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Watch your fingers; these plants are hungry

Red veins cover the opening of a hybrid pitcher plant in Hernandez’ garden. They’re easy to grow, he says.
Red veins cover the opening of a hybrid pitcher plant in Hernandez’ garden. They’re easy to grow, he says. mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

Raul Hernandez can sympathize with flies – he, too, finds carnivorous plants hard to resist.

Hernandez knows this from experience. Originally an orchid expert, he fell under the spell of a sundew.

At that time, Hernandez took care of the orchid case at the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers. Another plant expert shared with him a sundew, his introduction to bug-eating flora. He became instantly fascinated with this odd plant with fuzzy purple tentacles that curled and wrapped around anything that wandered within reach.

“I started growing it and nurturing it, got it to a good size,” Hernandez recalled. “I put it out for the public (at the Conservatory) – and it got mauled. People couldn’t stop touching it.”

This weekend, look – but don’t touch – at the 46th annual Sacramento Bromeliad and Carnivorous Plant Society show at the Shepard Garden and Arts Center in McKinley Park. Hernandez will be on hand to show off his prized plants, sell young specimens and answer questions.

“Kids like Venus flytraps, but they kill them by poking them too much,” Hernandez said. “They don’t realize the energy it takes for the plant to close and open. It takes several days (for the plant’s trigger mechanism) to reset – and they didn’t get anything for the effort. There was no fly, so they don’t eat and they starve.”

To spare it from fingers, Hernandez moved that first sundew behind glass along with the orchids. By then, he had been bit by the carnivorous plant bug. He wanted more, but all he could find were a few Venus flytraps.

“That forced me to start growing,” he said. “I love to collect them, but they’re harder to find. They grow very slowly; it can take some of them four years to grow 4 inches.”

Forty years after that first sundew, four greenhouses and a few lean-to’s in his Cameron Park backyard are packed with hundreds of pitcher plants, cobra lilies, bladderworts and many more sundews.

There’s never a bug problem in his greenhouses.

“Why are they so fascinating? They’re very different and there’s not that many of them,” Hernandez explained amid dozens of sarracenias.

With a green thumb for bug-eaters, Hernandez annually contributes plants to the Sacramento club for its show and sale.

“Raul is one of the nicest, most generous people you’ll ever meet,” said Eric Trygg, a longtime society member. “He’s one of the best growers of carnivorous plants. He helps everybody out.”

Hernandez particularly has a knack for getting unusual specimens started, Trygg said. The same applies to the way he encourages other gardeners and hobbyists.

“He loves to nurture little plants and grow them into these beautiful specimens,” Trygg said. “He has so much knowledge and he shares it with anybody who’s interested. He’s really one of our favorite members.”

Hernandez joined the Sacramento society when he and his wife, Anne, moved to Cameron Park in 1998. After 35 years with the county of San Francisco, he retired as a golf course superintendent and changed his full-time focus from greens to pitchers and cobras.

“They’re easy to grow,” he said. “They’re very self-sufficient – as long as there are flies around. It helps if you live next to a cow.”

Contrary to their exotic appearance, carnivorous plants are not tropical; they’re mostly native to the American South. They thrive in boggy soils that never completely dry out. They also like bright light and pure water; their roots need to stay wet.

“Chlorine will kill them; never use unfiltered tap water,” Hernandez warned. “They actually like full sun with a little afternoon shade.”

Although they grow wild in swampy areas from Texas to North Carolina, many carnivorous plants have become threatened because less than 5 percent of their original habitat remains, according to experts.

California’s native bug-eaters, cobra lilies, grow in secluded spots in Northern California and Southern Oregon. Hernandez recalled his own pilgrimage to see these rare plants near Quincy. The cobra lilies bloom from May through July.

“The cobras grow up these steep hills where water is always dripping down,” he said. “The canyon was very narrow. We kept going in search of more cobras and we got stuck. We couldn’t back up and we slashed a tire on rocks. We had to walk out 4 miles to get help, but it was worth it.”

Now, Hernandez has several green and red cobra lilies in his collection. Shallow trays of water imitate their drippy habitat.

“Put them some place in the sun where they can catch their own bugs,” Hernandez said. “They’ll be happy.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

46th annual Sacramento Bromeliad and Carnivorous Plant Society show and sale

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

When: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, July 23 and 24

Admission: Free

Details: 530-273-9161, bughungryplants@hotmail.com

Highlights: See large displays of colorful bromeliads and rare carnivorous plants. Hundreds of unusual plants offered for sale.

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