Carnivorous Plants Galore

by Clint Calhoun, Meanderings and Ponderings of Clint CalhounAs I rose from a good night’s sleep on the morning of June 11, I was strangely anxious.  All the arrangements had been made and everything seemed to be in order.  Perhaps it was more a feeling of anticipation than anxiety.  Sore from a long hike the day before, I stretched my legs to work out the stiffness.  I rotated my bum right shoulder to see how much pain it was going to cause, but surprisingly it felt pretty good, letting me know that donning a backpack later would not create any unnecessary aggravation.  I got dressed, woke Cayden up as I typically do on a school day.  Colby was laying sideways and face down in his bed with one pillow across his back.  I thought about how great it would be to still be able to sleep like that.  I helped get Cayden’s breakfast ready and then went to kiss my lovely wife goodbye before taking off.

This trip was a much anticipated adventure that for all intents and purposes had taken much longer to get together than intended.  In truth, I had been planning a trip of this sort for almost two years, but things always happen that cause the best laid plans to go awry.  It was critical that I schedule the travel time around bloom dates, and of course that’s not always a guaranteed method of accomplishing the goal.  My research for this trip had been going on for about a month and it took me another week and a half before I could adjust my schedule and take a much needed day off.  Once I knew what days I could possibly take off, I started calling and e-mailing hiking buddies.  It’s a pretty short list, let’s face it.  There are not a lot of people who like to go off the beaten path and potentially face ticks, chiggers, steep slopes, slick rocks, venomous snakes, impenetrable rhododendron thickets, waterfalls, bees, precipitous dropoffs, impalement, and other known hazards that often go with bushwhacking.My good friend Travis Smith was the first one to sign on for the trip.  When I talked to him he was on his way home from Indiana.  He was glad I invited him because neither he nor I have gotten to hike together in a long time.  Travis was one of my early mentors as my naturalist career began.  He was also a Park Naturalist and my former supervisor at Chimney Rock Park.  Travis and I began hiking together as part of conducting educational hikes at the Park.  We would often tag team large groups.  This evolved into hiking excursions when we would attend conferences in the Smokies.  Some of my most memorable hikes were spent with Travis as we trudged to Charlie’s Bunion in the snow, hiked Mt. LeConte twice, and stumbled along in the dark after a late evening ascent to the Chimney Tops.  Travis needed this particular outing as much as I did so it made plenty of sense for him to go.

James Padgett is another good friend of mine and also an avid hiker.  James is an inventory biologist for the NC Natural Heritage Program and certified mountain goat.  When it comes to steep places, James and I have always ended up hiking either into or out of some of the steepest places in Hickory Nut Gorge.  James is an excellent botanist and keeps me up to speed on all the botanical name changes that occur way too frequently.  He has the job that most of us would love to have, spending the majority of his time outside looking at plant communities.  What attracted him to this mission, aside from the fact that I invited him, was the opportunity to do some comparative analysis of rare community types and species makeup.

In doing my research of our hiking destination, I stumbled onto a gentleman by the name of Jim Fowler.  Jim is a computer guy by profession but spends a great deal of time outdoors doing nature photography and is an avid, largely self-taught botanist.  I had seen Jim’s photography blog online and he had a great deal of knowledge about the place I was interested in visiting.  I e-mailed him and after a little confusion on my part was able to arrange for us to meet Jim at the site where he could serve as our local expert and guide.

Our destination was the Eva Russell Chandler Heritage Preserve in northern Greenville County, South Carolina.  Our purpose was to see and photograph carnivorous plants, including the federally endangered mountain sweet pitcher plant (Sarracenia jonesii).  My initial intention for visiting this preserve was to photograph roundleaf sundew (Drosera rotundifolia), another carnivorous plant.  Carnivorous plants are a unique group of species that rely on insects as their nutrient source.  They typically grow in nutrient poor soils in bogs and fens and have modified leaves that function as trapping mechanisms for unfortunate insects that are drawn to their sweet smelling flowers or colorful trapping structures.

It was actually Drosera that drove me to put the trip together to begin with.  Way up at the top of a cliff face in Chimney Rock State Park (the attraction part), there is a small stream that flows over the rock face.  The rock face and stream are actually visible from the Meadows.  About 20 years ago, Elizabeth Feil and I were bushwhacking in that area looking for rare wild bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia) and Divided-leaf Ragwort (Packera millefolium).  Our belly crawl through the rhododendron thicket let us to the small stream which we had to cross to get to the Packera population we were surveying. Elizabeth pointed to the edge of the vegetation where the exposed rock began and there was a small little patch of Drosera rotundifolia.  I would visit that site at least three more times after that, each time hoping to photograph the sundews, but never successful.  The streambed is so slick that to try to walk the stream is risking a certain fall down the 150 foot rock face.  Not the kind of memorable outcome that I care for.  In fact I came close one time to sliding down that same rock face.  If it hadn’t been for the quick hands of an intern and some blueberry bushes that actually held when I grabbed them, I would have been a goner.  This particular location is the only known location for roundleaf sundew in Hickory Nut Gorge.  That’s not to say that it doesn’t occur elsewhere in HNG, it’s just that no one has never reported finding it.  Anyway, after too many close calls, difficult access, and the fact that I’m not twenty-something anymore, I felt I could get a picture of roundleaf sundew somewhere else and that somewhere was the Eva Chandler Preserve.

I picked up Travis in Edneyville and we headed to Hendersonville, grabbed a quick biscuit at McDonalds and scooted down Hwy. 25 towards Greenville.  The plan was to meet James in Cleveland, South Carolina, which I discovered is practically nowhere.  I think I actually passed it.  Anyway we got on Hwy 11 and then turned right where 11 and 276 join up.  We met James at the F-Mart and then followed him up to another preserve called Bald Rock, an impressive granite dome, probably made more impressive (in a bad way) by the excessive grafitti and vandalism that likely has destroyed what was likely once a significant plant community.  I didn’t take a picture here, but instead became rather reflective.  Someone had written messages about accepting Jesus as your savior and surrounded it with swastikas.  Another one said something to the effect that Jesus would not do what the artist was regarding as a sinful act.  I truthfully don’t even remember fully what it said because I was so irritated by just the sheer disregard for what we attribute to our Creator.  My thought after reading that message was that Jesus wouldn’t paint grafitti on rocks.  Such backhanded hypocrisy is why we as Christians fail to successfully share the gospel.  We spend more time condemning the flaws and shortcomings of others and conveniently fail to see and work on our own…but I digress.

We got back in the vehicles and turned onto Persimmon Ridge Road, a washboarded dirt road that slowly wound down the mountain.  About three-fourths of a mile down the road we came to a curve and saw the entrance to the Eva Russell Chandler Heritage Preserve.  Jim Fowler was there waiting for us.  After quick introductions and grabbing of gear and water, we headed out the trail through a pine forest and down to a substantial granite dome with a nice little stream flowing over it.  Jim pointed out that we were at the top of a small cascading waterfall/waterslide and that the plan was to carefully cross and bushwhack downstream to the bog.  Locally, the waterfall is known as Slickum Falls and that is a good name.  We cautiously picked our way across the slick rock face where the stream passed over it.  Fortunately, there were spongy little patches of algae that were actually somewhat firm and offered a slight amount of grip, making the crossing a little less treacherous.

We followed the leader, making our way through the woods, passing some nice patches of royal fern (Osmunda regalis) and sweet azalea (Rhododendron arborescens).  We dropped down to the bottom of Slickum Falls, passing over a very nice population of Packera millefolium, which before this day I had only seen in Hickory Nut Gorge.  At the base of the falls, the ground quickly became very soft and slick as patches of sphagnum moss replaced soil.  We emerged out onto another granite dome whose dry parts were covered with twistedhair spikemoss (Selaginella tortipila), but where Slickum Creek flowed over the dome lay a veritable treasure trove.  Little islands of vegetation measuring anywhere from six inches across to six feet across lay along the margin of the stream.  Each little “island” was its own little carnivorous plant colony containing mountain sweet pitcher plants, roundleaf sundew and horned bladderwort (Utricalaria cornuta) as well as other associated non-carnivorous species.

We got the cameras out and started collecting photographs of this rare plant community.  Cataract bogs, as this plant community is called, are very rare.  Most of the documented cataract bogs are in the mountains of South Carolina.  As streams of water flow over granite domes, the water sheets as opposed to falling.  This reduces the erosive potential of the water in all but the heaviest rains.  Minute amounts of soil will accumulate in depressions along the stream margins.  The amount of soil that collects is minimized by the flow of water and the gradient of the rock, but is enough to allow the accumulation of shallow rooted plant.  Because the amount of soil is so miniscule and the water is continuously flowing, there is virtually zero nutrients to be had.  It’s a very harsh environment that only highly adapted species can survive in.  Carnivorous plants are adapted to low nutrient conditions and occupy this special niche in a harsh environment.

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