Nice that they gave directions, huh?
Bug-eating plants found in local forests may be disappearing
By Bruce Ritchie
DEMOCRAT STAFF WRITER
SUMATRA - It's a plant-eat-bug world out there along the scenic roads in the Apalachicola National Forest.
Bugs fly or crawl into pitcher plants, get trapped inside and are digested by the plants. Thousands of the pitcher plants stand tall along Florida highways 65 and 379, attracting plant enthusiasts and unwary bugs alike.
"It's a rare sight," said Jimmy Bone of Tallahassee, a fan of the bug-eating plants. "People should realize it's a natural treasure."
People come from all over the country to see some of the rare plants in the Apalachicola National Forest, said Louise Kirn, district ecologist for the forest.
There are 21 species of carnivorous plants found in the Apalachicola National Forest, including four species of pitcher plants. The others are members of the sundew, butterwort and bladderwort families.
The most striking of the plants is the trumpet pitcher plant, which is yellow and green and grows about 3-feet tall. They can be seen in the Apalachicola National Forest west of the Ochlockonee River.
They can be seen on Florida 65 beginning near Forest Road 103 about four miles south of Hosford. More are seen around Sumatra and along Florida 373, which is designated the Apalachee Savannahs National Forest Scenic Byway.
Pitcher plants are shaped like tubes and sometimes hold water. They and other carnivorous plants generally can be found in wet, open areas with acidic soil, said Tom Miller, a professor of biological sciences at Florida State University.
There is little nitrogen or other plant food in bog soils, Miller
said, because the nutrients remain tied up in the decaying plant matter. So the plants have evolved over many thousands of years to eat insects for their nutrients.
In a bog off State Road 65, Miller stands surrounded by trumpet, purple and parrot pitcher plants. There also are two species of sundew growing there.
The early-morning sun illuminates the moist, spindly sundew species called dewthread, which traps and digests bugs that become entangled on its sticky, hairlike fibers.
"I think it's one of the prettiest spots. It's the highest diversity spot," Miller said. "There are so many different species here."
Some scientists and environmentalists have been worried that
carnivorous plants and the wetlands they depend on are disappearing.
Development and conversion of wetland savannahs to agriculture and intensive forestry practices have caused massive losses, some scientists say.
Off-road-vehicle use in the Apalachicola National Forest also is a threat to the savannahs, said Kirn, the Forest Service ecologist. Off-road-vehicle use in those areas is illegal.
Some savannahs may appear dry, she said, but they actually are soggy and vehicles easily become stuck. Kirn said deep vehicle ruts can drain large areas of the shallow savannahs.
The U.S. Forest Service is working to restore savannahs where the pitcher plants thrive. The agency is cutting down pine trees, sometimes leaving them in place rather than risking damage by removing them with machines. The agency also is using fire regularly to help the plants pollinate and reduce the underbrush that competes with carnivorous plants.
Protecting the savannahs "is one of the highest conservation
priorities in this whole area," Kirn said.
Plant lovers say they want people to appreciate the various bug-eating plants, but they also want people to leave them in the wild. Kirn said she has stopped some people from digging up pitcher plants along the roadside in the national forest.
It's illegal to remove plants without a research permit, according to the Forest Service. Doing so carries a penalty of up to $5,000 and up to six months in jail, said Mary Pat King, a law-enforcement officer in the Apalachicola National Forest.
Bone sells to nurseries sundews, pitcher plants and Venus' flytraps that he's grown from seeds and pieces of the plants he has purchased over the years. He said carnivorous plants won't remain in the wild for people to see if they continue to be removed.
And they usually won't survive in the pots that people replant them in, he said, because they are conditioned to remain in the wild.
Said Bone: "You might wind up killing them with good intentions."
TAKE A DRIVE
Tips for seeing pitcher plants in the Apalachicola National Forest:
Drive slowly - about 35 mph - and be aware of traffic.
Try some of the best viewing areas on Florida Highway 65, north and south of Sumatra. (The closest area to Tallahassee is along 65 at Forest Road 103 just south of the national forest sign.)
Look for the trumpet pitcher plants in wet areas beyond mowed areas of the roadside.
Pull over when you see the trumpet pitcher plants if you want to see other carnivorous plants, which are much smaller and include sundews, dewthreads and other pitcher-plant species.