Animals have always eaten plants. Now the tables are turned and, from a local cultivator in Ashland, you can get several varieties of plants that eat animals — little ones, that is, like ants, earwigs and yellow jackets.

Animals have always eaten plants. Now the tables are turned and, from a local cultivator in Ashland, you can get several varieties of plants that eat animals — little ones, that is, like ants, earwigs and yellow jackets.

In addition, the aggressive potted plants from Southern Oregon Carnivorous Plants — available at growers markets — are great conversation starters.

"I don't sell them as pest control," says Floyd Williams, who grows them in his greenhouse on Highway 66. "It creates too much expectation. But often they will handle pests. I had a trail of ants on my porch for two years and I put an American pitcher plant on the trail. It grew like crazy eating ants till the queen ran out of eggs. They've never been back."

At his booth at the Tuesday Growers Market in Ashland, Sheila Hungerford announces, "I've got a fruit-fly problem, what with fruit ripening on the kitchen counter." Williams hands her a Sundew, a sinuous bushy plant covered with alluring, sticky scents designed to trap the bugs. She hands over $5, saying she will put a melon rind next to it, to get a swarm going, then sit back and watch the fun.

Flesh-eating plants are admittedly an offbeat line of work, says Williams, but "it started out as a hobby and got out of control." His days at growers markets, including Thursdays at the Medford Armory, are devoted mostly to explaining that carnivorous plants are for real, that they do love gobbling bugs, that you can grow them in pots in your home and on the porch and that, no, they are not harvested from the wild. They're all grown from seeds, and take several years to get to marketable size.

"It's a great, nontoxic way to get critters like house flies and earwigs and it saves you from having to squash them and feeling bad about that," says Jan Vidmos of Ashland.

Her husband David Vidmos adds, "I'd like to get a 'buy carnivorous' bumper sticker." Williams' mini-lectures on carnivorous plants spell out that they are not tropical plants, as many people believe, but grow wild from Nova Scotia to Florida, and across the South to Texas. Some even grow in Antarctica. That means they winter well in our region, don't mind frost and can be submerged for weeks.

How did they develop their unusual adaptation, finding nutrition from bugs rather than the soil? It comes from evolving in swamps, where the water washes all the nutrition out of the soil, so, demonstrating a seemingly conscious desire to change and survive, the plants developed cups or sticky, hairy tendrils surrounded by colors bugs love.

They get lured in by "syrupy sweet nectar," then zap them with sedative and paralytic chemicals. At their leisure, they stick hairs into the bugs and suck out their juices, leaving an exoskeleton that ironically serves as a decoy, attracting more bugs who, seeing the husk, think there must be food there.

One customer even brought back a trumpet-shaped pitcher plant crammed with earwigs and asked if it would choke on them.

"No," said Williams, "but it's going to grow really fast for a while." The "planimals," as Williams calls them (because they act half like plants, half like animals) do require six hours of direct sunlight in the summer and should be brought inside for tje winter, although they can put up with temperatures as low as 15 degrees.

Williams has Venus flytraps, which is what most people think of as THE carnivorous plant, however, they have proved fussy, hard to grow and are in a constant battle against fungi and aphids.

Strangely, the only predator of carnivorous plants IS a bug — the aphid — which senses their dormant period, December through March, and attacks them.

If you're starting to suspect that these wily plants have a personality, Williams says you're right. "Absolutely, they're different from dahlias, because they're predatory. They cross the line and they're upfront about it. Most plants are used to getting eaten by animals. These ones eat animals — and they're independent of soil.

"They're happy when the greenhouse is full of insects and they're never sad. During winter when there are no bugs, they do get indifferent, though." And, yes, Williams does talk to them, even giving names to ones he's had for 10 years or longer. "When I have a fight with my wife, I share it with the plants," he jokes. "They're very compassionate and understanding." Larger plants, 2 feet high, are in the $10 to $15 range, with more mature ones costing more. Williams can be reached at 488-4609.