More than 100 years before the Venus flytrap was named North Carolina’s state carnivorous plant, Charles Darwin called it “one of the most wonderful plants in the world.”
That’s high praise from the famous naturalist and biologist. But it doesn’t surprise Chris Helms, superintendent of Carolina Beach State Park, where the Venus flytrap thrives. The 761-acre park is the home of the Flytrap Trail, a half-mile loop through the wetlands and longleaf pine and wiregrass savanna communities where visitors can enjoy the sight of many Venus flytraps.
“We have nearly 800,000 visitors every year, and many of them come from all over the country to see these unique plants in the wild,” says Helms, a 28-year employee of the state park. “To ensure a continued population of flytraps, it’s very important that we actively manage and maintain the habitat of these plants.”
It’s necessary because this insect-loving plant is native only to a small area of the coastal plain in North and South Carolina, mostly within a 75-mile radius of Wilmington.
“The coastal plain has been recently recognized as a biodiversity hot spot,” says Lesley Starke, the plant conservation program manager for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services. “It’s an area of high species richness but also an area which has already lost a great deal of its natural vegetation, and the remaining habitat is under threat.”
For the Venus flytrap, one of those threats is an overgrown habitat that crowds out the small, low-stature profile of the plant. “Fire is important to maintaining the habitat because it cleans out the forest floor, allowing more sunlight to reach smaller plants like the flytrap, which can be overtaken by large woody plants,” Starke says.
That’s exactly what Helms and his staff at Carolina Beach State Park work to accomplish through prescribed burns. “We try to replicate a lightning fire, which would occur naturally in the spring because a burn during the growing season provides the full benefit,” he says. “Venus flytraps are adapted to this fire, and within a few days of a prescribed burn you can see them and wiregrass plants shooting right back up.”
Roger Shew, a geologist at UNC-Wilmington, agrees with the need for controlled burns. He and his wife, Dale, have been doing longleaf pine restoration studies for 19 years and Venus flytrap monitoring for the last seven as volunteers with the Nature Conservancy and North Carolina Natural Heritage Program.
As part of their work, they monitor the effectiveness of controlled burns. According to Shew, these burns “are key to maintaining the species and are especially critical in larger preserves like Green Swamp, Camp Lejeune and Croatan National Forest.” He also notes that it would also be a real loss if smaller element occurrences were lost and the range distribution were to lessen.
And that points to the additional threats to the Venus flytrap: development and poaching. “The Venus flytrap has a limited natural range, so when that land is developed through building or is cleared and converted to other uses, the natural habitat is lost and so are the plants,” Starke says.
Shew explains that it’s of particular concern since Brunswick County, site of some of the largest populations of the plant, is the fastest-growing county in the state. Pender County, which also has large populations of the plant, is another rapidly growing area.
Protection from Poaching
Visitors to Carolina Beach State Park aren’t the only ones intrigued by this carnivorous creation. “Everyone who sees a Venus flytrap is captivated by it,” Starke says.
Who wouldn’t be? It’s mesmerizing to watch a plant with a trap that springs nearly shut in less than a second to capture an insect. The trap is activated when an insect or other object brushes two or more times against trigger hairs that grow on the inner surface of the trap, which is simply a modified leaf. The trap doesn’t close completely until it determines – either chemically or through movement – whether it’s caught a meal. If the Venus flytrap determines that it has caught worthwhile food, the trap gradually seals completely shut, allowing digestion to take place. It then reopens in three days to two weeks. Each trap is only able to close three to five times and then withers away. New traps are constantly being formed.
But that which makes it so unique, captivating and rare also threatens it. People poach the plant and sell it. “The intensity and scope of poaching has increased over the last several years,” Starke says. “As a result, harsher penalties have been imposed.” What had been a misdemeanor is now a felony.
All the protection efforts have one goal, Shew says: “We want everyone to have a chance to see these ‘most wonderful plants’ as well as the natural areas where they live.”