Hiking North Carolina’s Venus Flytrap Trail
CAROLINA BEACH, North Carolina – Forget “Little Shop of Horrors” and its fanciful tale of a plant that could consume a human being. That’s because the real deal exists here in a very appealing state park – although on a much smaller scale and with insects and the occasional frog as the meals.
The location is near Wilmington in tiny Carolina Beach State Park, just 761 acres, and the carnivorous plants are Venus flytraps, which North Carolina’s legislature named the official state carnivorous plant. You’ve probably heard of them, but they are rarer than you’d think, and there are four more species of insect-eating plants in this one spot.
Evolution scientist Charles Darwin called Venus flytraps “one of the most wonderful plants in the world.” You can just call them amazing, intricate and complicated, but you have to come to this corner of eastern North Carolina to see them in the wild. That’s because Venus flytraps grow naturally only in a radius of about 75 miles of Wilmington.
Why here? It’s certainly not because of some alien seeding project as in “Little Shop of Horrors.” The real reason is that the growing conditions are perfect for this peculiar insect gobbler – plenty of moisture, acidic soil that lacks nitrogen and phosphorous, and lots of sunny days.
They can grow a stem 12-15 inches tall that showcases an attractive, five-petal flower in late May and early June, but it’s not the flower that provides the intrigue. The mystery and magic are in the clusters of taco-shaped pods that are green on the outside and red on the inside. The edges of the pods have slender fingers, and when the taco folds shut, those fingers lace together and trap whatever is inside.
Venus flytraps are smart – if you can assign intelligence to a plant – and they are botanically lonely. They’re the only plant in their genus.
Their “intelligence” comes from how they capture a meal. There are three trigger hairs on each side of an open pod. If something tickles one trigger hair, the plant won’t react. That could have been just the wind. However, if a second trigger hair gets tripped, the taco starts to close, usually around a flying insect or an ant, but tiny frogs have met their demise by being too curious.
“This is one of the most bio-diverse parks in North Carolina. It’s among the smallest, but it’s also one of the busiest – about 600,000 visitors a year,” said park ranger Jeff Davis, noting that the Venus flytraps attract curious travelers from as far away as Japan, Germany and England.
Davis notes that the park contains 13 plant communities – cypress gum swamp, dry sand ridge, pocosin (a swamp on a hill), lime sink ponds, brackish marsh and others.
“Pine savannas, which are wet, flat and fire-dependent, have up to 52 plant species per square meter. There are more rare plants in in this community than any other in North Carolina,” he said.
Davis and other rangers enjoy talking about Venus flytraps and the other carnivorous plants, and you can count on a program about various plants and animals just about every weekend.
The other plants that will chow down on careless insects are bladderworts, butterworts, pitcher plants and sundews. Look for sundews at the edge of lime sink ponds and other wet areas. Their spoon-shaped leaves have hair-like glands tipped with sticky mucus that traps insects and makes them sparkle in the sunlight as if covered in dew.
Carolina Beach State Park has six flat, easy-to-walk trails ranging from a quarter-mile to three miles long. The Venus Flytrap Trail is a half-mile long.
The park has 83 campsites, four camper cabins (bathrooms down the path), a 54-slip marina on the Cape Fear River, picnic areas and places to fish for flounder, sheepshead, spot, and speckled trout. It’s also just minutes from beautiful Atlantic coast beaches.