Charles Darwin called it “the most wonderful plant in the world.” Today the Venus fly-trap, one of nature’s greatest botanical oddities, is part of a combat zone, as biologists fight to protect it and its coastal forest home.
By T. Edward Nickens
Lane Kreitlow freezes in mid-step, one low-top hiking boot suspended above a tangled mass of wiregrass, inkberry, and Venus flytraps, her forearms slicked with sunscreen and bug dope. “Oh, my gosh, they’re everywhere!” she grimaces. Kreitlow, an entomologist with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, searches for a safe place to rest her foot. “I’m trampling 10 of them right now. Where do I stand?”
Kneeling next to her, Laura Gadd chuckles, her face half hidden by a floppy sun hat. “Well, I hate to say, ‘Don’t worry about smashing a rare plant,’ ” she says with a grin. “But there’s no other way to do this. Just try to squish as few as possible.” With that, Gadd, a botanist with the state Department of Agriculture, leans over to scrape the soil from the base of a flytrap, her manicured fingernails blackened with crescents of dirt. Kreitlow douses the plant with a shot of aerosol glue, then Gadd dusts it with a specially formulated dye that will be absorbed by the flytrap’s tissues. Developed by North Carolina botanists to combat poaching of American ginseng in the southern Appalachian Mountains, the dye is visible under handheld scanners used by state biologists to identify poached specimens turning up at commercial nurseries and plant vendors.
I glance across the savanna, where a dozen others are hunched over, backs visible above the wiregrass and fire-blackened gallberry shrubs like grazing cattle in multicolored T-shirts. Sunlight streams through towering longleaf pine trees, here at the world epicenter of Venus flytrap habitat. Fanning across North Carolina’s 6,000-acre Boiling Spring Lakes Preserve and The Nature Conservancy’s 15,500-acre Green Swamp Preserve, workers in a grueling two-day marathon will mark more than 4,000 flytraps.
This plant-marking blitz is an attempt to thwart poachers from ripping untold thousands of flytraps out of nature preserves, where scientists and land managers are struggling to restore fire—nearly required by the carnivorous natives—in an increasingly fragmented landscape. Outside the preserves, private tracts of coastal forests are being chopped down to make way for golf courses and resort communities. But plans to further stem poaching, tighten regulations, and manage for flytraps on protected lands are lifting hopes. And large new land acquisitions in flytrap country could result in significant boosts to the plant, if funds can be found to help return former industrial pine plantations into natural forests where carnivorous plants thrive.
“A strong, vibrant flytrap population tells us that we are doing the right things for this special ecosystem,” says Dan Bell, the former project director of the Green Swamp Preserve. “We work to keep the ancient fire regime intact and maintain the natural balance of moist soils that so many rare plants in this ecosystem need. They’re a great indicator species.”
The towering longleaf pine savannas where flytraps live lie just landward of the Atlantic shore, rippled with ancient sand dunes and stippled with elliptical bogs called Carolina bays. Drained by slow-moving blackwater rivers and carpeted with grasslands and shrub thickets, these wetland forests hold upwards of 50 rare and endangered species. They host a trove of carnivorous plant species: tiny pinkish-burgundy sundews glisten on the ground, stalks of sticky nectar glands ready to snare an unsuspecting ant. Bladderworts’ underwater stalks are festooned with tiny traps bristling with trigger hairs. Fetterbush, laurel-leaved greenbriar, and honeycup also share the tangled pocosins (named for the Algonquin word meaning “swamp on a hill”) with such rarities as the Cape Fear threetooth land snail, the Bachman’s sparrow, and the federally endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. “If we see that we’re losing flytraps,” says Bell, “we know that we’re losing other things as well.”
Carnivorous sprigs such as the
Venus flytrap have captured the imagination of scientists and schoolkids, from Charles Darwin, who called the flytrap “the most wonderful plant in the world,” to my 11-year-old daughter, Markie, who for months nursed a plant named Jaws on our kitchen windowsill. “It’s fun to watch them eat little bugs,” Markie told me, as she added a bit of water to the small plastic pot that held her flytrap. At the time, a delicate bloom hovered a foot above Jaws’s leaves. “And the tall flower is really cool,” she added.
The Venus flytrap is an exquisite deception, an aggregate of biochemical, electric, and passive elastic components with a single purpose: to kill. A specialized leaf grows into a two-part blade, hinged in the middle. Each blade half is held taut with a distinctive outward curvature—think of a tennis ball sliced nearly in half, and each side pushed inside out. An insect—ant, beetle, spider, fly—scents an array of nectar glands whose glistening secretions line the edge of this snare, and investigates. The bug brushes against modified plant hairs, which send an electrical impulse through the leaf at a speed of some 10 centimeters per second. Almost instantly, the plant responds, flooding elongated cells on the outer face of those inside-out leaves, and stressing their concave geometry. Pushed beyond its limit of stability, the leaf trap snaps shut, closing in less than one-tenth of a second. The hapless bug is pinned inside a tooth-fringed, bean-shaped pouch, thrashing in its verdant prison, where plant glands gush digestive enzymes.
With more than two dozen species of carnivorous plants, the coastal forests of the North Carolina–South Carolina border are one of the continent’s hot spots for plants that supplement their diets with bugs, slugs, and the occasional tree frog. Still, carnivorous plants can be found in every U.S. state, and globally more than 600 species and subspecies are known to exist. The largest may be plants in the Nepenthes
genus—vines of Southeast Asia that grow as long as 30 feet, festooned with pitcher-like pitfall traps. (The rare rat or bird might tumble into a Nepenthes,
but even these large carnivorous species rely more on insects than bigger prey.) Found most commonly in low-nutrient soils—which helps explain their supplemental feeding—carnivorous plants don’t depend on live prey for survival, but they do fare better when their diets of sunlight, water, and soil nutrients are given a high-protein boost.
Wherever they grow, carnivorous plants are highly sought by collectors in search of an easy payday, and perhaps none carry the Venus flytrap’s cachet. Curiously, however, it is only meagerly protected by law. In North Carolina the flytrap is considered “a species of special concern,” a status less stringent than a threatened or endangered designation; plants can be collected from private lands with written permission of the landowner, and sold. In South Carolina populations are also designated as being of “special concern”; by its definition, collection on public lands is illegal, but private-lands collection is allowed. To export internationally protected plants outside of the United States, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requires a federal permit.
Many of the Venus flytraps for sale in garden shops, grocery stores, and on the Internet come from legitimate nurseries that produce flytraps through tissue culture and seed propagation, but their origin can be hard to track, says Misty Buchanan, a botanist with the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program. Poaching “is a major problem,” she says. “Every botanist I know who has worked with this species can tell you a personal anecdote about finding populations that have been hit by illegal harvest.” Poachers can pull up hundreds of plants in a single morning, and make up to $1.50 a plant from unscrupulous nursery owners, or more if they hawk their wares along local roadsides for $3 to $5 each.
Most poachers are locals looking for quick cash, but the underground commerce can be on a much larger scale. In 1996 federal agents charged a North Carolina nursery owner with conspiring to smuggle some 14,000 illegally acquired flytraps to the Netherlands through airports in Baltimore and Atlanta. A Dutch contact was arrested with a suitcase stuffed with flytraps. One offender was fined $2,000 and sentenced to six months of confinement with an electronic monitoring device, and an 18-month probation. North Carolina state wildlife law enforcement officers have busted poachers in camouflage clothing and face paint. Once officers noticed a bicycle rider dressed in long sleeves on a broiling hot day. He had stuffed his shirt with hundreds of flytraps. “There are only seven protected areas in the world where flytraps grow,” Bell says, “and poachers come into these preserves and take thousands of plants. A lot of times we don’t even know that it’s happened.”
Today is not one of those times. The ground around us is pocked with small depressions, each one looking like the hole excavated by an acorn-hunting squirrel. Every void had held a Venus flytrap. “The poachers got here first,” says Roger Shew, a geologist at the nearby University of North Carolina at Wilmington.
I stoop down to sift a handful of disturbed soil through my fingers. The dirt is still moist and clumped together. “Did you see three people while we were hiking in?” Shew asks. “I’ve seen them three times since the flytraps started flowering. That’s probably not a coincidence.” We all stare at the ground, letting the notion that we stumbled into such a poaching ring sink in.
In North Carolina’s Plant Conservation Program, there is only a single state-funded position for regulatory oversight for all threatened and endangered plant species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service funds two others. “Stronger laws protecting the plants, including stiff fines for poachers and better support for law enforcement, would help battle this problem,” says Buchanan.
Where they remain, Venus flytraps can be protected. For starters, regulations can be strengthened in a way similar to precautions taken for another rare North Carolina plant: ginseng. The North Carolina Department of Agriculture requires ginseng sellers to hold a dealer permit and stipulates that plants shipped out of state carry an export certificate. Add such measures to the plant-marking program, and the flow of Venus flytraps illegally taken and sold could be stemmed. “If enforcement officers find one marked ginseng root, they can confiscate your entire shipment,” Gadd explains. “Now that we have the marking program for flytraps in place, we need stronger regulations to back it up. The plant is becoming more and more rare. It’s time to get serious about protecting it.” State officials still hope stronger measures—and the funding to enforce them—are forthcoming, but Gadd is not optimistic that it will happen in the near future.
Outside protected areas, Carolina
coastal forests are suffering a triple assault. The construction of houses destroys habitat outright, while the conversion of natural forests to pine plantations further reduces suitable growing grounds. As the region’s natural cover is carved into increasingly smaller pieces, land managers have a more difficult time incorporating fire, which clears the forest floor of shrubs that shade out flytraps and many uncommon species. Brunswick County, where one of the world’s largest flytrap populations is found, contains a larger number of rare plant and animal species than any other North Carolina county—308, of which 100 are state or federally listed. What’s more, the county is the 55th-fastest growing in the nation, expanding nearly 30 percent between 2000 and 2006, to 94,945, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. Gigantic housing developments—some planned, some under construction, others already built—and golf courses are carving up the landscape.
The result: 43 populations of Venus flytraps in North Carolina have been extirpated, or have not been seen in at least 20 years. Today 107 populations remain, and only 65 are located on protected lands. In neighboring South Carolina, flytrap range has been reduced from as many as four counties to one, says Jamie Dozier, a former director of the South Carolina Coastal Heritage Preserve. But Horry County is anchored by the growing city of Myrtle Beach, and healthy, protected flytrap populations exist only on the state’s 9,383-acre Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve. Within the next 10 years, predicts James Luken, a biology professor at South Carolina’s Coastal Carolina University, Lewis Ocean Bay could be the only flytrap site left in his state.
Much of the habitat is simply gone. “The Green Swamp once was a 300,000-acre natural feature [about 20 times its current size],” explains Bell, steering his dusty pickup truck along a pocosin grown thick with red bay, titi, and fetterbush. This region was long ago ditched and drained and turned into pine plantations held by huge global timber companies. Even in that context, however, some Venus flytrap populations found refuge. “Now the business model is to manage for timber in the short term,” Bell says. “As the land itself becomes more valuable, pieces are peeled off and sold for development.” Untold thousands of acres of flytrap habitat have been bulldozed under.
Like many other species of rare flora and fauna in these coastal forests, the Venus flytrap thrives in sunny forest openings like those produced by wildfire. Fires once swept through the longleaf pines and swamps as frequently as every two years, knocking back the dense understory of shrubs so that such sun-loving plants as Venus flytraps could thrive. Today maintaining a natural fire regime in such a fragmented countryside is beset with difficulty. Liability concerns make it tricky to manage forest with fire, says Luken, whose study of flytraps includes research into restoration techniques such as creating artificial forest openings. “These issues will just get worse and worse as more housing units are built.” Which is inevitable.
People who profit from the public’s affinity for meat-eating plants are especially opposed to the building boom. Joseph Wood owns Fly-Trap Farm, a commercial greenhouse just outside the Green Swamp Preserve that sells upwards of 150,000 Venus flytraps a year. A burly, gray-bearded Michigan transplant, Wood buys plants collected from the wild, and he is as unapologetic about his support of the legal picking of wild plants as he is incensed about the pillaging of southeastern North Carolina’s coastal forests.
“What’s happening is unbelievable,” he tells me one afternoon, walking through his greenhouses just a few miles from the Atlantic shore. “Used to, you could go behind Boiling Spring Lakes and there was 500 acres of prime flytrap and pitcher plant grounds. Been there for years. Now it’s houses. They’re building everywhere. People come to my nursery and tell me, ‘I’ve got these flytraps comin’ up at my house.’ I tell them: ‘Well, of course they are. You’re living in a wetland.’ And they complain cause it’s squishy when they walk in the yard. Well, hell yes. What part of wetland
don’t these people understand?”
Purely by chance, John Kotleba, an engineer for the U.S. Army, and his wife, Chris, who works for a government contractor, have arrived at the Green Swamp Preserve just as our plant-marking team is hiking through a string of open bogs flush with flytraps. They are tourists making a pit stop on their way home to Orlando after a short vacation. Seventeen years ago they happened upon the Green Swamp and a nearby tract of land while on a similar sightseeing jaunt, and were blown away by its beauty. “There was this place on Highway 211 a few miles from here, on a paper mill property,” John recalls. “Flytraps were everywhere. It was our first trip to a place where flytraps grow wild, and we were simply astonished.”
In 2004 the Kotlebas returned to the paper mill site. Much had changed during the ensuing decade and a half. The swamp had been drained. The trees were cut. And the flytraps and pitcher plants and sundews were gone. “Something like that can’t ever be replaced,” John says, shaking his head.
Recent land acquisitions in
North Carolina hold promise. In the past five years eight tracts of flytrap habitat have been set aside. Some are small, such as a 735-acre flytrap-rich savanna along the Pender–Onslow county line (state officials are hesitant to release the names of these fragile preserves). Other agreements have added significant acreage to protected areas. The Nature Conservancy brokered a $24 million deal in 2002 with International Paper Company for 38,320 acres of coastal forests and swamps adjoining North Carolina’s Holly Shelter Game Land, most of which was transferred to the state to be managed for hunting and fishing. International Paper, The Nature Conservancy, and The Conservation Fund inked another deal, in 2006, to buy 18,341 acres adjoining the Green Swamp.
Still, the plight of flytraps and their ecosystem remains largely out of sight, out of mind, and outside of public budgets. “These are huge opportunities,” says Andy Wood, education director for Audubon North Carolina. “But the real work will be in restoring these lands from pine plantations to natural forest systems.” Botanist Gadd admits that the conservation cup sometimes seems half empty. “We struggle with funding for fire and enforcement,” she laments. “Those are the missing pieces that will really help us take advantage of these new parcels of protected lands.”
For too many people, the Venus flytrap is little more than a windowsill curiosity. Finding the money and political will to save the plant—and protect the flytrap populations that remain—will require a deeper understanding of how one of the world’s most famous plants reflects the ecology of one of the world’s most underappreciated landscapes.
One afternoon Bell stops his truck in the middle of the state’s Boiling Spring Lakes Preserve. We lean against the hood, swat mosquitoes, and watch late golden sunlight turn the blooms of rosebud orchids and milkwort to flames of orange and pink. “People ride around this area and see a bunch of loblolly pine plantations and think: ‘That’s it,’ ” he says, shaking his head. “Even folks that are interested in environmental issues here are very centered on the shoreline. They don’t realize what a different and special and rare ecosystem we have in the longleaf pine savanna. Once we get people out here and show them the flytraps and help them understand how this ecosystem works, they get very excited about this landscape. The flytraps need fans. And that’s what makes this crazy plant such a critical tool for conservation.”
Audubon contributing editor T. Edward Nickens has developed an expertise on the soggy habitats required by wetland flora and fauna, from carnivorous plants to migrating birds. His most recent article for the magazine (“Here Today, Gone Tomorrow,” November-December 2006) focused on the enigmatic ephemeral wetlands known as playa lakes.