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Venus Flytrap Gets Its Due

The venus flytrap has the ability to attract, trap and digest insects.

An urban garden legend explains that all carnivorous plants were once hitchhiking extraterrestrials that arrived on the back of a comet. While there is no evidence to support this, the unique ability of these strange plants to attract, trap and digest insects sets them aside from the rest of the vegetable kingdom.

It was just this otherworldly look that led me to include the Venus flytrap in an episode of my DIY-Do It Yourself Network show Weekend Gardening titled "Jurassic Garden."

We created primeval bog in a naturally wet spot on a small slope. To give it a paleo-look, we set a reproduction of a T. rex skull into the soil. The realistic looking artifact came from Skullduggery (www.skullduggery.com), a company that creates authentic looking versions of fossils. It features scaled-down dinosaurs as well as saber-toothed tigers and early hominids. Our goal was to make the skull look as though it had been gradually revealed by erosion, as it would when archeologists discover real fossils.

The skull was surrounded by living mosses and liverworts, two very small, primitive forms of plant life. This bog lay amidst a garden of larger living plants too primitive to have seeds. The horsetails and ferns reproduce by spores. While the Venus flytraps appeared the most prehistoric, they were actually the most advanced plants in the garden. In fact, the Venus flytrap is an ordinary flowering native perennial of the Carolinas!

What makes Venus flytraps so amazing are the clamshell-shaped traps edged with fangs that make them appear quite ferocious. It is remarkable how the trap is triggered by flies, ants or spiders. Open traps contain a nectar that lures insects into its clutches. Along the inner surface of the traps are microscopic hairs. Two of these hairs must be touched at the same time or one hair twice in 20 seconds to spring the trap. This mechanism tells the plant that it's prey is a living insect, not a piece of leaf or other debris. Once sprung, the "clam" closes in the blink of an eye. This begins the digestive process, which takes from four to 10 days.

Venus flytraps make great windowsill plants, provided you give them the kind of humid environment they crave. Most plants are packaged in pots with a plastic cover of some sort to retain humidity. Keep the cover on the plants, particularly if you are in a dry climate. They require at least 50 percent humidity at all times.

An easy solution is to put them in a terrarium or an attractive tabletop greenhouse. Be prepared for the flytraps go dormant over winter; the plants will show this by some browning or shriveled leaves.

Like other garden plants, there are specific varieties of flytraps, thanks to cellular tissue culture propagation in the lab. The variations are chiefly in the toothed edges of the traps and the color. Developed by the Atlanta Botanical Garden, "Red Dragon" features purplish leaves and traps. (You can learn more and buy "traps" at www.venusflytrapfarm.com.)

Perhaps the most rewarding part of creating projects for Weekend Gardening is featuring unusual yet available plants. "Jurassic Garden" will always be among my favorite projects, for within its confines is the entire evolutionary history of the plant kingdom. From primitive mosses to the most complex flower of all, the daisy, there is a whole textbook of learning condensed into the species of this garden.

Whether you are considering a school project or something special for a botanical garden, or you just want to delve into the primitive or exotic, a Jurassic garden is most rewarding. All the dry books and drawings of academia do not add up to the revelations of evolution you'll discover when you pair the skull of T. rex with the tiny, insect-eating Venus flytraps.

(Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist and host of Weekend Gardening on DIY-Do It Yourself Network. E-mail her at mo@moplants.com. For more information, visit : www.moplants.com or www.DIYNetwork.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)

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