Issue 11.1: February/March 2008

Little Crop of Horrors

story by Paul Wood
photos by Sergio Goes

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Here’s what it’s like to be a fly in Puna who happens to land on one of Sam Estes’ pitcher plants: You come down onto a circular landing pad—the lid of the pitcher—and you notice a tasty nectar around the edges. Slurping up the nectar, you crawl around the edge of the lid to its underneath, which is juicy and dripping with the stuff. The nectar has a narcotic quality that gets you all loopy. Suddenly you are grooving to Fly and the Family Stone.

Then you lose your grip and fall. You land on the pitcher cup’s brim, struggling for footing in a curved valley between steep walls. Your last chance for survival is to get over the brim and get the hell out of there. You scramble. But the brim is coated with gooey wax that eludes your grip and you slip. You clutch onto the inside wall of the cup, but this is lined with a different kind of wax, one that breaks away as you stick to it. Helpless, you fall into the pit. In human scale, this is like falling into a 500-foot-deep well. At the bottom is a lake of peptic enzymes. As you slowly drown, you notice other creatures that have learned how to live down here—mosquito larvae, for example, and certain ants that dive into the water to catch those larvae as food for the colony. It’s a bug-eat-bug world down here, an entire ecosystem, and the pitcher plant itself, with its hundreds of individual pitchers strung along its twisting vine, is a kind of god.


 

 

 

The official name for pitcher plants is “Nepenthes,” coined in 1737 when the great natural scientist Carolus Linnaeus himself described them. People have identified just over 100 species of Nepenthes and are still discovering more. Most of them originate in Indonesia, especially in Borneo and Sumatra, although you’ll also find them scattered around southern Asia and in places like Madagascar and New Caledonia. Nepenthes is the only genus in the family Nepenthaceae, which is the only family in the order Nepenthales. In other words, somewhere along the evolutionary chain, one plant got the weird idea to turn its leaves into digestive sacks—an idea that turned out to be very successful. All of the species hybridize readily—especially in the agreeable climate of Puna under the gloved hands of Sam Estes.

Sam is one of the world’s most successful breeders of these meat-eating plants. Justifiably proud of his lovely, monstrous botanical achievement, he welcomes visitors. The trick is to find his place—or to find anything—in the long hiddenness known as Leilani Estates, which sits in the East Rift Zone of Kilauea. Consisting of thin roads carved into the rumpled density of a young ‘ohi‘a forest, this subdivision contains hundreds of house-lots, but you can’t see any houses—just little trees and bushes and openings in the shrubbery that might or might not be dirt driveways. Out here, the soil is cinder, the trees twisty and stunted, the afternoon air still and sweltering, the perfect silence conducive to serenity or to madness. When you steer your car into one of those would-be driveways, exiting civilization, you can’t help but hear eerie organ music on the soundtrack, especially when you are about to encounter thousands and thousands of carnivorous vines.


 

I drive into Sam’s clearing. There’s a house, a 16,000-gallon water tank, a windowless trailer that seems to have melted into the forest and a series of shadehouses loaded with potted greenery that sprawls voluptuously—no bright flowers to speak of, but a certain strain of red and even purple that seems to run through the dominant green of foliage. Sam comes from the house to greet me. He’s athletic, lean and ornately tattooed. He wears steel-rimmed glasses and white cotton gloves. The glove feels soft and clean when we shake hands. We sit at an umbrella table in the middle of one of the shadehouses, and he serves iced herbal tea, sweet and delicious. The scalding afternoon sunlight slants in through the shadecloth. Sam sits on the shady side while I fry.

“I love growing my plants,” he tells me. He has a habit of looking at you a little sideways as he speaks. “They’re about as close to a pet as you can get in the plant world. They’re always doing something.” I start looking around more carefully and begin to realize that we are surrounded by Nepenthes. They are scaling the posts and crowding together near our knees. I imagine them listening. Making plans.

“I went into this whole hog,” continues Sam, “but now I’ve created a monster.” He has so many pitcher plants here that he has to move them out into the world at large. He has to sell and price and ship and market. He’s had inquiries from as far away as Ireland and Spain. “I have about 300 novel new crosses,” he says. That includes a successful cross of the two largest pitcher plants on earth, N. rajah and N. merrilliana; Sam is still waiting to see just what will result. “Whatever it’s going to be,” he shrugs, “it’s going to be large.” While most pitcher plants survive on bugs, there are already some large enough to digest rats and lizards. I glance around the shadehouse, wondering where all this is leading.

“The one thing I’m trying not to do is rush,” Sam says. “But the plants are making me move. The question is how quickly I can adapt.” I’m thinking he’d better hop to it, given the fundamental ingenuity of pitcher plants. They evolved in soggy, rain-rinsed places where soils are thin and leached of nutrients. The root system is a fine black net designed to strain what it can from flowing water, which is little, hence the need to absorb nitrogen from the insects the plant has caused to putrefy. For the first three years of life, pitcher plants grow as a “rosette”—a whorl of simple, strap-shaped leaves around a central axis. At the end of each leaf hangs a pitcher. After three years of ground-hugging simplicity, the plant suddenly becomes a vine that will climb high into the trees. Each leaf reaches out, forms a tendril that ties onto something, and at the end of each tendril hangs another sort of pitcher, one that looks distinctly different from the plant’s juvenile pitchers. Why the difference, who knows. All pitchers function the same: They trap and they eat.

When I suggest to Sam that there’s some kind of intellect or cunning behind all this behavior, he shrugs again. “I don’t know about intelligence,” he says. “But they are very animated plants. They move a lot.”


 

Sam grew up in Pittsburgh, California, and went to work in the area’s steel mills back when that sort of work meant lifetime security with union benefits. “Of course, that’s all gone to hell now,” he says. He went from steel worker to pipe fitter to electrician, then got into “process-control instrumentation, calibrating machinery.” Such specialized work required him to travel, often to Hawai‘i, including the Big Island when geothermal energy was a hot and controversial idea. (In fact, the big trailer in his nursery used to be a mobile instrumentation lab, built by Rockwell and shipped to Puna in the early geothermal days.) In time Sam became habituated to the Islands. “I decided I could take my money, cut and just stay here,” he says. For a while he was a dedicated canoe paddler, but he had to give that up after developing a severe case of eczema on
his hands. This skin condition explains his need to wear gloves, and it created the context for the latest expression of his admittedly obsessive personality—breeding plants.

“I started out with orchids. But when I got onto these pitcher plants, everything else went out into the yard,” he says. “You start out with one or two. Pretty soon, you’re like the kid with the penny book. No matter how many pennies you have, there’s always that one empty slot.” Although he finds the whole idea of commerce and sales to be irksome, of necessity he has begun to make his prolific plants available through a distributor in the Pacific Northwest (www.cobraplant.com). And while he doesn’t take business calls (“I’m not a patient man on the phone”), he will do business with people who show up at the nursery: “I am open for visits any time.” The plants will, he says, help pay his 17-year-old son’s way through college. Speaking of his son, he tells me, “I told my boy, ‘If you want to be famous, son, make your world small enough.’ I’m famous in the Nepenthes world—which will get you nothing.” Cynicism aside, Sam and his plants have obviously become perfect partners in eccentricity. “I just enjoy doing it,” he says. HH

Sam’s nursery, Leilani Hapu‘u Nepenthes Nursery, is at 13-3553 Luana St. in Pahoa. His number is (808)965-7140. Call at your own risk.