Book Review: The Savage Garden

The Savage Garden: Cultivating Carnivorous Plants The Savage Garden: Cultivating Carnivorous Plants by Peter D’Amato

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Savage Garden is a fascinating and comprehensive treatment of the world of carnivorous plants. D’Amato is the owner of the California Carnivores nursery, and he clearly conveys his passion and extensive knowledge to the reader. Throughout the book, one gets the feeling that he wants nothing more than for you to share his wonder and to be successful.

D’Amato begins with a discussion of the basic concept of what is a carnivorous plant, which is more complicated than one might at first assume. D’Amato points out that even petunias, which are not considered carnivorous and thus are brought up only in passing, trap insects that might otherwise do them harm. This book concentrates, however, on semi-carnivorous plants, which digest prey by enlisting the help of bacteria or insects such as assassin bugs, and true carnivores that produce their own digestive enzymes.

The care of carnivorous plants is somewhat specialized—but the basics are easy enough to master. Although they are found throughout the world, most have rather specific growing environments: they like sun and acidic soil that is wet, low in nutrients, and through which slow moving water flows. If grown in culture, the water should be highly purified water obtained through reverse osmosis—perhaps the biggest barrier towards growing carnivorous plants. Growing media seems more easily obtained from suppliers of orchid media. Several species require terrariums or other protected spaces, but many can be grown on windowsills or in bog gardens. D’Amato covers any specialized needs under the listing for each individual plant.

The book is organized by genus, beginning with the venus flytraps. Remarkably, there is only one species within this genus, which is native to only a small portion of —believe it or not—the Carolinas. Likewise, cobra plants (a variety of pitcher plant) are native only to Northern California and Southern Oregon. North America features prominently in The Savage Garden, and D’Amato points out that North America probably has the widest variety of carnivorous plants in the world.

In addition to venus flytraps and cobra plants, D’Amato discusses pitcher plants from all corners of the globe, dewy pines, rainbow plants, sundews (perhaps my favorite of all the varieties discussed), butterworts (or pings, which are also quite lovely), bladderworts (a primarily aquatic genus that preys upon small water animals such as daphnia), and a few plants that simply don’t fit elsewhere, but are fascinating nonetheless.

Eventually the individual descriptions of varieties and cultivars does become tedious, but once in a while there are gems, such as his description of the flowers of the bladderwort Utricularia sandersonii: “Miniature orchid-like flowers with faces of angry little bunny rabbits….” This particular variety is accompanied by a photograph, and the flowers are just as D’Amato describes.

The book is full of color photographs of numerous carnivorous plant varieties. This fact is all the more impressive since all of the plants have been grown either by D’Amato himself or by his nursery.

Finally, I would encourage you to take the time to read the appendices. Many species of carnivorous plants are endangered due to habitat destruction or over-exploitation by enthusiasts and collectors. In many sections, D’Amato writes about the plight faced by carnivorous plants in the wild, but I think he does so most poignantly in a brief anecdote tucked into the appendices.

Whether you intend to grow carnivorous plants or not, I highly recommend reading The Savage Garden.

And yes, the title is a reference to one of Anne Rice’s novels.

Book source: Montgomery County, PA, public library system

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