Story by Teresa A. Mclamb
Photography By Keith Ketchum
A meat-eating plant might sound like the basis of a science-fiction movie, but the carnivorous Venus flytrap is a reality right here in Brunswick County. This rare plant is native only to southeastern North Carolina, and if you spend much time outdoors in places like the Green Swamp, you very likely have encountered it.
The remarkable Venus flytrap is in danger of disappearing in the wild, but it is also gaining the attention of environmentalists, biologists, conservationists and commercial growers who are increasingly introducing the tiny plant to the world.
Flytraps live by trapping and digesting small flying and crawling creatures like ants, mosquitoes, flies, spiders and similar insects. One commercial grower reports to have seen them consume lizards. Here’s how they do it: Tiny bristles within the leaf trigger it to close when an insect brushes against at least two of the bristles. For the next several days, the plant ingests the life-giving protein of the insect.
The plant is native only to the sandy, nitrogen-poor and phosphorus-poor soils such as Carolina Bays or similar wetlands and bogs. The plants once grew wild on tens of thousands of acres in New Hanover, Brunswick, Columbus and Horry counties, but development and fire suppression have limited their numbers. (Odd as it may sound, when wildfires thin the underbrush that chokes out sunlight, flytraps emerge with a vengeance.) A Wikipedia article estimates that fewer than 30,000 plants remain in the wild.
Poaching is also a threat to the plant. To thwart this, officials from the state government and The Nature Conservancy are marking plants with fluorescent dye that can be detected with a black light. Legitimate dealers check plants for the dye and refuse to buy them if they have it, although some will tell you that poachers simply ship these plants overseas through disreputable brokers.
Successful wild populations of the flytrap live in the Green Swamp in Brunswick and Columbus counties, in a couple of small patches (including behind Alderman Elementary School and Carolina Beach State Park) in New Hanover County, and in the 9,000-acre Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve in Horry County. The property that is now Barefoot Resort was one of the last major stands of Venus flytrap in the
region, but development of the resort destroyed much of that population.
A South Carolina Forestry Commission report on the anniversary of the 2009 wildfire, which consumed dozens of homes and hundreds of acres in Barefoot Resort, stated that within a week of the fire’s start, Venus flytraps and other plants were emerging from the ashes. Rangers at Carolina Beach State Park take visitors on an educational tour of that park’s population at least monthly.
Cultivating the Flytrap
While some varieties of the plant appear to be headed for extinction due to habitat destruction and poaching, others are thriving in commercial cultivation thanks to businesses like Fly-Trap Farm in Civietown, just north of Shallotte in Brunswick County.
Fly-Trap Farm owner Joe Wood explains that the state sells permits to individuals who may collect flytraps from the wild as long as they are on private, rather than public, property and have the permission of the property owner. Those collectors, many of whom have been doing it for generations, sell to businesses like Fly-Trap Farm.
Wood sells to a large database of businesses, mostly mom-and-pop shops, and to overseas buyers through brokers in Miami and New York.
“Most of my plants go to two thousand names I have through the Internet,” says Wood. He sells more than 200,000 plants each year, all in the United States.
“I don’t ship to big-box stores,” says Wood. “Everything goes to small shops like Ace Hardware or a party store.”
The plants sell to individuals for about $5 each.
Misunderstood but Admired
Wood’s operation drew attention from Smithsonian magazine last year when they did an extensive article on the flytrap. That article recounted the plants’ discovery by early settlers.
North Carolina Governor Arthur Dobbs (who lived in Brunswick Town for a while) penned the first written record of the flytrap in 1763, calling it “the great wonder of the vegetable world.” Live plants were first exported to England in 1768 and were called “tipitiwitchets.” The plant was named Dionaea muscipula by British naturalist John Ellis. The name references Dione, mother of the love goddess Venus, and a mousetrap.
It took many years before people believed that the plant was carnivorous. Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus is quoted as saying a carnivorous plant was “against the order of nature as willed by God.” Darwin, a hundred or so years later, is known to have experimented with flytraps that were shipped to him by friends in the Carolinas. He wrote about them in Insectivorous Plants, and called them “one of the most wonderful [plants] in the world.”
Cultivated for the World Market
Grown in moist peat, the plants perpetuate themselves through seeds and have been known to live for 20 to 30 years. While they need to be outdoors to collect insects, they should be brought inside if the temperature reaches freezing. They require rainwater (no chlorine or other treatments) and infrequent fertilization with a good 20-10-20 mixture.
Touring through one of his three greenhouses, Wood, 73, displays several trays of small flytraps that he bought from the Netherlands. Getting the plants to market is a rather remarkable cycle. Local collectors package the plants for brokers who ship them overseas. Growers in the Netherlands use tissue cultures to produce thousands of plants from one, then ship them back to Florida where “they’re grown out.” Then they go to individual businesses like Wood’s where they’re grown for several more weeks before being shipped to retailers who sell them to carnivorous plant collectors and other plant enthusiasts.
A quick search of the Internet shows numerous sellers as well as a good selection of how-to articles and enthusiasts’ blogs and forums.
Growing the plants is a labor-intensive process that Wood says produces very little money, but he’s able to keep four or five people working year round. Referring to the growers in the Netherlands, Wood says they take one plant, the growing stem and the flower spike. From that, they might beget 10,000 pieces of plant. They put it in agar, which is clear, fertilized growing medium. Then they put it in soil and ship it to Florida. There, he says, they “grow it up to where we buy it. We put it in our soil, and grow it out so we can sell it.”
“We get in 3,000 plants a month from Florida,” says Wood.
From March through October Wood ships out about 15,000 plants per month. Winter is slower but steady. It’s also the time of year when plant shows around the country are held, and Wood’s staff members attend several a year.
All these efforts are introducing the public and growers to the elusive Venus flytrap, and steadily increasing its chance of survival on the planet.
Besides the Venus flytrap, Fly-Trap Farm raises other carnivorous plants, including several varieties of pitcher plants, sundews and butterworts pictured below.