Stalking the Carnivorous Plants of Big Thicket National Preserve

Among the wonders of Big Thicket National Preserve are carnivorous plants, like these pitcher plants. Courtesy of Chuck Hunt, NPS

By Barbara “Bo” Jensen

In the light of day, Lafayette, Louisiana, looks worse, not better.

It’s February, and I’m driving west along the muddy Gulf Coast toward Texas to visit Big Thicket National Preserve. The highway rises to cross over a local road, and I look down at a blue tarp roof, and another, and another. Most of the houses, in fact, bear these bright blue roofs, like disaster victims huddled together, wrapped in blankets. Piles of debris wait on street corners, at the edges of parking lots, by the entrances to fast food drive-throughs, their signs blown out, bent and twisted.

Lake Charles hasn’t fared any better; I drive past tall longleaf pines snapped in half, the lower trunks still standing with ragged heartwood exposed, the upper trunks, heavy with mangled branches, hanging at terrible, disjointed angles.

The 2020 hurricane season battered this region near the Texas border with two direct hits by hurricanes Laura and Delta; those two storms alone caused an estimated $20 billion in damages. All total, the Gulf was pummeled by no less than 10 named tropical storms and hurricanes last year. I have no idea what I will find as I cross the Sabine River into Orange, Texas, heading toward Beaumont.

Trunks of the bald cypress tree in a swamp at Big Thicket National Preserve. Courtesy of Scott Sharaga, NPS.

Bayou country is a hard place to live sometimes. It’s home to tough survivors. Locals in beat-up pickup trucks roar past me up highway 69/285, the Big Thicket National Preserve Byway, as I turn off at the visitor center. I’m looking for just that kind of adaptability to harsh conditions. I have come to find Big Thicket’s carnivorous plants. More generally, I want to learn how life survives here, because, as I look around, the Thicket seems undaunted by the recent storms.

The National Park Service describes Big Thicket National Preserve as “a biological crossroads.” Established in 1974 as one of the country’s first national preserves, this patchwork of 15 protected areas covering 113,114 acres safeguards habitat for more than 1,300 plant species, 60 mammal species, 86 species of reptiles and amphibians, 97 fish species, and over 300 species of birds. By 1981, it was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

Big Thicket is a unique place, a convergence of nine ecosystems with interesting descriptions like wetland pine savannah, baygall thicket, bottomland floodplain, and cypress slough. These names give me a clue to Big Thicket’s resilience: its swamps help it absorb the impact of overwhelming rains and rising water.

The Bridge to Nowhere spans Little Pine Island Bayou in the Lance Rosier Unit. Bald cypress knees grow in the foreground. Courtesy of Scott Sharaga, NPS

The Neches River and multiple creeks wind through various parts of the preserve, feeding and draining different areas during the year. From mixed loblolly pine-hardwood stands growing on higher sandy flats, to cypress and tupelo trees rising sturdy and wind-resistant within their favored bayous, the preserve’s natural forests shelter the diversity of life in the waterways and thickets.

Parking under a dense stand of tall pines, I enter the visitor center and tell the park ranger I’m looking for carnivorous plants. He explains that four of the five types that grow in North America can be found in the preserve: pitcher plants, sundews, bladderworts, and butterworts. The Venus flytrap grows wild only in the Carolinas. Big Thicket, like much of southeast Texas, consists of poor soil that supports only the hardiest and best-adapted life forms. Carnivorous plants have evolved to supplement scanty soil nutrition – with insects.

“Pitcher plants are easy to see,” he tells me. “Most have died back right now, but I saw a few out on Sundew Trail. You ever looked for a sundew?”

I tell him I have not.

“Ever seen one?”

No.

Carnivorous plants populate the Sundew Trail. Courtesy of Mary Kay Manning, NPS

He squints.

“They’re pretty hard to find,” he says sympathetically.

He pulls out a map of Sundew Trail and a highlighter. “I’ve seen pitcher plants along the trail here,” and he traces a stretch, “and some along the powerline clearing. You might find sundews right here, at the start,” and he adds another yellow mark, “but honestly – look….” He quickly pulls out his phone and shows me a photo of a sundew.

“Oh, they’re tiny!” I exclaim. “I thought they’d be bigger. No wonder they’re hard to find.”

“Mm-hmm.” He nods. His photo includes a coin for comparison; the plant is smaller than the quarter. “Some are dime-sized.”

 

Sundew plants are small and hard to spot without some effort. Courtesy of Barbara Jensen

Suddenly, Big Thicket feels immense — a vast, watery world filled with millions of living beings. How will I ever spot this small life within such a massive tangle of growth?

He smiles encouragingly. “If you don’t mind getting your feet wet, there’s a whole patch of them right out here at the roadside ditch, right where you drove in. That’s where I took this picture, just yesterday.”

I thank him for the tip.

I lace up my boots. Tramping carefully out into the mushy ditch, I bend low, peering through the ground-cover of pine needles and dead leaves, focusing in on this miniature biome that I completely overlooked as I entered the preserve. After several minutes of searching, I notice something glinting in the sun. Turning, I catch a shine again, and a hint of red under the rusty-colored pine needles. Squatting, I spy a sundew.

Readjusting my vision, now I see them everywhere before me. The little rosettes have fleshy stems and leaves covered in miniscule red bristles that appear to end in shiny dewdrops.

Pitcher plants lure insects with sweet nectar. Courtesy of Scott Sharaga, NPS

These bristles are actually tentacle stalks, secreting the nectar-scented “dew” to attract insects. The sticky leaves are a trap, sprung by the tiny prey struggling to free itself. Wrapping its wriggling captive with its tentacles, the sundew’s secretions digest needed nutrients from the insect’s soft tissues. It’s a savage world, this wet ditch.

Nonetheless, encouraged by my find, I drive up the road to Sundew Trail. Here, an accessible boardwalk is part of a one-mile trail that loops through a wetland savannah. Yet, try as I might, I cannot spot any sundews where the ranger marked the map. Instead, I continue on to the pitcher plant bog.

Pitcher plants are much easier to spot. They send up foot-tall, modified leaves, each shaped like a narrow vase or pitcher. Down inside this funnel trap, an enticing, scented pool of digestive juices awaits unlucky insects that fall in from the waxy, slippery rim. This early in the spring, all I see are the tan stalks of last year’s plants, dozens or maybe hundreds of them standing dead in the marshy area between trees. I head up to the powerline clearing, but no matter how slowly and carefully I search, I’m not finding anything.

But I haven’t given up. I walk back toward the bog, looking closely at the dead pitcher plants. I can’t be sure of what I’m seeing, so I step carefully onto a wet log at the very edge of the trail, crouching to get a closer view. Sure enough, the pitcher plants in the warmest, sunniest area are putting out new growth. Four- to eight-inch pitchers unfurl like ferns beneath the old growth, rising from the common root that survives.

I have been lured in by Big Thicket National Preserve. And I’ve only seen a tiny corner of it. With more than 30 miles of hiking, biking, and horseback trails and 10 times that mileage in water trails to canoe or kayak, Big Thicket offers a wide variety of ways to experience this remarkable region.

Birdwatching, fishing, and hunting are all available; seasonal hunting permits are free, as are backcountry camping permits. I’d like to paddle my gear into Big Thicket’s quiet interior, and pitch my tent on a sandbar—really get my feet wet. I want to come back, try to find the butterworts as they begin blooming, and bladderworts that float. I’m starting to see how the incredible natural diversity, preserved and protected here, is the strength of Big Thicket.