Natural Perspective — A walk in the fen

Summer is arriving and it’s time for travel and outdoor adventures. While some folks head to far-flung destinations in search of exotic surroundings, there is a place much closer to home that offers something of a tropical vibe: the Darlingtonia State Natural Site just north of Florence.

Saturated with slightly acidic groundwater, the boggy site is properly known as a fen. The highlight of this unusual habitat is its population of Darlingtonia californica pitcher plants, also called “cobra lilies” thanks to their snake-like shape.

Although they may look more at home in a jungle than along Highway 101, they are native to our area. In fact, Darlingtonia is only found in northern California and southwestern Oregon.

Like other pitcher plants, Darlingtonia is carnivorous.

Digesting insects gives the plants a crucial nitrogen source within the otherwise nitrogen-poor environment of the fen.

The pitcher, which can be over 3 feet tall, is actually a leaf modified into a tubular structure with a curved hood hiding an opening at the top. Attracted by nectar, unsuspecting insects enter the pitcher, but many find it impossible to exit.

Translucent window-like patches on the upper part of the pitcher confuse insects and obscure the only real exit. Insects trying to land for a rest, find they cannot get traction on the pitcher’s waxy interior and slip into its base where downward-pointing hairs further impede their crawling out.

Eventually, the insects’ day goes from bad to worse as they fall into a pool of watery fluid that lies at the bottom of the pitcher. There, they are digested. While many carnivorous plants use digestive enzymes, Darlingtonia primarily relies on microbes within the fluid to take care of prey digestion.

Despite being a house of horrors for many insects, Darlingtonia’s pitcher is not a death trap for all who enter.

There are, for instance, species of mites and fly larvae that live inside the pitcher and feed on the decaying remains of the less fortunate insects.

So, should you fancy a tropical feel without the hassle of long-distance travel, drive up the highway and take a walk through the fen.

June is a good time to visit as the Darlingtonia are in bloom with purple and yellow flowers standing on tall stalks among the pitchers.

This site may not be such a fun destination for insects, but, for us, a visit showcases the unique plants that can be found right here on the coast.


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