Parish pitches in to save pitcher plants

Published October 8, 2006

NEW ORLEANS - With bulldozers threatening small carnivores north of New Orleans, volunteers headed to the rescue Saturday.

There wasn't any chance that the targets might escape. The Nature Conservancy and nine volunteers from as far as Baton Rouge, 60 miles away, were out to rescue yellow pitcher plants, pencil-thin tube-shaped plants that use wax and slick liquid to trap the flies, wasps and bees they digest.

The plants are threatened by a population boom in St. Tammany Parish and the disappearance of the woodlands they naturally grow in.

The parish was growing rapidly even before Hurricane Katrina, as its high ground and 850 square miles offered a spacious alternative to New Orleans' more crowded 250 square miles.

In the year since the storm, the parish's population has grown from 220,000 to about 260,000, exceeding its five-year growth estimate in one year. And with the population boom came a need for more housing and more development.

"Although it is good for the economy, it breaks my heart to see acres of pitcher plants being lost when they could be saved in advance of development and planted in conservation areas or used for educational purposes," said Nelwyn McInnis, head of the Nature Conservancy's northshore field office and project manager for Louisiana and Mississippi.

The plants are further threatened in Louisiana by the disappearance of their habitat. The plants grow only in savannas and hillside seepage bogs in the longleaf pine ecosystem. These forests, which once covered 90-million acres of the Southeast, now cover only 3 percent of their original acreage.

On Saturday, volunteers dug up 2,000 of the plants in a half-mile strip of land, McInnis said.

Jim Mizell, who owns the Mizell Farms Nursery, said he would pot the plants and care for them through the winter so they could be replanted in safer areas in late winter or spring.

"We want to give out some of these plants to Scout groups, biology teachers, people who can teach the ecology of the habitat and this very unusual plant," Mizell said.