Heart of Louisiana: Flesh eating plants

There are a couple of nature preserves in St. Tammany Parish where the plants need more than sunshine and water to survive.  There are a variety of carnivorous, insect-eating plants that thrive in the long leaf pine savannas of the North Shore.

"It's a beautiful habitat, but if you look close there's lots of diabolical things going on out there," said Newlyn McInnis of the Nature Conservancy.

This long leaf pine savanna is an area characterized by pines with their sphere-shaped clusters of long needles and large cones that stand tall above grassland.

"These savannas host more rare species than any habitat in Louisiana.  In fact the long leaf pine savannas have some of the highest diversity of plant species of any habitat in North America."

McInnis manages two long leaf pine savannas in St. Tammany, the Lake Ramsay and the Abita Creek Flatwoods Preserves.

"This is the pale grass pink orchids."

Here, nature should be observed and enjoyed up close.  Because mixed in with the tall grasses and wild flowers are several types of carnivorous plants.

"Normally it's bugs that eat plants.  But here the tables are turned and the plants are eating the bugs."

The most noticeable of the bug-eating plants is the yellow pitcher plant.   It features a tube with a lid that keeps out the rainwater but it allows insects to crawl in.

"The insect will fly or crawl up to get that nectar on the lip of the pitcher and invariably then they peer inside and see this wonderful treasure trove of lots of nectar down in the bottom of the pitchar. So they start to crawl down, head first."

But the bugs tumble into a fluid that stuns and drowns them.  And slowly over days and weeks, the dead insects nourish the plants.

McInnis points to an open plant.  "Oh yeah, this has been a hungry one. It's full of, looks like ant body parts. So there's been a lot of death and destruction going on here."

There's also a plant called the parrot pitcher, where bugs are lured inside a small hole in the beak-like end of the plant.  And tucked away beneath the grass you find the tiny sun dew plant.

"The insect will be attracted to the dew like drops, will fly and land or will crawl onto the leaf surface and will just start getting stuck.  And the more they fight it the more the hairs get all tangled around it.  And it sends a message to the leaf to actually curl up," McInnis said as she pointed to the curled up leaf.

To keep these pine savannas healthy they have to be set on fire every two to three years to clear out the underbrush.   This area was burned just a few months ago, and already it's lush and green and bursting with new life.

"It knocks back the shrubs, it releases fertilizers, the ash to the soil.   It's just like hitting the refresh button on your computer."

And visiting one of these protected sites, and getting a glimpse of their natural beauty and unusual carnivorous plants is like hitting your own refresh button. 

The Nature Conservancy's Lake Ramsay preserve is located just north of Covington.  The Abita Creek Preserve is a few miles north of the town of Abita Springs.  Both feature hiking trails.