Project-based Homeschooling: Carnivorous Plants

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on October 9, 2013.

Last year my son acquired a fascination with carnivorous plants. He had been interested in them for a while, but then one day we saw a little Venus flytrap at Home Depot, and right then his interest exploded. He wanted to learn about them and grow them. We brought the little flytrap home, and he kept good care of it.

Carnivorous plants are plants that have a mechanism to trap prey, mostly insects, and they digest the prey in order to receive valuable nutrients that they need to survive. There are over 670 species of carnivorous plants in the world, and in the United States, they are found in every state. They also live on every continent except for Antarctica. Did you know that the Venus flytrap is native to North Carolina?

Carnivorous plants grow in boggy areas with poor soil that is very acidic and low in nitrogen, which is why they need to supplement their diets with insects or other small prey.

I would have never guessed that we could grow carnivorous plants in our yard, but silly me…not only can we grow them in our yard, some pitcher plants are native to Georgia.  Most of them can probably be found in South Georgia or along the coast in boggy, swampy areas, but you can go to the State Botanical Garden of Georgia and see them behind the conservatory in an area where they are growing bog plants. At a glance, it looks like an unkempt area of weeds, but look closer, and you’ll find some beautiful Sarracencia or pitcher plants.

The pitcher plants are tall with leaves that look like tubes. The beautiful colors on the top of the leaves lure insects by looking like flowers, and they also produce a sweet-smelling nectar on the rim of the “pitcher” which slightly intoxicates the insect. As the insect travels down the tube, it’s almost impossible for them to climb back up because of the tiny downward pointing hairs. At the bottom of the pitcher plant is a pool of digestive enzymes and the end of the road for the unsuspecting insect.

One day this summer when my son was at camp at the Botanical Garden, we were lucky to find some white-top pitcher plants on sale in their gift shop. I bought him the plant, and we had a long talk with one of the garden’s staff members who knew a lot about carnivorous plants.

My son added his Venus flytrap to the pot with the pitcher plant, and now they are probably the nicest looking plants in my yard. They must be kept wet with rainwater, so they were very happy with our summer rains. When it doesn’t rain, my son uses water from the rain barrel.

To complete his carnivorous plant collection, my son has been asking for a sundew, which is his favorite. Sundews trap insects like flypaper. They have long leaves that look like fingers with tiny red spikes on them. At the end of each spike is sticky mucus, and if an insect lands on it, it gets stuck. Then the leaf will wrap itself around the insect and devour it.

I told my son that he would have to wait awhile before we found a sundew. They don’t sell those at Home Depot, and I wasn’t in a hurry to order one from the Internet. But we experienced serendipity a few weeks ago when we went to the Insect-ival at the Botanical Garden. We were enjoying the interesting displays of insects, including a butterfly release into the garden when we happened upon two large tables full of carnivorous plants. A young man with a passion for the plants had brought his collection to the festival, and my son’s eyes were bulging at the sight of them.

I asked the man if he knew where we could purchase sundew locally. He told me that the sundew reproduce like crazy, and he was going to throw some of the seeds away that morning, but as an afterthought, he put them in tiny envelopes to give away at the festival. My son was thrilled. Now we’re nursing these tiny seeds in a pot inside our house and hoping that they will grow!

This is a sundew. I took this photo at the Chicago Botanical Garden.

For more information about carnivorous plants and how to grow them, you may enjoy looking at the International Carnivorous Plant Society website at www.carnivorousplants.org.

If you liked this, be sure to read my next post about how I supported my son’s interest in carnivorous plants in a project-based learning way.

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