Friday, June 1, 2012

A Plant That Bites Back

Carnivorous is such a hard word to spell, particularly when a child is in the fifth grade. That is when my class and I were introduced to one of the unusual plants of the South and particularly the Carolinas – the carnivorous Venus Flytrap. It attracts, catches, and devours insects and other tiny creatures.

In fact, Charles Darwin labeled this plant as “one of the most wonderful in the world.” When he wrote Insectivorous Plants in 1875, he brought plants that entrap insects to the world’s attention. The video below by UNC-TV helps to understand why the flytrap itself is so amazing.

However, the Venus Flytrap is not naturally a worldwide resident. It lives in only the South and only two states – North Carolina and South Carolina. In fact, its native locations are limited to within 60 miles of Wilmington, NC, where it survives in wet sandy and peaty soils. Because these areas are nutritionally poor and do not contain adequate nitrogen and phosphorus, the plant digests animals to gain nutrients for protein formation that the soil does not provide. In addition, the flytrap tolerates fires well and benefits when its habitat burns, particularly during controlled burns of longleaf pine forests, because the fires eliminate its competition.

Park ranger at start of hike
Although several hundred plants are carnivorous, the Venus Flytrap probably is the best known, particularly by school children because many see this plant in action in elementary school as I did. When I was in the Wilmington area with my school-age grandkids, rangers at a nearby state park were offering a “carnivorous plant hike.” Because they were not yet in the fifth grade, I hoped that the hike would teach them something new. In addition to the Venus Flytrap, the park is also home to pitcher plants, butterworts, sundews, and other “plants that bite back.” The starting point of the hike appropriately was the Flytrap Trail Parking Lot.

Sundew, the first carnivorous
plant on the hike
Literally in minutes we saw our first carnivorous plant — a sundew. A few steps away was a pitcher plant. Although both were easily spotted by the ranger without leaving the trail’s pathway, a casual observer probably would have missed them without being told where to look because they blend so effectively with their surroundings.

Pitcher plant seen on hike
Closeup of Venus flytrap at state park

The highlight of the walk was finding a Venus Flytrap. The first one was smaller than I had expected. Because a plant can live for more than 20 years, this one was probably very young. However, its trapping mechanism with hair-like edges was clearly discernible to us but ready to spring shut on any unsuspecting prey. Because the trap can shut in 0.1 seconds, the plant’s trapping movement is remarkable but is common knowledge to as young as now a first grader. Only during the program did I learn that my granddaughter, then entering the second grade, had already seen a flytrap in school – she was clearly less impressed with the hike than I had hoped.

Flytraps for sale at farmers
market in Saxapahaw, NC
Children also learn about the plant because it is frequently seen for sale at markets and festivals, particularly in North Carolina. Although state laws prohibit removal from its native habitats, the plant is cultivated in many locations around the world. Although it does have the reputation for being tricky to grow, the flytrap is popular with many families to teach children more about nature and the dependencies that plants and animals have for each other.

Because Mother Earth has more than a million species of insects, the Venus Flytrap is unlikely to go hungry soon. It will also probably continue to be discussed in school programs and sold as novelty plants. However, be careful about trying to impress children how “wonderful” the plant is – they may have already learned by the first grade.

Venus Flytrap at River Walk in Wilmington, NC
"Venus flytrap" on display at the River Walk
in Wilmington, NC, illustrates its connection
to coastal North Carolina

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