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Savage Gardens/Nature’s Ninjas

by Linda Cvetanovic

If you’ve seen Little Shop of Horrors, you are at least somewhat familiar with the world’s most famous carnivorous plant: the Venus Flytrap.  It sings, it dances, it manipulates and, most importantly, it has an insatiable appetite for human blood.

I suppose it probably won’t surprise you to learn that in the real world, away from screen and stage, the Venus Flytrap is a little different.  While Audrey II grew to the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, the real Venus Flytrap stands a meager 10cm tall.  And instead of feasting on blood and body parts, its taste is more, shall we say, re-fly-ned. 

Don’t let its tiny size and inclinations for insects fool you though, the Venus Flytrap is a stone-cold killer.  It uses ultra-sensitive trigger-hairs and some of the fastest-moving leaves in the world to snare its unsuspecting prey, and then slowly digests it alive.

The Venus Flytrap and its cohorts (the sundews, pitcher plants, butterworts, bladderworts and waterwheels) form a group called the carnivorous plants:  Plants which turn the tables by eating animals.  But they don’t feast on flies just for fun: it actually helps them to survive in challenging environments by giving them nutrients they can’t find in the soil.

These leafy bug-lovers are the subject of one of our winter exhibits here at the Royal Botanical Gardens, and our staff has been having a blast learning about, and sharing, this misunderstood world with visitors.  Savage Gardens brings the tiny domain of plant carnivores to the fore using giant sculptures, artistic banners, interactive kids’ stations and a live plant display.  Crafts, puppet shows and science demonstrations round out the exhibit, and give visitors a chance to delve a bit deeper into the mystery behind these plant predators.

Most years my story would end here, but in 2014 – for the first time – RBG is hosting two winter exhibits at the same time!  To complement the hungry plants of Savage Gardens, Nature’s Ninjas brings us the world of animal defenses.  Using a display filled with live animals, this exhibit highlights the most incredible and bizarre adaptations that animals use for staying alive all over the world.

Take, for instance, the little Western Hognose Snake.  Upon first glance, he doesn’t look like much: the brown, blotchy serpent is scarcely 18 inches long, and spends his time quietly curled amidst the mulch in his enclosure.  Truth be told, he’s as harmless as he looks, and unless you’re a mouse or a frog you’ve got nothing to fear.  But if you stumbled upon a Western Hognose in the wild, that’s the last thing you’d be thinking!

While snakes are predators themselves, few are at the top of the food chain.  The hognose may be eaten by raccoons, foxes, coyotes, weasels, hawks, owls, crows, other snakes, large frogs and a host of other creatures.  When it sees (or more likely smells) you approaching, it will automatically assume that you are just one of the many, many scary predators that wants to eat it, so it will go immediately on the defensive.

For the hognose this means rearing up to look bigger, flattening its neck like a cobra, hissing loudly and striking wildly.  This impressive display is enough to send most people packing, but if you screw up your courage, you can stick around and learn a few things about this menacing monster.

What you may notice if you watch these antics carefully, is that the hognose is not really striking at you.  In fact, it’s not really striking at all: its mouth is closed, and it’s most likely flailing in all directions.  Stand your ground a moment longer, and the snake will probably give up the act, roll over on its back, open its mouth, vomit and play dead for all it’s worth.  It is so persistent in its illusion that if you turn it right-side-up, it will immediately roll back over in the hopes of appearing more dead.

The hapless hognose is just one of the dynamic defenders on display here at RBG.  Spiny hedgehogs, armored tortoises, sticky geckos, poisonous frogs and others complete the exhibit, and daily animal shows and hands-on opportunities give visitors a chance to get up-close and personal with some of nature’s most incredible ninjas.

If you’ve grown weary of the winter winds, come on inside and spend some time getting to know Savage Gardens and Nature’s Ninjas at RBG.  If you’re looking to extend your visit, our Gardens Café is cooking up delicious hot meals (and is serving up a prix fixe menu as part of Taste of Burlington), the Mediterranean Garden is in its winter splendour and the cactus collection is just as prickly as ever.  Among the plants and animals here at RBG is the perfect way to spend a cold winter day!

 Guest Writers from the Royal Botanical Gardens

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