While we were down east in the flat lands of coastal North Carolina for my birthday, we decided to stop at the famous Green Swamp, a 17,424 acre preserve managed by The Nature Conservancy. This preserve isn’t what you might imagine as a typical swamp (at least not for me, since most of my experience with swamps includes cypress trees, water up to my waist, alligators, and 7th graders). The Green Swamp is a mosaic of wet longleaf pine savannas and pocosin (also known as shrub bogs), and it is famous for its carnivorous plants.
Late summer in the swamp should be pretty buggy – after all it is prime time for mosquitoes which support the rest of the food chain here. We were lucky, though, because we saw/heard/felt very few mosquitoes on our walk through this wonderland. The trails were a little muddy, but mostly dry, and the wildflowers were abundant and spectacular.
The savannas are open and stunning, with the pine canopy and a low herbacious ground cover. A lack of mid-story provides ample visibility. We kept an eye out for bears and water moccasins, but saw neither. The most common critters were butterflies and spiders, both gorgeous and showy. In fact, a large banana spider greeted us at the edge of the pocosin. My photo didn’t turn out, so I’ve borrowed one from my son so you can see this amazing creature.
The birds were pretty quiet during the heat of the day, but the carnivorous plants were the stars of the show. Sixty-six species of carnivorous plants live in the United States. North Carolina is home to 36 of them and a bunch of those live here at the Green Swamp. So, there.
North Carolina may be the only state that has declared a state carnivorous plant, and that’s fine by me. Since the Venus flytrap is only found growing naturally within about 90 miles of Wilmington, NC, it deserves the honor. To watch a flytrap capture its prey is just mind-blowing. A bug crawls across its paddle-shaped leaves, bumping into two triggers that signals the plant to snap its toothed paddles shut, trapping its dinner. The bug then dissolves from enzymes released by the plant. Yes, you can find flytraps along the trail at the Green Swamp. No, you cannot collect them, unless you want to land in jail – it is a felony.
Pitcher plants are much easier to spot along the trail with their tall flowering stalks and large tube-like pitchers. They also have a unique system for capturing prey. They lure bugs into their tubes by creating a hood or cavity and bribing them with nectar. The bugs then get trapped by waxy sidewalls and hairs pointing downward, then dissolve in the plants’ waterwells oozing with digestive enzymes. Fortunately for the bees, pitcher plants seem to attract and collect spiders, ants, and moths, but not bees.
We didn’t spend a lot of time looking for other carnivorous plants, like sundews and butterworts, because it was blazing hot, and the wildflowers were so distracting. From tiny purple lobelias to the showy orange of the fringe orchids, every step through the pine savannas was a visual delight. These flowers thrive in the moist, acidic soils of the pine savannas.
Green lynx spiders seemed to be everywhere, on almost every flower and some pitcher plants. They are ambush predators and take advantage of flowers’ and pitcher plants’ ability to lure insects to them. The green lynx spiders will sit in wait and then pounce like a cat on their prey (hence the name).
It was nice to be in the swamp and all alone. Who else would venture into the wilds of a southern wetland habitat in the heat of a late summer day? It reminded me a lot of my days trekking through southwest Florida, leading people on hikes through the swamps and marshes of CREW lands. Even so, the cool of the car’s air conditioning was a welcome feel when we arrived back at the parking area. This hike was a perfect cap to a fine birthday weekend and getaway. I definitely want to return in spring to see a different set of wildflowers in bloom.