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COBRA LILY This plant likes to dine on bugs for dinner



Published: Sat, February 26, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Where carnivorous plants quietly wait for their food.

FLORENCE, Ore. (AP) -- Marina Wycoff stopped at the Darlingtonia Wayside knowing only what her AAA booklet told her -- that it would be a nice walk through a bog. She stepped out of her sedan, placed a visor on her head and walked to an information board with her husband.

When Wycoff read about the plants growing in the 18-acre bog, she was surprised.

"We didn't know there were insect-eating plants here," she said.

Darlingtonia Wayside is a preserve for a threatened plant that traps and eats bugs -- the cobra lily.

Oregon is famous for more than 300 miles of scenic coastline where visitors can enjoy stunning basalt rock outcroppings, sea lion caves, cliffs and dunes. Darlingtonia Wayside is not as well-known as the coast's rocky turnouts and vistas, but it is the only state park in Oregon devoted to the protection of one plant -- the Darlingtonia californica, a type of pitcher plant that lives off both photosynthesis and the digestion of insects.

Science fiction photo-ops

The plants typically begin blooming in March, with the exact timing depending on weather conditions, according to Richard Wilde at the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department's Information Center.

The turn off to the park, formally known as Darlingtonia State Natural Site, is just a few miles north of Florence off Highway 101. Here visitors will find a place that is more science fiction than photo-op -- closer to the movie "Alien" than "The Sound of Music." It's a place where carnivorous plants stand quietly, hip-high, waiting for their next meal.

The Wycoffs walked down a wooden-planked trail raised above the protected plants and other flora: skunk cabbages, salal, mosses and wax myrtle.

They halted wide-eyed in front of a 40-square-foot patch of cobra lilies. Bulbous bright-green heads with bruised purplish spots rested on top of twisting hollow vertical leaves -- looking like hundreds of dancing cobras. Dead reddish-brown leaves lay decaying at the base of the plants. Water trickled slowly over the plant's rhizomes in the bog.

Multifaceted lures

The cobra lily uses a variety of devices to lure its meals, including a slight odor. The plants smell worse if the leaves are broken or bruised.

Insects are also attracted to the plant's shape, leaf patterns and colors, said Gail Baker, assistant professor of biology at Lane Community College. An insect is drawn into the interior by a play of light, she said.

"Under the inflated part, it is all transparent, like glass windows, and that confuses the insect once it is in."

Bees, ants, moths and other insects enter under a mustache-shaped hood. When they die and fall to the bottom of the hollow leaf they are "eaten" by a bacteria broth which delivers much-needed nitrogen to the plants. Converting insects into nitrogen helps the plants survive in otherwise hostile terrain.

"The pitcher plants are living in an alkaline environment," said Marti Giles, owner of Wavecrest Discoveries, a Coos Bay ecotourism company. "The nitrogen is essential. There is a lot of organic material here, but it isn't easily broken down."

How it pollinates

The cobra lily grows only in certain parts of California and Oregon. The plant is often sought out by collectors for its odd shape and habit, but Baker said it is difficult to keep alive in homes. The plant's roots must remain cool at all times, bathed by trickling water.

The cobra lily has become a favored subject of local artists and was included in a U.S. postage stamp carnivorous plant series. The plant was collected by William Brackenridge in 1841 during the U.S. Exploring Expedition, but scientists are still learning how the plant thrives and how it pollinates.

"The pollination is really interesting because they aren't really sure how it happens," Baker said.

Habitats like Darlingtonia Wayside are fast disappearing due to changes in water flow caused by commercial development, making the plant's protection even more important, Baker said.

Popular with the kids

Two boys headed down the Darlingtonia Wayside boardwalk with their parents in tow. They were on an extended vacation from Bambridge, Wash., and they had gotten used to seeing one scenic area after another in Oregon.

This one, however, presented a challenge.

The boys stopped short at the plants and held onto a railing. Spider webs draped the plants. Rotting leaves contrasted against living cobra-shaped leaves.

Appreciation took a few minutes.

One of them, Ben Ferguson, may have been thinking of his own stomach and approaching lunchtime when he decided to admire the plants for their resourcefulness.

"Hmm, I think that's a good way to get food," he said.

XDarlingtonia State Natural Site is located on Highway 101, five miles north of Florence. For more information, visit www.oregonstateparks.org or call (800) 551-6949.




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