In the 1960 (and 1986 remake) of the film Little Shop of Horrors, a florist discovers that his oversized Venus flytrap has an unsettling taste for human blood. While both movies are completely fictional, and humans needn’t worry about being devoured by a ravenous houseplant anytime soon, the same can’t be said for flies, spiders, beetles and other insects, which can quickly go from being unsuspecting victims to lunch.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, carnivorous plants are defined as “any plant especially adapted for capturing and digesting insects and other animals by means of ingenious pitfalls and traps.” It estimates that there are more than 600 species of carnivorous plants found around the world. Here in the United States, The Nature Conservancy cites 66 species growing in the wild, all of which can be divided into five main types: sundews, pitcher plants, bladderworts, butterworts and the aforementioned Venus flytrap. While carnivorous plants are a common sight in nurseries and botanical gardens, spotting one in the wild can be more of a challenge, as these types of flora thrive in wetlands and coastal savannahs with acidic soil and low nutrients (such as nitrogen) that receive ample direct sunlight, such as in swamps and bogs. Because of this, in cases, such as that of the Venus flytrap, their only natural habitat in the country is located within a 70-mile radius in the Carolinas, whereas bladderworts can be found lurking in all 50 states.
Unfortunately, in recent years, land development for things like housing and farming has encroached on their already limited and specific habitats and have created conservation challenges, especially for Venus flytraps.
“Thus far I’m not sure it’s a serious issue, but it certainly will be in the future depending on sea level rise and changes in weather patterns,” says Johnny Randall, a botanist who’s an expert in rare plants like the Venus flytrap and also the director of conservation programs at the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill. “Venus flytraps in particular are dependent on fire to maintain their diversity, so doing prescribed burning in their habitats is important to maintaining these systems. However, in some areas where development is common, fire suppression measures have become a problem.”
Fortunately, there are a number of areas around the United States where carnivorous plant habitats are protected and thriving. We tracked down five, from North Carolina to Texas, where visitors can see these plants in action.
Big Thicket National Preserve (Kountze, Texas)
Located 90 miles northeast of downtown Houston, Big Thicket National Preserve is a 113,114-acre expanse known for its abundance of hiking trails, wetlands and birdwatching. But it’s what lurks in the deep foliage that deserves a closer look. The preserve is home to four types of carnivorous plants that can be found growing in North America: sundews, pitcher plants, bladderworts and butterworts. Because of its abundance of carnivorous plants, the preserve, which is located in a wetland pine savannah, has dedicated two hiking trails specifically to seeing them, the Sundew Trail and the Pitcher Plant Trail. The former includes a 0.3-mile inner loop and a 1-mile outer loop peppered with the vine-like red plant that uses dew-like droplets dripping from the tips of its leaves to attract prey. The latter is a one-mile loop with a wooden boardwalk that meanders above the preserve’s bogs, which are punctuated by stands of the stalk-like plant whose pitcher-like “mouth” captures insects (and in some cases, even baby salamanders!).
Yellow River Marsh Preserve State Park (Santa Rosa County, Florida)
While Yellow River Marsh Preserve State Park is home to hundreds of species of flora, from wild azaleas to red buckeye trees, it’s the wetlands’ abundance of white-top pitcher plants (Sarracenia leucophylla), the highest concentration found anywhere in Florida, that remains unrivaled. Unlike other species of pitcher plants, the white-top is known for its deep-red, vein-like markings, which creep up into the plant’s gaping maw where insects become trapped and paralyzed by its nectar. The white-top is especially rare to find growing in the wild outside of its natural range in the Florida Panhandle, where moist acidic soil is common. (The plant is one of almost 20 “rare and endangered species of plants or animals” found in the park, according to Florida State Parks.) In recent years, fire suppression in the area has threatened its habitat, resulting in the overgrowth of trees and woody shrubs that block it from the direct sunlight it needs to thrive.
Acadia National Park (near Bar Harbor, Maine)
The National Park Service classifies more than 20 percent of Acadia National Park as wetlands, making it a prime habitat for carnivorous plants like the round-leaved sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) and the purple pitcher plant or Northern pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea). While these plants prefer growing in the park’s bogs and marshes, they’ve also adapted to residing atop dense patches of sphagnum moss, which, according to the United States Botanic Garden, provides an ideal living environment in what is often nutrient-depleted soil. In their hunt to seek nutrients, the round-leaved sundew deploy tufts of “hairs” coated in a sticky substance to attract and capture insects (that sap is potent enough to curdle milk), while the purple pitcher plant’s pitcher fills with rainwater that in turn attracts insects who get trapped inside. Both species use digestive enzymes to break down the bodies of their unlucky victims. Sundews are best spotted along the Sundew Trail on the Schoodic Peninsula located on Maine’s mainland, while pitcher plants pop up throughout the park’s wetlands.
Stanley Rehder Carnivorous Plant Garden (Wilmington, North Carolina)
Named after the late horticulturist and Wilmington native Stanley Rehder, affectionately known locally as the “Flytrap Man,” this nearly one-acre garden is home to more than a dozen carnivorous plant species, including several different types of sundews, pitcher plants and bladderworts. However, the garden’s main attraction is its impressive collection of Venus flytraps, a creepy-looking flowering plant known for its hinged leaves that look eerily similar to a mouth with teeth, which it snaps shut once it senses prey in its presence. While some of the other species found at the garden grow elsewhere around the world, the Venus flytrap’s natural habitat encompasses a roughly 70-mile radius in the southeastern portion of North Carolina in and around the Coastal Plains near Wilmington and dipping into South Carolina. Because of this, the Venus flytrap also happens to be North Carolina’s State Carnivorous Plant. Come springtime, the garden plays host to the Flytrap Frolic, an annual event celebrating the peculiar plant that includes guided tours with local experts.
Darlingtonia State Natural Site (near Florence, Oregon)
Darlingtonia State Natural Site sits only a stone’s throw east of the Pacific Ocean and also happens to be the only natural site in Oregon dedicated to the protection of its namesake plant, the California pitcher plant (Darlingtonia californica), also known as the cobra lily or cobra plant. (Specimens of the plant can also be found growing in Northern California.) With its curled purple-and-red mottled leaves, which call to mind a cobra snake primed for attack, there’s no mistaking this rare species from other plants and grasses growing within the park’s boundaries. The best spot to see these carnivores in action is from the wooden boardwalk that courses through the natural site’s water-saturated fen. From there visitors can watch as these ruthless killers use the nectar-secreting rims of their curved leaves to attract and ensnare insects, which get caught on the slippery surface and then trapped inside the pitcher, where enzymes dissolve their carcasses for a later feast.