow on the surfaces of other plants.
These aren’t easily available. Each needs a very specific kind of environment to be maintained around it, in order for it to survive. That challenge is part of the attraction.
Payel Sarkar, 33, an underwriter with an insurance company, says she’d been captivated by the idea of carnivorous plants since she first heard about them in school. Three years ago she got her first one. She now has 25 pots of carnivores, including butterworts and Venus flytraps, in her Uran home.
“Carnivorous plants get most of their energy from the sun, so they need plenty of sunlight. But their nutrients come from the insects that get caught in their myriad traps. So you can grow them in nutrient-poor soil,” Sarkar says.
Her first purchase, a Nepenthes ventrata or hybrid pitcher plant, was a passive carnivore. It exudes a sweet smell that attracts insects like ants, spiders and fruit flies to its death-trap. Ants usually make a beeline for the bulbs. Anything that makes its way in is dinner — each bulb is filled with a viscous digestive fluid that traps, drowns and then digests the insect.
“The plants produce the liquid, but you have to monitor the level and add fresh, dechlorinated water to it to make sure it doesn’t dry up,” says Sarkar.
The Venus flytrap is famously active. Its bloom resembles a bear trap. Trigger hairs inside the lips tell the plant of an insect landing. It will then wait for the insect to feel comfortable, linger. “And then, in less than a second, it will close, trapping the fly inside,” says Sarkar, who says she’s watched in fascination and fright as they’ve devoured spiders too.
In Puducherry, Metha Dakshinamoorthi, 28, a Vedic scholar who works at a family-run gurukul, has had a similar love, for carnivorous plants and aquatic plants. A fourth of his income and all his free time are spent caring for his vast garden, assisted by his wife.
“Once I have experimented with one kind of plant for long enough, then I know the drill and I have to find a new challenge,” Dakshinamoorthi says.
His current obsession is water lilies and lotuses, scores of which grow in blue barrels on his terrace. He learns how to tend to each new species from books and, more recently, Facebook discussion groups. “The book will tell you about the general care and optimal climate, but the discussion groups can tell you what species and what variety can thrive in Puducherry’s climate,” Dakshinamoorthi says.
Among the things he’s learnt to do for his water lilies is make sure there are enough tiny native fish to balance the algal bloom in each barrel.
He’s proudest of his Thai lotus blooms, called Satta-bongkot, and his South American water lily, the Victoria cruziana, whose plate-like leaves grow up to 2 metres in diameter.
“The cruziana is a matter of pride. When the leaves grow big enough, in another week or so, I want to put my two little sons, a four-year-old and a two-month-old, on one leaf each and take a picture,” Dakshinamoorthi says.
Now he’s set his sights on the Victoria Amazonica, with leaves even bigger and sturdier. He’s sent word out that he’s looking for seeds. He’s digging a pit to make room for a pond that will accommodate their 8-metre-high stalks.
Dakshinamoorthi got his prized cruziana from a nursery run by a father and son, K Muthu Kumar and Varun Kumar, in Dharmapuri, Tamil Nadu. They specialise in niche varieties and hybrids.
Climate is everything with special-needs plants, Varun says. “If you’re just starting out, go for the cheapest varieties so you can figure out, for instance, the basics of how keep a water lily alive,” he adds. “Don’t even start with lotuses. They’re much harder to bloom.”