ABITA SPRINGS, LOUISIANA — There are many scary things from politics, to clowns to spiders. Sometimes the creepiest things don’t go bump in the night. They might not even move at all.
The hallmark of the plant world is the ability to use sunlight to make food during photosynthesis. In the long leaf pine savannah of south Louisiana, a few plants have evolved a curious method of getting nutrients from poor soil. They’ve become carnivorous.
Dr. Christopher Reid is a botanist and educator at LSU’s School of Renewable Natural Resources and says and is intrigued by the plants and their relationships with other organisms. Dr. Reid says, “the fact that plants interact with animals in such a away as to trap them and consume them… usually, it’s animals that eat plants.”
There are over a dozen species of carnivorous plants in the area. They are part of the biodiversity of hundreds of plants that live under the pine trees. All of the plants in the area usually rely on routine forrest burns that clear the tall vegetation and keep shrubs from getting to dense. This allows the opportunity for many species to get their time in the sun and thrive. Carnivorous plants take advantage of the forrest fires and survive remarkably because of their buried rhizome. Even though the top of the plant may get burned, they will come up again.
The largest carnivorous plant in the area is the yellow trumpet pitcher plant and in it’s modified leaves there is something similar to stomach acid that helps break down the insects that fall into the trap.
As wonderfully awesome as Little Shop of Horrors is (including the godly voice of Levi Stubbs), these plants aren’t mean green mothers from outer space. Carnivorous plants have been around for millions of years and each one has their own unique way of eating. Some pitcher plants even secret a narcotic that paralyzes prey. Others like the plants like sundews have tentacles and use a fly-paper method. “The leaves of the sundew are covered with hairs that are gland-tipped. The glands secret a sticky substance. One of the features that pitcher plants have are these downward pointing hairs, which prevents whatever falls in to the digestive enzymes from crawling out,” says Dr. Reid.
The Abita Creek Flatwoods Preserve has a pitcher plant trail which is hikeable and it includes parrot pitcher plants which become quite showy when they bloom with their otherworldly crimson blossoms. During spring, the preserve is full of nature’s color, as the land blushes with the blooms of carnivorous plants and other flowering vegetation in the long leaf pine system. The preserve is free and open to the public from sun up to sun down.
Shockingly, as deadly as carnivorous plants may seem to insects, some arthropods have evolved to live inside of the pitcher plant for protection and there is even a species of moth that lives its whole life cycle inside the pitcher plant trap. Some spiders have evolved to build webs at the openings to steal the meal of the pitcher plants.
Simply put, nature is wild, sometimes ravenous, but always remarkable.