Venus flytraps: Homegrown North Carolina wonders

by | Nov 8, 2023

Children all around the world learn about an incredible carnivorous plant called the Venus flytrap that can eat bugs. It seems almost magical to kids that a plant can feed itself in that way. It is one of the most famous and popular carnivorous plants in the world, and for good reason. The Venus flytrap is a truly unique plant with a fascinating way of life.

What kids don’t always learn – even here in our state — is that the native range of the Venus flytrap is limited to the wetlands of southeast North Carolina and northeast South Carolina, a total area of just about 100-square miles on the entire planet. In North Carolina, its range extends from Wilmington only to around Fort Liberty.

The Venus flytrap is a natural gem of North Carolina and the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Service’s Plant Industry Division and its Plant Conservation Program work hard to make sure this exceptional plant has a bright future.

Two preserves in the Wilmington area, Boiling Spring Lakes Plant Conservation Program (PCP) Preserve and Hog Branch Lake PCP Reserve, help to sustain native populations of Venus flytraps.

“The Plant Conservation Program in Plant Industry, we own and manage nature preserves across the state for the benefit of rare plants and their habitat,” said Katherine Culatta, a Plant Conservation Botanist. “(Those two preserves) comprise about 7,000 acres and they protect 18 different rare plant species. One of those is the Venus flytrap. We estimate about 5,000 Venus flytrap plants on those two preserves.”

Threats to the Venus flytrap include development, habitat degradation and poaching, which is a felony under North Carolina state law.

“As far as what we do to protect and support those flytrap populations, fire is a really big management tool,” Culatta said. “Venus flytraps are native to longleaf pine habitats and wet longleaf pine savannahs that have a special combination of being pretty wet and pretty open and sunny. Fire is the is the way that that habitat is maintained. We, with the help of the North Carolina Forest Service, complete prescribed burns throughout the preserve mostly in the dormant winter season. Those fires help maintain habitat for the flytraps by basically knocking back woody competition and shrubbery and things that would otherwise grow up and sort of shade out the flytrap habitat.”

Culatta said support for and understanding of the importance of prescribed burns is crucial for the Venus flytrap’s future. Venus flytraps are small plants that grow close to the ground, so they’re very susceptible to plants growing above them and blocking their access to sunlight.

Just about everyone knows that the Venus flytrap is a carnivorous plant that closes when an insect lands on it, “eating” the insect. What you may not know is just how sophisticated the closing mechanism is.

“The trap closing takes a lot of energy for the plant, so they don’t want to be snapping shut and not getting an insect meal,” Culatta said. “It’s a waste of energy. They have these special little hairs on their traps where the trap will only close if multiple hairs are triggered in quick succession, which would indicate that something like a little spider or an ant is actually walking across the surface of the trap as opposed to a breeze blowing across it or a pine needle falling in the trap. The lack of sequential triggering of those hairs means the plant is you know, ‘smart’ enough to recognize that is not a meal that they want to have.”

With the help of Culatta and the Plant Conservation Program, the Venus flytrap will hopefully thrive in North Carolina for decades to come.