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Carnivorous, Rare & Wild
Published: 02/22/2013
The "hoods" of the Cobra Lily sit atop the 10-inch to 20-inch hollow tubes that serve as the plant
The "hoods" of the Cobra Lily sit atop the 10-inch to 20-inch hollow tubes that serve as the plant's digestive tract.
Photo by Gary Hayes

Visit the Darlingtonia Wayside near Florence and discover the strange and mysterious, carnivorous Cobra Lily.

There's the kind of wayside attraction that a driver passes by while completely deaf to the family's pitiful pleas to stop. And there's the kind of attraction that kids think is just for adults, that adults think is just for kids, or that everyone thinks, usually correctly, isn't really for anybody.

Then there's the Darlingtonia Wayside on Highway 101 five miles north of Florence, a preserve for the rare, carnivorous Darlingtonia Californica, or Cobra Lily. So beautiful and weird is this insect-eating native of southwest Oregon and northern California that even the hardened skeptic will walk the park's boardwalk trail twice to absorb the feel of the place.

The Cobra Lily's alien appearance and intricate process for breaking down prey are remarkable. But the Charles Darwin award goes to the plant's chillingly effective use of mimicry, which includes translucent patches that a captured insect mistakes for exits. The prey struggles toward these fake "doors," becomes exhausted, and finally ends up at the bottom of the funnel-like interior.

An odd mystery about the Cobra Lily is that all of the specimens in a given location face the same direction, and that direction is usually, but not always southeast. Carnivorous Plant Society members say they don't know for sure why this is. (For a clever way to check what direction the preserve's cobra lilies face, and impress your companions at the same time, go to the end of this article.)

As you explore the 18-acre preserve or have lunch at the park's picnic tables, try stumping your friends or family by asking why the plants in this specific spot are carnivores while the various species in the surrounding area are not. The reason, botanists say, is that 'carnivory' provides nitrogen, phosphorus, and other trace elements to the Cobra Lily when these are lacking in the environment. Although Darlingtonia's boggy environment looks like it is nutrient-rich, the appearance is deceiving.

The question that naturally arises is why a particular plant species evolved to dwell in an inhospitable environment rather than in a less difficult location. The answer lies at least partly in the high number of competing plants and animals in rich habitat compared to the low number in poor habitat. Strange as it sounds, a challenging living space can conceivably be better than a comfortable one if you think about the issue in this way.

Before leaving the mysterious Darlingtonia, you'll find yourself gazing one more time at the gracefully curving hoods and swampy footing of the plants, perhaps with a little plant-directed admiration. It's a funny thing to say, but doesn't it seem that a tenacious scrapper like the Cobra Lily sometimes has the most compelling life story?

Visiting the Darlingtonia Wayside
The preserve is located on the east side of Highway 101 five miles north of Oregon's central coast town of Florence. It covers eighteen acres and includes trails, boardwalk, picnic area, parking, and rest rooms. There is no fee. The park is open year-round.

Finding What Direction the Darlingtonia Face
To tell what direction the preserve's Darlingtonia face without using a compass, hold an analog watch (with hands) horizontally in front of you with 12:00 lined up with the sun. The north-south line will run half-way between 12:00 and the current time on the watch. If you're unsure which end of the north-south line points north and which end points south, remember that the sun is in the east before noon and in the west after noon. You now know all four directions and can announce which way the cobra lilies face. - By Barbara Lee

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