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These hungry bug eaters put on a show

Lee Kavaljian shows off his bromeliads

In this 2015 video, Lee Kavaljian shows off his bromeliads. The Sacramento plant collector has taught botany at Sacramento State for 60 years. He is drawn to the variety of colors and shapes they have to offer, even when not in bloom.
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In this 2015 video, Lee Kavaljian shows off his bromeliads. The Sacramento plant collector has taught botany at Sacramento State for 60 years. He is drawn to the variety of colors and shapes they have to offer, even when not in bloom.

They look like they’re from another planet, and that’s part of their allure.

With neon bright hues, these unworldly plants twist their foliage and branches into strange shapes – tubes, pitchers, even snakes. Others are covered with dewy, sticky hairs; the better for killing prey.

They all have one thing in common; they “eat” bugs. And that makes carnivorous plants endlessly fascinating.

“The No. 1 question I get from kids: Will it eat my finger?” said Eric Trygg, longtime president of the Sacramento Bromeliad and Carnivorous Plant Society. “Adults always ask, will it eat mosquitoes?”

The answers: No and yes. Carnivorous plants don’t care for people, but they love winged insects – if they venture close by.

Thanks to social media, carnivorous plants have never been more popular. In recent years, hybridizers have developed wickedly interesting twists on a few basic species. Venus flytrap, the most famous bug-eating plant and native to the Coastal Carolinas, now comes in a wide range of varieties with evocative names such as B-52, Shark’s Teeth, Red Piranha and Fang.

Nearly a thousand carnivorous plants will be on display or for sale this weekend at McKinley Park’s Shepard Garden and Arts Center during the 47th annual Sacramento Bromeliad and Carnivorous Plant Show. This floral event ranks among the most popular in Sacramento, always drawing a large crowd.

“I can tell it’s time for the show and sale because it’s over 100 degrees,” Trygg said. “People don’t want to leave the house. But we’ll be fine; the show is in an air-conditioned building.”

Not that the plants mind the heat; they’re used to it.

“This year, we’re stressing plants that can be grown in our local area,” Trygg explained. “We’re not bringing in any exotic stuff that won’t survive outside a greenhouse. All these plants were grown by our members. These plants are proven to grow and thrive here, not just survive.”

Although they have exotic looks and reputations, many varieties of carnivorous plants can be grown in Sacramento, said Trygg, who is currently creating a bog garden at his Grass Valley home.

“I raise my carnivorous plants outdoors year round,” he said. “The cold in winter really helps them. They go dormant, but come back strong. They’re the easiest plants to grow; they just need to stay moist.”

An example of a true California carnivore is the cobra lily (Darlingtonia californica), which grows wild along cold streams and boggy seeps in Northern California and southern Oregon. Originally discovered near the base of Mount Shasta, this pitcher plant forms tubular leaves that look like the heads of reared cobras with forked red tongues and fangs.

Cobras can be finicky; they prefer their roots to be cooled by fresh running water such as a mountain stream. Water quality is key to keeping any carnivorous plant happy.

“They can’t stand city water,” Trygg said. “Chlorinated water will kill them. They need distilled water or rain water with no minerals.”

Besides non-chlorinated water, carnivorous plants have few demands. They make their own fertilizer; that’s why they “eat” bugs. They prefer “bad” soil or no soil at all, growing in a mix of peat moss and sand.

Dozens of different pitcher plants are at home outdoors in the greater Sacramento area, Trygg noted. So are sundews and butterworts, which catch bugs with sticky hairs.

“There are about 650 varieties of carnivorous plants,” he said. “People don’t realize how many there are; all they see is the Venus flytrap. But when they walk into our show and see our displays, all they can say is, ‘Wow!’ ”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

47th annual Sacramento Bromeliad and Carnivorous Plant Show

Where: Shepard Garden and Arts Center, 3330 McKinley Blvd., Sacramento

When: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, July 22 and 23

Admission: Free

Details: www.bsi.org/webpages/sbcps

This large and interesting show is always a crowd-pleaser and fun for the whole family. Learn about plants that “eat” bugs (and more). Take some of these rarities home, too; hundreds of unusual plants will be offered for sale.

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