Meat plant

It was a slow news day until the phone rang. The caller had a story idea and wanted to know if I was interested. He said it would involve an early Saturday-morning trip to a nearby wetland to investigate the possibility of reintroducing a rare plant species.

I was hesitant at first — especially about the “early Saturday morning” part — but I asked the caller a few questions anyway. He said his name was Matt Mullen and that he worked as a geologist for the state Department of Transportation. The plant in question, once found in the mountains of Western North Carolina, had all but disappeared due to loss of habitat.

Two minutes into the phone call, however, confusion still reigned. I pride myself on being able to take discrete pieces of information and assemble them into logical concepts, but this one had me staring at my phone. Geologist, wetland, mountains, Department of Transportation, rare plants; if there was a common thread here, I wasn’t finding it. I was about to beg off when Matt added one last crucial detail: “Oh, and by the way, the plants are carnivorous.”

“OK, I’m in.”

There’s something primal about carnivorous plants; they are utterly fascinating to those of us at the top of the food chain. In a sense, they’re like protein-digesting kindred spirits that straddle the fence between plant and animal. Carnivorous plants attract, kill, digest and absorb insects — no tofu for these guys. And as a frustrated gardener who has lost more than his fair share of plants to bugs, I find a sweet irony in the role reversal. Bouncing around a bog on a cold Saturday morning suddenly became quite appealing.

At the appointed time, Matt, his wife and their well-bundled baby picked me up, and we set out for the wetland. Like most botanically challenged Americans, my knowledge of carnivorous plants was limited: advertisements in the back of comic books for mail-order Venus flytraps (also native to North Carolina) and, of course, multiple viewings of The Little Shop of Horrors. Naturally, I was concerned about the baby’s safety.

Our first stop was a nondescript structure tucked behind a fleet of trucks at the NCDOT compound. Matt introduced me to his colleague, fellow geologist Charlie Dunnagan. A soft-spoken man, he patiently introduced me to the world of the carnivorous pitcher plant — aptly named because its trumpetlike leaves resemble water pitchers snatched from a still life by Dali.

In the corner, in a terrarium, grew a proud specimen; its faintly mottled green tubes stretched toward the light, the lipped opening providing an enticing entryway for visitors. The plant, explained Charlie, produces a nectar that attracts flying insects such as yellow jackets, which slide down the tube’s slick sides into a puddle of digestive juices. The insect seeking a meal thus becomes the meal.

Our party was soon joined by biologist Phil Sheridan, the director of the Meadowview Biological Research Station in Woodford, Va., a nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving pitcher plants and other bog flora.

The wetland we visited was not quite a wetland — at least not yet. Located in Naples on the Buncombe/Henderson County line, the Mud Creek Wetland Mitigation Site is a joint effort involving the DOT, the Army Corp of Engineers and several other state agencies to reclaim a wetland and restore it to it’s full potential. Both the DOT’s purchase of the 40-acre site and the work done to restore it result from the extension of Interstate 26 into Tennessee. Federal? environmental law mandates that when the DOT cannot avoid destroying a wetland, it must offset the loss by restorin a wetland elsewhere.

The DOT geologists tend various monitoring devices scattered throughout the site, measuring things like water levels and precipitation. Tracking the health of this fragile wetland is part of Matt and Charlie’s job, but reintroducing the mountain pitcher plant is their own initiative. With Phil’s help, they hope to gather enough evidence to formally submit a proposal to the DOT that would extend the goals of the state’s Wetland Remediation Project to include the successful reintroduction of the threatened plant. But for Charlie, Matt and Phil, convincing bureaucrats in Raleigh of the merits of pitcher-plant reintroduction is only half of the equation; the public also needs to be educated about the plant and its fragile habitat.

Mountain bogs are rare these days, said Charlie: “These bogs have been encroached upon by growth, and traditionally, they’ve been destroyed so that people can farm.” In our mountainous terrain, the relatively flat land where bogs are found is attractive both to builders of highways and tillers of soil. “There are very few pristine mountain bogs left in these mountains — maybe less than 10,” he continued.

The Mud Creek Wetland stretched out before our eyes; straw-colored stalks of last year’s grass crackled in the wind. The recent artic temperatures had been both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, they allowed us freedom of movement — we could now walk on water. But frozen water also means frozen soil, and digging for soil samples — even with Charlie’s auger — was nearly impossible.

As we pushed our way through the brush, Phil could barely contain his enthusiasm; he pointed at plants, giving us their botanical names. He was looking for telltale signs of the wetland’s overall health: plants that typically coexist with the pitcher plant and act as bioindicators of soil and water conditions. If he could find them, the prognosis for pitcher-plant reintroduction would be good. Our first attempt at taking a soil sample proved futile; the frozen ground simply would not yield. A few feet away, Phil spotted sphagnum moss and cinnamon fern, two good bioindicators. “Dig here — this is where the ground water is,” he said. Sure enough, the auger took a soil core, and water seeped from the hole. The men made notations on maps, and we paused while Phil told me the tale of the pitcher plant.

They belong to the genus Sarracenia, which includes eight different species. Found mostly in wetlands in the Southeast, their numbers have dwindled as their habitats have been encroached upon. And even as people like Phil, Charlie and Matt work at propagating these plants from seed in bog gardens, poachers are contributing to the plants’ decline in the wild. The rarest of these species, the mountain pitcher plant, is found only in a few habitats in the mountains of North and South Carolina. Technically, it’s referred to as Sarracenia jonesii — an eloquent moniker for the day’s raison d’etre.

“Jonesii was a rare plant even before human contact,” noted Phil, adding, “Sadly, the collective memory of this plant is gone from the local population — it’s a cultural loss.”

As we continued through the bog, my education continued. First of all, Phil pointed out that we weren’t in a bog, but a fen. Bogs get their water from precipitation; fens are fed by ground water. A light bulb went off in my head as I realized that Fenway Park, the home of the Boston Red Sox, got its name not from any Mr. Fenway but because it’s near a fen. Like any good science student, I was making connections — rare pitcher plants are found in fens, and good pitchers are rare in Fenway. I was starting to like Phil.

The rest of the day was spent in this manner: We hiked, we stopped, we observed, and I learned. I was like a kid on my own private field trip, with three teachers who loved their jobs. Occasionally, Charlie or Matt would direct my eyes away from the vegetation to point out subtleties in the microtopography; Phil, meanwhile, dashed about, spouting facts and sharing insights. And all the while, Matt’s baby cooed and gurgled, echoing my own childlike wonder over this unique ecosystem. Like a Discovery Channel fantasy come to life, my day could have been packaged and sold as ecotourism.

At day’s end, the consensus was that the prognosis for reintroduction looked good, though there was still much to be done. But who knows? If the enthusiasm these three share for the plant catches on, we all might find ourselves jonesin’ for the jonesii.

To learn more about the Meadowview Biological Research Station and/or pitcher plants, go to www.pitcherplant.org.

The plant produces a nectar that attracts insects, which slide down into a puddle of digestive juices.

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