By DAVID RAINER

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Rays of sunshine filter down through the opening in the canopy to the quarter-acre plot in DeSoto State Park, just what the plants on the ground need to maintain one of the most rare flora species around – the mountain green pitcher plant.

Pitcher plant bogs are quite a spectacular sight in south Alabama, where growing conditions are much more favorable. What makes the pitcher plant bog in DeSoto so

special is where it’s located – on top of Lookout Mountain, where the soil conditions and the sunlight needed for survival are extremely scarce for this endangered species in the pitcher plant family.

Enter Ken Thomas, DeSoto State Park Superintendent, and Brittney Hughes, DeSoto’s Park Naturalist. These two, as well as other staff members at the park, have made the mountain green pitcher plant a priority in terms of protecting the small population in the park and propagating the species to try to establish bogs in suitable habitat in other areas on the mountain.

Thomas said Ron Determann of the Atlanta Botanical Garden provided the needed direction on how to protect and propagate the endangered plant species.

“Now that I’ve met him and talked to him, I consider Ron the North American expert on pitcher plants, carnivorous plants,” Thomas said. “Brittney and I got to travel to the Atlanta Botanical Garden and see his unique operation. He taught us a lot of what we need to be doing in the future. Ron came out to show us how to transplant wild plants and to collect seeds.”

Thomas said he had no idea how long the wild pitcher plant bog has been on the mountain, but it’s always been a part of the park’s history during his 25-year tenure.

“People in the parks system knew of them as long as they can remember,” Thomas said. “This is one of the important reasons why we study and look at these endangered

plants and learn how to assist them in this mountain environment. We’ve learned what they need, and we’re also providing them a safe zone with sunlight. We’re taking out competing species that are taking out nutrients in this low-nutrient environment to begin with. Also, we’re doing this through education and telling people how unique these plants are.

“We’ve got a demonstration bog that is right outside the store. People like and respect them. People ask if we’re scared someone is going to steal them. That’s in the back of our minds, but we’re not going to let that stop us from showing people the plants.”

Because the site of the wild bog is so sensitive and relatively inaccessible, the public is not allowed to visit that site. Hughes said it was important to establish the plants in an area accessible to park visitors.

“After years of fielding questions about them – we have been saying, ‘No, you can’t see them. No, you can’t see them’ – I get tired of the ‘no’ answer,” Hughes said. “With the demonstration bog, people are able to see them, and that usually appeases them.”

Thomas isn’t sure why there are so few green pitcher plants on Lookout Mountain, but he has a pretty good idea.

“Habitat destruction – what do you do with a bog? You drain it,” he said. “This is contrary habitat. They want it to be wet, but you want direct sunlight on it, which you think would dry it out. The narrow habitat that has to occur is a bog on top of a mountain with direct sunlight, with sphagnum moss, certain ferns and certain soil types. It’s a unique habitat that has to occur. Then you have a unique plant that has very unsuccessful seed reproduction. It’s more of propagation from rhizomes, the roots.”

Thomas said propagation by seed has to overcome a series of obstacles to be successful.

“The seed likes to be on top of the ground and needs a period of scarification,” he said. “That’s a period of coldness it has to go through, like oak trees. The seed likes to be on top of the ground, it has to be cold, and it has to be wet during all this. That’s a tough combination.

“Propagation from seed takes a special blend of peat and sand. I throw them in the refrigerator for six weeks. We take them out and cross our fingers.”

In the first attempt, almost every seed germinated, so Thomas and Hughes were placing baby pitcher plants in every nook and cranny they could find.

“We have to keep the young plants for three years before we can put them out in the wild,” Thomas said. “We took our healthy stock of about 36 plants to put in rotation. I ended up with 70 plants left over. I didn’t know what I was going to do with all these plants. With our Boy Scouts, we went out and planted all these one-year-old plants in what we call the Neverland bog on Forever Wild property. I don’t expect a lot to survive. When I went to check on them, I think the deer had been eating them. Out of the 70 seedlings, if 10 survive, I’ll be happy.

“We’re also working with (nearby) Comer Boy Scout Reservation. Historically, green pitcher plants were there, so we’re trying to restore them there. And Brittney has some

in a pot that she can take with her to show people. There’s also the West Fork (Little River) site that is an out-of-the-ordinary site. It has eight or nine plants there. It’s on the side of the river. It floods every year, so it’s called a roving population because it can move every year.”

Hughes said the propagation project has garnered the attention of park visitors and nature lovers.

“People don’t know what the plants are,” she said. “I introduce them to the plants and talk about the ecology, and they’re fascinated that we’re actually growing the plants. I could talk about green pitcher plants all day, but unless they’ve seen them, they don’t know what I’m talking about. They’ve seen all the pitcher plants down in south Alabama. I have to explain that our pitcher plants are unique. Those down south are fantastic. I think there are seven species of pitcher plants in Alabama. This is the only one above the fall line. There are rare ones down there, too, like the Alabama canebrake pitcher plant.

“But what makes ours special is it’s on a mountain, and it’s the only one in north Alabama.”

Thomas and Hughes said the next big effort, which may become a reality through a new group called Friends of DeSoto State Park, is the acquisition of a greenhouse to help grow the pitcher plants.

“Our plan is to continue the rotation of collecting genetic stock and to continue germination,” Thomas said. “We would love to get a greenhouse, because we’ve run out of room. These seedlings are at our houses, in our offices.

“The thing is, Brittney and I want this mountain green pitcher plant population to be important 50 years from now.”

PHOTOS: (David Rainer) The mountain green pitcher plant is one of three species of pitcher plants listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The species survives on Lookout Mountain in northeast Alabama with a colony of plants located in DeSoto State Park. The carnivorous plant lures insects inside its bell, where hair-like spikes prevent the insect’s escape. DeSoto State Park Superintendent Ken Thomas and Park Naturalist Brittney Hughes have built a demonstration site near the park store to give visitors a look at the rare plant.

###