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Greeley Senior Known As ‘Plant Guy’ Around School

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(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

GREELEY, Colo. (AP) – Hawken Carlton bought a greenhouse on eBay last year without asking permission. When it arrived, Denise, his mother, looked it over, sighed and wondered out loud where he was planning to put it.

In the family room, he answered.

So that’s why, when you walk in the Carltons’ front door, the first thing you’ll see is a greenhouse the size of a small backyard shack with water droplets coating clear plastic doors that zip in the front.

Some mothers may not have wanted a greenhouse with carnivorous plants in their family room, especially given that Hawken, a senior at University High School, already had a smaller one in his bedroom and Denise had already sacrificed part of her fridge space for his plants.

They also may not have wanted a then 5-year-old to keep snakes and, if they did, they would probably set limits, like maybe the snakes shouldn’t have babies, as one of Hawken’s three corn snakes is set to do.

They also might question Hawken spending an hour a day caring for his 3,000 plants, and spending longer than that every other day to water them and even longer on the weekends to feed them.

“But I decided long ago that I could either be a brick wall to his interests,” Denise said, “or a conduit.”

Ultimately, Denise, like most good mothers, knows what makes Hawken, well, Hawken.

Even when he was 5, he had a stack of National Geographics in his room. Even when he was 5, he wouldn’t talk about, say, Big Bird, preferring probing conversations about the world, and that made it hard to relate to just about anyone, let alone kids his age. Even at 5, he had a tic disorder – one so noticeable that a school counselor called it Tourette’s Syndrome. That made Denise angry.

Hawken doesn’t need medication, Denise said. He needs to keep his hands busy and, if they are busy, he listens as well as anyone and probably understands it better than you – especially if it’s about herpetology or botany.

Most of those 3,000 plants are carnivorous, and they’re tricky to raise. In fact, Denise refused to buy him a Carnivorous Creations kit at first, even after Hawken hounded her, because she read on the Internet that the plants always die.

“But he really wanted it and so, finally, I bought it, thinking that, you know, he would keep it, and then it would die, and, um….” Denise said before trailing off and glancing over at her son, who was inside the greenhouse surrounded by 163 different varieties, many of them in small clay pots he’s made himself.

Carnivorous plants need warm, humid climates, or pretty much the opposite of what’s in Colorado, and pure water, so Hawken collects a little rain when the skies allow it.

Some need a cool place to rest at night, so Hawken carries those down to the basement. They don’t necessarily need to eat insects, but Hawken will catch flies and spiders by hand or spend a little money he makes selling them or trading them on Craigslist on bloodworms so his plants can have an occasional treat. Hawken also doesn’t need to spend quite as much time as he does to care for them, but he likes to take his time. He likes to fuss over them.

It says a lot about Denise that Hawken knew he could buy a greenhouse without asking, but it also says a lot about Hawken. Hawken is known as the plant guy at University Schools because he will carry around a plant during class to, you know, keep his hands busy. So while it’s true that all those difficult, cranky carnivores need Hawken and his obsessive attention to detail to thrive, it’s obvious Denise probably knows something about her son: Hawken needs those plants too.

Hawken knows all his plants by name. Hey, wait, don’t laugh. He doesn’t give them names like “Munchie” or “Audrey II” (he rolls his eyes at the suggestion because yes, he’s heard that joke, and yes, his fingers are free of bandages). He’s a scientist, remember? He calls them by their scientific names, which are, quite frankly, too complicated to print here.

Hawken does name his snakes. His first, Frosty, the one he got at age 5, died last year. Hawken remembers the date: March 23. He now has three snakes because despite the reminder he made for his sister, Holly, 11, using a labelmaker that he stuck to her front door (“Feed Your Snake”), he had to take over so it didn’t starve. He recently got a male that he adopted: Someone had let it go, and someone else’s cat brought the snake to its owner as a gift. It’s a beautiful snake, red and gold, like the middle of a campfire. It was supposed to be just a temporary adoption, Denise said, but she knows the drill by now.

The snakes are nice pets, but Hawken also loved the Butterfly Pavilion, and that led him to insects. Denise got him a praying mantis, but it died, and he stumbled across the carnivorous plants as he was looking for other insects to try. His first plant was a Venus flytrap, probably the most well-known carnivorous plant, but it died. Then Hawken saw the kit at Lowe’s and persuaded his mother, and now her house is a jungle. A contained jungle.

Every senior at University is required to do a project to graduate, and the plants were a natural choice. He gave a two-hour presentation on them Friday morning at school. The plants are a way for him to connect with people, as he enjoys sharing what he knows about them. He read up on how to care for them, but he found the best advice from his own trial and error and other growers. He belongs to the International Carnivorous Plant Society, which has about 1,400 members and is proof that every niche has a corner on the Internet.

“Sometimes someone will come over to trade or, you know, buy some seeds or moss from him,” Denise said, “and he and Hawken will talk for like 10-15 minutes, and I’ll have no idea what they are saying at all.”

There are advantages. Denise made him a deal with that greenhouse. If he would grow cilantro and maybe a few other useful plants for her, he could have the living room. He agreed. He also designs and cares for the family’s backyard garden.

Denise said the big joke is Hawken is so good at growing, well, he must have, ahem, all sorts of plants in there, including one that just became legal. But Hawken doesn’t find that funny.

“Pot is a weed,” Hawken said. “It’s not challenging enough.”

Most mothers might worry about Hawken, but Denise doesn’t because his plants aren’t his life. His entire life anyway. He hates video games, but he loves the movie “How To Train Your Dragon” and was an Eagle Scout, and he is a straight-A student, though that last part probably doesn’t surprise you. He doesn’t get into trouble, and that also probably doesn’t surprise you.

There are maybe a handful of people in the state, and maybe even the country, who can grow the complicated carnivores like Hawken.

After he graduates in a month, he’ll go to UNC to study biology, and he’ll live at home, which means the greenhouse will be in Denise’s living room for at least another few years. True, he can’t relate to many, even most, but that’s partly why he likes the plants. It’s partly why he likes his life.

“I like odd things, and you can’t get more odd than something that turns nature completely on its head,” Hawken said.

When he says that, it’s hard to know whether he’s talking about his plants or himself.

- By DAN ENGLAND, The Tribune

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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