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In a Snap

When Robert Ziemer picked up a little Venus Flytrap at a five-and-dime store in 1955, he had no idea how much his newfound interest in carnivorous plants would grow. And grow. And grow.

"Since they divide every year, I have about 52 generations," Ziemer says of his original plant. "I have thousands of Venus Flytraps that are growing outside."

Not only has the Arcata, Calif., resident seen his hobby flower spread beyond his wildest dreams, he's helped expand interest in carnivorous plants as a board member of the International Carnivorous Plant Society, which has about 1,000 members. It's a hobby that attracts everyone from children to adults.

According to Peter D'Amato, author of "The Savage Garden: Cultivating Carnivorous Plants" (Ten Speed Press, 1998), there are about 600 varieties of carnivorous plants in the wild and thousands of hybrids. Some, like the popular Venus Flytrap, can be seen actively trapping insects, while others, like the American Pitcher Plant, have a more passive ¬- but no less lethal - technique for capturing prey.

American Pitcher Plants, or Sarracenia, are beautiful, easy to grow and exhibit gaudy, unique leaves. Most have tubular pitchers that emit secretions on the rim that attract insects. This slippery rim causes insects to fall inside the pitcher, which is full of digestive enzymes.

"Another sticky trap is Pinguicula, also called Butterworts," says Ziemer. "I have plants that have been blooming for nine months straight. The plant looks like an African Violet."

Other carnivorous plants have names like Sundew and California Cobra Lilly. But perhaps the most famous and popular carnivorous plant, which grows naturally only in North Carolina, is the Venus Flytrap.

The Flytrap has a lobed leaf and three trigger hairs on each side of the leaf. When an insect touches those trigger hairs, Ziemer says, the trigger hair will cause those two lobes to snap closed. Then it exudes an enzyme which eventually digests whatever it catches, from flies to small frogs.

Growing a Venus Flytrap, experts say, is easy if you follow a few basic rules.

First, give it pure water, such as distilled or de-ionized water.

"That's the number one reason people kill them: They give them water from the tap," says Ziemer. "If you're down in Los Angeles, the water from the tap will kill them faster than a freight train."

Second, grow your Flytrap in a Sphagnum Peat or Peat/Perlite mixture. Third, since Flytraps are generally bog plants, you want to keep them wet. Put the plant in a pot on top of a tray with a half-inch of water in the bottom. Fourth, give it a lot of light. Direct sun is preferred, though be careful not to let it dry out. Fifth, keep them cool in the winter.

"Venus Flytraps and American Pitcher Plants go dormant in the winter and they can die if kept inside in a warm place," says D'Amato, who also runs California Carnivores, the largest carnivorous plant shop in the United States. "Keep them outdoors or place them on the coldest windowsill in your house, maybe a garage windowsill. In about 40 or 50 percent of the country, Zone 6 and above, they can survive outside in the wintertime."

Finally, think first before feeding your Venus Flytrap. "Generally, they don't need to be fed," Ziemer says. "Never put hamburger or anything like that in it. Generally, an insect has very little amount of mass. These plants are designed to eat insects, generally. It's not one of those things like you feed chickens once a day. These are plants and they do things at their own pace."

"For Venus Flytraps, you can go out and get live insects [or get] small crickets from a pet shop - little pinhead-size crickets can be fed using tweezers or forceps," says D'Amato.

Thanks to plant hybridizing, new Flytraps come out every year. "One that is common in nurseries is called Red Dragon," D'Amato says. "It's solid red and their trap can catch small frogs."

In a Snap