Instead of extinction, they bit back at bugs

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Instead of extinction, they bit back at bugs

Enter this small botanical garden in eastern Seoul and you'll see several beautiful plants with long green leaves and gourd-like reddish tubes. Look into the tubes, then, uuugh! -- you find insects half melted in some mysterious liquid.

You're in the Botanical Gardens for Carnivorous Plant Lovers, which occupies a greenhouse structure covering 330 square meters on a residential street. It is filled with little potted plants on the ground or hung from the ceiling.

"These are nepenthes," says Park Dae-un, a middle school student and member of the Carnivorous Plant Lovers' Society, the club that founded and operates this little house of horrors. According to Mr. Park's explanation, which was as serious as an adult scientist's, nepenthes use a scent to tempt insects to alight on the slippery rims of their tubes. Then the insects slip down into the liquid and begin to dissolve, the better for the plants to absorb their nutrients.

Han Ji-su, an elementary-school student and club member, says, "I like nepenthes best, because they are not choosy about food, but Venus flytraps are more interesting." Venus flytraps have leaves with two lobes, edged with interlocking teeth. Touch the inside of a lobe, and you will see the two lobes of the leaf snap together quickly. Unlucky insects caught in the leaf trap get their body fluids sucked out.

Fortunately, these "carnivorous" plants don't grow up to eat human beings, as you see in the movies. They eat just insects or ... "Well, I heard some very big nepenthes in the tropics eat little rats, but I have never seen one like that with my own eyes," says Lee Hwa-jin, 37, the founder and leader of the club.

Ms. Lee began the club at a Web site ( in April 2000 to exchange information about carnivorous plants with other people who raise them. Now the club has more than 9,000 online members. About 400 to 500 members have participated in offline meetings at least once.

The club opened the botanical gardens to celebrate the first anniversary of its founding. Every weekend, 10 to 20 members gather to care for the carnivorous plants there, which represent about 100 species, and talk about the plants they keep at their homes.

Ms. Lee, who has long been interested in plants, says carnivorous plants attract her more than any other plants because they are active and full of variety. "Every morning I see them, they are a little changed, with new sprouts, new limbs or new victims," Ms. Lee said.

Another member of the club, Yang Gyu-seok, 38, praised the resourcefulness of the plants: "They evolved to capture and eat insects so that they could survive in weak soils and other bad conditions. Such a life force impresses me." Lee Chang-gu, 45, said: "They are half plant and half animal. They are not boring like normal plants and disturbing like pet animals."

The elementary school student, Ji-su, said it was a keen pleasure that these plants eat up insects, instead of being harassed by them as most plants are.

The carnivorous plants also have practical uses. "The many spiders that I used to have in my house have all disappeared since I began to grow these plants," said Dae-un, the middle-school boy, who keeps 12 plants at home. "My mom is very happy with that."

The Egyptian queen Cleopatra is said to have placed carnivorous violets around her bed for fear of insects, Mr. Yang said. The club founder, Ms. Lee, agreed. "When I took out all the pots of carnivorous plants from my home this summer to show them at an exhibition, I realized the effects they have," she said. "I was surprised to see numerous small insects in the house, which I had never known were there before."

by Moon So-young

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