Take a break from the Corona-verse via a tour of Half Moon Bay’s best (& only) carnivorous plant emporium
Josh Brown’s plants have needles, teeth and tentacles, and he loves them all (except the Venus fly trap)
As an underclassman at Stanford University, Josh Brown cultivated a thriving terrarium with LED lights under his dorm room bed. “People thought I was growing drugs and I kind of let them believe that. It was much less interesting than that,” he chuckles… If you can call carnivorous plants “less interesting.”
Brown has been hooked on carnivorous plants ever since he studied whether he could turn cape sundews into hearty vegetarians by feeding them tofu for his seventh-grade science fair project. (Apparently, you can.) Today, he owns Predatory Plants, a nursery specializing in a carnivorous kind of vegetation.
Even though the current coronavirus shelter-in-place might keep you from visiting his store in the flesh for the time being, allow The Six Fifty to take you (in your mind’s eye) beyond those living room walls and draw you into the leafy realm of plant hobbyists.
Brown’s shop can be found tucked among a row of specialty nurseries that line the road leading toward Half Moon Bay’s downtown. Even among its neighboring greenhouses, it’s pretty hard to miss. Adjacent the sweetly-scented Half Moon Bay Lavender with its curling benches, decorative bicycles and pretty purple sign, Predatory Plants flanks its entrance with hulking, iron sculptures of pitcher plants and Venus flytraps.
Picture yourself stepping inside his greenhouse — Can you feel the atmosphere shift? The crisscross pattern of the paneled glass high overhead allows sunlight to stream in, trapping the heat. That tropical mugginess is just how its leafy inhabitants like it. They voice their pleasure by deepening the shades of their leaves to a luscious green or by sending happy vines spilling over the edges of their potted homes.
Wander around the space and you’ll likely find its owner arranging pots of thread-leaved sundews, their skinny tentacle-like leaves sparkling with glue-y droplets for insect catching. Or maybe he’ll be chatting with a visitor on bladderworts. These tiny white flowers (with shapes and markings like angry bunnies), he’ll explain, possess a vacuum-suction ability that allows them to slurp up tiny insects.
“We think these plants have a lot of personality. A lot of them have little faces or little bodies and obviously are very anthropomorphic,” he says. The charisma of these “ornamental curiosities” is one of the reasons carnivorous plants have a strong collector following. Their commitment reminds Brown a little of the Pokémon trainer mentality. “You’ve got to ‘catch’ the tall, skinny, speckle-y one and the short, fat, dark one,” he says. “They’re so clearly different sitting on your shelf.”
As if to demonstrate this point, he traces a gentle index finger across a tiny sprig of leaves. As they rapidly fold in on themselves, he explains mimosa pudica (or the “shy plant”) uses this defense mechanism to fend off bugs looking for a little lunch. (Shutting up shop, if you will.)
The Collector Following
“A lot of my collectors are broadly collectors,” Brown observes. “They’ve done saltwater terrariums, they’ve done orchids.” Sometimes they’ve done tarantulas. A number keep geckos, incorporating carnivorous plants into their enclosures. “They love each other,” he notes of the two species.
It’s a good time to be in the industry. Millennials today are proud plant parents, adopting pincushion cacti, ponytail palms and painted ladies at a rapidly growing rate. They’re a great alternative to puppies when dealing with non-pet-friendly apartments.
But plant collecting isn’t just a current trend. Different plants have popped in and out of the spotlight over the years. Take Holland’s bizarre tulip craze during the 1630s (when the average price of a single bulb went for the modern equivalent of $50,000 to $150,000). Or look at the Orchidelirium of the Victorian era. Orchids — a little like flowery cobras with petals fanning out like hoods, open mouthed lips like forked tongues and exposed throats as if caught mid-hiss — resurfaced as the “it” plant during the 1980s when a swarm of hobbyists joined local orchid societies. They gained such a following that wild orchid smugglers and black market deals became a problem.
Brown notes orchid collecting started declining ever since they were mass-produced overseas. “They were brought over here in big shipping containers and just dumped into the market,” he says. “That took a plant that had kind of an elite, illustrious collector mentality, democratized it and brought down the mystique.” He adds, “The Pacific Orchid Expo used to be held in a hangar at Fort Mason and was this cavernous monstrous thing where people from all over the world came. It is now downsized to a small venue in San Francisco.”
For whatever reason, carnivorous plants seem to attract a younger generation of sellers and a strong social media presence, which translates better to the current market.
Behind the scenes
Moving back from the show rooms, Brown enters a greenhouse off limits to visitors. Some plants sit in elevated beds, lapping up the overhead rays. Others (the ones less equipped to handle the nighttime chill) hunker down with space heaters under the protection of a series of plastic tarp huts.
As he weaves among the rows, Brown divulges a “dirty little secret” about himself. He’s not really a fan of Venus flytraps. “I’ve never actually enjoyed growing them or owning them.” He explains the plant is more temperamental, doesn’t do well indoors, and goes dormant for nine months out of the year. “Also, once they reach maturity, they’re small. They’re a couple inches across. That’s it.” He does stock them, since everyone buys them — but there’s another plant he favors.
The pride and joy of Brown’s shop are his tropical pitcher plants. He pauses to point one out. It’s green and burgundy with champagne glass-shaped tubes that fill with liquid and trap insects looking for a drink.
Once, a sizable pitcher plant in Brown’s collection caught a rat. “It happens fairly often with anyone who has large tropical pitcher plants in a greenhouse,” he notes calmly. “They do catch rats, mice and birds in the tropics. Terrifyingly, I’ve read interviews of people who work in the botanical gardens in Southeast Asia who, in the morning before they open, they have to go through and pull out dead baby monkeys before people come in.”
One of Brown’s largest is a seven-foot-across female he named Titan. This little lady is one of his breeding plants. Brown has an entire breeding program for the species — which is a big deal because practically everyone else in the States imports them. “For the last 20 years, everyone buys their tropical pitcher plants from the same three vendors in the world: one in Sri Lanka, one in Malaysia and one in Australia.” That means American competitors all have the same inventory. “If your supplier flakes on you, or if they aren’t shipping this time of year, or the shipment gets damaged, you don’t have any agility. You can’t go to someone else.”
It’s no easy task. He has to get the male and female plants to flower simultaneously, transfer the pollen to the flowers, harvest the seed pods, and plant the seedlings. “Then it’s about three years before you have a quarter-sized plant that you can sell from.” Currently, his program is producing hundreds of thousands of plants.
“If I had my druthers, I would just spend my time working on the tropical pitcher plant breeding program whenever I have free time,” he admits.
There are over 150 species of pitcher plants — and they’re all compatible. That means two species from different countries, different continents even, can be bred. “Hybrids don’t exist in nature,” Brown notes. “They’re novel.” He finds it more rewarding to create a pure species from two individuals of the same region. “Then you’re not necessarily being a mad scientist, but you’re producing genetic lines of plants as found in nature.”
It’s easy to perceive the pride Brown takes in his work. It’s in the casual way he tosses out scientific names like nepenthes truncata. It’s in the traces of dirt brushed across his jeans and under his fingernails. When his shop opens once again to the public, make sure to visit him and his plants in their thriving Half Moon Bay oasis.
While the store is closed, make sure to check out the Predatory Plants website to order a carnivorous plant or two online.
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