In the heart of midtown Wilmington lies a patch of boggy soil that holds part of the town’s charm. Here, visitors can see Venus flytraps growing in the wild, a phenomenon unique to Wilmington and its seventy-mile surrounding area. These ground-hugging, insect-grabbing plants are so small they could be crushed underfoot if people are unaware of them. But they are not the only curious vegetation there. Tall, fascinating pitcher plants in vibrant shades of green, yellow and red abound as neighbors.
In 2012, The Stanley Rehder Carnivorous Plant Garden was named in honor of Stanley Rehder, a native Wilmingtonian whose family had deep roots in the gardening and florist business. His particular passion was for his hometown’s famous botanical resident, the Venus flytrap, and he searched for them in soggy areas with poor, acidic soil that he knew to be their natural habitat. In a wet and worn roadbed behind Alderman Elementary School off Independence Boulevard, he found a treasure trove. His goal was to protect and preserve them, and ultimately teach others about this fascinating plant. He harvested the seeds, replanted, tended the area, and eventually introduced other carnivorous plants, both native and non-native, to the land. Rehder appeared on national television several times telling the rest of the world about them.
Take a three-minute walk down the concrete path from the parking lot and you will behold an abundance of pitcher plants. Rehder must have loved these, too. He crossbred them, and he even developed one variety that was named for him, the Sarracenia rehderi. Surely some of its descendants grow there today. The leaves of the pitcher plant are tubular, causing them to collect water via the top opening. When an unsuspecting insect – or on occasion a small animal – lands on the edge, it is likely to fall into the container of liquid and meet its demise. Venus flytraps use moving parts to collect their prey. After the sensory hairs of the leaves are tickled a couple of times by an insect that wanders in, the leaves (or lobes) will close around it, and the digestive enzymes produced inside will kill it. Visitors to the garden may also see other carnivorous plants: butterworts, the tiny red sundew, and the even smaller and very complex bladderwort that is usually in water. It is worth looking.
Camilla Herlevich, Executive Director of the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust, says that three organizations are involved with the garden. The land is owned by The Oleander Company. The North Carolina Coastal Land Trust has been granted permanent conservation easement, and they in turn lease it to the City of Wilmington for management. All parties are proud to be a part of this dedicated garden, but as Herlevich noted, it has a downside. Venus flytraps are rare, and due to their rarity and the mystery that surrounds them, they have been victims of poaching. It has always been a crime, but since 2014, digging them up in the wild and stealing them is now a criminal felony, punishable by prison time. However, they may be grown legally in greenhouses, and plants can be purchased from reputable growers.
The Stanley Rehder Carnivorous Plant Garden, a part of the Piney Ridge Nature Preserve andofficially located at 3800 Canterbury Road, is considered a passive garden. It is not pruned and manicured but is allowed to let nature take its course with little interference from humans. It may put on its best show in spring when flowers are blooming, but anytime is good to visit. It is open to the public every day of the year during daylight hours at no cost. It is important to be respectful, stay on the paths, and watch your step.
In the spring, the Coastal Land Trust hosts the Flytrap Frolic, a free opportunity for kids and adults alike to learn about the special plant Mother Nature gave Wilmington. Right now they are valued, protected and not endangered, but as development encroaches on their habitat in the wild, it could happen. Herlevich says, “This garden is a place to tell the story about how important it is to protect the Venus Flytrap.” It is a story that cannot be told anywhere else in the world.