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Butterflies, Blossoms and Biting Plants! Museum Interns Venture into Green Swamp!

June 11, 2015

This blog contributed by our summer intern, Elizabeth Breedlove.

Imagine the most recognizable plant you know. Is it a flower, or maybe something you eat? Now imagine a plant that eats like you do, with a “mouth” and a vicious catch that insects have no hope of escaping. You probably imagined the Venus Fly Trap, which is considered one of the most recognizable plants in the entire world. Some North Carolinaians are unaware that these iconic plants are native, and that we have a chance to see them growing healthy in the wild–not in a tiny pot at your local department store!

The NC Museum of Natural Sciences hosted a trip for interns led by Jerry Reynolds, Senior Manager of Outreach, that took us deep into the Green Swamp Preserve in Brunswick County. Green Swamp is like a whole new world (cue Disney Aladdin music) to those unaccustomed to this landscape; a magical open Savannah dotted with areas of thick pocosin that offered up a plethora of plant diversity comparable to that of the Amazon rainforest. It was mentioned that if you ran at the thick pocosin, it would just pick you up and throw you back out! The pine Savannah was a glimpse into the old world of settlers and pioneers, a peaceful open place with the air of protection that tall trees bring. A passage was read to us from those days noting how the trees were spacious, and yet if you looked off into the distance they seemed an impenetrable wall of wood. We then looked out and saw the same scene from hundreds of years ago, and we all felt a sobering sort of wisdom from the land that has seen so much human history.

Walking into the Green Swamp Preserve. Photo by Elizabeth Breedlove

Walking into the Green Swamp Preserve.
Photo by Elizabeth Breedlove

We learned that while the land was similar today, it had actually changed a lot. The historic Longleaf Pine forest was taken down, trees up to three feet in diameter, and used for the growing populations of humans. A large part of the tree supplied sap for making water tight seals and glues for building ships and homes. These trees were often replaced with faster growing, shorter lived, Loblolly Pines. Longleaf Pine forests are kept healthy by fire and these pines even require fire to go from one growth stage to the next. Human control of fires has weakened the Longleaf pine ecosystem that we are now working to restore with prescribed burns. The picture below shows ‘pole’ stage Longleaf Pine trees that needed fire to open up from  the ‘grass’ stage and shoot straight up.

Young Longleaf Pine Trees Photo by Elizabeth Breedlove

Young Longleaf Pine Trees
Photo by Elizabeth Breedlove

I mentioned Venus Fly Traps right? This place was teeming with them, we actually had to watch our steps constantly to ensure we weren’t going to demolish one! Have you ever seen a happy Venus Fly Trap blooming in a store? I haven’t. All around us were the gleeful white blooms of the flytrap, an innocent aspect of the toothed killer underneath it.

Venus Fly Trap in Bloom Photo by Elizabeth Breedlove

Venus Fly Trap in Bloom
Photo by Elizabeth Breedlove

Underneath these flowers we saw multiple examples of the famous Fly Trap- some green and some the dark red that is meant to resemble meat and attract insects.

Venus Fly Trap

Hungry Venus Fly Trap. Photo by Elizabeth Breedlove

What else were we to see in this savannah that could beat out a Venus Fly Trap? How about five more species of carnivorous plants! These plants are all adapted to capture insects that supply the nitrogen needed for plants to survive in nutrient-poor wet swamp soil.

Dwarf-size Sweet Pitcher Plant

Dwarf-size Sweet Pitcher Plant. Photo by Elizabeth Breedlove

Tall Yellow Pitcher Plant Photo by Elizabeth Breedlove

Tall Yellow Pitcher Plant.
Photo by Elizabeth Breedlove

Short and Stout Purple Pitcher Plant Photo by Elizabeth Breedlove

Short and Stout Purple Pitcher Plant.
Photo by Elizabeth Breedlove

Sundew Photo by Elizabeth Breedlove

Sundew.
Photo by Elizabeth Breedlove

Butterwort plant.    Leaves curl inward to surround and digest stuck insects. Photo by Elizabeth Breedlove

Butterwort plant.
Leaves curl inward to surround and digest stuck insects.
Photo by Elizabeth Breedlove

Not only were we delighted with the amazing types of carnivorous plants that call the Carolinas home, but also the natural orchids, grasses, and critters that thrive in this type of ecosystem. Perhaps the cutest critter of  the day was the exciting find of a Palamedes Swallowtail Caterpillar…does anyone else see the Pokemon Caterpie?!

Palamedes Swallowtail Caterpiller Photo by Elizabeth Breedlove

Palamedes Swallowtail Caterpillar.
Photo by Elizabeth Breedlove

Our trip to the Green Swamp Preserve was an experience so amazing that I can’t believe it was offered to me. Trips like this are what inspires people in nature and makes learning truly exciting. This post only covers the 1st half of the trip too! The second half included snorkeling in Lake Waccamaw to search for endemic species of mussels found only in this lake and to learn about the creation of lakes known as Carolina Bays. This gave us interns a chance to see more species, such as alligators, found in or near Lake Waccamaw. Yes, there are alligators in NC, and yes, they are big!

As an intern at the Museum I’ve learned more than any class has ever taught me and have been immersed in a wealth of knowledge that is not only willing, but wanting, to share. Getting involved with the Museum has given me the unique chance to not only get the public excited about nature and science in a positive way, but also to be taught by the best and create lifelong memories I may never get to experience anywhere else.

Elizabeth is a senior studying Environmental Science at NC State University.

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