Fly Trap Brothers of Green Swamp : North Carolina Duo Specializes in Carnivorous Plants

Times Staff Writer

The two brothers gingerly made their way through the forest of moss-covered trees and dense underbrush, shrubs and wild plants, ever alert for rattlesnakes, water moccasins, copperheads, alligators and patches of squishy marsh.

They were covered with ticks, which they kept brushing off, buzzed by testy flies and mosquitoes. An alligator suddenly surfaced nearby, then disappeared just as quickly in the murky swamp.

But Stanley (Fly Trap) Rehder, 63, and his brother, Henry, 74, didn't mind. They enjoy the hostile environment.

They get out in it as often as they can as they have ever since they were small boys taken into the woods and swamps of North Carolina by their father.

Stanley comes by his nickname because he is a leading authority on the Venus's-fly trap, a plant British naturalist Charles Darwin described as the most unusual he had ever encountered anywhere in his global travels.

The only place Venus's-fly traps grow is on the edge of swamps within a radius of 100 miles of Wilmington, N. C.

The younger Rehder brother believes he has the only personalized license plate in the country that says FLY TRAP. "I don't know why anyone else would want it," laughed his brother Henry.

Henry is widely known by botanists for his work with pitcher plants, a carnivorous plant of the family sarraceniaceae. One of the insect-eating plants he discovered and identified carries his name-- Sarracenia rehderi.

There are five families of carnivorous plants, so called because the plants trap and digest not only insects but small animals like frogs and lizards as well.

In addition to Venus's-fly trap and pitcher, the other carnivorous plants are sundews, butterworts and bladderworts.

The widest selection of these rare and unusual plants found anywhere in America is in the back-country swamps of Wilmington, N. C. where all five varieties grow profusely.

'Man-Eating Plants'

"Science writers have written many stories over the years about man-eating plants in places like the Philippines killing and swallowing humans. Not true," Stanley said.

"But my father took a picture of a Venus's-fly trap in the Green Swamp eating a frog that appeared in Life magazine years ago. And that was true," Henry added.

Green Swamp, located 20 miles west of Wilmington, is one of numerous swamps in southern North Carolina and northern South Carolina where these strange plants thrive. The 14,000-acre Green Swamp is protected as a black bear and carnivorous plant sanctuary.

Venus's-fly traps harvested on the edge of the swamps are sold throughout the world. "You can buy them in stores all across America," Stanley said. "It's really a shame. There's a danger of overharvesting fly traps. They were on the endangered species list until 1979."

He is urging the North Carolina legislature to get the fly traps back on the endangered species list. There is some element in the local soil essential for the growth of the plants and, so far, it has been impossible to transplant them.

One essential ingredient to keep the plants alive is a type of local moss called Sphagnum, said Stanley. When he goes into the swamps to locate and study the Venus's-fly traps in their native habitat he looks for Sphagnum, a type of local moss. When he finds the moss he knows fly traps will be in the area.

"One rather exotic explanation as to why fly traps are found here and nowhere else," observed Stanley, "is that millions of years ago this part of the country was hit by a meteorite shower. Some believe the plants originated in outer space. After all, they are named after a planet."

He is working with a group of German scientists who have spent the past six years studying enzymes utilized by Venus's-fly traps to digest insects. The Germans have been injecting the enzymes into guinea pigs with cancer trying to determine if the material from Venus's-fly traps can affect cancer.

Garden of Venus's-Fly Traps

Stanley Rehder led his brother to a lush garden of Venus's-fly traps. The fly trap wizard spotted them from a distance. In June the plants blossom with a cluster of small white flowers at the tip of an erect stem eight to 12 inches tall.

Each leaf on the fly trap has two jaw-like lobes hinged along a midline. The top of the lobes are covered with teeth that mesh when closed. On each lobe are three super-sensitive hairs. When two of the hairs are brushed by a moving insect zap, the leaf snaps, trapping its prey.

For 24 to 36 hours the glands on the leaf secrete red sap that digests the protein out of the insect's body. After this lengthy process, the two lobes open again waiting for the next meal.

After viewing the garden of thousands of fly traps on the edge of the swamp the two men moved on, ducking beneath low-hanging limbs, avoiding the muddy marsh, watching for venomous snakes.

Within minutes they came upon hundreds of hollow tubular leaves shaped like trumpets growing out of the swamp. These were pitcher plants, revered and studied for 65 years by Henry Rehder.

"Smell them," Henry instructed. "Detect the sweet aroma? Note the bright colors. The aroma and color is designed to attract nectar-seeking insects. Once inside the mouth of the pitcher plant the insects plunge into the throat which contains thousands of tiny hairs all pointed downward.

"The insects struggle for freedom, but there is no escape. And at the bottom is a well of liquid substance, a mixture of digestive enzymes and rainwater where protein from the insects is consumed."

He ripped open the bottom of one of the pitcher plants revealing ants, flies, mosquitoes and spiders, a gourmet treat for the meat-eating plant.

450 Different Species

The brothers Rehder said there are 450 different species of carnivorous plants growing in various parts of the world. One of the pitcher plants, darling tonia californica cobra , grows in Northern California. It has the appearance of a cobra about to strike because a part of the plant protrudes from its mouth giving the uncanny impression of a snake's tongue.

Henry Rehder operates the 125-year-old Will Rehder Florist in Wilmington, North Carolina's oldest florist, founded by the brothers' great grandmother, Johanna Rehder, in 1860. She lived near a cemetery and started selling flowers to people going to the graveyard. Their father, Will Rehder, spent his lifetime studying the strange plants growing in or near the local swamps, a tradition carried on by both sons.

They give lectures to horticultural societies, to universities and numerous other groups and work closely with scientists.

Stanley Rehder was a partner in the family business for 30 years. Now he is a Wilmington, N.C., realtor specializing in commercial property. He was one of 800 survivors on the troop transport Leopoldville carrying American soldiers from England to France on Christmas Eve, 1944. Half the troops aboard drowned when the ship was sunk by a Nazi sub.

Henry is famous in Wilmington for his homemade pickled figs as well as for his work with pitcher plants. Both brothers have several children and grandchildren.

They will drop whatever they are doing for any opportunity to visit the Green Swamp or anywhere else in the Wilmington area to spend time with their beloved insect-eating plants.

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