Saving the South

Plants get hungry, too. Sometimes it just gets really hot down here in Georgia and if there isn’t enough food in the house, the White Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia leucophylla) lures unsuspecting insect guests into its backyard pool and shoves them in, drowning them and then digesting them in slow motion. Nature can be cruel, but fascinating, too—how on occasion, the food chain gets reversed and the plants eat the animals. The White Pitcher plant is outrageously cool, and beautiful, too—and had I not visited the Atlanta Botanical Garden, I may never have known that such a plant exists. Native to the gulf coast and southeastern United States, the White Pitcher Plant is now rather endangered. Just how is it that a carnivorous plant is now threatened with extinction?

The Atlanta Botanical Garden is one of the best public gardens in the country. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)
The Atlanta Botanical Garden is one of the best public gardens in the country. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)

“Habitat loss is the main culprit,” explained ABG volunteer Charlotte Miller. “They’ve been overharvesting the bald cypress trees which destroys the bogs where the pitcher plants live.” The swamp trees provide protection against coastal erosion, so once they’re cut down, the natural bogs either dry up or get swept away. Like everything in nature, there is a balance that once disrupted, can follow with a domino-effect of destruction. Though trees are far more tangible than low-lying water plants, Charlotte explained just how important they are to the swamp ecosystem. “Though its name is ‘white’, the white part you see are actually leaf adaptations—the flower is red. When the bogs become low in nutrients, the plants attract flies and other insects with the smell,” said Charlotte. The natural pools inside the pitcher plants are made up of rainwater and enzymes.

White pitcher plants grow in the conservation gardens of the Atlanta Botanical Gardens. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)
White pitcher plants grow in the conservation gardens of the Atlanta Botanical Gardens. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)

“The smell lures in the bugs and they slip into the pool. They can’t crawl out due to the downwards-pointing hairs. It’s amazing!” Charlotte gleamed with excitement while describing nature’s little horror film to me. “If you go in the winter, you can open up the dead plants and see the dried-up carcasses inside, collected over the summer season.” I was amazed at how much Charlotte knew about this one plant—even though she was walking around the other side of the gardens, far away from beds of white pitcher plants that are kept as part of local conservation efforts. Like the aquarium and the zoo, the Atlanta Botanical Garden are phenomenal to visit, but also actively involved in preserving some of the rarest species on Earth. I spent hours perusing their conservation garden, amazed at how many native and southern plants they were growing in an effort to not lose them.

(Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)
(Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)

Because that is exactly how things get lost—one leaf at a time. We sacrifice an acre of wetlands for a beach house on the coast, but we lose everything attached to it, and pretty soon, another ten houses have popped up and a very cool and irreplaceable plant is gone forever. As I travel across the South, I hear so much about preserving the old ways and the traditions of bygone eras. I see the attention paid to authentic food recipes and music styles and visual art, I see how tenderly the graves of Confederate veterans are cared for, but somehow, sadly, the plants of the South are not part of this preservation agenda. Only here in Atlanta, in a patch of ground that lies in the shadow of some of the tallest buildings in the South, next to the busy highways of people with places to go and things to do, can we witness one of the great treasures of this state. The White Pitcher Plant, in all of its natural glory, is one-of-a-kind. If it disappears, a piece of the South will be gone forever. And so I’m glad to have visited, because if anyone is saving the South, it’s the Atlanta Botanical Gardens.

The city of Atlanta, as seen from the conservation beds at the botanical garden. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)
The city of Atlanta, as seen from the conservation beds at the botanical garden. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)

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