NCDA&CS protecting rare plants with dye marking program
The spring-green and reddish Venus flytrap plant, which eats small insects and endlessly fascinates many school kids and adults, is getting a helping hand from scientists interested in protecting the plants for future generations to enjoy.
The Venus flytrap, with its claw-like carnivorous appendages, grows naturally in the world only in North Carolina and parts of South Carolina. The area is essentially within about a 90-mile radius of Wilmington.
While the plant has yet to be placed on the list for endangered or threatened species, it is noted as a plant of “special concern,” said Laura Gadd, a botanist for the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Plant Protection Section.
Given that the plant’s natural habitat is limited and thousands of acres of open farm and timberland falls to development each year, the concern is warranted.
“Their range has certainly decreased in recent years,” Gadd said, adding that the state has only 75 known viable populations of the plant. In fact, in North Carolina the flytrap is found only in Bladen, Brunswick, Carteret, Columbus, Craven, Cumberland, Duplin, Hoke, New Hanover, Onslow and Pender counties. The plant is believed to no longer exist in Lenoir, Jones and Moore counties.
Adding to the concern is the plant’s popularity with poachers looking to make a few dollars selling the unusual plants.
More and more frequently, public lands acquired with the goal of plant conservation in mind, have become popular hunting grounds for the flytrap. To discourage this practice, the NCDA&CS and The Nature Conservancy are teaming on a relatively new marking program to identify Venus flytrap plants removed from public lands.
“We are able to use fluorescent orange powder, which doesn’t harm the plant or people, to mark the plants,” Gadd said. “If inspectors spot the dye in even one plant in a single shipment, the entire shipment can be confiscated.”
For the second year in a row, NCDA&CS, The Nature Conservancy and volunteers canvassed sections of the nearly 16,000-acre Green Swamp Preserve and the more than 6,000-acre Boiling Springs Lakes Plant Conservation Preserve in search of the foot-high delicate white flowers that push up through underbrush and pine needles to signal a Venus flytrap plant lies below.
Once spotted, the plants are dusted with the sticky dye that will let inspectors know the plants came from public lands. The dye is not always visible to the naked eye, but can be illuminated later by inspectors using special equipment.
This marking effort is an offshoot of a program started 10 years ago in the mountains of North Carolina that has led to the successful prosecution of ginseng poachers.
With a price of $500 per pound or more for dried wild ginseng root, hunting in national parks such as the Great Smoky Mountains Park in North Carolina had become a big concern for conservationists and park rangers.
Jim Corbin, a plant protection specialist with NCDA&CS came up with the idea and the tools for the marking program. To date, more than 46,000 ginseng plants have been marked. His idea has subsequently been used in 13 states and two foreign countries for a number of other protected plants that are targeted by poachers.
The ginseng marking program has been successful, with more than 80 ginseng poachers being convicted and thousands of illegally harvested roots seized. Poaching activity by repeat offenders is down. In addition, Corbin said population studies in the Great Smoky park show that plant populations that were all but poached out are returning to their original numbers.
As news of the program and charges spreads, Corbin and park officials hope it will further deter poachers from public park land.
Gadd hopes the Venus flytrap program will be a similar deterrent.
“Venus flytraps are not nearly as lucrative as ginseng, but it’s easy to dig a few hundred plants at one time,” Gadd said.
When volunteers took to the woods in late June, they found plenty of evidence of fresh digs, where it appeared poachers also took advantage of the blooms to locate plants for collection.
Gadd said while many larger stores that sell Venus flytraps typically buy them from reputable dealers who propagate the plants from seeds or cuttings, the plants can also be found at roadside stands in the state, and the sources of some of these plants may be less clear.
The flytraps are also found on private lands, but diggers must have landowners’ permission before removing any plants.
The Venus flytrap thrives in a fire-dependent environment, meaning prescribed burns must be conducted on the land for plants to regenerate. Most public lands are being managed, but some private lands where the flytraps are found are not. This also poses a long-term threat to the plant population.
Gadd said two of the biggest goals of the program are increasing the public’s awareness about the need to protect the Venus flytrap’s native habitat and discouraging illegal poaching.
“We want people to know we are out there and we have a mechanism in place to be able to detect the dye in the plants at nurseries we inspect,” Gadd said. “In the end, it is about ensuring future generations have an opportunity to enjoy this fascinating plant.”