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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

The plant, a perennial, may live 20 years or maybe even longer, Luken speculates, though nobody knows for sure. New plants can grow directly from an underground shoot called a rhizome or from seeds, which typically fall just inches away from the parent: flytraps are found in clumps of dozens. Ironically, the traps rely on insects for pollination. In late May or early June, they sprout delicate white flowers, like flags of truce waved at bees, flies and wasps.

The first written record of the Venus flytrap is a 1763 letter from Arthur Dobbs, governor of North Carolina, who declared it “the great wonder of the vegetable world.” He compared the plant to “an iron spring fox trap” but somehow failed to grasp the ultimate fate of the creatures caught between the leaves—carnivorous plants were still an alien concept. The flytraps were more common then: in 1793, the naturalist William Bartram wrote that such “sportive vegetables” lined the edges of some streams. (He applauded the flytraps and had little pity for their victims, the “incautious deluded insects.”)

Live plants were first exported to England in 1768, where people referred to them as “tipitiwitchets.” A British naturalist, John Ellis, gave the plant its scientific name: Dionaea is a reference to Dione, mother of love goddess Venus (some believe this was a bawdy anatomical pun about the plant’s half-closed leaves and red insides), and muscipula means “mousetrap.”

Ellis also guessed the plant’s dark secret. He sent a letter detailing his suspicions, along with some dried flytrap specimens and a copperplate engraving of a flytrap seizing an earwig, to the great Swedish botanist and father of modern taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus, who apparently didn’t believe him. A carnivorous plant, Linnaeus declared, was “against the order of nature as willed by God.”

A hundred years later, Charles Darwin was quite taken with the notion of flesh-eating foliage. He experimented with sundews he found growing on the heaths of Sussex, feeding them egg whites and cheese, and was particularly charmed by the flytraps that friends shipped from the Carolinas. He called them “one of the most wonderful [plants] in the world.” His little-known treatise, Insectivorous Plants, detailed their adventuresome diet.

Darwin argued that one feature of the snap trap’s structure—the gaps between the toothy hairs that fringe the trap’s edges—evolved to allow “small and useless fry” to wiggle free so the plants could focus their energies on meatier bugs. But Luken and his colleague, aquatic ecologist John Hutchens, recently spent a year inspecting exoskeletons pried from snapped traps before ultimately siding against Darwin: flytraps, they found, ingest insects of all sizes. They also noticed that flytraps don’t often trap flies. Ants, millipedes, beetles and other crawling creatures are much more likely to wander into jaws opened wide on the forest floor.

Because flytrap leaves are used to grab dinner, they harvest sunlight inefficiently, which stunts their growth. “When you modify a leaf into a trap, let’s face it, you’ve limited your ability to be a normal plant,” Luken says. Perhaps the most famous Venus flytrap, Audrey Junior, the star of the 1960 movie Little Shop of Horrors, is garrulous and towering, but real flytraps are meek things only a few inches tall. Most of the traps are barely bigger than fingernails, I realized when Luken at last pointed out the patch we’d been looking for. The plants were a pale, tender, almost tasty-looking green, like a garnish for a trendy salad. There was something slightly pitiful about them: their gaping mouths reminded me of baby birds.

Luken is a transplant. At his previous post at Northern Kentucky University, he concentrated on Amur honeysuckle, an invasive shrub from China that is spreading in the eastern United States. But he wearied of the eradication mentality that accompanies exotic species management. “People want you to be spraying herbicides, cutting, bringing bulldozers in, just getting rid of it,” he says. The wild Venus flytrap, by contrast, is the ultimate native species, and though seldom studied, it is widely cherished. “It’s the one plant that everybody knows about,” he says. Moving to South Carolina in 2001, he marveled at the frail, green wild specimens.

Always rare, the flytrap is now in danger of becoming the mythical creature it sounds as if it should be. In and around North Carolina’s Green Swamp, poachers uproot them from protected areas as well as private lands, where they can be harvested only with an owner’s permission. The plants have such shallow roots that some poachers dig them up with butcher knives or spoons, often while wearing camouflage and kneepads (the plants grow in such convenient clumps that flytrappers, as they’re called, barely have to move). Each pilfered plant sells for about 25 cents. The thieves usually live nearby, though occasionally there’s an international connection: customs agents at Baltimore-Washington International Airport once intercepted a suitcase containing 9,000 poached flytraps bound for the Netherlands, where they presumably would have been propagated or sold. The smuggler, a Dutchman, carried paperwork claiming the plants were Christmas ferns.

“Usually all we find are holes in the ground,” says Laura Gadd, a North Carolina state botanist. Poachers, she adds, “have almost wiped out some populations.” They often strip off the traps, taking just the root bulb. More than a hundred can fit in the palm of a hand, and poachers fill their pockets or even small coolers. Gadd believes that the poachers are also stealing the flytraps’ tiny seeds, which are even easier to transport over distances. Many of the poached plants may surface at commercial nurseries that purchase flytraps without investigating their origins. It’s almost impossible to catch perpetrators in the act and the penalty for flytrap poaching is typically only a few hundred dollars in fines. Gadd and other botanists recently experimented with spraying wild plants with dye detectable only under ultraviolet light, which allows state nursery inspectors to identify stolen specimens.

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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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