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Mike is Lord of the fly-traps

By Mark Andrews | Telford | News | Published:

If you're a fly or a wasp, it's probably wise to give Mike King's garden a swerve. His two huge greenhouses are filled with 6,000 plants that gobble them up at a prodigious rate.

"Each leaf will get through over 1,000 flies over a summer," says Mike, who has been growing carnivorous plants for 40 years.

That is a lot of flies. Even if each plant had only a single leaf – in reality there are many more – that's two million a month, in one man's garden. Where do they all come from? Does he have to buy flies in to feed their voracious appetite?

"No, nothing like that, they all occur naturally," he says. Who would have known that flies and wasps were so populous?

Mike, from Wrockwardine Wood in Telford, is a big name in the carnivorous plants world. His 1,500 sq ft greenhouses are packed with some of the rarest species in the world, and is one of just two designated 'national collections' in the UK.

"People come from all over the world to see them," he says. "I have had somebody come from Florida." He also exports plants around the world, with customers in New Zealand and Australia. He also sells them to customers around the world, although this is very much a secondary aspect of what is very clearly a labour of love.

Most people will be familiar with the Venus fly-traps, which famously appeared in an advert for Peperami in the 1980s, and indeed this was Mike's first introduction to carnivorous plants as a 14-year-old in 1979. But they are just part of the world of meat-eating horticulture, and much of Mike's work these days goes into Sarracenia, or pitcher plants which originate from North America. He has more than 4,000 of the trumpet-like plants which can grow to heights of more than 3ft, and he speaks with a passion as he talks about the different colours and markings.

Carnivorous plants were something that fascinated him from a very early age.

"The idea that a plant could deliberately catch and kill its own food was something that fascinated me," he says.

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"I bought my first Venus fly-trap at Waterloo station in 1979. I had been to Kew Gardens, but they wouldn't sell them there, and I saw one at the station on the way home.

"You used to be able to buy these kits to grow them in a plastic dome, and I grew it on the windowsill. Somehow I managed to keep it alive, and it went from there."

He still has the 40-year-old plant which started it all, although it is not one of his favourites, and he is much keener to talk about the countless special varieties of pitchers he has developed himself. His favourite at the moment is one he has called 'Angel of Death'.

"I love that light colouring with the red border," he says. At the moment, the plant is about 2ft high, but Mike says it has the potential to grow much bigger.

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"It's just a baby at the moment, it's only four years old, but it could grow to be about three-and-a-half foot."

While the famous TV ad showed a Venus fly-trap hungrily devouring a salami sausage, the reality is somewhat less dramatic. They are not the vicious man-eating plants featured in The Day of the Triffids, and you don't need to worry about them nipping your fingers while tending to them.

The pitchers attract their prey by secreting nectar from the lip of the leaves, although their colour and scents are also designed to be lure them in. Once they reach the rim of the pitcher, they will quickly lose their footing on the slippery rim and fall down inside the long trumpet where they will die and be digested by the plant. Mike lifts up one of the plants to demonstrate all the unfortunate wasps and flies which have succumbed to its charms.

The Venus fly-trap's means of snaring its prey is a little more dramatic. It's red, jaw-like leaves will snap shut if the hairs that line them are disturbed twice within 20 seconds. Triggers may occur if one-tenth of the insect is within contact, but it will take two strikes to make the leaves shut to avoid wasting energy on objects with no nutritional value. The plant will only begin digestion after five more stimuli to ensure it has caught a live bug worthy of consumption.

Maintaining such a large collection takes a serious amount of work, and Mike – who works in mechanical engineering for his day job – devotes a good 20 hours a week to looking after his plants.

"They need rainwater to survive, the chlorine and fluoride which is added to tap water will kill them," he says. To this end he has developed a most impressive irrigation system, which will collect and store up to 6,600 gallons of rainwater, and then distribute to all his plants.

"On a summer like last years, they will need up to 600 litres (132 gallons) a day," he says.

Mark Andrews

By Mark Andrews
@MAndrews_Star

Senior news writer for the Shropshire Star specialising in in-depth features and commentary, investigative reporting and political matters.

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