The Carnivorous Plants of the Carolinas

In the coastal plains of the Carolinas in the eastern United States, a Lost World lies hidden away from the eyes of the average naturalist. Here, you will find several swamps with very low nitrogen and phosphorus soil content. For most plants, this lack of nitrogen and phosphorus makes life difficult, but for a few plants, this harsh environment is heavenly. While some of the usual plants like trees and ferns thrive, carnivorous plants–including the rare Venus fly trap–are the ruling class in these environments, and they are present in numbers rarely seen elsewhere. North Carolina’s Green Swamp is a prime example of this.

Green Swamp Preserve is a small, secluded patch of forest owned by the Nature Conservancy. Yet, despite the name, it is nothing like a swamp you’d imagine. It’s actually an open savanna populated by an assortment of longleaf pine trees, wiregrass, ferns, orchids, and of course, carnivorous plants. Ironically, these plants all depend on forest fires to survive, since the high temperatures allow pine cones to burst and release seeds and the aftermath leaves plenty of clear, sunlit land to allow wiregrass and pines to grow and thrive. The roots of all these plants (including the carnivorous ones) are protected from the hottest fires, which allows them to regenerate after each burning.

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This is Green Swamp. It hardly resembles a swamp.

Among the multitude of carnivorous plant species in Green Swamp, yellow pitcher plants are among the most common. Rows upon rows of the bright yellow plants speckle the green forest floor, which makes them very easy to spot.

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Yellow pitcher plants in Green Swamp.

Like other pitcher plants, yellow pitcher plants capture prey using their long pitcher-like tube. Inside the tube, they possess downward-pointing hairs, which guide unsuspecting insects and spiders inside, and nectar-secreting glands, which invite prey further down. The nectar contains sugars, but it also contains coniine, which is a toxin also found in poison hemlock plants. Once prey has made it this far, it rarely escapes. Between intoxication and a watery grave, a small insect or spider is no match.

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The leaf lid above the yellow pitcher plant’s tube.

But that’s not the yellow pitcher plant’s only critical adaptation. Above the pitcher plant’s tube, a rolled leaf forms a lid, which prevents rain water from diluting the plant’s digestive secretions inside the tube. This lid also serves as a resting place for many insects and spiders, unaware of the perils just below them.

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A green lynx spider rests on a yellow pitcher plant’s leaf lid.

These insects and spiders provide food for all the carnivorous plants that haunt Green Swamp. Yet, of all these plants, the main stars are the Venus flytraps. Venus flytraps are, perhaps, the most famous of all carnivorous plants; yet, surprisingly, they are only native to this very small corner of the world. In fact, they are only found in a 60 mile (97 kilometer) radius around Wilmington, North Carolina.

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Venus flytraps are the most well-known of the carnivorous plants.

Contrary to popular belief, Venus flytraps do not specifically target flies. Their diet is 33% ants, 30% spiders, 10% beetles, and 10% grasshoppers, with fewer than 5% flying insects. As you can tell, flying insects such as flies make up a mere 5% of the Venus flytrap’s diet while ants and spiders account for over 60%. However, Venus ant-trap just doesn’t have the same ring to it, although Venus spidertrap would certainly capture a few eyes!

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Venus flytraps are the most well-known of the carnivorous plants.

Because of their fascinating appearance and lifestyle, Venus flytraps are coveted by collectors worldwide. However, for this reason, they are at risk of endangerment. Roughly 33,000 Venus flytraps exist in the wild, and their populations are vulnerable. Since they are tiny and sedentary, they are defenseless against poachers, logging companies, and other outside threats.

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Venus flytraps are tiny and easy to miss.

Currently, Venus flytraps are only found on sites owned by the Nature Conservancy (such as Green Swamp), the North Carolina state government, and the US military. Thankfully, they are protected by law; in some North Carolina counties, it is a felony to collect Venus flytraps.

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