Visitors to historic Wilmington, N.C., on the Cape Fear River might notice a curious greeter on the scenic waterfront: a giant Venus flytrap. A sculpture of the carnivorous plant soars 15 feet above the foot of Market Street, with two giant translucent-green glass pods, prehistoric-looking teeth protruding ominously, perched atop sinuous metal stems.
The quirky art installation by sculptor Paul Hill is a surprisingly fitting emblem of Wilmington. The peculiar plant is indigenous to the area: The environs around the city and similar subtropical wetlands in South Carolina the only places in the world where the Venus flytrap grows naturally.
Officially known as Dionaea muscipula, the Venus flytrap catapulted to fame in the 1980s with the popularity of the Off-Broadway musical and subsequent film Little Shop of Horrors, in which a giant Dionaea named Audrey develops an appetite for human blood, with results both tragic and comic.
The plant certainly looks ominous, with pods that resemble a bear trap. Two leafy "jaws" make up the trap pod, with green "teeth" that look like a botanical crocodile. Unsuspecting insects land on an open pod, triggering sensory hairs on the surface that cause the pod to close. The "teeth" keep the insect trapped while the plant secretes digestive enzymes. Once its prey is fully digested, the pod reopens, ready for the next clueless bug to buzz on over.
There are several places in the Wilmington region where Dionaea can be observed in its natural habitat. Armed with protective clothing and telephoto lenses, we set off on a Venus flytrap safari, determined to observe this carnivorous botanical gobbling away.
The Bluethenthal Wildflower Preserve lies in the middle of the University of North Carolina's Wilmington campus. The 10-acre wooded area was set aside to protect native plants of the region. Nestled among the mile or so of wooded trails is an insectivorous garden, where we discovered the stunning truth: The Venus flytrap is tiny.
The entire plant is about the size of a human hand, and those voracious pods are about as large as a thumbnail. Had there not been an area where they were specifically labeled, we would have missed them entirely. Regardless of size, they are a fascinating plant to observe, as we saw several pods in various stages of opening and, um, digesting.
Now aware of how to identify them, we sought them out at several other spots in greater Wilmington. The regional tourism board provides a brochure listing locations where the Venus flytrap grows naturally. Most of the locations are in parks or nature preserves with free admission.
Our favorite was the wonderfully named Stanley Rehder Carnivorous Plant Garden. The three-quarter-acre patch is tucked at the edge of a neighborhood behind an elementary school and is part of the larger Piney Ridge Nature Preserve. Along a handicap-accessible path, visitors can spy bright yellow and burgundy sundews and pitcher plants - which also devour insects. The Venus flytraps were demurely tucked beneath these showier varieties, reddish-green jaws open, patiently waiting for a multilegged visitor.