The post was originally published in the July/August 2007 issue of the now deceased South Carolina Magazine. For three years I wrote a column for the magazine called "Our Wild State." In the future, I'll be sharing several of those pieces with you all. You're probably asking yourself right now, just how did I get so lucky?
The incredible tenacity of nature never ceases to amaze me. Regardless of natural environment or circumstance, life tends to find ingenious ways, not only to survive, but to flourish. I can think of no better living testimony to this than the communities found in South Carolina's bogs. It is here, among the sphagnum and peat, that a truly incredible group of plants thrive in the face of adversity.
There is just something about carnivorous plants that seems to capture the popular imagination. Since the time of their discovery, the Palmetto State's wide array of “meat-eaters” have been a subject of much discussion. Perhaps it is due to the fact that they exhibit behaviors primarily only found within the animal kingdom, or that their alien-like appearances are so beautifully bizarre. In the end, we are simply drawn in by their charms much like the very prey that they seek.
Although many species of plants world-wide are considered to be carnivorous, arguably the most famous member of this clan – The Venus' fly trap (Deonaea muscipula) – is found solely along the Carolina coastline. The first formal announcement of the discovery of this species to the western world came on April 2nd, 1759 in a letter written by the famed botanist William Bartram. In it he writes, “We have a kind of Catch Fly Sensitive which closes upon anything that touches it.” Over two hundred years later, we are still fascinated by this discovery. These fly traps are triggered by sensitive hairs found on highly modified leaves. When an insect brushes against these hairs, the leaf quickly folds, trapping the creature inside. Over a period of time digestion takes place.
In South Carolina, carnivorous plants are not limited to coastal and Low Country areas. In the mountains of the Upstate several species thrive in special bog-like areas called “cataract bogs.” One of the most unique examples is the very rare Mountain Sweet Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia jonesii) which only occurs in a handful of locations in the mountains of SC and NC. Pitcher plants are considered to be passive traps because they do not use movement to trap insects. Instead, they rely on large funnel-shaped leaves which are filled with digestive juices that dissolve the creature over time. Other pitcher plants found across our state include Frog Breeches (S. purpurea), and Yellow Trumpets (S. flava).
Contrary to what one might think, carnivorous plants don't just rely on the insects and small animals that they capture for nutrition. Their traps, which are comprised of modified leaves, actually employ photosynthesis just like everyday trees and shrubs do. However, in the case of these bog plants, the purpose of capturing prey is to make-up for the loss of vitamins which they are unable to extract from the poor, acidic soil in which they grow. The poor quality of the soil results from the fact that bogs receive most of their water from rainfall which allows very little mineral content to be added back into these unique wetlands.
Other types of carnivorous plants include bladderworts, sundews and butterworts. Each of these are very special in their own right and are worth seeking out and protecting for future generations. No matter where you live in South Carolina, the opportunity to see one of these amazing species is usually just a short drive away.