Monday, June 1, 2009

Carnivorous Plant Literature

As a graduate of the University of Vermont's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Biological Science program, I find myself at a need to learn more about biology. However, this is difficult in Soundview, New York. After graduating I decided to re-explore what got me interested in the first place, carnivorous plants.

While attending Christopher Columbus high school in the Bronx, I read Peter D'Amato's book – The Savage Garden, which was mainly about cultivating carnivorous plants. Through this book I learned about the common genera, and some of the representative species of each. Overall I would have to say the sundews (Drosera) are my favorite, mainly because of the the way they glisten. It almost seems like a mean trick, to be so beautiful, yet so deadly.

The book in general was a good read, and for a high school student it was very interesting. The best part was the authors non-technical descriptions of most plants. While the book would have been much larger had he gone over every species (the Utricularia section would have killed me), it contained just enough information and representative species (and pictures) to understand what the author was talking about. D'Amato also focused heavily on cultivation techniques, and at the time I was growing sundews and venus flytraps, so this was particularly important for me.

During my college years, I didn't read many books on carnivorous plants, but while working with Nicholas James Gotelli and Aaron Ellison, I dove foot first into the primary literature. Specifically, the literature concerning the northern pitcher plant Sarracenia purpurea. I enjoyed Ellison and Gotelli's work on carnivorous plants, especially the review paper they wrote for Darwin's 150th anniversary for the origin of species. If you haven't read it I highly recommend it. It is available here as a pdf:

But since my college days are over, I needed something to fill my need to learn. I quickly looked into what books I had neglected to read over the four years I spent in college (because I was so busy reading textbooks) and one in particular caught my eye. It was a book given to me by Aaron Ellison at the end of the summer of 2008, when I worked under his guidance at the Harvard Forest Research Facility. It was Carnivorous Plants of the United States and Canada, by Schnell. This book was particularly interesting to me as a recent graduate because it focused on the information Schnell obtained from the primary literature and from personal experience growing, and photographing the plants in the wild. This book had all the species of carnivorous plants which can be found in the United States, including all the species of Sarracenia, Drosera, Darlingtionia, Dionaea, Utricularia, and a final section on some plants which may be carnivorous although their carnivorous nature has not been proven beyond doubt.

I am glad to have read Schnell's book after graduating from UVM. Reading it before college would have been a mistake since I was unfamiliar with the primary literature and with many of the technical terms used in the book. He also provided very helpful maps, which for me was very useful. I don't know if the ranges represented in the maps are still accurate today, but it would be interesting to see a website where someone could put in their location and obtain directions to the closest areas to view and photograph carnivorous plants. I know something like this would be easy to develop, but difficult to maintain because carnivorous plant habitats are quickly disappearing. There is also the fact that once people start figuring out where these sites are, they might cause local extinctions to occur more rapidly.

I am in a good area (New York City) because many species of carnivorous plants actually grow in New York! Many species of Sarracenia can actually be found in the New York Botanical gardens which is located in the Bronx. I know that is cheating, but in my opinion, it is a lot easier to find these plants in the Botanical Gardens then to go bogging.

So, to a person new to the wonders of carnivorous plants, which book should you read? Schnell's or D'Amato's? How do they stack up against each other?

Again, the only thing I can offer is my opinion. I belive D'Amato's book was more of a joy to read. It focused on many more interesting plants from around the world, and actually listed some cultivars which growers may be interested in. The section on Sarracenia hybrids was also more in depth than Schnell's, however, to be fair Schnell tried to focus mainly on natural popualtions. The Utricularia section in Schnell's book was a bit lacking, but again, he was confined to the species which could only be found in the United States, where D'Amato had his pick from the hundreds of species found around the world. However, if your going on a roadtrip throughout the United States and are looking to stop and go hunting for carnivorous plants, Schnell's book is the only guide you need. Overall both men did wonderful jobs, and both books were very informative.

Speaking of jobs, I am still looking for one. If you are in New York and have a position available here is my resume:
Click This Link!

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