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Monday, April 21, 2014

Plants with their own form of pest control

By Annie Calovich
The Wichita Eagle

The snow earlier this week allowed me to follow the tracks of a certain raccoon that I’ve seen visiting my ground bird feeder in the middle of the night.

The snow allowed me to see that he also is the one who’s been paying visits to my porch pots, digging the evergreens out of my Christmas/winter container and leaving them scattered about.

Evidence is inconclusive as to whether he’s responsible for pulling the kale and pansies out of another pot. The recurring messes have made me feel like a poor housekeeper.

We’ve been fortunate this week to receive the moisture of the snow. A cold wave last weekend snapped the life out of prematurely blooming flowers, putting things on a more seasonal late-winter track.

The frigid nights also saw the thermostat go out on the main greenhouse in the maintenance area at Botanica — the first time that’s happened, fortunately, but also at the worst time possible. Some sunny days will help tell whether any of the now-droopy tropical plants pop back, landscape supervisor Pat McKernan said.

The public doesn’t have access to that greenhouse, but people can visit a smaller greenhouse, off Botanica’s main meeting room. It doesn’t have enough light to keep many plants in bloom, but it’s still packed with barrel cactus and geraniums, jasmine and bromeliads and jade plants — and its own form of insect control.

Bugs often become a problem in greenhouses in the winter, especially after plants are brought in from outside in the fall, Pat said.

But you don’t want to spray plants for bugs indoors like that, so other methods are used, including rubbing alcohol, strong blasts of water and systemic insecticides that are placed directly in the soil, he said.

Botanica’s gardeners have been able to track some of the insects’ tracks, just as I was able to see what the raccoon had been up to after it snowed.

They see the bugs caught in the Venus flytrap, the sundew and the pitcher plant — carnivorous plants that are recent additions to the display greenhouse.

The gardeners don’t worry about fertilizing the plants — there are enough bugs to keep them fed, Pat said.

Gardener Laura Pham, who studied carnivorous plants in school, will give a lunchtime lecture about them at 12:15 p.m. Wednesday at Botanica. It’s included in Botanica admission. Syl’s will have lunch for sale for $7 starting at 11 a.m.

The musical “Little Shop of Horrors” depicts a man-eating plant. That’s a little extreme, Laura says. But a book called “The Savage Garden” alludes to one murky incident.

“There’s some rumor about someone seeing one eat a monkey. I think that’s highly unlikely. Small rodents, yes, but nothing quite as large as a monkey.”

Or a raccoon?

Just kidding. A plant has to be pretty darn big to swallow a mouse. The little slow-growing plants at Botanica could barely hurt a fly. But they would.

“Usually bugs stick on their hairs,” Laura says. “The Venus fly trap uses its acid to dissolve the bug once it closes.” Pitcher plants have tube-like growths that take in bugs.

Sundews have dewy-appearing rosettes from which bugs cannot extract themselves, and they stay on the outside of the plant.

You may want to arrive at Botanica early and eat your lunch before her talk.

Reach Annie Calovich at acalovich@wichitaeagle.com or 316-268-6596.

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