On certain calm days in North Carolina’s Green Swamp Preserve, the chirps of birds and insects give way to the sound of crackling. Tendrils of blue-gray smoke unfurl in the air, and the ground, thickly carpeted with high grass and woody shrubs, blackens beneath a steady wave of flames. Hidden among the tallest vegetation caught in the blaze are some unusual-looking plants that grow in the underbrush: Venus flytraps, standing just a few inches tall, their needle-toothed “mouths” gaping toward the sky.
It takes just moments for the fire to reduce their iconic profiles to molehills of ash.
A team of officials from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission watches the whole scene unfold. They aren’t there to put out the fire—instead, they stoke it by skimming the grass with handheld drip torches [PDF]. When the patch of wilderness before them is completely charred, they let themselves relax: Their job is complete. These prescribed burns—which replace fires that used to happen naturally, and recreate the conditions in which the plants originally evolved—are essential to the Venus flytrap’s wellbeing.
Going to such lengths might seem strange, given that anyone looking for a Venus flytrap to decorate their dorm room windowsill or manage a fly infestation can find one easily: They’re available for less than $6 a pot at big box hardware chains, and for $10 to $30 at independent plant stores. But in the wild, the plant can only be found in one spot: a 75-square-mile area of North and South Carolina. That accounts for less than a third of species's historic range. Only 302,000 Venus flytraps remain there, down from 4 million in the 1970s.
In the face of such decline, scientists have petitioned to put the plant on the Endangered Species List. And while prescribed burns aid in the Venus Flytrap’s survival, they’re not enough to guarantee it. Not when the plants are also threatened by land development, climate change … and poachers.
Many of the greatest minds in history have been captivated by the Venus flytrap. Thomas Jefferson made several attempts to acquire its seeds, and in 1804, he finally planted them in a pot. But the plants are finicky: Venus flytraps thrive in habitats with damp, low-nutrient soil and lots of sunlight. The swampy coastal plains of the Carolinas have exactly the soil flytraps need, and without the boggy conditions of the Carolina coast, Jefferson's flytraps likely never poked past the soil.
Seventy-one years later, in his book Insectivorous Plants, naturalist Charles Darwin described the flora, writing: “This plant, commonly called Venus' fly-trap, from the rapidity and force of its movements, is one of the most wonderful in the world.”
You don’t need to be immersed in the botanical world to understand the flytrap’s appeal. The carnivorous plant is different from a fern or succulent; it moves and interacts with its environment, placing it in a special category between plant and pet. It rests with its leaf blades open, perfuming the air with a sweet nectar that lures insects. The inside of the trap contains six short, bristly hairs that are sensitive to motion. When prey disturbs two of these hairs within a short span of time—or if it brushes against the same hair twice—it triggers the hinged leaf blades. The tooth-like cilia trimming the jaws mesh together, ensnaring the meal as acidic juices inside the trap start to digest it. The unsettling process has enamored humans for centuries.
"I think [carnivorous plants] have a lot more personality compared to normal plants, even if they are just normal plants," Josh Brown, owner and operator of San Francisco's Predatory Plants, tells Mental Floss. "Venus flytraps in particular are very dynamic. They move faster than any other plant their size, and people find that very compelling."
The public’s fascination with flytraps drives commercial demand for the plant, but they haven’t gotten any easier to cultivate from seeds since Jefferson’s lifetime. For most of history, the easiest way to obtain them was by poaching.
In 1956, North Carolina passed legislation granting the Venus flytrap state protection. But even with its protected status, it was still legal to collect the plants from the wild under special circumstances. If someone had a permit and the land owner’s permission, they could pick flytraps from private property. Some plant sellers took this route, while others skipped the legal process and simply strolled onto state land with a shovel and a bucket. On the off chance they were caught, the punishment was a small fine.
In 1981, there was a breakthrough that should have ended Venus flytrap poaching for good. Looking to remove some of the pressure from wild populations being targeted by poachers, William Carroll, part of the botany department of the University of North Carolina, cloned Venus flytraps in his laboratory for the first time. It was nothing like trying to grow flytraps in a home garden. In a sterile petri dish, the specimen thrived.
“You can just take a piece of Venus flytrap and put it in a solution of agar, which is a seaweed-derived gel with some nutrients in it, and it will just start growing after a short period of time,” Brown says. Some plants carry pathogens—which contaminate tissue culture, impeding healthy cell growth—that make it hard to raise them in a sterile lab. Venus flytraps don’t have this problem, and in the age of cloning, sellers can use leaf clippings from a single plant to propagate unlimited Venus flytraps for pennies apiece.
For entrepreneurs with a stake in the Venus flytrap market, the cloning was a stunning success. But it didn't stop the poachers.
On November 1, 2015, two men emerged from the tall grass of North Carolina's Orton Plantation looking exhausted. They were boxed in by police officers, and after volleying across the field a few times, Scottie Stevenson, 44, and David Lewis, 23, stopped running and accepted whatever penalty awaited them. Hands raised, they approached the authorities and asked for a bottle of water.
At that point, it wasn’t yet clear what the pair was guilty of. Law enforcement had been called to investigate a trespassing complaint, but the way the men fled upon their arrival suggested the crime was more severe. It took a police dog less than 10 minutes to locate the source of their panic: Discarded in the grass was a backpack stuffed with 1025 Venus flytraps along with the machete used to harvest them.
Stevenson and Lewis were among the first people charged with violating a 2014 law designed to protect Venus flytraps. Prior to the new legislation, Venus flytraps had the protection of the state law passed in the 1950s and not much else. Even if poachers plucked hundreds of them from federal land—as many of them did in the 1990s and 2000s—the strictest penalty they faced was a $50 fine.
North Carolina upgraded Venus flytrap poaching from a misdemeanor to a Class H felony on December 1, 2014. That means that poaching a single plant can now send someone to prison for months—and each plant that gets stolen is treated as an additional offense.
After Stevenson and Lewis were arrested, they were held on a $1 million bond—an amount normally reserved for murder suspects. They were ultimately charged and convicted with one felony count. More recently, in March 2019, a poacher was charged with 216 felony counts—one for each Venus flytrap he took from the Green Swamp Preserve.
It’s too early to say if the law is an effective deterrent for poachers, but conservationists have their doubts. “I think some of the poachers aren’t aware that it’s a felony to poach Venus flytraps in most of the North Carolina counties where it occurs,” Johnny Randall, the director of conservation at the North Carolina Botanical Garden at Chapel Hill, tells Mental Floss.
Flytrap poachers are typically locals, often from families that have been collecting the plants for generations. “An ordinary person would not wander out through a wet pine savanna or the areas where these Venus flytraps occur," Randall says. "There are canebrake rattlesnakes, lots of biting insects. It’s not for the faint of heart to go out into these areas. The poachers are people who have grown up in this kind of environment, so they’re familiar with it.”
Poachers usually enter the areas where Venus flytraps grow carrying machetes and pillowcases, and according to Randall, one person can harvest 500 plants in an hour—so a single raid can deal significant damage to local flytrap populations. And according to Randall, “The poor fellows who are being paid $.25 cents per plant are just trying to eke out a living in economically depressed areas of North Carolina, so even though they are breaking the law, these poachers, they’re not the real bad guys.”
So who are the bad guys? Experts suspect that, in most cases, these local poachers are doing the dirty work for larger buyers and seeing just a fraction of the profits, though exactly which forces are driving the Venus flytrap black market remains unclear—especially given the plant's ready availability.
Conservationists have their theories. Randall points to pharmaceutical manufacturers that use Venus flytrap extract to make supplements, and cites the German company Carnivora specifically. Carnivora’s website claims that the plant has immune-boosting properties, and the label bills it as “the original natural discovery from Europe.” In an email to Mental Floss, however, the company says it doesn’t use wild plants to make its product: “We have our own production facility here in the U.S. and our manufacturing process results in no plants being used from wild habitats.”
Don Waller, a conservation biologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, suspects rare plant collectors overseas are behind many poaching crimes. Even though they’re identical to plants grown in labs, wild Venus flytraps may be more valuable in the eyes of certain buyers. “Interestingly, it's European collectors who are kind of fanatics about having a wild, collected plant,” he says. “They are willing to go on the dark internet and seek out these poached plants which they consider superior for some reason to commercially propagated plants.”
While potentially devastating to Venus flytrap populations, poaching isn’t the main culprit behind the species’s decline. Conservationists agree that other environmental issues, like habitat loss, are bigger threats—that, and a lack of fire.
The Wilmington, North Carolina, region—which sits at the center of the Venus flytrap's range—has undergone rapid development in recent years. Many of the wet savannas that once sustained vibrant flytrap populations have been replaced by golf courses and shopping centers. "The populations now are fewer than they used to be, and they tend to be more separated from each other by roads or inhospitable habitats,” Waller says. “Any time you fragment a population it becomes more vulnerable to local extinction."
The Venus flytrap's home is no longer the safe environment it once was, which means simply replenishing swamps with flytrap clones isn't enough to sustain wild populations. But the biggest problem for the species, according to conservationists, has to do with fire. The plant's habitat is technically a swamp, but after a few days of baking in the sun, the sandy soil there becomes dry enough to support forest fires. Regular blazes are vital to this ecosystem, and to ecosystems around the world: They clear out debris and leave behind empty, fertile land that supports new plant growth.
For centuries, if a bolt of lighting or the heat from the sun sparked a fire in the woods, the blaze burned until it fizzled out naturally. In some parts of the continent, Native Americans even ignited their own controlled burns as a way to manage the land. This changed when the first European colonists arrived in North America. Forest fires were seen as destructive forces that needed to be contained, and while fire suppression did save lives and property in many cases, it also disrupted the natural cycle of the environment. Venus flytraps were among the species hit hardest by the practice. When people started extinguishing natural fires in the Carolina region without allowing them to spread, taller shrubs were free to flourish and smother the ankle-high plants.
But even in nature preserves that conduct controlled burns, the species’s future is uncertain. As climate change raises sea levels around the world, flooding will become more common, and the low-lying coastal plains that flytraps call home fall directly in the danger zone.
“A large fraction of its population could be vulnerable, even to a meter or two of sea rise,” Waller says. Rising temperatures could also soon make their current habitat inhospitable: “These guys will need to move North if they are to match their current climate environment, and it’s not easy for them to move if their populations are smaller and more isolated from one another," he adds.
Unlike most animal species, flytraps can't flee immediate threats. Luckily, conservationists are coming up with some creative solutions to help save them.
The Venus flytrap may be vulnerable, but it isn't doomed. Establishing more nature preserves like the Green Swamp is one way to protect the flytrap’s habitat from future development projects. And once those areas are set up, wildlife managers can keep the land healthy by burning it. In the Green Swamp Preserve, periodically setting the ground on fire has become a normal part of the conservation plan. After plotting out where the burn will happen, officials pick a day with the perfect weather conditions (not too windy, not too dry) to ignite the supervised blaze. The flytraps burn up with the rest of the shrubbery, but when the next generation emerges from the soil, they’re able to thrive without having to compete for sunlight with thick, unruly brush.
In Waller’s view, one of the most effective ways to ensure the species’ survival is to grant it federal protection. He's one of the scientists at the head of the movement to add Venus flytraps to the Endangered Species List. In 2016, he led a petition to get the species recognized and launched an online campaign promoting the cause.
It’s not the first time scientists have tried to garner protection for the plant: It was considered for listing in the early 1990s and rejected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service due to lack of evidence. But scientists are hoping things will be different this time around. “It's declined rapidly since the 1990s when the Fish and Wildlife Service considered it for listing," Waller explains. "So that was the basis for our petition: That this is a plant that is not hypothetically in trouble but getting rapidly into trouble now and needing the protection of the Endangered Species Act.”
According to the Act, species are considered endangered if they’re at risk of becoming extinct throughout all or a large part of their natural range. The Fish and Wildlife Service is currently considering the Venus flytrap for protection for the second time. If it makes the list, the federal government will have to identify the critical habitats for the species and extend special management and protection to those areas. That could mean funding existing nature preserves, funding the creation of new nature preserves in vulnerable flytrap habitats, and ceasing any federal activities that would cause the species harm.
Dale Suiter, an endangered species biologist with the FWS, tells Mental Floss that research is being conducted to see if the plant qualifies. “We’re currently working with the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program, and they are conducting a status survey which means they are trying to revisit as many populations as possible over this growing season and next growing season [...] After we get the results of that two-year study that we’ll start to evaluate the data and try to make a decision on what to do with the species.”
However, the success of the species in the marketplace could present a stumbling block. “There are people who don’t think the plant should be listed as endangered, either because they think the plants are doing fine, which they are not, or because they realize there are huge numbers of these plants raised in captivity,” Waller says. “And if you can buy a plant at your local hardware store or nursery, what business does it have being on the Endangered Species List?”
Indeed, adding the Venus flytrap to the Endangered Species List will need to be managed carefully. The listing of a common houseplant does come with potential drawbacks: If conservation laws don’t differentiate between Venus flytraps propagated in labs and plants grown in the wild, some people in the carnivorous plant business fear they could see their livelihoods disappear.
“If it was made illegal in the U.S., that would probably lead to it being wiped out in the wild, because that would increase the black market value of it tremendously,” Joel Garner, who runs the online shop Joel's Carnivorous Plants, tells Mental Floss. “The Venus flytrap is one of the most mass-produced plants in the U.S., so you’re shutting down a pretty big market if you were to make that illegal. It would kind of be a situation where good intentions produced the exact opposite results you were trying to get."
An endangered designation for the species wouldn’t automatically kill the industry, however. Pitcher plants—another carnivorous plant that’s popular with buyers—are extremely endangered, but shops can still sell them as long as they can prove they were grown in a lab or a nursery. Even with these provisions, Venus flytrap sellers may be wary of the red tape they’d have to navigate under stricter conservation laws.
Waller is aware of this possibility, and he’s already proposed potential fixes. In a paper published in the Carnivorous Plant Newsletter [PDF], Waller and co-author Thomas Gibson encourage commercial growers and authorities to work together to create a habitat conservation plan before any new laws are passed.
The plan they suggest takes something that’s been a detriment to efforts to protect the Venus flytrap in recent decades—its commercial popularity—and turns it into a strength. By adding a $.25 to $.50 surcharge to every plant that’s sold, sellers could generate revenue to fund conservation efforts. The paper estimates that such a program could raise millions of dollars a year toward acquiring new flytrap habitats and maintaining existing preserves. And it would come with an added bonus: each pot would include a tag telling buyers their purchase helps protect the species in the wild, raising awareness of the problem with the people most likely to care.
“The public is very enthusiastic about Venus flytraps,” Waller says. “They buy them in great numbers, they kill them sometimes, and feed them insects in the meantime. What a remarkable plant.”