A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

It’s not like there aren’t a bunch of other things to worry about in an eastern North Carolina stretch of wet woods. There’s poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac, venomous

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

It’s not like there aren’t a bunch of other things to worry about in an eastern North Carolina stretch of wet woods. There’s poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac, venomous

It’s not like there aren’t a bunch of other things to worry about in an eastern North Carolina stretch of wet woods. There’s poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac, venomous snakes, pointy thorns and brambles, ticks, chiggers, wasps, bees, chupacabras … OK, we might be a little far north for chupacabras. But you still have to keep your eyes peeled. At least we need not fear perhaps the deadliest — and certainly the gnarliest — denizen of the swamplands, the Venus flytrap.

Deadliest, that is, if you’re a bug. Most of us know at least a bit about the Venus flytrap, since this carnivorous sprig has captured the imagination of scientists and schoolkids for decades. Charles Darwin called it “one of the most wonderful [plants] in the world.” In the musical Little Shop of Horrors, a giant flytrap-ish creature named Audrey II dines comically on human blood. As a kid, my daughter, Markie, nursed a flytrap named Jaws on our kitchen windowsill for months.

Along the Flytrap Trail at Carolina Beach State Park, wooden boardwalks help visitors traverse pocosin wetlands. photograph by Chris Council

And it’s a homegrown celebrity, too. Dionaea muscipula only occurs within about a 70-mile radius of Wilmington. In all the world, they grow naturally in only 15 North Carolina counties and a single county in South Carolina.

They don’t have to feed on Meat Lover’s pizza to survive, but the plants do thrive when a diet of sunlight, water, and dirt is beefed up with insect nutrients. To attract prey, the flytrap grows a specialized leaf that’s hinged in the middle and edged with nectar glands that secrete a fruity scent. When an ant, beetle, spider, or fly brushes against the hairs lining the trap, an electrical signal floods the leaf. The flytrap can snap its jaws around a bug in about 100 milliseconds — approximately three times faster than the human eye can blink.

Once caught, an insect’s troubles have only just begun. Pinned inside a tiny pouch, the thrashing prey stimulates plant glands that gush digestive enzymes. What a way to go.

But what an exquisite little bugger. Not that I’d say that to its face.

To spot a venus flytrap in the wild, you don’t have a lot of choices. Unless you happen to own a coastal bog, you’re best off connecting with a group that offers flytrap-watching tours. Carolina Beach State Park has a designated Flytrap Trail, which winds through boggy lowlands for a half-mile loop. The park offers occasional guided hikes, if you dare.

I went a-wet-woods-wanderin’ along a trail in Croatan National Forest, south of the Neuse River where it pours into Pamlico Sound. Croatan is home to pine savannas and blackwater creeks that feed wetland shrub thickets and sunny grasslands. Flytraps aren’t the easiest to find, but I know that they like moist, boggy, sunny habitats, so I sprayed on the bug dope and headed off-trail and downhill.

Carolina Beach State Park boasts 761 acres of pristine natural habitat. photograph by Chris Council

Let me say that it’s not a venture I endorse for the general population. It took a solid hour of poking through prickly briar thickets, but I ultimately found a patch of flytraps and, as a bonus, a crop of insectivorous pitcher plants, too. The flytraps are surprisingly small, their fringed, hinged leaves ranging from pinkie nail- to thumbnail-size. Not exactly the fearsome beasts of lore, but then again, I’m not a beetle the size of a pencil eraser, either.

I bent down. Using a small twig, I brushed the delicate hairs on the inside of the flytrap’s maw. It takes two triggered hairs to make the jaws snap tight. Trip a single hair once, and nothing happens. It’s a neat trick to ensure that the jaws don’t close on a raindrop or a teeny bug not worth munching on. The flytrap closed on the stick the instant I touched the second hair. I could have been the fastest millipede on the planet, and I wouldn’t have stood a chance.

I’m not going to tell you the name of the trail that took me to the flytraps’ lair. It’s not that I don’t trust you. But flytrap poaching is a real problem. It’s illegal to take them off public lands without a permit, or private lands without permission. In North Carolina, the flytrap is a “species of special concern,” a status just below threatened and endangered. And poaching has been a felony since 2014. But that doesn’t stop everybody.

In 1998, an American and his Dutch contact were indicted for trying to fly thousands of flytraps out of Baltimore/Washington International Airport in a suitcase. In southeastern North Carolina, law enforcement officers have busted poachers in camouflage and face paint. Once, officers noticed a cyclist dressed in long sleeves on a warm day. He’d stuffed his shirt with hundreds of flytraps.

Visitors might get lucky enough to get an up-close look at the famed butcher of bugs. photograph by Todd Pusser

Efforts to stymie the criminals are impressive. I once accompanied a group of botanists who searched for blooming flytraps and sprayed them with an invisible dye that seeped into the plants’ tissues. When plant protection specialists used scanners over marked plants, they would know that the flytraps had been illegally dug from protected land.

Slim Jiminy Cricket! It’s bad enough that North Carolina is home to a fanged-and-armed bean sprout that would just as soon snack on beef jerky as feed itself through photosynthesis. Now we have to worry about poachers in ninja gear pulling up our precious natural heritage by its roots? It makes you wish these fantastic forbs actually did grow to monster size and could put up a fight. If ever I stumbled across a 10-foot-tall Venus flytrap in a dark alley, you bet I’d spin a 180 and beeline for daylight.

Carolina Beach State Park
1010 State Park Road
Carolina Beach, NC 28428
(910) 458-8206

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This story was published on May 29, 2023

T. Edward Nickens

Nickens is editor-at-large of Field & Stream and the author of The Total Outdoorsman Manual and The Last Wild Road: Adventures and Essays from a Sporting Life. His articles also appear in Smithsonian and Audubon magazines.