One touch and the Venus flytrap perks up — dinner’s near. Stroke the plant’s tiny hairs again and a leaf is triggered to snap shut — dinner is served.
July 2010 Issue
An Appetite for the Exotic
Franklin Park Conservatory introduces visitors to the fascinating world of carnivorous plants.
The Venus flytrap, along with its fellow carnivorous plants, is a fascinating species. By taking an active — and hungry — role in its environment, it defies what we think of as the food chain’s natural order, tossing the notion of plants being a static part of our world right out the window. The carnivorous plant is a phenomenon that has captivated horticulturists, scientists and oddity-seekers for generations, and the fact that it can be scientifically explained doesn’t make it any less magical.
“Savage Gardens: The Real and Imaginary World of Carnivorous Plants,” on view at the Franklin Park Conservatory July 10–Nov. 14, offers an incredible opportunity to see — and interact with — these rare and provocative creatures through a multi-faceted exhibition that is truly unique. More than 3,000 carnivorous plants, larger-than-life sculptures, a juried art show and daily programming combine to create an experience that immerses visitors in the world of these exotic plants.
Carnivorous plants — including the tropical pitcher plant (Nepenthes), the North American pitcher plant (Sarracenia), the Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula) and the sundew (Drosera) — will fill the conservatory from the showhouse to the outdoor courtyard, where an 800-square-foot bog garden has been built from the ground up. The bog garden highlights perhaps the most intriguing fact about carnivorous plants — the rationale behind their meat-eating habits.
“Carnivorous plants grow in mineral-deficient soils such as wetlands, bogs and sand,” Franklin Park Conservatory horticulturist Amanda Bettin says. “These plants have adapted to their environment to obtain the necessary nutrients from insects — they lure, catch, kill and digest insects for nourishment.”
The conservatory’s bog garden is representative of bogs found in the southeastern U.S., a carnivorous-plant environment that may come as a surprise to some visitors.
“Most people think carnivorous plants are from faraway, tropical locations,” Bettin says. “But in fact, North America is the native home of the largest variety of carnivorous plants in the world.”
However, the fact that most carnivorous plants are native to our continent didn’t make it any easier for the conservatory to obtain them.
“Carnivorous plants are not found at most nurseries; they’re usually grown by specialty growers,” Bettin says. “It was difficult to put together a display that is representative of the diversity of these plants, but I think we’ve succeeded.”
When visitors step into the conservatory’s world of carnivorous plants, they’ll likely be surprised by the diversity that Bettin mentions — though the Venus flytrap is certainly the most famous of the group, there are actually hundreds of different species of carnivorous plants, which are native to every continent save Antarctica. Through signage, daily demonstrations and scheduled programming, visitors will learn about these different species, their different trapping mechanisms and their habitats.
In addition to viewing the plants, visitors will also be able to interact with them, from feeling Venus flytraps at the “touch cart” to using magnifying glasses to witness the plants’ catching, killing and digesting up close — “an extraordinary process to watch,” Bettin says.
Further programming will include carnivorous-plant-themed classes and programs for adults, a children’s discovery center and daily horticulturist presentations, which will tackle the topic of conservation, among others.
“Our hope is that ‘Savage Gardens’ will ultimately increase awareness about carnivorous plants… about this extraordinary group of plants that is disappearing in the wild,” Bettin says. “In North America, 95 percent of native habitats have been destroyed — the need for conservation is great, and educating the public on the importance of preserving our bogs and wetlands will be part of our educational message.”
After all, as Franklin Park Conservatory Executive Director Bruce Harkey notes, “Plants are one of the most important parts of the world — without them, we wouldn't exist.”
Still, the horticulture component — while certainly the principal focus of “Savage Gardens” — isn’t the only thing you’ll find at the Conservatory this summer. In true Franklin Park Conservatory fashion, the exhibition offers much more.
“We’ve started incorporating art into our exhibitions in the last five years, and that has really broadened our audience,” Harkey says. “We’re focusing on continuing to enhance our base programming, but we like to always have an element that is changing. And with all of the different spaces that we have, we can offer multiple shows at the same time and exhibit them in interesting ways.”
The examination of the imaginary world of carnivorous plants lends a whimsical touch — and an Alice in Wonderland-like aesthetic — to the exhibition. In addition to the 1,500 square feet of display beds, “Savage Gardens” features a juried art show with 11 pieces from Ohio artists and four 8-by-15-foot-tall carnivorous plant sculptures created by Columbus-based TORK Inc., whose story-high sculptures are almost as awe-inspiring as the plants themselves.
“The pieces are symbolic of the four major groups of carnivorous plants,” says TORK Inc. co-founder Mark Lagergren, who along with co-founder Tony Ball, used books and life-size — and live — models to research carnivorous plants.
The sculptures, made out of resin and metal, provide viewers the opportunity to see the plants from an insect’s perspective — visitors can step inside the 10-foot-tall tropical pitcher plant, whose scent entices insects to crawl in, or see what happens when the “hairs” of a nine-foot Venus flytrap are triggered twice. The eight-foot sundew comes alive with fiber optic illumination, while seven 15-foot North American pitcher plants are illuminated from within.
“There really aren’t many other botanical gardens that have done [an exhibition] like ‘Savage Gardens,’” Harkey says of the Conservatory’s latest nature-meets-art endeavor. In fact, the exhibit will tour other botanical gardens when it finishes its run in Columbus. “[This tour] is a really great way to get the message out about what’s going on at the conservatory, and in Ohio,” Harkey says.
And truly, “Savage Gardens” is an exciting gift for Ohioans with a penchant for plants, art and the bizarre. With a combination of fascinating science, the work of some of Ohio’s best artists and continuous events and activities, the exhibit’s depiction of the real and imaginary worlds of carnivorous plants will captivate anyone who enters the Conservatory during the next few months.
WHEN YOU GO
Franklin Park Conservatory, 1777 E. Broad St., Columbus 43203, 614/645-8733. fpconservatory.org. Daily 10 a.m.–5 p.m., Wed. 10 a.m.–8 p.m. Admission