A gardener with a carnivorous hobby

Story by Karen O’Neal

Burnley Cook is somewhat of a local legend in Natchez. In addition to being an expert on carnivorous plants, Burnley recently received awards from the Historic Natchez Foundation and the Natchez Historical Society for preserving a theater organ xylophone dating back to 1922. He had gone to the theater as a child, so when a local resident salvaged the organ, he viewed it as a major project with many puzzle pieces. The restoration took a little over three years. Burnley has also restored many local Christmas decorations from the 1950s and can be seen around town playing the calliope at various events.

Burnley always has a smile on his face when talking about his beloved plants.

Burnley’s fascination with carnivorous plants goes back to his childhood. He loved comic books and many of those contained ads for Venus flytraps. The ads proclaimed that the plants would eat raw meat! Burnley finally persuaded his mother to write a check and send away for a Venus flytrap. The small bulb arrived, along with some peat moss. Burnley’s youthful imagination led him to believe that it would thrive in the deepest and darkest of environments so he proudly placed his new plant in the dark and it promptly died. He tried several times over course of several years and was never successful – either because he was watering with tap water or using fertilizer or the soil was too rich in nutrients. Over time, growing carnivorous plants as a hobby became more popular and books were published on their care and maintenance.

Fast forward to today: Burnley has hundreds of carnivorous plants and lectures on how to propagate and care for them. He has contacts around the country and is even mentioned in a book by Peter D’Amato, The Savage Garden: Cultivating Carnivorous Plants. Despite Burnley’s childhood mental images of dark, creepy places, most carnivorous plants are native to coastal plains and thrive in full sun. They grow where soil conditions are poor, and in fact, if you fertilize them or plant them in pre-mixed soils, you will probably kill them. Tap water also kills them because it contains salt and other minerals. Burnley collects rainwater for them. That usually does the trick in Mississippi’s climate, but the plants like to have wet feet year round so he occasionally runs out of rainwater and is forced to purchase water.

The prey-trapping mechanism of a pitcher plant is a deep cavity filled with digestive liquid. Photo courtesy of USDA.

Although carnivorous plants eat flies, mosquitoes, and other insects, they do not eat enough to be used for insect control. They eat by trapping the insect and dissolving it with digestive juices. They create somewhat of a balloon glow effect when they trap and eat a firefly.

Burnley has a variety of pitcher plants. When they are dormant, from November through March, he has had friends joke about all of his dead plants. He says with a little clipping in late winter or early spring they come up beautifully. They are rhizomes and can be divided, often getting as many as 20 plants from one original plant. A recent storm in Natchez took down a large tree in Burnley’s backyard, destroying many plants, but he says because they propagate so easily the recovery has been very quick and Burnley’s hobby is thriving.

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