You never know what you’ll run into in one of Paul Barden’s greenhouses.
While some of the plants have a familiar aspect, most are exotic, strange — even downright bizarre.
One pot contains a Mimosa pudica, a so-called “sensitive plant” whose leaves fold in on themselves when touched as a defense against insects. Another holds Dracula vampira, a recently discovered orchid native to Ecuador with long, pointed sepals the color of dried blood.
You’ll see Venus flytraps, carnivorous plants that feed on insects they snare between the jaws of their hinged leaves, and sundews, which use tendrils tipped with drops of sticky liquid to accomplish the same ends.
And you’ll also find curiosities such as Chiloschista lunifera, a Taiwanese orchid that produces roots and flowers but no leaves, as well as the Australian ant plant, whose swollen stems are riddled with chambers that attract fungus-farming ants which produce nutrients the plant needs.
“Extremes in botany are interesting,” Barden said. “It’s genes making art — that is how I think of a lot of these things that catch my interest.”
Like a bee to a flower, Barden has been drawn to botany since his childhood in southern Ontario, Canada, when his grandmother would give him plants she had grown from seed.
“There’s this little miracle thing that happens where this little pip of a seed turns into a tree,” he said. “So that fascinated me, and it stuck.”
Barden studied horticulture in college and worked in the nursery industry for awhile before making his way to Corvallis in the 1990s. Today he lives with his husband, Lars Lohn, on a 22-acre farm near the Marys River.
The couple ran a wholesale nursery business called The Uncommon Rose from 1999 to 2007, cultivating more than 3,000 rose bushes on the farm and introducing a number of novel hybrids before selling out to another grower.
Barden still spends a good deal of time tending his greenhouses, although he no longer breeds plants commercially.
“I’m just pleasing me now,” he said.
In recent years the chief objects of Barden’s fascination have been Nepenthes. Also known as pitcher plants, Nepenthes form a genus of carnivorous plants native to the Old World tropics, with the largest number of species found in Borneo, Malaysia and the Philippines.
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Nepenthes have an unusual life cycle, typically spending their first few years as small, ground-dwelling plants before switching biological gears to become large, climbing vines.
Their common name derives from their most conspicuous feature: elaborate, cup-shaped structures that attract, trap and consume insects and sometimes larger creatures.
“Things fall into them all the time — ants, yellowjackets, the occasional tree frog,” Barden said of his assortment of Nepenthes specimens, which occupy most of one greenhouse at his southwest Corvallis farm.
The plants produce a sugary substance that attracts their prey, which consists mainly of insects but can also include rats, lizards and even small birds. A slippery coating makes it easy for unwary creatures to fall into the pitcher, where they drown in a pool of liquid secretions and are turned into nutrients for the plant’s digestive glands.
Some species have evolved to fill incredibly narrow environmental niches, such as Borneo’s Nepenthes lowii, which has a unique relationship with a certain type of night-foraging shrew. The animal has learned to safely lick the sugary secretions from inside the pitcher without falling in, but before going on its way, it leaves something of value for the plant: nutrient-rich shrew poop.
“They take the sugar and leave some nitrogen in return,” Barden said.
Barden’s romance with Nepenthes has resulted in at least a dozen new hybrids. But the attraction has waned a bit, and he’s decided to return his attentions to an earlier love, a New World orchid genus called Cattleya.
Found throughout Central and South America, Cattleyas come in a wide variety of hues and are known for their large, showy flowers, which often include a frilly lip decorated with various markings.
“They’re a bit of an anachronism horticulturally,” Barden said. “The people who grow them are few and far between. A lot of them are rather obsessed collectors.”
Barden’s previous work with Cattleyas resulted in three new hybrids, even though the orchids can be tricky to breed. Each seed pod contains 1.5 million-3 million incredibly tiny seeds. In nature, the seeds require the presence of a specific fungus to germinate, something that a breeder has to emulate in sterile conditions.
But Barden likes a challenge. It’s the kind of thing that keeps him coming back to plant breeding.
“There’s always something that I don’t know that’s waiting to be discovered,” he said. “I think anyone who becomes impassioned about horticulture realizes that there’s an endless stream of things to be discovered.”