Eating up all of the attention

Floyd Williams is accustomed to people being both intrigued and repulsed by the carnivorous plants he sells at local farmers markets.

"Most people are pretty fascinated by plants that ingest protein," he said. "A few people are put off by it. I can understand that. I've had people ask me, 'Can you feed them tofu instead of insects?' It does not work."

Williams grows thousands of Venus flytraps, pitcher plants and sundews outside and in a greenhouse near his home, located about five miles from Ashland on Highway 66 next to Neil Creek.

Drawn in by his own curiosity, he began raising the plants as a hobby 20 years ago. The hobby gradually morphed into a business and Williams has been seriously selling the unusual plants for 10 years.

The plants most likely to give people the shudders are the sundews.

Plant processes

Williams explained that sundews are like living flypaper. Hapless insects that land on a sundew are trapped by droplets of glue. Digestive enzymes in the droplets burn holes in the insects' exoskeletons and melt the insides. Hairs on the sundew then suck out the nutrients.

As for Venus flytraps, they clamp down on prey, then squeeze out the nutrients while at the same time secreting acids to assimilate the insect, he said.

Williams is philosophical about his plants, which evolved in swamps and bogs where slow-moving water leaches nutrients from the soil. Carnivorous plants trap insects to make up for those lost nutrients, especially nitrogen.

"I think that life feeds on life. A duality is expressed when plants eat animals and animals eat plants. It's a completion of the circle," he said.

Williams grows several types of American pitcher plants, which have a natural range from southern Quebec down to Florida and from the New Jersey pine barrens west to Texas. They thrive from sea level to 3,000 feet in elevation.

The surprisingly hardy pitcher plants secrete a syrupy, narcotic-laced nectar that attracts insects from a distance. Once they come closer, they are lured in by bright, flower-like colors on the pitcher plants' leaves, which curl in to form tubes. An insect's struggles inside a pitcher plant will only serve to seal its fate.

"The activity of scratching on the plant sides releases digestive enzymes to finish dispatching the insect," Williams said.

Insect visitors to the purple pitcher plant become intoxicated with drug-like nectar, then fall into a cup of water inside the plant. Downward pointing hairs keep the insect from crawling out. The plant also secretes a substance that takes the electrical field off the surface of the water, lowering the surface tension and causing the insect to sink and drown, he said.

Some types of pitcher plants have bacteria in their cups of water to help with digestion, while others have digestive acid.

Different varieties of pitcher plants are voracious eaters of flies, yellowjackets, bald-faced hornets, ants and earwigs. While carnivorous plants can go up to three years without eating an insect, Williams said he has personally never seen one go more than three weeks without catching one, except when they die back to hibernate through the winter.

Growing, selling carnivores

American pitcher plants can be grown outdoors and withstand temperatures down to 15 degrees. Tropical pitcher plants, sundews and Venus flytraps grow indoors, he said.

Williams said carnivorous plants not only control insect pests, but they may have medicinal value. A substance produced by American pitcher plants is injected into joints to treat arthritis. One woman told him she had been bedridden for 12 years but gradually recovered after getting the injections.

He doesn't sell his plants for medical use and said it would take a chemist and a botanist to be able to extract the appropriate substances from the plants.

An American pitcher plants costs $10 for a three-year-old plant, with the price increasing by $5 per extra year of growth. He sells sundews beginning when they are two years old for $5. Venus flytraps, which take three months to a year to reach a point where they can be sold, start at $5.

Williams is taking a vacation from his business for part of next week, but will be back at the Grants Pass Growers' Market from 9 a.m. to — p.m. on Saturday, July 19, the Rogue Valley Growers Crafters Market in Ashland from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday, July 22, and the Rogue Valley Growers Crafters Market in Medford from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, July 24. He shows his plants each week at the three locations through the market season.

Staff writer can be reached at 479-8199 or To post a comment, visit .

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