The Bog Man and His Secret Garden
After decades of building perhaps the largest collection of carnivorous plants in the nation, a Virginia man fights to save them—and stop them from consuming his life
Night devours twilight in the boondocks of Virginia. It is mid-May and the Bog Man is leading me down a wooded path to his secret garden. He mentions casually that at this time of year the copperheads sometimes come out after dark and lie across the trail, which seems only fitting since the Bog Man would prefer no one but he were ever to walk this path.
Indeed, gaining admission to the secret garden wasn’t easy. First I had to agree to a few conditions, which we had negotiated by phone and e-mail. During the exchange, I had frankly begun to think of the Bog Man as a bit paranoid and, possibly, delusional. He told me that he had amassed one of the greatest collections of carnivorous plants in the world, with “more than sixty thousand individual genetic specimens.”
In one e-mail, he wrote: “I’ve been wrestling with an issue of trust. There is a secret, very small lab, climate-controlled, which houses a huge number of some of the rarest plants in the world. For one [of them], I’m the only source. If any hint of the location were to leak, the results would likely be catastrophic. Many growers of these rare plants have had them stolen, and this lab would be irresistible to any plant thief.”
Stepping haltingly along the path, I hear a door creak open, and I see the vague outline of the Bog Man darting inside. One light flickers on, and then another and another, until the room shines bright white.
I step into the front section of the room, which is dominated by a huge air-conditioning unit. To my right a stepladder leans against a low wall, and a Mylar sheet hangs from a rafter, partitioning the room and increasing the brightness of the buzzing lights. After my eyes adjust, the Bog Man comes into focus. He’s crouching in the rear portion of the room.
When I peer over the wall, I literally gasp at what I see. Arrayed on shelves around the room and resting on the floor are about fifteen large terrariums, crowded with what I recognize from my research as exotic carnivorous plants from all over the world. To my left stand impressive clusters of Heliamphora, pitcher plants native to the towering tabletop mountains of Venezuela, Brazil, and Guyana. Their luminous green tubular pitchers exhibit a hint of red, and a seductive crimson knob—the prey-attracting “nectar spoon”—dangles above the slippery oval throat where the food slides in. To my right rests a tank chockablock with sundews, whose leaves glisten with sticky tentacles that ensnare and strangle the plant’s meals, mainly insects.
Among the miniature forest of meat eaters in the cramped room is one that would fetch ten thousand dollars at auction, according to the Bog Man. But the visual star of the show, dark red and twelve inches tall, is Nepenthes edwardsiana. A tropical species found in the mountains of Borneo, the so-called Splendid Pitcher-Plant would make Georgia O’Keeffe blush. At first glance its phallic qualities are inescapable, but the teardrop-shaped opening of the pitcher—rimmed with ridges, like a ruffled collar—conjures something else entirely.
I suppose otherworldly would suffice as a catchall adjective for these strangely beautiful works of nature. Or, as the Bog Man says, his voice barely audible above the din of the grow lamps and gushing air vent: “They’re straight out of Star Trek. Now you can see what I was talking about—and why someone might get obsessed.”