Ohhh carnivorous plants! Ever since fifth grade I have loved these bizarre and beautiful plants and dreamt of seeing them in the wild. Surprisingly, one of the world’s carnivorous plant hotspots is southeastern United States, particularly the Florida Panhandle. And within the Panhandle, one place stands out above the rest: Apalachicola National Forest. It is carnivorous plant Mecca, and while driving from southwest Florida back to Wisconsin, I finally made my pilgrimage. It was amazing.
Carnivorous plants (CPs) lure, trap, and digest animals, mostly arthropods. Why? Because the soils they grow in are so low in nutrients and that they need a way to supplement their diets. Consequently, most CPs are found in wet, acidic, and low-nutrient habitats, mainly bogs. In the Florida Panhandle, CPs are often found in low, wet seepage bogs in between pine flatwoods and cypress swamps. It was in such a bog in Apalachicola National Forest that I beheld my first field of Sarracenia flava, Yellow Pitcher Plants.
God what beautiful plants! Their incredible shape functions as a highly-efficient insect trap. Bright colors, often red, draw insects’ attention, while the plants also secrete trails of nectar that lead to the rims of their “mouths.” Stiff hairs under the lids and a waxy coating on the inside of the pitcher cause insects to slip and tumble into the pitchers where they are trapped and ultimately digested by enzymes and bacteria.
Despite being insect predators, I noticed several organisms the pitcher plants seemed to be helping in one way or another:
But pitcher plants aren’t the only plants that have figured out how to eat insects. Scattered among them were what looked like blades of grass quietly glistening with excessive amounts of dew. These are Drosera filliformis, Thread-leaved Sundews.
Sundews trap flying insects with leaves covered in thousands of tentacles that secrete a sticky mucus, which is what gives sundews their dewy appearance. Sundews are even able to curl their tentacles, and sometimes entire leaves, around trapped insects. This impressive feat allows them to secrete as much digestive acids and enzymes onto their prey, which they then absorb through their leaves.
In addition to Drosera filliformis and Sarracenia flava, I found three other CP species (Sarracenia psittacina, Pinguicula planiflora, and a Utricularia sp.), as well as many interesting non-carnivorous plants. Even with just a day to explore Apalachicola National Forest, I was awestruck by the excellent condition of the habitat there as well as the diversity and abundance of plants within it.
Sadly, this is an increasingly rare ecosystem. The wet, open meadows in southeastern U.S. that carnivorous plants depend on are one of the most threatened habitats in the country. According to the International Carnivorous Plant Society, “In the USA, 95% of the carnivorous plant wetland habitat has been irreversibly developed by humans.” There are countless stories of people returning to their favorite pitcher plant bogs only to find them drained, bulldozed, or paved. Even in Apalachicola, things are not perfect. The last site I visited during my trip was badly overgrown. It was clear that the site used to be a wet meadow like the ones I had visited earlier in the day, but a lack of natural fire had allowed shrubs and other woody plants to shade and crowd out the carnivorous plants, which require full sun. The sickly pitcher plants that I found were grim reminders that even when habitat is protected, it must be properly managed in order for carnivorous plants to survive.
Nonetheless, Apalachicola remains an extremely important carnivorous plant refuge. If you explore the area around the small town of Sumatra like I did, I highly recommend stopping for a delicious lunch at the Family Coastal Restaurant. I also urge you to chat with your waitress, and let her know that you are visiting Sumatra because of the carnivorous plants in the area. With carnivorous plants disappearing so rapidly, it’s critical that local people understand the economic benefits that the plants bring to their communities!