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From Methane to Flytraps

New Venus flytrap lab will be powered from old landfill

Story Highlights
  • A new lab at Southeastern Community College will greatly increase the number of Venus flytraps that can be propagated.
  • Flytraps grown in the new lab are a legal alternative to poached flytraps.
  • Thanks to a grant from the NC Energy Office, wells were installed in a landfill; methane from the landfill powers a boiler that heats the greenhouse.

Becky Westbrooks is looking forward to her new propagation lab; Venus flytraps grown in the lab will be sold to nurseries and replanted in the wild.

North Carolina is the only state to have an official carnivorous plant. In 2005, the General Assembly added the flytrap to its list of official state symbols – joining more common symbols such as the state flower, which is the dogwood.

Becky Westbrooks is determined to do right by the state’s carnivorous plant, whose habitat is confined to southeast North Carolina and a tiny sliver of northeast South Carolina.

“When I moved to the area 26 years ago, I recognized that we had to do something to encourage this plant,” she says. Westbrooks, who is chair of Southeastern Community College’s Natural and Social Science Department, loves carnivorous plants such as the flytrap. She admits that she once took a two day trip to California just to see the California pitcher plant.

Boosting flytrap not a new thing for Westbrooks

She has devoted much of her career to boosting the flytrap. She runs a state-of-the-art Venus flytrap micro propagation lab at the college. Instead of relying on seeds, micro propagation uses cells from one plant to create thousands of Venus flytraps. “You plant a seed, you get a plant,” Westbrooks explains. “With micro propagation, you get exponentially many plants.”  Westbrooks’ program has cloned and sold more than a million of the plants since 2006.

Westbrooks sees these flytraps as a legal alternative to poached flytraps. So does Dan Ryan, project director of the Conservancy’s Southeast Coastal Plain office. “The state’s natural heritage program has tagged three or four major populations of flytraps and the Green Swamp was one of them,” he says. “Come spring time, we have a lot of poaching issues. We don’t know the extent of the problem, because we are only aware of it when they are caught – often with lots and lots of plants.”

Ryan says poaching occurs because the plants are so difficult to grow. “It is hard to propagate them in a normal setting. They are extremely difficult to propagate from seed. There’s a market for them, the sellers find it much easier to pluck the plant out of the ground rather than grow it themselves.  

Last January, officers with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission caught poachers red-handed in the Green Swamp with several hundred plants. But, it is likely that only a few poachers get caught.

Visitors to the Conservancy’s preserves where flytraps grow can sometimes see hundreds of little divots, where the tiny plants once grew. Photographer Skip Pudney took the picture that accompanies this article last spring. When he revisited the site a few days later, the little flytrap village had been destroyed.

Grant funds growth

Westbrooks also views the micro propagation of flytraps and other native plants as economic development for Columbus County, which consistently has a high unemployment rate and low household income rate.

In her time at Southeastern Community College, her lab has grown from a closet to a state of the art campus facility. “But, the greenhouse on campus was bursting at the seams,” she says.

Westbrooks is moving to a huge greenhouse, thanks to Cape Fear Resource Conservation and Development, Incorporated (Cape Fear RC&D), whose mission is to improve social, economic and environmental conditions in Columbus and four adjoining counties. Cape Fear RC&D received a grant from the NC Energy Office, which allowed it to install wells to capture methane at the closed Columbus County Landfill. The methane fuels a boiler, which heats the greenhouse.

The project is a win for everyone. Westbrooks gets room to grow. Greenhouse gases, which had been vented to the atmosphere to reduce the likelihood of explosion at the capped landfill, are being destroyed and the whole project is self-sustaining, because Brunswick Electric is buying the energy produced on site.

Turning profit at a closed landfill is an exciting concept for many. “When I first heard that there was some profit in the landfill after you bury the trash, I thought that nothing was impossible,” explains Columbus County Commission Chair Amos McKenzie explains.

Cape Fear RC&D held an open house at the site this fall. “I’m really out of the closet now,” Westbrooks exclaimed with a laugh as she stood in the middle of the new greenhouse.

But, she isn’t stopping now. Her flytrap quest continues. She is gearing up for a campaign with local garden clubs to encourage the legislature to provide further protection for Venus flytraps and she is looking for someone to fund “Get trapped in Science,” a toolkit for 4th and 8th graders that uses the flytrap to get kids excited about science. “Everybody loves flytraps,” she explains.

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