Saving a Unique North Carolina Plant

Efforts are underway to launch a new license plate benefiting plant conservation

THE ABSENTEE GARDENERS

By Kit Flynn and Lise Jenkins

In the plant world, North Carolina can claim a plant that is unlike any other: the Venus Flytrap, aka Dionaea muscipula. Location is everything — and North Carolina offers its Venus the perfect site.

Much of the southeastern coastal plain is comprised of sand with high acidity and low fertility. Unable to move, plants must become masters of adaptation if they are to survive. Our state, endowed with diverse geology and a long growing season, supports a wide range of ecological niches: the southeastern coastal plain offers a multitude of specialized areas, some seemingly harsher than others.

In fact, studies have shown that while the Venus Flytrap can thrive in this acidic environment with its low fertility, the plant actually displays little vigor when grown in clay-loam garden soil, something we gardeners aim to provide for our plants. Unlike most plants, this native also fares poorly when given nutritional supplements. This is a plant that forgoes its vitamins.

The Venus’ native habitat is a 90-mile radius around Wilmington. This area has a high-water table, with an extremely acidic pH of 3.9-4.5 (bear in mind that 7 is neutral). Flytraps require ample water, high light and level ground. Fire is another important factor in the well-being of this plant since it does not compete well with other vegetation. Its ability to survive fires means it’s one of the first plants to reappear after a burn.

How can any plant get nourishment under these conditions? This is where flytraps fascinate us. The plant captures insects, digesting them in order to extract their much-needed nutrients. The shrewd flytrap has a means to discriminate between a decent meal and an unsatisfying snack.

Their leaves are specialized to attract and digest their meals. Flytrap leaves are divided into two sections — a flat, photosynthesizing petiole with a pair of lobes hinged along their midrib, thereby forming a trap. Covered with tiny hairs acting as triggers, this terminal pair of leaves secretes a digesting mucilage. The Venus can differentiate between a delicious insect and a raindrop by determining whether the touch of the hairs is in rapid succession or the contact is over 20 seconds long.

These plants can move, they can eat flesh and their shiny red mouths are fringed with spines — what’s not to love? Sadly, their very weirdness makes them vulnerable to poaching.

While cultivated plants, raised in greenhouses, are widely available for purchase, poachers often steal Venus Flytraps from their native habitat. Poachers risk felony fines for removal from public lands or without written permission from the owners of private property.

Until recently, their habitat held little value to marketers and land developers. However, Wilmington is enjoying a building boom, thereby raising property values while putting pressure on the flytraps’ territory. These plants are now endangered due to their charisma, poaching concerns and encroachment by developers.

To help save this species, the North Carolina Botanical Garden Foundation and Friends of Plant Conservation have joined forces to launch a specialty license plate program, with revenue going towards the preservation of this unique North Carolina plant.

Part of the purchase fee will go to the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles while the remainder will go towards plant conservation and educational efforts. For the launch of this new specialty license plate, the botanical garden is collecting applications now. They need to have 500 applications by Feb. 15 in order to establish this plate with the DMV.

Please go the botanical garden’s website for further information not only about the project but also for instructions to submitting your application: ncbg.unc.edu/support/venus-flytrap-license-plate/.

Don’t get caught without one.

Absent from their gardens, Kit and Lise enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of horticulture and suburban living. More on Instagram @AbsenteeGardener or email: info@absentee-gardener.com

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