INTERVIEW | MATT SOPER | HAMPSHIRE CARNIVOROUS PLANTS
In the days before binge-watching, a few seconds of TV changed Matt Soper’s life. Fifty years on, his carnivorous plants nursery draws collectors, researchers, and movie set designers. He spoke to Sarah Bewick about his obsession with plants that catch their own lunch
When I meet Matt Soper, he mistakes me for a customer. He’s not surprised when I tell him where I’ve driven from, or that I’ve come to interview him. ‘Yesterday a guy flew in from the South of France to buy three plants. Then he was off again!’
These whirlwind visits aren’t uncommon. Matt’s nursery, Hampshire Carnivorous Plants, lies just outside Southampton in the UK and is the largest retail carnivorous plant nursery in Europe. Standing in what was once an empty green field shaded by a magnificent oak, is his modest brick home; beyond it, an outdoor bog garden and multiple unheated greenhouses, which receive a steady stream of serious visitors.
Researchers, private plant collectors, horticulturalists, and set designers shopping for upcoming blockbusters. For all of them, Matt is the go-to guy for bloodthirsty plants and his expertise has been recognised. He’s presided over Royal Horticultural Society competitions for the past 10 years and, in 2023, judged at Chelsea Flower Show.
We tour his bog garden. Matt shows me North American pitchers (Sarracenias) in shades of red, pink, and yellow, silky Irish butterworts with deep purple flowers (Pinguicula grandiflora), misty sundews from Portugal and Venezuela and, of course, Venus fly traps. The plants live outside all year and are pollinated by bumble bees. ‘We grow them hard,’ Matt says. ‘What they catch is what they eat.’ Last winter, the temperature dropped to -9°C. Many of the plants died off to almost nothing. Apparently, that’s better for them. ‘The colder they are, the better they rest.’
Those in the greenhouses (where temperatures can hit 45°C) tend to be several weeks ahead. They’re pollinated manually because there’s nothing about to pollinate them. ‘It’s the leaves that will catch the insects and a lot aren’t even open yet. They’ll come open at the right time when the flies are about. They’ll know.’
I ask how he became interested in carnivorous plants. ‘I was about seven. I was watching a natural history programme with (English botanist) David Bellamy, who was rolling around in a bog showing our native sundew (Drosera rotundifolia). Cut into this were pictures of a Venus fly trap capturing a fly. And that was it! I had to have one.’
The local nursery didn’t stock Venus fly traps, but the neighbour’s grandmother found one in a florist. ‘I killed it very quickly by trying to feed it chocolate,’ Matt admits. ‘Second attempt, same thing, I fed it cheese. But with my third one, I was successful.’
What was the fascination? ‘It’s a plant that can move. I’m sure you’ve seen The Day of the Triffids or Little Shop of Horrors. And the Venus fly trap really does move.’
Matt bought a book about carnivorous plants and began teaching himself how to care for them. Now, after 40 years of growing them, he says he’s not very good with other plants. ‘I tend to overwater and underfeed them because these [carnivorous] plants want lots of water and no feed!’
Gradually, his interest became all-consuming. He took over his father’s greenhouse in 1987; put up a polytunnel; bought seed from all over the world; travelled to Borneo, Indonesia, Australia, and the US to see species in their natural habitats. He also began hybridising, focusing on Sarracenia. In 1996, while still working as a builder, he attended Southampton Flower Festival and, to his delight, found that his plants were popular. That gave him the idea of taking his interest further.
‘The first year we went to Chelsea  people would say: “Oh, we don’t like these. We don’t even want to look at these.” Whereas now it’s, “Wow, look at that! It looks like Avatar!” That’s come through from Pokémon, Mario, Harry Potter. Children are brought up with these in their minds and when they see one for real, they think, I know that!’
Matt has supplied plants for natural history programmes created by household names such as National Geographic and the BBC. The makers of the James Bond film, No Time to Die, approached him wanting plants for their poison island. ‘They had a lot of plant material, but if you blinked, you’d miss them!’ he laughs. Still, his North American pitchers were prominently displayed in the more recent Dungeons and Dragons film, Honour Among Thieves.
He's named plants for celebrities, like The Smith’s lead guitarist Johnny Marr. ‘He came to see us at Chelsea Flower Show. He’d had one of his guitars painted a nice copper-bronze, the same colour as the plant [Sarracenia 'Johnny Marr'].’
I wonder aloud if he’s witnessed in anyone else that same life-changing moment he experienced as a boy. Matt nods, knowingly. ‘The youngsters come, and they say, “Oh he’s fascinated with Venus fly traps”. And they are, just like I was. They’re here for hours, just looking and going, “Wow! Wow!” It’s great to see.’
One of those children went on to make his name as a natural history writer, expedition leader and TV presenter. Matt sees him as the new David Attenborough. ‘I remember Stewart McPherson’s mum brought him up to look at some Heliamphora I had years ago. These plants come from the flat-topped Tepuis in Venezuela, and you need to go by helicopter to see them. Now Stewart leads expeditions to see the plants in the wild!’
Does anything still surprise him? Matt tells me about the North American pitchers in his bog garden. ‘The first year they flowered, a bumble bee came straight over, lifted a petal up and flew in. Sarracenia flowers are quite difficult to get into, but the bee didn’t hover around. It knew how to get into a flower it had never come across before. I thought that was amazing.’
Hampshire Carnivorous Plants holds Open Weekends where visitors can see the UK’s largest range of carnivorous plants and meet other growers. Check out @hampshirecarnivorousplants or meet Matt and his plants at one of the UK’s flower shows – see website for details.