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Will a German Doctor's Snake-Oil Doom America's Carnivorous Plants?

It's the golden age of podcasts, everybody, and I've just discovered a fine one: Criminal. Each episode is 20 minutes long and has something to do with some sort of crime. The first episode profiled a man convicted of killing his wife who may be freed by proof an owl actually killed her. From this podcast we learn that 'owlstrike' is a word, and that owls usually attack humans on the right rear side of the head, and that owls are strong and silent and can really fuck you up if they want. There's also a story about the late 1990s inkjet currency-counterfeit trend, and a profile of one of Wyoming's three female coroners, who talks about a man who kept himself alive during a cold winter by drinking antifreeze.

The German connection comes in Episode 5, 'Dropping like Flies'. The carnivorous venus flytrap plant grows naturally only in a 90-square-mile of North Carolina:

Problem is, the market for flytraps is booming. Poachers can get between 10 and 25 cents per plant, and local flytrap nurseries make a healthy profit selling them on. The plants aren't yet listed as endangered, so the penalties are relatively low.

'Criminal' goes on the hunt for who is buying all these plants, and quickly arrives at the door of Carnivora. Carnivora is a U.S.-based company that sells a product based on extracts from the Venus Flytrap plant which it claims boosts the immune system. They're not allowed to claim that it cures cancer under U.S. law, but that is the main selling point in countries where they can make this claim. The man who came up with the formula was a German 'country doctor' named Helmut Keller. This 1985 article (g) from Der Spiegel records the frenzy surrounding the then-new preparation, as desperate cancer patients begged Keller to treat them.

Now, as the podcast reports, Keller's been dead for four years ('still here, but on the Other Side', claims the company's new director), the company is under new management, and is not being accused of breaking any American laws, since it only calls Carnivora a dietary supplement, not a cancer cure. Also, the current owner of the company claims it doesn't buy any flytraps from North Carolina, but instead gets them from laboratories in Holland and China. But if Carnivora isn't behind the huge recent increases in demand for flytrap plants, who or what is? As you might expect in the area of carnivorous-plant-poaching and alternative medicine, there are a lot of gray areas. A fascinating listen.

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