Hollywood will never be noted for its sense of shame, but Africa is one subject it should have left alone.
Let us count the movie myths: In every African lake there swims a flotilla of vicious alligators. Every native carries a spear he'd just love to sink into someone. And every plant eats people.
That's right, eats. Surrounds. Captures. Chomps. Ingests. It happened to celluloid adventures lots of times. They'd be busy leering at the blonde leading lady when. . .look out!
A pair of leaves from some chlorophyll-choked, 10-foot-high monstrosity would reach out. Enfolded, our hero would wriggle and squirm, but naturally that would just strengthen the plant's hold. Soon, alas, it would be doom-squeezed to death like a Florida grapefruit. The one thing the plant left behind, of course, was the victim's hat. And, invariably, the camera came in for a close-up of the brim as the credits rolled.
Weaned on all this, movie addicts might be a bit deflated to attend a monthly meeting of the Potomac Valley Carnivorous Plant Society.
Not only are none of the plants that the members bring more than about eight inches high. Not only do the members serve 7-Up, not some weird herbal punch. Not only are the members healthy, upright folk who've never harmed so much as a hamster. But they are quick to point out that the third word of their society's title is a misnomer.
"Insectivorous is really more like it," says John Hummer, a 29-year-old Arlington mailman whose basement and greenhouses are used by the two-year-old plant society for its meetings.
"In fact," adds Mark Burney, a 25-year-old immunologist from Springfield, "the worst thing you could ever do would be to feed one of these plants meat. They can't break down fat."
Only in an indirect way do carnivorous plant earn their official name. Many of them secrete sticky liquids, the better to catch unsuspecting flies and bugs.
But some secrete enough goo to trap the frogs and lizards who drop by to try to eat the already-trapped insects. Leaving Mickey Rooney jokes aside, it would take an awfully small movie star ever to fall victim to one of the Potomac Valley club's samples.
Carnivorous plants do not trap insects just for sport. They can and do break them down and ingest them.
"When we go into the field, it's very common to find plants loaded with trapped insects. A lot of the insects are half-digested," said Philip Sheridan, an 18-year-old Alexandria high school senior who is president of the society. The sight of this-and, in many cases, the smell-is not for the overly squeamish, Sheridan cautions.
Among the 10 of them, the members of the Potomac Valley club own and raise nearly every one of the 500 or so species of carnivorous plants native to North America.
Theirs is not in any way a lazy man's spectator sport (hours of watering and weeding are routine). Nor is it truly akin to raising petunias in the living room window (each carnivorous plant likes a different amount of water and light). According to Sheridan, it's nothing for a club member to spend 10 hours a week reading up on the habits and pitfalls of one species or another.
The best carnivorous plant samples are found in bogs, of which only two have been formally set aside in the Washington area, both in Prince George's County. Thus, for club members, the motto is either grow your own or travel. "Development has wiped out most of the bogs in this area," says Burney.
And ignorance has wiped out most of the amateurs who try to enter the carnivorous plant field, club members say.
"Everybody's heard of the Venus' flytrap," says John Hummer. "It's been so sensationalized that you'd have to be a hermit not to have heard about it. But for every 10,000 bought, only one survives.
"The trouble is that people just stick 'em out on the window sill, when what they like is cool weather, moss and indirect light. And you can't give 'em fertilizer. They don't like it.
"It's really like that with all these plants," Hummer said, waving an arm at his greenhouse, which is crammed with about 200 samples. "You can transplant them from their natural habitats, but you can't fool them. They know ."
Which is more than one could say of people who accidentally discover the favorite hobby of club members. Philip Sheridan, for example, has heard how bloodthirsty he must be so many times that "when I go out with a girl, I never tell her I'm interested in this. It's better to leave it out. It doesn't help."
It appears that nothing would help with the more settled, more conservative fraternity of professional botanists (which none of the club) members is). "To them, we're the outcasts," says Mike Hunt. "They might be interested in the molecular structure of our stuff, but nothing else."
Just what is the fascination of carnivorous plants? "A complex ecosystem is fascinating any time," said Philip Sheridan. "They demand a lot of you," said John Hummer. "I just enjoy having hobbies no one else has," said Mark Burney.
Burney's reason is likely to persist, his fellow fanatics say. "Most people try one flytrap and quit out of frustration," said Hummer.
But once you get good at growing, carnivorous plants are all fascination and little struggle.
"To me," said Sheridan, "it's just like growing orchids. Just as pretty. Just as satisfying." CAPTION: Picture, John Hummer, of Arlington, has more than 200 carnivorous plants in his greenhouse. By Michael Ford Parks-The Washington Post