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Chomp!

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San Francisco's Conservatory of Flowers turns into a garden of deadly delights with this monster of a carnivorous plant exhibition

May 4 - November 4, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO - This summer, San Francisco's Conservatory of Flowers becomes a Little Shop of Horticultural Horrors with a frightfully fun exhibition of carnivorous plants. On view May 4 - November 4, 2007, "Chomp!" features dazzling displays of these natural born killers and lots of interactive investigation stations for the whole family.

Visitors can see an eye-popping array of hundreds of carnivorous plants in our Big Bog, a swampy paradise for meat-eating plants like the statuesque white trumpets of the American Southeast, the sinister pitcher plants of Borneo and the glistening sundews of South Africa. With many rare and unusual species, even the most squeamish will be captivated by the extraordinary beauty and diversity of plants on display.

Most carnivorous plants grow where the soil is poor, lacking in nutrients or too acidic so, over thousands of years, they have evolved to make the best of a challenging situation, trapping living things to get needed nutrients. Visitors can investigate how these plants attract and kill their prey in another area of the exhibit. Here, plants are organized by trapping strategies such as the familiar snap traps of the Venus flytrap. But visitors will likely be surprised by the trapping strategies of lesser-known carnivores such as the suction trap of the water-loving bladderwort.

Bladderworts are the largest group of carnivores in the kingdom with over 200 species -- many of which are very small and innocent in appearance. These tiny killers, however, are the fastest acting of the carnivorous plants, sucking prey out of the water at a speed of up to 1/15,000th of a second. Although visitors will never be able to catch this plant in high-speed action, they will be delighted to learn how its trap is activated. A special trapdoor opens when mosquito larvae or some other small critter brushes against tiny trigger hairs. The plant slurps up victim, water and all. Once closed, it secretes a digestive enzyme to slowly consume its prey. When dinner is done, it ejects the husk while glands inside the bladder absorb the water the plant took in, thereby creating a vacuum and resetting the trap.

Sticky flypaper traps are the specialty of species like the sundews and butterworts. The leaves of the sundew sport hundreds of pin-shaped red tentacles (actually stalked glands) which are covered with a mucusy secretion. When an insect lands, thinking this glistening surface might hold nectar, it gets stuck. As it struggles to free itself, the motion triggers other tentacles that bend towards it. Within a few minutes there is no escape as the entire leaf wraps over the victim and digestive enzymes are excreted to dissolve it. Butterworts employ a similar flypaper-like strategy and are distinguished for having some of the strongest natural glue known.

The Asian pitcher plant is an alluring example of a pitfall trap. With a brightly colored rim around the mouth and a teasingly half-open lid, these pendulous pitchers full of watery nectar invite the curiosity of animals and insects. Walking on the rim is no problem, but woe is the critter that is tempted to take a sip of nectar. One false move and the unsuspecting victim is sent skiing down the slippery, waxy walls to a liquidy death because this is no ordinary drink of water. The liquid at the bottom of the pitcher is a digestive enzyme and once in, creatures are not likely to get out. The interior wall sports a mean set of downward pointing hairs to ensure that even the most avid climber cannot escape. Something small like a midge is digested in a few hours. A fly might take up to two days. Some of the largest species have been known to consume rats, lizards and even small monkeys.

A four-foot-tall sculptural model of another kind of pitcher plant, Heliamphora, allows visitors to see what happens to an insect once inside, while another large-scale model gives everyone a chance to activate the snap trap of a giant Venus flytrap. A nearby video monitor plays "The Private Life of Plants," a fascinating documentary by the BBC that shows in detail how these plants feed.

Families will enjoy one of the many kid-friendly investigation stations with magnifying lenses that allows young ones to get a bug's eye view of these peckish plants and helps them learn why some plants are carnivores. On weekends, The Flytrap Theater features daily volunteer-led demonstration "feedings" and plant dissections. Available at all times for just $1 is a special Chomp! field guide, a great hunt and find activity that sends kids on a mission to search the globe for killer plants.

So, don't miss "Chomp!" -- this summer's most fatal attraction!

The exhibit is open Tuesdays - Sundays from 9 am to 5 pm and is free with admission to the Conservatory. The public should call (415) 666-7001 or visit www.conservatoryofflowers.org for more information.


Background
The Conservatory of Flowers is a spectacular living museum of rare and beautiful tropical plants under glass. From Borneo to Bolivia, the 1,750 species of plants at the Conservatory represent unusual flora from more than 50 countries around the world. Immersive displays in five galleries include the lowland tropics, highland tropics, aquatic plants, potted plants and special exhibits. Opened in 1879, the wood and glass greenhouse is the oldest existing conservatory in North America and has attracted millions of visitors to Golden Gate Park since it first opened its doors. It is designated as a city, state and national historic landmark and was one of the 100 most endangered sites of the World Monuments Fund.