Native Carnivorous Plant Spreading In River Bend Conservation Parcel

Sundew plants trap insects with their red sticky hairs. The plant dispatches enzymes to dissolve the insect, and then extracts ammonia and other nutrients from the body.ELIZABETH W. SAITO/ENTERPRISE - Sundew plants trap insects with their red sticky hairs. The plant dispatches enzymes to dissolve the insect, and then extracts ammonia and other nutrients from the body.

A native carnivorous plant is growing in greater numbers this year in the River Bend conservation parcel off Sandwich Road.

The broad-leafed sundew traps insects with a sticky “dew” on the tips of its leaf hairs; the leaf then slowly closes around the insect as it is digested.

Sundews grow in boggy, nutrient-poor environments. “So [eating insects] is how they get extra nutrients,” Alexander B. Etkind, The 300 Committee’s land steward, said Tuesday morning as he bent down to inspect new specimens of the plant growing alongside a wetland bridge in the River Bend parcel.

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Though small and easily overlooked, sundews are visually striking. Their three- to five-centimeter round leaves are covered in long red hairs that glisten with a clear gluey mucilage.

A large insect that looked like a female mosquito had just landed on a leaf and gotten stuck. Mr. Etkind watched as it struggled to free its long, delicate legs from the plant’s liquid grasp—to no avail.

River Bend is a 10-acre conservation parcel along the Coonamessett River. A large portion of the property contains an abandoned cranberry bog, now overgrown with red maple and sweet pepper bush. Sundews need a lot of light, so they tend to grow along the open paths on the property, “Which is tricky from a management perspective,” Mr. Etkind said, because the plants get trampled.

To address this, in the fall of 2012, Mr. Etkind built a wetland bridge across a marshy part of the public path. The bridge “isn’t just to keep people’s feet dry, it’s also to protect plants from people’s feet,” Mr. Etkind said.

When a path is soggy, Mr. Etkind explained, people walk on the high dry ground on one side, concentrating all the foot traffic in one area and killing all the plants there. Then, walking erodes the high ground; that area of the path becomes wet, and people switch to walking and trampling along a different route. Foot traffic thus impacts a wide area. Building a bridge creates its own share of disruption, but it has the benefit of concentrating foot traffic in one place, Mr. Etkind said. “This way sundews can thrive on either side,” Mr. Etkind said.

When building the bridge two years ago, Mr. Etkind removed a large piece of sod from under the bridge that had a couple of sundew plants growing on it. He placed the chunk of earth next to the bridge. Two years later the sod is now covered in the plants.

Mr. Etkind said there are “a lot more” sundews in the area now than before the bridge. He was reluctant to declare the greater numbers a comeback. “It’s hard to proclaim a trend from just a couple years, but it definitely looks that way,” he said.

Sundews are a locally abundant but globally rare species, Mr. Etkind said. According to the New England Wildflower Society’s website, the sticky substance the sundew traps insects with “contains naturally occurring nano-compounds with potential applications for tissue engineering and the development of new adhesives.” And that the round leafed sundew has “the highest concentration of vitamin C in its leaves of any known plant.”

Yesterday was Mr. Etkind’s last day as The 300 Committee’s stewardship coordinator. He is leaving to pursue a full-time master’s degree program in sustainability and environmental management at Harvard Extension School. He will be moving to Hull to be near his family and girlfriend and will commute to Boston by ferry. 

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