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Tuesday, July 1, 2008

In Search Of...

Lessons learned while looking for pitcher plants in northern Florida

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Digital Horizons: In Search Of...
The mythological Greek Sirens lured sailors onto the rocks and to their deaths by singing beautiful songs that were irresistible. Pitcher plants are the sirens of the plant world, offering attractive scents and nectars that lure all sorts of bugs to their deaths. Insects come for the nectar around the opening of the plant and then go too far and fall into its long tube of death. Some scientists believe the plants may even drug the insects through the nectar.

For some reason, pitcher plants have had a siren song effect on me. They’re certainly odd plants, and their “pitcher” tubes and strange flowers offer strong visuals unlike any other plant.

This is a story about a search for pitcher plants that lured me into a tough situation, but with some lessons (at least it did for me), including digital lessons.

I was in St. Augustine in early April for Florida’s Birding & FotoFest. This is an excellent yearly program that features talks by photographers and wildlife experts, along with hikes into the wilds of the Florida wetlands and beach ecosystems.

I knew the pitcher plants likely would be blooming at about this time, so I decided to take some extra time and head to the Florida Panhandle. I had discovered that the Panhandle is home to a diversity of carnivorous plants, including several kinds of pitcher plants. It always helps to do some research before heading to a location, and I had learned that pitcher plants could be found in the Apalachicola National Forest. The plants grow in wet, poor soils, often near stands of longleaf pine. There’s a theory that these plants became carnivorous to adapt to poor soils, getting added nutrients from their victims.

I arrived in the Apalachicola area on a Sunday afternoon. I had plenty of time to get to my hotel, so I decided to start on my quest for pitcher plants. One odd thing about Florida’s Panhandle is that part of the area is in Eastern Standard Time and part in Central Standard Time. After checking my cell phone, I discovered I even had an extra hour because I had passed over the edge of the time zone.

I had a map, but not a very detailed one, although I had a rough idea of where I was going. The roads all seemed good, so I headed out, thinking I might spot some pitcher plants. They’re big plants, and I had seen them before in South Carolina, so I knew you could see them from the road. I really had no idea where they might be, and I could have, probably should have, stopped and asked in one of the small towns, but I was excited to be in an interesting, new place and motored on.

Lesson One: Always check with local people about local plants and animals.

After driving awhile, I saw lots of pine, but little else. I decided to go onto one of the dirt Forest Service roads and get off the state road. The siren song of the pitcher plants lured me on. I had a rental car with good clearance, though only front-wheel drive.

A few miles in, I stopped at a couple of wet areas, but they were more like ponds, and had nothing of interest. I should have paid attention to the obvious signs that four-wheel-drive vehicles had been “playing” in some of these “ponds.” I turned around. As I headed back, I noticed a side road that looked pretty good, plus it went through a bit of water, so maybe there were more wet areas back there.

Now, if anyone has driven on a Forest Service road where four-wheel-drive vehicles go and then has seen water, there should be an immediate flashing sign, “Danger, Will Robinson!” I ignored the flashing sign, turned onto the side road and headed on in—and got stuck up to my hubcaps. This wasn’t good.

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