More Than Just Flytraps: Student Brings Carnivorous Plants to Campus

Alvin Liu crouching near a body of water, next to shrubberyAlvin Liu has been collecting and growing various species of carnivorous plants since he was gifted his first one, a Venus flytrap, at age 6.

“I became interested because of a David Attenborough documentary that had a segment on carnivorous plants,” said the junior molecular biology and history major in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh. “I had a dinosaur phase and an outer space phase, but the plants stuck with me.”

Fast forward to today, and Liu has amassed a collection of more than 200 species of these particular plants, including pitcher plants, sundews and butterworts. These plants thrive on water and sunlight like any other, but also consume insects, arachnids and even small mammals by trapping them in their modified leaves and slowly digesting them.

“It’s a bit macabre, but I find it all fascinating,” Liu said.

Liu recently co-authored a book on wild carnivorous plants with the Botanical Research Institute of Texas Press, based on independent fieldwork in his home state of New Jersey that began shortly after Liu graduated high school. More specifically, the book covers the genus Drosera, commonly known as sundews—colorful plants that attract unsuspecting prey with their tentacle-like “hairs.”

“I’d actually never seen these plants before in the wild,” he said. “A lot of sites where we found these plants were undocumented. It’s one thing to see them in cultivation and feed them manually, but these plants in the wild are so impressive. And a lot of species are also native to North America.”

Alvin Liu poses next to a carnivorous plantOutside of the classroom, Liu works with the Mid-Atlantic and New England Carnivorous Plant Societies to provide carnivorous plant-related shows, resources and programming to the public. He has undertaken extensive, multi-year fieldwork in the New Jersey Pinelands to document the populations of native carnivorous plants. Liu is also the president of the Pitt student organization Plant2Plate, where students grow food on a local, urban farm for food banks and distribution services.

While the plants aren’t exactly the best means of pest control due to the length it takes for them to digest bugs, they are aesthetically pleasing for people’s homes, Liu said.  

“Since they’re plants, they make their own food through photosynthesis. The bugs are like supplement pills to them,” he said. “They need lots of sunlight and clean water, but they’re easier to keep than most people think. I have a few in my apartment at Pitt.”

One beneficiary of Liu’s hobby is Eugene Wagner, senior lecturer in Pitt’s Department of Chemistry and director of the Undergraduate Physical Chemistry Laboratories. Wagner taught an honors chemistry class Liu was in and was gifted a plant.

“It’s a pretty small class, so you get to know the students pretty well,” said Wagner. “We talked quite a bit, and I thought the subject of carnivorous plants was so different and interesting. He provided instructions on how to take care of the plants he gave me.”

While Liu’s career aspirations are in medicine and not ecology, some of his field’s studies can be applied to carnivorous plants.

“This is just a hobby, but scientists have done preliminary research on how substances from these plants might be applied to areas such as tissue engineering, which is interesting,” he said.