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One of only two plants worldwide that actively trap animal prey, the flytrap is at home in a surprisingly small patch of U.S. soil. (Lynda Richardson)

The Venus Flytrap's Lethal Allure

Native only to the Carolinas, the carnivorous plant that draws unwitting insects to its spiky maw now faces dangers of its own

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There have been some victories: last winter, the Nature Conservancy replanted hundreds of confiscated flytraps in North Carolina’s Green Swamp Preserve, and the state typically nabs about a dozen flytrappers per year. (“It’s one of the most satisfying cases you can make,” says Matthew Long of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, who keeps a sharp eye out for hikers with dirty hands.) Gadd and others are pushing for stronger statewide protections that would require collection and propagation permits. Though North Carolina has designated the flytrap as a “species of special concern,” the plant doesn’t enjoy the federal protections given to species classified as threatened or endangered.

In South Carolina, the main danger to flytraps is development. The burgeoning Myrtle Beach resort community and its suburbs are rapidly engulfing the flytrap zone. “When you say Myrtle Beach you think roller coaster, Ferris wheel, high-rise hotel,” Luken says. “You don’t think ecological hot spot. It’s a race between the developers and the conservationists.”

Many flytraps are located in a region formerly known as the impassable bay, a name I came to appreciate during my hike with Luken. A densely vegetated area, it was once considered so worthless the Air Force used it for bombing practice during World War II. But much of what was once impassable is now home to Piggly Wiggly supermarkets, bursting-at-the-seams elementary schools and mega-churches with their own softball leagues. Wherever housing developments sprout, backhoes gobble at the sandy dirt. For now the wilderness is still a vivid presence: subdivision residents encounter bobcats and black bears in their backyards, and hounds from nearby hunting clubs bay past cul-de-sacs in pursuit of their quarry. But flytraps and other finicky local species are being edged out. “They’ve basically been restricted to protected areas,” Luken says.

Recently, Luken and other scientists used a GPS device to check on wild flytrap populations that researchers had documented in the 1970s. “Instead of flytraps we’d find golf courses and parking lots,” Luken says. “It was the most depressing thing I ever did in my life.” Roughly 70 percent of the historic flytrap habitat is gone, they found.

Perhaps the greatest threat is wildfire, or rather the lack thereof. Flytraps, which need constant access to bright sunlight because of their inefficient leaves, rely on fires to burn away the impenetrable underbrush every few years. (Their rhizomes survive and later the flytraps grow back.) But the Myrtle Beach area is now too densely populated for small fires to be allowed to spread naturally, and people complain about the smoke from prescribed burns. So the underbrush thickens until the flytraps are smothered. Moreover, with tinder collecting for years, there’s an increased danger of a fierce, uncontrollable blaze like the one that ravaged the region in the spring of 2009, destroying some 70 homes. Such conflagrations are so hot they can ignite the ground. “Nothing,” Luken says, “can survive that.”

Aficionados have cultivated flytraps almost since their discovery. Thomas Jefferson collected them (during his stay in Paris in 1786, he requested a shipment of the seeds of “the Sensitive Plant,” perhaps to wow Parisians). A few decades later, Napoleon Bonaparte’s wife, the green-thumbed Empress Josephine, grew flytraps in the gardens of the Château de Malmaison, her manor house. Over the years breeders have developed all sorts of designer varieties with jumbo traps, extra-red lips and names like Sawtooth, Big Mouth and Red Piranha. Under the right conditions, flytraps—which usually retail for about $5 apiece—are easy to raise and can be reproduced through tissue culture or planting seeds.

One afternoon Luken and I drove to Supply, North Carolina, to visit the Fly-Trap Farm, a commercial greenhouse specializing in carnivorous plants. The office manager, whose name was Audrey (of all things) Sigmon, explained they had some 10,000 flytraps on hand. There’s a constant demand, she said, from garden clubs, graduating high-school seniors who’d rather receive flytraps than roses, and drama departments performing the musical version of Little Shop of Horrors for the millionth time.

Some of the nursery’s plants come from local harvesters who legally gather the plants, says Cindy Evans, another manager. But these days most of their flytraps come to North Carolina by way of the Netherlands and South America, where they are cultured and grown.

Imported houseplants won’t save the species in the wild. “You can’t rely on somebody’s greenhouse—those plants don’t have an evolutionary future,” says Don Waller, a University of Wisconsin botanist who has studied the plant’s ecology. “Once any plant is brought into cultivation, you have a system where artificial selection is replacing natural selection.”

As far as Luken can tell, wild flytraps are finding a few footholds in a tamer world. They thrive on the edge of some established ditches, a man-made niche that nonetheless mimics the wet-to-dry soil transition of natural bogs. The plants also prosper in power-line corridors, which are frequently mowed, mimicking the effects of fire. Luken, who has developed something like a sixth sense for their preferred habitat, has experimented with scattering their tiny black seeds in flytrappy spots, like the Johnny Appleseed of carnivorous plants. He’s even planted a couple near the entrance of his own subdivision, where they seem to be flourishing.

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About Abigail Tucker

A frequent contributor to Smithsonian, Abigail Tucker is writing a book about the house cat.

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