Top of the Food Chain
North Carolina has no shortage of dangerous predators. From black bears and cottonmouths on land to great white sharks and alligators in the ocean (yes gators sometimes hang out on the beach), one should always have a knowledge of the local habitat less they become a midday snack. But in one swampy pine savanna in the southeastern part of the state, it's neither the reptiles nor the mammals that are the most abundant carnivores. Instead, it's a small plant that lures insects with sweet-smelling nectar before snapping shut around them and digesting them whole. That's because in the Green Swamp Preserve the Venus Fly Trap is king.
North Carolina is the land of the pine for a reason, and from tar and pitch stores in the 1700s to paper and pulp in the 20th century, lumber companies purchased land and timber rights to hundreds of thousands of acres across the state. More recently those companies have helped to protect some of our state's most precious natural resources. From 1977 to 1980, the Federal Paper Board Company donated over 16,000 acres just north of Supply, NC, to the Nature Conservancy, creating what is now known as the Green Swamp Preserve.
Longleaf pines require fire and a low underbrush to thrive, but development has halted most of the natural fires that take place, and the now endangered longleaf forests represent only four percent of their historic range. That's why reforestation efforts are so important to preserving this once lifeblood of North Carolina. It also so happens that the savannas in the Green Swamp Preserve house the exact conditions (acidic soil with a high water content and forests with a low underbrush) that are conducive to the Venus Fly Trap: In fact, this organism - which is considered to be the world's most recognizable carnivorous plant - only grows naturally in 18 NC counties and three counties in SC. That's one of the reasons finding them is so special.
But the insectivorous plant sightings don't stop there. There are at least 14 species of hungry plants in the Green Swamp Preserve, including sundew, butterworts and pitcher plants. Note to the reader who may have, like me, known next-to-nothing about these other carnivores: you'll recognize the pitcher plants because as their name indicates, they look like - well - water pitchers!
I've got to first thank my buddy and champion tree-lover Dylan Young for sharing his map and knowledge of his previous trek in the preserve with me. Without his guidance, this would have been a much shorter adventure, and I would have completely missed locating the very plants I came to find.
My wife Sarah and I were enjoying a weeklong vacation in August just down the road in Sunset Beach, and I somehow convinced her that this hike was a great place to spend the afternoon. Two things made this a bit more of a challenge, though: humidity and mosquitos. Our dog Jackson was of course unfazed, but copious amounts of bug spray and sunscreen were necessary for us humans to endure the elements. Did I mention bug spray?
- Map Link
- Distance: 4.0 miles
- Rating: Easy
- Time: 2.0 hours
The trail's geography is a series of sand and boardwalk paths, mixed with a few areas that can get pretty damp. After a brief walk under a tree canopy, the path begins to open up with panoramic views of longleaf pine savannas and shrubs. The sun was bright this afternoon, and the vibrant yellow and greens of the plants popped against the crystal blue sky. Black swallowtail butterflies were also abundant, as they fluttered eye-level searching for precious nectar.
I got caught up in the moment and couldn't stop photographing the yellow pitcher plants and black and blue butterflies, but when Jackson sees a path, he must follow, so he and Sarah trudged ahead. When I caught up with them, I realized that Jackson had quickly found several of the damp areas. His normally white paws were the same dark color as his coat, covered with a swamp mud that caked within five seconds of stepping into it. He was much more proud of his new wardrobe than Sarah, but he'd also found the official end of the trail.
Thanks to Dylan, however, I knew there was much more to explore. Although AllTrails indicated this was the end of the journey, there were still markers along a pathway deeper into the swamp, albeit through about a foot of water for at least thirty yards. Muddy and muggy, my companions turned around to head back to Sarah's car (and I unfortunately...err serendipitously missed the dirtiest bath Jackson later received), but I was on a mission to find the one plant that was so famous to the preserve. So I reapplied bug spray and stepped into the water.
Again did I mention the bug spray? Even with the heavy application, I'm pretty sure I was bitten by a dozen mosquitos and a couple of spiders, but I eventually made it through the water and onto solid footing again. And boy was it worth it. There is nothing like being in a place where you are the only person, and for the next mile I was on a solo date with the Green Swamp. More pristine savannas of long leaf pines greeted me along with the peaceful sounds of birds and the buzzing of insects. The only sound missing was that of humanity; it was perfect.
Eventually, I made it to the point where Dylan had marked that there was an abundance of Venus Fly Traps, but I still didn't see them, so I kept going. Realizing after a few hundred yards that I had proceeded too far, I begrudgingly decided to head back to my car, accepting that it wasn't my fate to find the native plant. It was with my head lowered, though, that my spirits were suddenly lifted.
Directly where I had previously trod I saw the sought-after vibrant red and pink hues encapsulated by the green needle-like cilia of the world's most famous carnivorous plant. Somewhat hidden by grass and pine straw, there were scores of them, and they completely covered my previous path. I just hadn't realized that they would be so incredibly small. As a potted plant, mature Venus Fly Traps can grow between nine to eleven inches, but in the wild, these plants are commonly only one to two inches in height.
After getting my fill of photos and a requisite video of making one of the traps close, I started the two-mile return journey. It was much easier navigating the brush and swampy areas this time, as I was more familiar with the terrain, and I was energized after finding these rare gems of North Carolina's ecosystem. By the time I set foot in our beach condo, well over two hours had passed since I parted ways with Sarah and Jackson, so I was surprised they looked like they had just gotten out of the shower.
That's because they had. It had taken Sarah that long to get the mud off the dog.
There are 66 species of carnivorous plants in the United States. North Carolina is home to 36 of them.
North Carolina's official Fourth of July Festival, of which the parade and arts and craft fair are highlights, is not to be missed. It's held just 17 miles down Hwy 211 in Southport.