Each month in our “Field Trip” feature, we take readers into the field with a NCDA&CS employee to find out more about the varied types of work that goes on in the Department.
OK, so sometimes you get such a really cool assignment that you can’t even believe your good fortune. I got to tag along with a handful of volunteers and staff from our Plant Industry Division recently to a Venus flytrap seed harvest at the Boiling Spring Lakes Preserve in Brunswick County.
A small part of North Carolina and an even smaller part of South Carolina are the only places in the world where the plant grows naturally.
Because of widespread development in areas where the plant grows wild, there is concern the Venus flytrap could eventually disappear in the wild. Illegal harvesting and seed poaching on public lands adds to that pressure, so the purpose of our trip was to harvest the seed pods before someone else did and plant the seeds in less visible locations to discourage potential illegal harvests.
After a few basic instructions, we set out on foot scouring the roadside for plants. As difficult as the plants were to initially spot, you think how in the world does someone going down the road in a car spot these and come back and grab the seeds?
Well, as Laura Gadd, a botanist with the Plant Industry Division, kindly explained, when the plants are flowering, they send up a tall shoot topped with white blooms, which act like a white flag for those in-the-know. After several weeks when the blooms fall off and the seed pod turns from green to a dark, blackish-brown, they are pretty impossible to spot from the road. But on foot, you see the tiny plant with the distinctive yellowish-green and red features peeking out of the underbrush. And then you see the seed pod.
Surprisingly to me, someone or something, had beaten us to some of the seed pods. You could see the shoot coming up from the plant, but at the top where the seed pod should have been was a clean cut. Nothing. Some volunteers speculated deer may have been the “harvesters,” but everything else green around the plants seemed surprisingly un-nibbled. I didn’t share their hypothesis. Besides, a little conspiracy usually makes for a better story.
Fairly soon after the first plant spotting, we did wander across a patch where the seed pods were still attached. Success! A quick pinch or snip and the seed pod went into a bag for replanting at another location.
Once we canvassed the roadside for a short distance, we walked into the woods to find a good location to put the seeds. The plants prefer a moist environment and a lot of times seemed to be in the company of sphagnum moss. So we looked for similar terrain in the woods.
The wooded sites we went to are protected by NCDA&CS as permanent plant conservation preserves. Not only did the second site we visit contain natural populations of Venus flytraps, it also hosts several varieties of pitcher plants as well as other carnivorous plant, orchids and other native species.
At the second location, we spread out across a swath of the land that underwent a controlled burn in 2008. Controlled burns are needed to maintain the health of the preserve, allowing plants to rejuvenate and clearing out thick underbrush that hinders the propagation of low-growing plants such as the Venus flytrap.
It was slow going at first. No one had spotted a single plant. Someone joked there would be a prize for whoever found the first one. Still nothing. Then one of the volunteers called out that they had located a patch of the plants. Like 5-year old soccer players who follow the ball wherever it goes on a field, we all headed in the direction of the find and began searching for plants and seeds.
Several varieties of pitcher plants were pointed out — including one that was flowering — and then a single blooming Venus flytrap was spotted. Sure enough the white blooms were visible and distinct enough to serve as a signal. It all made sense.
The work was hot and at times quiet and serene. Footsteps rustling thick patches of pine needles, dry twigs snapping in the underbrush and the occasional disruption of a bird cawing provided a reflective audible backdrop. It was a good day.
We should all be so lucky to come face-to-face with a jewel of nature. Hopefully through this and other plant conservation efforts, these plants will continue to survive and thrive in the wild for everyone to enjoy.