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Western New York Carnivorous Plant Club

Fatal attraction.

No two words better describe the bond between carnivorous plants and the insects they seduce and then devour.

For centuries, these plants have attracted the attentions not only of their prey, but also of humans fascinated by the concept of flora feasting on fauna. In the 1800s, Charles Darwin, the eminent naturalist, conducted experiments on several species, stimulating them with raw meat, drops of milk, and bits of hard-boiled egg.

Generations later, these ravenous plants have lost none of their allure, as evidenced by the establishment of the Western New York Carnivorous Plant Club.

Kenny Coogan and Ryan McGhee, two enthusiasts in their 20s, founded the group this summer to create a place for hobbyists to delight, together, in the unsettling world of plants that gorge on blood.

The group has built a Facebook following of more than 80 fans. Monthly meetings have drawn crowds of about 20 devotees.

At the last gathering, in early October, members convened at Menne Nursery on Niagara Falls Boulevard in Amherst to dissect pitcher plants, whose leaves curl to form cups resembling champagne flutes.

Bugs that wander onto the lips of these cavities topple in, sliding down slippery inner walls into pools of liquid that drown the creatures. Digestion then begins.

It’s an elegant death trap, as club participants discovered when they sliced the pitchers open.

“It’s amazing how many insects are really in there,” said Teresa Mazikowski, a horticulturist at the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens who took part in one operation. “I expected to see maybe three or four, and it was just a tube of squished up bugs…probably a couple dozen.”

Mazikowski thinks the dissection activity would be popular with children—boys, in particular—who visit the botanical gardens. She may repeat the exercise with younger students to engage them in learning about carnivorous pitchers.

She has been impressed with the way Coogan and McGhee have handled the plant club, providing educational information at each meeting.

September’s session focused on the proper cultivation of finicky Venus flytraps, and November’s will discuss some plant varieties’ need to enter a state of dormancy, or “torpor,” in winter months.

The resting period is normal—an accommodation that helps plants survive the cold season. But gardeners who don’t know about this latency often throw away their sundews or flytraps when the weather turns, thinking that the plants are dead, Coogan said.

He and McGhee, who works at Menne Nursery, started their group in part because they saw how many people struggled to grow even common, meat-eating species.

“They’re so fascinating, because they’re misunderstood,” said Coogan, an aquarist at the Aquarium of Niagara.

Among other unusual attributes, carnivorous plants require rainwater or distilled water. As Coogan explains, minerals found in tap water can actually over-fertilize and kill carnivores, which typically live in nutrient-poor environments.

Even terra cotta pots, which leach minerals, can overwhelm the plants. Better to go with cheap plastic containers, Coogan counsels.

This and other quirks—including carnivorous plants’ disquieting tastes—derive from the fact that the plants have evolved over generations to survive in acidic bogs and other places where soil and water are low in nutrients such as nitrogen.

The plants’ internal machinery is synchronized with an inhospitable world, resulting in the wild adaptations that enable them to trap and break down prey.

To learn more about carnivorous plants and connect with other hobbyists, attend the club’s next meeting this Wednesday (Nov. 2), 6:30pm, at the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens at 2655 South Park Avenue in Buffalo. For more information, contact wnycpclub@aol.com.

charlotte hsu