As a boy growing up in Phoenix, like many 10-year-olds, Drew Martinez was fascinated by carnivorous plants. Today, his backyard is filled with greenhouses containing nearly 20,000 of them.
Although he describes it as a sideline, he has grown his interest into a business: Carnivero, a mainly mail-order nursery he runs out of his Mountain View office.
Martinez will be exhibiting and selling close to 600 plants at the upcoming Pacific Orchid Exposition in San Francisco next weekend. The 63rd annual show, themed "The Thrill of Discovery," will offer three days of show-and-tell, with 150,000 plants to observe and purchase, docent tours, potting demonstrations and lectures.
Growing up in the desert, Martinez found it particularly challenging to grow carnivorous plants because they require very temperate climates. Somehow his interest in carnivores sent him to Stanford University, where he majored in physics and biology.
"Math explains physics, physics explains chemistry, chemistry explains biology. I wanted to get to the root of it all," he said.
That physics major led to his day job at Google. He's also been involved in biotechnology startups.
But his sideline is a true passion.
He grows his carnivores and orchids from seedlings to plants up to several feet tall. Many grow fallow during the winter, but others thrive in his greenhouses and grow tent as the annual expo draws near.
He points to his pitcher plants, or Nepenthes, which are native of Southeast Asia. "They grow side by side with many orchid varieties," he said.
He notes a lot of crossover between the two plant types, noting that in addition to sharing habitats, they also both have trapping mechanisms that lure insects.
"One of the reasons orchids have such beautiful flowers is because the flower acts as a trap," he said. The insect is lured by color and smell. It pollinates, and then the orchid lets it go. Carnivores also lure insects by color and smell. But there the similarity ends.
A cobra plant, a native of Northern California and Southern Oregon, is built like a cathedral, with light coming in through the "roof." The insect is attracted to the light and flies in, then becomes trapped in the bulbous cathedral and sent down to the acid-filled base of the attached tube.
Martinez points to the Nepenthes hamata, which lures insects with its sweet nectar. Beetles and ants then slip down the sharp fangs and -- gulp.
Some plants even attract termites, he said, and some have been known to demolish small rodents or mammals.
Not all of the attracted animals die. Nepenthes lowii exudes a white, sugary substance that attracts tree shrews, which perch on the toilet-seat shaped plant and leave behind their excrement, which in turn feeds the plant.
Both Martinez's carnivores and his orchids both love sunny, humid conditions, but he describes them mostly as "very adaptable" and able to thrive in greenhouses or on a window sill. "Many are so hearty they can grow outside," he said.
Although his greenhouses are completely automated, Martinez checks on his plants every three days, making sure his custom-built watering system is functioning well, trimming dead foliage and moving blooming plants to the tent shed. He re-engineered and downsized commercial greenhouses and installed enough backup systems that "even with a major earthquake they could run for three days," he said.
He's convinced that most of his exotic blooms could survive as house plants; they're tougher than they look.
In his grow tent he's also growing some exotic fruits, including snake fruit, which he described as pear-shaped, hard and rubbery with a sweet, crisp taste. The plants will need to be about 6 feet tall before they bear fruit.
Twice a year, Martinez heads out on jungle expeditions in search of new varieties. "I've logged upwards of 20 jungle expeditions," he said, mainly to Southeast Asia, Malaysia and Indonesia.
And he's never lost his early draw to carnivores: "They really capture people's fascination with the natural world," he said. "They exhibit how adaptable an organism can be to survive."
What: Pacific Orchid Exposition
When: Gala Preview Thursday, Feb. 19, 6:30-10 p.m.; Expo Friday, Feb. 20, through Sunday, Feb. 22, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Where: Fort Mason Center, Festival Pavilion, Marina Boulevard, San Francisco
Cost: General admission $14, seniors $11, three-day pass $25, Gala Preview benefit $43, weekend pass with Gala $60
Sponsor: San Francisco Orchid Society (SFOS)
Info: orchidsanfrancisco.org or 650-548-6700