HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WBTW) — Charles Darwin called it “one of the most wonderful plants in the world.” Now, it’s facing extinction in its native habitat.

The Venus flytrap has historically dug  its roots in coastal communities in North and South Carolina. It’s since gone extinct in Georgetown and Charleston counties in South Carolina, along with Lenoir, Moore and Robeson counties in North Carolina. It’s current range includes 15 North Carolina counties.

In South Carolina, it only remains in a single area — Horry County, and more specifically, the Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve.

But while it’s one of the most recognizable plants on the planet, most in South Carolina don’t know they’re there — or that they could disappear from the landscape.

“When I think about a charismatic plant, I don’t think you can get more charismatic than the Venus flytrap,” said Riley Egger, the land, water and wildlife project manager for the Coastal Conservation League.

A vulnerable predator

The Venus flytrap is a carnivorous plant that absorbs nutrients from insects in order to make up for the poor, sandy soil it grows in. The flytrap is known for “snapping” shut once insects stimulate the hair on the outside of its “jaws.”

The plant only activate a handful of times before the trap wilts and is replaced by a new one.

It pops up in savannah in areas that are mostly flat and have wet or moist soil for most of the year.

The plants grow low to the ground and need large amounts of sunlight — which requires their habitat to burn every two or three years to clear out the larger vegetation surrounding them.

Droughts and dry soil — which can be caused by digging ditches and draining land — pose a threat to the plants, which require wet conditions.

“They do depend on some sort of moisture,” said James “Trapper” Fowler, a certified wildlife biologist and heritage preserve manager for region four of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.

The plant is international listed as “vulnerable,” but does not have specific federal or state protections in South Carolina. It has been petitioned for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act, which would impose penalties on those who disturb or destroy the plant. Poaching the Venus flytrap is considered a felony in five North Carolina counties.

Most of Fowler’s efforts at the Lewis Ocean Bay Wildlife Preserve include monitoring the plant’s population, collecting seeds that are sent to the state botanical gardens and habitat management, like conducting controlled burns. 

The preserve works with local law enforcement to prevent and punish poaching. Taking a plant from the preserve is considered theft. 

“We have made some cases over the years,” Fowler said. 

The preserve does not disclose the exact locations of the plants to the public due to poaching.

The flytraps are inexpensive and can be bought online or at hardware, home goods or big box stores.

“We suggest that if someone wants one, that is the avenue that people can take to get them,” Fowler said. 

Keith Bradley, a botanist in the Heritage Trust Program in Columbia, tracks populations of wild plants across the state. He said the SCDNR is working to potentially acquire land for conservation efforts, and is also working with private landowners to help maintain wild populations. He works with SCDNR staff like Fowler to find and map flytrap locations. 

“We are actively working on plans to do some more introduction,” Bradley said. “We are actively in the process of identifying public lands where it used to occur, and expand its range and population size in South Carolina.”

A Venus flytrap is pictured on May 24, 2021 in the Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve in Horry County.

Bradley said it’s unknown what impact the Venus flytrap has on the local ecosystem until it’s lost. 

But protecting the plant is difficult if officials don’t know where they are. The plants can easily hide due to their rarity, short height and ability to blend in with nearby, bright green vegetation.

“You might think something as conspicuous as a Venus flytrap is easy to find, but it’s not,” Bradley said.

The SCDNR urges people who know they have the flytraps on their property to let the state know so a botanist can visit their land and verify it. The assessment phase for getting the plant federally listed as endangered requires officials to collect as much data as they can to approach a panel with.

Bradley said that a decline in prescribed burns has also put the plant at risk, along with increased the chance for catastrophic fires. He and Fowler said that they need the public’s support to conduct those burns, which can be inconvenient at times for motorists, but invaluable to conservation and fire safety. Prescribed burns help with managing vegetation, along with decrease the chance of a catastrophic wildfire.

Bradley said grants are also available to help private landowners preserve their habitats, especially if a rare or endangered species is located there.

Hard to find, and little known

On a muggy May morning, James Lutken’s rubber boots brush through short vegetation as he searches for clues. Green peat moss is a good sign, he said, as he continues to look for the short green stalks and white flowers that pop up from the flytraps.

But since it’s been dry, he doesn’t have a lot of hopes that he’ll find one.

Finally, he points and declares, “Success!”

Even for the trained eye, the squat plants can be hard to spot.

“Lots of people think they’re really big,” said Luken, a biology professor and the associate dean of the Gupta College of Science at Coastal Carolina University. “In reality, they’re really small and hard to find, and a lot of people come out here, and they have this exaggerated perception, and once they get here, they look down and they go, ‘That?’”

Carnivorous plants, in general, are rare because they’re so evolutionarily specialized.

When Luken first came to the area in the 2000s, he didn’t even know the plants were there. At the time, he said the Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve was “completely inaccessible.”

Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve

He began hunting for published research on the plants, but all he found was a 1958 paper stating the flytraps live in habitats that are “remote and unlikely to ever be developed.”

Older published research came from Darwin, who was so well-respected for his work on evolution that his claims — made on slim evidence and with only a few plants — were automatically accepted as truth at the time.

In his two decades in the region, Luken has led groups into the preserve to find the plants, including people from Japan Great and the head of the Royal Botanic Gardens in the United Kingdom.

Now, with consistent traffic audible from the preserve, the plants are much more accessible — and more likely to be intentionally or unintentionally destroyed. 

As Luken walks through the preserve searching for the plants, he points to nearby ditches. Those he said, are concerning, especially if the water is dry, because they divert water from the moisture-dependent plants.

He said the flytraps are also easily trampled by foot traffic and heavy equipment. He suspects that logging practices led to the plants’ extinction in Georgetown County.

“Logging is a real problem, especially with large equipment,” he said. 

Conducting prescribed burns in the preserve, he said, is 90% of what can be done to protect the plants.

He encourages people to observe and respect the flytraps in the wild.

“If you see one in its native habitat, you will suddenly become a Venus flytrap protector,” Luken said. 

Giving protections teeth

Despite being native to Horry County, most locals don’t know the plant is in the area’s unique habitat.

“I would say being from Horry County growing up, I didn’t know anything about them, which I think is a disservice to our youth in Horry County, and in South Carolina, in general,” Fowler said. “I think kids should be learning about these in schools.”

Riley Egger, the land, water and wildlife project manager for the Coastal Conservation League, said it’s something most people assume grows in the Amazon. 

Commercial and residential development, transforming land into agricultural fields, logging, digging ditches and a lack of regular fires have all led to the plant’s declining numbers. 

The Venus flytrap currently has no protections at the federal level, although it is under review to be added under the Endangered Species Act. 

Egger said the Coastal Conservation League wants South Carolina to update its threatened species inventory and classify the Venus flytrap at the state level. Adding it, she said, would give the state more authority, but wouldn’t be as strong as the plant being listed at the federal level. The league wants South Carolina to create its own version of the federal Endangered Species Act.

“Protections are definitely needed, because there is a myriad of threats to the Venus flytrap, specifically with not being able to have appropriate burning,” she said. 

Venus flytraps can be found in coastal plains like the Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve.

It’s a multi-pronged problem, she said, that requires a multi-pronged solution. She said it’s hard to understand why poaching exists, since the plants are inexpensive to buy.

“They don’t have a high monetary value, but they have a high conservation value,” she said. 

If they disappear from the wild, Egger said it would be like only being able to see a loggerhead sea turtle in a pet store. 

“That’s the direction we are going with the Venus flytrap,” she said. 

Education is seen as key. If someone can see a flytrap in the wild on a dedicated nature path, Egger said, it would raise awareness of the plants, and alleviate the pressure on people who might want to take it from its natural habitat. 

Once an existing population disappears, Egger warned, it’s hard to get it back, making defending existing native populations crucial.

“The state would be missing something that really is what makes South Carolina so special and unique,” she said. “It would be missing what is called ‘the most unusual plant in the world.’ It would be losing out on a piece of identity that I think a lot of people don’t know that we had.”

The North Carolina approach

Egger points to North Carolina, which has regulations in place to protect the traps and has declared it a threatened species on the state’s protected plant list.

“North Carolina has really taken this as an identity piece for them,” she said. 

Poachers in North Carolina face a felony charge, fines and prison time for stealing the flytraps.

The state is also close to approving a specialty Venus flytrap license plate. The effort has passed through the North Carolina House, and is now with the Senate. 

More than 720 plates have been preordered, according to Johnny Randall, the director of conservation at the North Carolina Botanical Garden. Randall said $20 from each plate will directly go toward Venus flytrap conservation efforts.

“Hopefully, when people see this fabulous license plate, they will want one, too, so it could be a true moneymaker for plant conservation,” he said. 

Those funds will be spent on researching the plants, purchasing land or conservation easements for known flytrap locations, and management of the sites. 

In North Carolina, Venus flytraps can be seen in the wild at Carolina Beach State Park and Green Swamp Preserve. They can also be viewed at the Stanley Rehder Carnivorous Plant Garden at Piney Ridge Nature Preserve in Chapel Hill and at the University of Charlotte Botanical Gardens. The South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston also has plants in captivity. 

Randall said there are only a handful of places where the public is invited to view Venus flytraps in the wild. Once those sites are recognized, he said, the plants are vulnerable to being poached. At Carolina Beach State Park, plants have had to be repeatedly replanted due to poaching. 

The non-profit organization Venus Flytrap Champions acts as a centralized location for people to get involved with conservation. Randall said the group wants to do a private landowner recognition program, along with recognizing corporations and businesses with a certificate of appreciation. The organization recently awarded the first two certificates to private landowners. 

Regulations vary depending on if an endangered or threatened species is a plant or animal. Randall said animals are protected on private property, where plants are considered the landowner’s property and can be destroyed without any penalties.

“It is only on public land that threatened and endangered plants are truly protected,” he said. 

But despite North Carolina’s efforts to punish poachers, Randall said there’s still only half as many flytraps as there used to be.

“It is still a species in decline, but there are certain places in some nature preserves — and even on military bases — where they are being properly managed, where there are thousands of individuals,” Randall said. “So there are some strongholds of Venus flytraps, but many populations have dropped out, particularly on private lands where they aren’t being recognized by the landowner.”

He hopes the license plate essentially becomes a mobile billboard for the traps. 

“I like to say outside of agriculture species, it is the most widely-recognized plant in the world,” he said.