The pine flatlands of the southeastern Coastal Plain offer an interesting contrast to the upland forests of my home state of Missouri. Closed canopies of oak and hickory are replaced by open canopies of pond and longleaf pine. Dry glades—islands of prairie dotting the forests—are replaced by bogs and bays—oases of wetland punctuating the sandy scrub. In both places, however, fire plays an important role in shaping and preserving these unique habitats. In this ~10,000-acre preserve, prescribed burns spare the heat-tolerant pines—their trunks blackened and scorched but the living branches high above unharmed—and prevent woody shrubs from choking out herbaceous plants, including famously insectivorous plants such as Venus fly traps, sundews, and pitcher plants. I had yet to have seen any of these plants in their native habitats, and after learning of this place and their presence here from a local resident, Madam and I made a beeline to the preserve for an afternoon of botanical hiking.
Almost immediately after starting down the road from the parking lot, I noticed white blossoms dotting the forest floor. Approaching closer revealed them to be wild azaleas—in this case Rhododendron viscosum (swamp azalea). Individually, the petite plants with their crowns of oversized blooms were quaintly beautiful. En masse, clustered on the forest floor, they were an amazing sight to see.
The going was slow in the beginning, with something new to me at every turn. A species of Nuttallanthus (toadflax)—either N. texanus (Texas toadflax) or N. canadensis (Canada toadflax), depending on details of flower dimensions—bloomed abundantly in the sunny openings. A small purple flower was at first assumed to be a species of Tradescantia (spidorwort) but proved to be the related Callisia graminea (grassleaf roseling)—a new genus for me. A bit further down the road we encountered orange flowers that proved to be Polygala lutea (orange milkwort). This genus is represented in Missouri by several species, all having flowers of pink, yellow, or white.
Flowers were not limited to herbaceous plants. The evergreen woody shrub layer was just coming back to life with new growth, a few of which bore distinctive blossoms identifying them as members of the genus Vaccinium (blueberry). There are several potential species that could be here.
At one point, Madam called me to the other side of the road, pointing to a strange plant at the edge of a wet area and asking “What’s that?” Bingo—I recognized it instantly as one of the so-called “pitcher plants” (genus Sarracenia), among the most dramatically charismatic of the insectivorous plants. Pitcher plants trap insects using a rolled leaf with downward pointing hairs on the inside and the uppermost part of the leaf flared into a lid (or operculum) to prevent rain from diluting the digestive secretions pooled at the bottom of the leaf. Though a bit past bloom, it was easily identifiable as S. flava (yellow pitcher plant). We were thrilled to have seen our first pitcher plant in the wild, and we looked forward to seeing more (hopefully in full bloom).
As we scanned the edge of the wetland looking for more pitcher plants, I noticed tiny white flowers on the small shrubs underfoot. They looked rather “hollyish” to me, and indeed they proved to be Ilex glabra (gallberry), a species of evergreen holly native to the coastal plain of eastern North America and most commonly found in sandy woods and peripheries of swamps and bogs.
At this time of season, I was expecting to see insects well active, and this was certainly the case with butterflies—the most common being a species of swallowtail that oxymoronically reminded me of a small giant swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) but in reality were Papilio palamedes (Palamedes swallowtail). I’m a beetle guy, however, so I was happy to find a few Acmaeodera tubulus jewel beetles on flowers of Erigeron sp. (fleabane), and when I saw a standing recently-dead pine beyond the wet drainage I decided to check it for other jewel beetles on its trunk. As I started to step across the water, a small purplish plant on a piece of wood in the water caught my eye, and I immediately recognized it as one of the sundews (genus Drosera), another genus of insectivorous plants that capture and digest insects using stalked mucilaginous glands that cover their leaf surfaces. This is one of the largest genera of insectivorous plants, but I take this one to be D. intermedia (spoonleaf sundew).
About a mile and a half from the car, we finally found what we had been hoping to see since soon after we arrived—Sarracenia flava (yellow pitcher plant) in full bloom. A rather large patch of them was visible from afar, their yellow blooms glowing in the sunlight, but sadly most of them were slightly or greatly past peak bloom. A bit further back, however, on the other side of the water, I spotted two single plants in perfect bloom, their petals fresh and intact and making the effort to find a way across the water well worth the effort. Other plants without blooms but with fresh, brightly colored “pitchers” were also seen along the water’s edge.
As we admired the spectacle in front of us, I noticed a clump of red within the vegetation at water’s edge and realized we were looking at another species of pitcher plant—Sarracenia purpurea (purple pitcher plant)! How fortunate we were to see this clump—the only one we saw—which was in perfect bloom and with colorful, freshly-formed pitchers whose squat form contrasted notably from the tall, slender, graceful pitchers of S. flava right next to it.
By now, the April heat had taken a noticeable toll on the conditioning of these two recently-escaped-from-winter Midwesterners. Having found the Holy Grail for the day, we began the long, tired slog back to the car—our legs dragging but our spirits soaring.
©️ Ted C. MacRae 2022