We Bite Plant Shop
ST. ROCH’S RARE & UNUSUAL PLANT SHOP
Carlos Detres has always been drawn to the intersection of the living and the dead. The New Orleans photographer, born in Puerto Rico and raised in central Florida, often photographs dreamy still life tableaus that incorporate beauty alongside loss, vitality alongside morbidity: purple, glittering fingernails wrapped around a coyote’s skull; a séance for deceased hairstylists; ferns growing out of graves. Until the pandemic hit in March 2020, his bread and butter was commercial portraiture and lifestyle photography for brands like Highland Park Single Malt and Macallan Scotch Whiskey. But circumstances and his imagination took him in other directions for his art. “My personal projects are more about contemplating a world between the living and the dead,” he said.
It was in that same paradoxical space, that world, where Detres discovered the wonders of carnivorous plants. “I’d been freelancing for years, and there was a lot of stress all the time,” he recalled. “I think it was in 2016—I was trying to quit smoking and just feeling a lot of anxiety.”
He’d always held an interest in fly traps and the like, and started growing the hungry foliage from seeds in his homebased nursery, delving into the science and psychology of the various strains of plants. “What I really like about them is you can feed them and watch them grow,” he said of carnivorous plants. “I enjoy how they can move, they react to stimuli and digest their prey in a way that other plants don’t. I found them relatable.”
After starting with pop-ups in 2017, in January of 2019 Detres officially opened the nursery as a plant boutique adjacent his St. Roch home, calling it We Bite Rare & Unusual Plants. In October of that year, he moved the shop into a larger space at its current location at Annunciation Hall, just a few blocks away. We Bite proclaims its offerings as "rare and usual plants for strange and peculiar people," and though Detres carries all shades of gorgeous greenery, he specializes in exotics, including Sarracenia, Nepenthes, Dionaea musciupupla (the Venus flytrap), Drosera, and aroids like Hoya and Dischidia.
Mostly native to tropical environs in the southeastern United States and Southeast Asia, carnivorous plants make a meal of insects by enticing them with pitchers, tentacles, or spiky clamshell-like mouths laced with irresistible poison. Once the prey takes the bait, the plant closes or uses its tendrils to quickly suffocate and digest the unsuspecting insects it captures. After it sucks out all the nutrients from the prey, only a dry black husk remains.
Contrary to popular belief, according to Detres, these intriguing plants are not difficult to grow. “When I hear people say, ‘I always kill plants,’ I question that,” he said. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there—that they always need direct light, for instance. Yes, they’ll do best in direct light, but many can adapt to bright sunny windowsills. Some, like the Trailing Sundew, actually do best in medium indirect light.”
Part of Detres’s motivation to start We Bite was his observance that most nurseries and plant shops never establish a foundation of care with their customers, especially when it comes to carnivorous plants. “We have, since the beginning, made it a mission to educate our customers with the hope that people will become interested in the fragile ecosystems these plants grow in,” he said. “The changing climate and urbanization of swathes of bogs and coastal areas have greatly diminished carnivorous plant populations. When customers purchase a plant from us, they learn that the reason why they fail in cultivation is because they cannot be watered with tap water or planted in most soils.”
Detres offers customers support and advice throughout the growing process, even after they take their plants home, through his We Care program. “I like to ask customers what their lifestyle is. I can teach people to believe in the power of having a cooperative relationship with plants.” The key to success, he explained, in growing plants and almost anything else, is to do your research first. Think about your growing conditions—where and when is the light strongest, and do an honest assessment of what kind of “plant parent” you are likely to be. “Some customers prefer low maintenance, others want to do a lot of nurturing,” he said. “We can help you make the right choices to set you up for success.”
A visit to We Bite is a joyous excursion, a cross between visiting a nursery and a science museum. Detres and his team are thoughtfully knowledgeable and good at asking insightful questions as they shepherd customers around the shop, singing the praises of each plant like a proud parent beaming over their gifted child's performance. While all of the plants are interesting, shining in every glossy shade of green, it's the small pots of carnivorous plants that steal the spotlight. Pitcher plants, also known as monkey cups or Nepenthes, have bright green leaves surrounded with what looks like upside down gourds, often streaked with pinks and oranges. The unsuspecting prey—which can range from bugs to amphibians and even to small rodents—is drawn onto the mouth of the pitcher, slippery with sticky nectar, where they fall to their demise. Drosera capensis, also known as Cape Sundew, is a spikey plant with bright pink tendrils that glisten with nectar, a deadly attraction for gnats and flies.
“Nature has given them tools to survive difficult environments,” explained Detres of his bug-eating babies. “They have evolved with alien looking features that allow the plant to overcome challenges.” Native to the peaty soil of coastal North Carolina, the Venus flytrap is the showstopper of the carnivores, outfitted with a hinged “jaw,” or terminal lobe, outlined in sensitive spikes that rises from its center. The plant intuitively identifies its prey and can snap its trap shut in a fraction of a second. “It is able to produce digestive enzymes like we do,” he said. “If you attach a trap to your pinkie for hours, you will get an acid burn.”
“What’s really fascinating to me is their secret life,” said Detres, whose business picked up significantly during the pandemic’s lockdown, which sent scores of anxiety-riddled people out to play in the dirt. “They communicate with each other and with their prey—there’s a whole world of language that we just don’t understand.”