Maybe it was “Little Shop of Horrors” that brought these strange plants into the limelight, or perhaps it was the sheer fact that the plant prefers a little meat over vegetables. Either way, Venus flytraps have long captured the imagination of American culture with their football shaped spring-loaded traps just waiting for prey to tickle the cilia-like sensors inside.
Few will deny their cool factor, but what many people don’t realize is just how rare these incredible little plants are. So rare, that they only grow naturally within about a 100-mile radius of Wilmington. And that’s it … in the world. It has been safely integrated into different habitats, including spots in Florida, some successfully and some with less than positive results, however, the nitrogen and phosphorus poor boggy savannahs along North Carolina’s coastline are the only places where the plant is truly indigenous.
“There are a lot of plants that are endangered that used to be everywhere,” explained Debbie Crane, director of communications for the North Carolina chapter of The Nature Conservancy. “That is not the case with the Venus flytrap.” The only spot where the plant has ever found the right soil, nutrients and insects is right here in Eastern North Carolina.
With new legislation that took effect on Dec. 1, 2014, North Carolina is ensuring that these natural wonders are protected and preserved for generations to come. Previously a misdemeanor, poaching Venus flytraps is now a class H felony and carries a sentence of up to 25 months in prison in addition to fines and community service. What’s more, each individual plant can now be considered a separate charge.
With everyone in the preservation community holding their collective breath, the new law is about to put to the test this spring. On Jan. 5, four men had their first appearance in court after being caught by the NC Wildlife Resources Commission leaving the Holly Shelter Game Land with more than 900 plants. And this is just the beginning. Geoff Cantrell, public affairs officer with the Wildlife Commission said the agency averages 10-20 cases per year.
“Venus flytraps are an important part of the ecological integrity of these conserved lands,” said Mallory Martin, chief deputy director of the Wildlife Commission. “Removal is not only a theft of a protected resource, but intentional damage to the natural landscape.”
The Wildlife Commission estimates that there are less than 35,000 flytraps remaining in the wild. In the last two years alone, an estimated 11,000 have been stolen. While previous land development has attributed to the decline, poaching remains the largest cause of the dwindling numbers. That’s not to say that the Venus flytrap is extinct. Nurseries, department stores and gift shops regularly sell small plastic terrariums with the coveted plant inside. But these plants, Crane said, are grown from seeds in a greenhouse, not the natural habitat they are trying to protect.
The unique plants were first spotted in 1760 by North Carolina Colonial Gov. Arthur Dobbs. He described the find in his diary: “The greatest wonder of the vegetable kingdom is a very curious unknown species. Upon touching the leaves, they instantly close like a spring trap. It bears a white flower. To this surprising plant, I have given the name Fly Trap.”
The plants taste for flies is actually a little overstated. Thirty-three percent of the plant’s diet comes from common ants; 30 percent, spiders; 10 percent, beetles; 10 percent, grasshoppers; and less than five percent actually come from flying insects. Bugs are lured into the trap by nectar that drips from the plant’s triggers. In order for the trap to engage, two of the plant’s three trigger hairs must be tripped twice within about 20 seconds or the same hair must be brushed in rapid succession. This allows the plant to identify appropriate prey from other stimuli, like rain drops or small insects that offer limited nutrients. Once prey is realized, the lobes clamp together within a tenth of a second and the guard hairs on the outside of the trap lace together to keep it inside. The plant then secretes digestive fluids and, within five to 10 days, nutrients are absorbed and the trap reopens.
So where can you find them in nature? We’re lucky enough to have several places that are open to the public. Carolina Beach State Park has a wonderful walking trail that introduces guests not only to the Venus flytrap, but other carnivorous plants, including sundews and bladderworts. One of the Nature Conservancy’s oldest preserves is the 18,000 acre Green Swamp, located off of Hwy 211 in Brunswick County. A prime habitat for the flytrap, Green Swamp also features sundew and pitcher plants. Other sites include Boiling Springs Lake Preserve off of Hwy 87 south of Wilmington and the Croatan National Forest in Craven and Carteret counties. Crane notes that late May, early June, when the plants are blooming, is the best time for viewing. The plants are identifiable by a long stalk and small white flower.
To learn more about sites protected by The Nature Conservancy, visit www.nature.org.