Sundews of North Carolina

(Drosera L.)

Sundews are a fascinating little plant that uses a flypaper type of trap. There are five species, with four found in the Coastal Plain and lower Piedmont, and one found in the Mountains. The tiny leaves have small hairs with glands on the ends of them that secrete a sticky substance which shines in the morning sun, giving it the look of dew. In many places in the Southeast there can be carpets of these plants which make the ground sparkle in the sun. These hairs with their glands trap insects in the sticky "goo", and then proceed to digest them; in many cases the hairs actually move to put more of the glands in contact with the prey.

All these plants, with the lone exception of the extremely rare Threadleaf Sundew, are tiny, limiting their prey to small insects such as gnats. It is not unusual to see each pad of a Pink Sundew with  a tiny insect lodged in the middle, and all the hairs of each pad converging on the unfortunate creature.

The species are:

Roundleaf Sundew, Drosera rotundifolia L. This little plant is found in the Mountains of Western North Carolina, mostly around stream margins and along rock outcroppings which are wet all the time and have a good growth of Sphagnum. They are not anywhere very common, and are easily overlooked, as the tiny rosettes of leaves ( a rosette is an arrangement of leaves where they come out from a central point, making them look sort of like a Rose - if you have a good imagination) are rarely as big as a nickel, and are quite often the size of a dime. The flowers come out around May on a little stalk that sort of uncurls like a fern leaf. At the topmost point of the curl is a tiny pink or white flower. This is a good photograph of the leaves (Copyright USDA, NRCS, 1997. Taken from USDA PLANTS).

This plant profile can be seen at The USDA profile is at USDA Plants, where you can also see a good picture of the flowers.

This cute little plant can be found over much of the Mountain region above 3500 feet, though it is not in any way common. It is, however, quite common to the North and West of here, being very common in Alaska and much of Canada.

Pink Sundew, Drosera capillaris Poir. This is probably the most common  carnivorous plant in the Coastal Plain; you can find it around most any ditch, pond, slough, bog, savannah or other wetland where there is little or no intrusion of salt from the ocean. It can also get rather big for Sundews; I have seen plants in Georgia with a rosette as big as a US 50 cent piece, and the leaf pads were as big as my little fingernail. They will also carpet the ground in wet areas of a power line right-of-way, and while the tiny pink flowers are not as large and showy as some others of the genus, they are beautiful nonetheless.

Photo courtesy of Carl Mazur, all rights reserved. Green Swamp NC.

You can see some tiny insects trapped on the sticky hairs of this plant. This is the typical rosette form of growth of most of the genus.

They are extremely common, and though people occasionally collect them, you are better off getting them from a reputable nursery; plants taken from the wild can have diseases which they are able to handle there, but will quickly kill them in cultivation.

Spoonleaf Sundew, Drosera intermedia Hayne A lover of wetter sites than the others, this one can be found covered in water after a good rain. It can be found in drainage ditches, pond margins, and I have even seen it in wheel ruts in the Green Swamp in NC, and the Francis Marion National Park in South Carolina. The leaf pads are about the same size as others, but the leaf petioles ("stems") are much longer, giving the plant a bushier look, and making the whole rosette as large sometimes as a child's fist. The main stem also elongates when the plant grows in the summer, making it 6 inches tall sometimes, where the Pink Sundew is always hugging the ground. This lifts it above the water level, allowing it to catch insects without interference from the water it so loves.

Photo courtesy of Carl Mazur, all rights reserved. This is a photo of both Pink Sundew (on the left) and Spoonleaf (on the right) Here you can see the legginess of the Spoonleaf, and a hint of the stem elongation.

Another difference is the flower stalk; it comes out of the side of the plant, instead of coming out of the center of the rosette. It looks like the stalk grows downward, then turns back up. The flowers are tiny, either white or pink, usually white.

Threadleaf Sundew, Drosera filiformis Raf. This one is impressive when seen. The leaves are quite long, almost a foot long, and are slender and threadlike, making this species different from our other native Sundews. It also likes bogs and wetlands, but is very uncommon in North Carolina, being found only in the Southeastern corner of the state. The flowers are raised above the leaves, and are a lovely pink, and are quite large, over 1/2 inch across. The leaves are almost furry looking, with lots of shiny hairs, and are probably able to catch and digest somewhat larger insects than our other species.

The USDA site at PLANTS has some excellent photos, and some good information.

Photo courtesy Carl Mazur, all rights reserved.

Dwarf Sundew, Drosera brevifolia Pursh. This is our tiniest Sundew, and there is some argument over whether they are perennial or not; Schnell says that they will die off in colder areas and sprout back from seed, but in warmer areas they will overwinter. The whole rosett of these plants is extremely tiny, sometimes being as small as the eraser on the end of a lead pencil. Even at this size they can bloom, and the individual flowers seem to be as large as the whole rosette!

Photo courtesy Carl Mazur, all rights reserved.

This photo of plants raised in a nursery shows just how big the flowers can be. Another thing that makes them unique amongst our Sundews is that the flowering scapes ("stems") are also hairy, and seem to catch insects. These plants were grown from seed collected in Hampstead NC.

Though they may not be terribly common in NC (I have seen them in the Green Swamp), they are found throughout the Southeast; I have seen them on the grounds of a conference center where I was working in Georgia where they carpeted the ground, and when they bloomed it was like a pink haze about 3 inches above the ground. The plants are so tiny they can easily go unnoticed; I really wasn't aware there were so many (I knew they were there; I had looked for them, just not that extensively) until they bloomed. Even after they bloomed, I had to look hard for the sparkle of the leaves beneath the grass in the morning sun

Copyright 2003, The Appalachian Naturalist