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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Digital Horizons: In Search Of...

Lesson Two: Don’t drive blindly through dirt road “puddles.”

Even if I could get cell service, how the heck would The Auto Club get back here and find me? I knew I had no choice but to walk back to the main road. Strains of banjo music from Deliverance began to go through my head. I started walking. It was still light, but at this rate, would I get this car out by dark? I had no idea how far I really had to go. An old car came slowly down the road. That made me a little nervous, but it just was loaded heavily with kids. They stopped and were very friendly, felt bad for me, told me the road was only a couple of miles and headed off.

Back to walking. I had too much time to think and wondered if I had been wise leaving my camera gear in the car. Would there be anything left if someone found the car and no one was there? Then, up ahead, a group of four-wheel-drive trucks were coming my way. I was hesitant. Help? Or…?

They turned out to be a bunch of great young men and women out to “play” in the mud and water on the roads. This sort of play was exactly why the water I had gone into was deep and full of mud. The good news was that they had a towing strap! So I hopped in back of one of the trucks (up high with big wheels and lifted suspension). They carefully made their way down the road and stopped at my stuck car.

I think they had three thoughts. One, they felt sorry for me. Two, they thought it was kind of funny that this “tourist” had gotten stuck looking for pitcher plants—“Why, they’re all over, just down the road.” Three, the young men thought this was an interesting challenge.

We all waded in. There was much discussion, especially since no one could find something to attach the towing strip to. Then, success! There was a solid ring for this purpose, but at the front of the car. One of the big trucks slogged through the other side of the water and almost got stuck, too! It was really deep on that side. I was lucky I hadn’t gone over there.

They pulled the car out, but now it was on the wrong side of the hole. We all decided that I could drive on some grass at one side and then dip into the hole at the end where it wasn’t deep and get out. And that worked.

I profusely thanked these gracious people. I still thought that they thought this was a funny situation and a challenge well met. They refused any offer of money.

Lesson Three:
A reminder that good people come in all ages and all locations.

But I missed a digital lesson.

Digital Horizons: In Search Of...
Olympus E-3

Lesson Four: One reason digital is so great for photographers is that there’s no cost to take pictures. I regret that I never took a group portrait of these young people and their trucks.

The next day, I went to the Apalachicola National Forest Service office and talked with the folks there. I found out exactly where the pitcher plants were located, and I bought a national forest map. I had some things to do that day, but the following day, I was up early in search of pitcher plants.

This time, I found them—yellow pitcher plants. They’re truly amazing plants when you see them growing out in the wild. They look like big pipes for a pipe organ, sounding a siren song for insects…and crazy photographers.

The plants look great from below, which is why the Olympus E-3 worked so well for this sort of photography. The tilting, swiveling live LCD lets me see what the lens is seeing and I don’t have to lay on the ground. This is the way of the future for digital SLRs. Canon and Nikon both have live LCDs, but LCD operation is a little clunky, and the screens are anchored to the back of the camera, but it’s a start.

Later, I found a whole bunch of yellow pitcher plants and parrot pitcher plants literally beside the road. Plus, there were dew threads, a kind of sundew, mixed in—a bonanza of carnivorous plants within 100 feet of the road.

And I found more friendly people. A state highway patrol officer pulled up when he saw my car on the shoulder and this strange man kneeling down in the grass next to it. He saw the camera and smiled, telling me he wanted to be sure I was okay.

All in all, it was a good trip. And I got my pitcher plant photos without being too damaged by their siren call.