Carnivorous Plants: The Secret Life of Gardens at Chester Zoo
Meet some of our horticulture and botany team
Meet Paul Leach, Chester Zoo horticulturist, who has been working at the zoo for over 22 years. His main job is to look after our precious Nepenthes collection, hundreds of carnivorous plants, in our greenhouses.
Could you tell us more about the Nepenthes for those who’ve never seen one before?
They are the most amazing type of plant in the world because they lure their prey to the plant, they then trap it so it drowns in the enzymes and the fluid at the base of the pitcher. The dissolved nutrients are taken in by the plant, which then feeds the plant and makes it grow.
We acquired the National Nepenthes Collection in 2011...up to two and a half thousand individuals! We're looking after plants from the wild that are getting destroyed and poached; a lot of them are really endangered so we hope to have a back up population here of the most threatened in case they go extinct in the wild.
How do you look after and maintain so many individual plants?
Every morning, every single plant will be watered, if needed. There’s also the spraying for pests and disease. The one thing about these plants is that they grow so fast and they are growing all the time, even in winter. So you’re forever re-staking them, weeding them, tidying them up and looking for new pests. They take up so much room when they are growing, you have got to constantly move them around.
I really love the day to day husbandry of the plants and growing them from seed, and to then see them in a couple of years time when they're 6ft high and you know that you’ve grown that plant - I love that!
Did you have an interest in plants from a young age?
I guess like every little boy or girl, you grow tomato seeds when you’re young and then suddenly its like 'wow look at that little green shrub coming out!' and you wonder what’s at the end of it. But I got into these really interesting plants when I was older. The thing is these plants have a really amazing relationship with the animals and that’s what’s great about them.
Tell us a cool fact about your favourite Nepenthes plant.
My favourite species can’t be found around the zoo - it’s one you can only see in the greenhouses. Its called the Bicalcarata. I like it mainly because of the cool fangs on it. These plants have glands all over them, which secrete a nectar (a sugary substance), which is all over the pitcher, leaves and the stem which draws the insects in. On this particular plant it has a habit of drawing ants in and they crawl over the glands and take the nectar, but there will always be a few that drop in the pitcher and that’s what helps feed the plant. Its gets the nitrogen it needs for vegetative growth.
Tell us something our visitors would be surprised to learn about Nepenthes.
Certain people can’t take to these plants. You have to have a certain attitude because they are so brittle. You can’t just rip them out of the root ball and move them into another pot because you’ll upset them too much. You have to have a very sensitive character to care for them!
I think people should care about these plants as they're, sadly, disappearing from the wild; and if they can do something about it, then they should help. I’m very lucky to be in a position where I can help in conserving them, in my own little way.
Where in the zoo can you find the Nepenthes?
In Monsoon Forest there are some overhanging the cliff face and there are some dotted around but the conditions they need are difficult to meet in animal houses, and I wont put them in an environment I know they won't live well in, so they are mostly here in the greenhouses.
What advice do you have for someone looking to become a horticulturist / botanist?
Find a good teacher and get some hands on experience, don’t just read books. Go to growers, even if it’s someone living down the road with a greenhouse, and do some jobs with them. Learn little bits as you go along like how to pot a plant and what to use, before you just dive into the paper work. Learn how to deal with plants physically.
Discover more about our National Plant Collections, here.