the grim reapers of their own obsession
November 10, 2022 3:03 PM   Subscribe

But buyers beware: Nepenthes [carnivorous plant] collecting—as I eventually learned almost too well—is next-level stuff. There’s a lot more to these plants than fertilizer and YouTube how-tos. They’re botanical prima donnas, liable to walk out on life without notice if their specific needs aren’t met. And your new hobby will shove you into a strange world. There’s something dark in the pits of those pitchers, and it’s not the rotting bugs. If you fall in, you may land in an acidic soup of crime, addiction, and existential angst. Mat Orchard thought he could handle Nepenthes. They nearly ate him alive.
posted by sciatrix (20 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Oh, that is a brilliant and horrifying story, and what a twist about Jimmy the Nep-Head! There's something so ironic that it's people's desire to be "plant parents", to feel nurturing, that leads them to wreck and destroy the actual plant species in the wild. The author comes from a place of such sympathy and understanding, including to the poacher trying to pay the family bills, that it's all the more damning by the end.
posted by MarianHalcombe at 3:12 PM on November 10 [3 favorites]

This is a fascinating article. My mother's husband was a plant microbiologist, and for a long time he worked exclusively with carnivorous plants. At one point between 10 and 15 years ago, his collection of tissue cultures from carnivorous plants was among the top three most diverse in the world, and his business at the time was propagating from his tissue cultures and selling the plants from there. So, while he wasn't acquiring the plants themselves illegally, a part of me now wonders how scrupulous he was in acquiring his tissue samples. I know that he occasionally travelled overseas to find plants and gather cultures himself, personally.

This also means that I've personally witnessed someone successfully keeping Nepenthes alive through a Rhode Island winter multiple times. The amount of work involved in taking care of the plants was among the reasons he eventually shut down the business and sold off/donated his tissue samples.
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 3:48 PM on November 10 [7 favorites]

We've got a pitcher plant at home. We got it in the spring and it has survived so far which we're all pleasantly surprised about but we'll see if it can survive a year with us.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 4:26 PM on November 10

I grow some pitcher plants and sundews that are native to Minnesota. They’re really fun to grow and easy as hell. I bought a few of them about six years ago and haven’t bought any since. They go gangbusters every spring when they come out of dormancy. But even with easy plants people get really hung up on things like water etc. so I can see how Nep’s could really consume you.
I also grow (outside) lots of native plants including some endangered and rare species. I don’t baby those either except for my Ladyslippers because of the stupid deer that find them delicious. In short I am a lazy neglectful yet still successful plant grower.
posted by misterpatrick at 4:37 PM on November 10 [12 favorites]

I have a black thumb generally but I kept a pitcher plant alive longer than I expected to. I named it Rex and got into hand feeding it live ants which brought me great pleasure as we had many ants in the house that year and I really hate ants. But I felt it was probably bad for my soul and it felt like a relief when the weather changed and Rex was no longer comfortable by the window where I kept him, and quickly shriveled up and expired. RIP Rex
posted by potrzebie at 4:59 PM on November 10 [2 favorites]

My parents have successfully grown some variety of Nepenthese in their basement in Chicago. They have it in a hanging pot that's suspended from a grow light on a timer. It's been growing happily down there for years. Pretty sure they get treated similarly to orchids, a deep root rinse once in a while, a spray of water from time to time, a little teeny bit of mild fertilizer in the summer and that's about it. I will say that my folks are very good gardeners, but I don't think they actually fuss over this particular plant very much. I don't think they even like it, but they keep it thriving because it was a gift. It keeps growing more and more of those pitcher-shaped things, which eventually wither and get cut off.

My brother left them the thing, as he had a few of his own. They are fascinating plants to look at. I don't see why Nepenthese would be more "addictive" than any other kind of house plant, other than the fact that they are uncommon and unusual looking. I'll add that my brother who has the other plants is not obsessive about them at all either.
posted by SoberHighland at 5:03 PM on November 10 [2 favorites]

In short I am a lazy neglectful yet still successful plant grower.

I am also a green thumb type. I firmly believe that many plants, especially house plants, thrive on what I call "benign neglect." Overwatering plants is the number one killer of house plants... people without plant knowledge sometimes think they need to baby the things, and water them religiously on a schedule, fertilize too often, etc. Houseplants in general like to dry out. Not shrivel, but the soil should get dry before you water them again, generally. I'll go weeks without watering some of my houseplants, and I'm not talking about succulents. They should be watered when they need water. Not before. For various reasons, some of my plants take a long, long time for their soil to dry.
posted by SoberHighland at 5:10 PM on November 10 [1 favorite]

feed me, Seymore!
posted by mr vino at 6:19 PM on November 10 [3 favorites]

Openly admitting I haven’t read TFA, my partner summarized it to me a few days ago and what stuck with me was a deep sadness for the hundred year old plants ripped out of their native environments to be stuck in a pot somewhere across the world.

And also I discovered there are pitcher plants native to Wisconsin.
posted by brook horse at 6:44 PM on November 10 [9 favorites]

I know myself well enough that I would never dare to take up a hobby like this, because I would be down the rabbit hole and going straight to prison before I even knew what I'd done. I can absolutely understand how something like this can consume a person entirely.
posted by dg at 9:03 PM on November 10

going straight to prison before I even knew what I'd done

Also avoid cycads and their criminal underworld.
posted by Thella at 12:36 AM on November 11 [1 favorite]

I don't have a pitcher plant, but there's a bog about 15 minutes away which has the special characteristics needed for these to grow in the wild. It's quite something to see a cluster of pitcher plants standing there waiting for food. I once camped out for an hour hoping to see an insect take the bait, but alas I was unsuccessful.
posted by jeremias at 3:00 AM on November 11 [1 favorite]

As an ecologist, I find people who choose to purchase smuggled plants and animals so infuriating. Wherever you live, there is a wealth of beautiful and weird native species that are adapted to live there. There is no need to steal them from somewhere else. Even worse is how often the smuggling actually threatens the lives of the organisms people claim to care about, from the Nepenthes shipped in a box to animals drugged and stuffed in luggage. It's just appalling.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:52 AM on November 11 [12 favorites]

Reminds me of the type of birders who are so obsessed with recording sightings that they will do things that severely disrupt rare species just so they can say they saw it.
posted by Ferreous at 9:04 AM on November 11 [2 favorites]

I wish the people who are obsessed with collecting exotic plants like this could instead find the kind of connection and excitement with them at local professionally-operated botanical gardens. Botanical gardens that have the resources to work with conservationists local to where the species they collect and display are native, to ensure that their collection programs support the survival of these rare species, rather than threaten them. Botanical gardens that can run outreach programs to allow enthusiasts to develop a connection to the plants they love and also for the general public to experience them. Botanical gardens that have the resources to maintain plants when one gardener goes on vacation or a fluke power cut happens.

Public, community-owned resources are a wonderful thing. The obsession with private ownership of the natural world that is part of our collective heritage is a poison. Collect and cultivate local plants and ones that are under no threat. Leave the difficult, endangered exotics to the professionals, and show your love for them by supporting public gardens.
posted by biogeo at 9:28 AM on November 11 [7 favorites]

Wow. Great article. Thank you for posting it.
posted by fruitslinger at 10:21 AM on November 11 [1 favorite]

This was a fantastic article - thanks for posting!
It made me crazy that after he was arrested there were no steps taken to seize and protect the plants. I can't believe there aren't people or organization who would have been lined up to rescue them (or even theoretically rehome them in a preservation-based location?)

I do have to admit, though, with a story lead-in like "Mat Orchard thought he could handle Nepenthes. They nearly ate him alive" followed not long after by "Giant specimens of strange and rare species with teeth and stripes and pitchers that could swallow a human arm..." - I was... expecting a different tragic outcome.
posted by Mchelly at 10:46 AM on November 11 [3 favorites]

I mean, it's a well-written and well-researched article. But really. Fuck all those guys in the Nepenthes food chain destroying the natural world and making it a smaller and less vibrant place. Knowingly. Assholes. Is it as bad as, for instance, billionaire assholes trying to eat as many endangered species as they can? Maybe not, but same category.

It made me crazy that after he was arrested there were no steps taken to seize and protect the plants.
No kidding. WTF.
posted by Glinn at 10:51 AM on November 11 [2 favorites]

This reminds me a little of the episode of Criminal about Venus flytrap poachers.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 3:49 PM on November 11 [1 favorite]

I just hope this article becomes the basis for a Charlie Kaufman screenplay.
posted by Pliskie at 10:29 AM on November 15

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