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Charlene, a purple pitcher plant, at home in Cowles Bog before her disappearance in 2012

Mystery of the bog: Indiana Dunes and the case of the carnivorous plant-napping

by Julie Davis
June 11, 2013


Data from U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service report "Status and Trends of Wetlands in the Conterminous United States 2004 to 2009"

Estimated annual loss of freshwater wetlands from 1974-2009

Charlene has been missing since June 2012. Friends say they've haven't heard anything about her since then.  They feel her absence keenly because Charlene is special – a very special plant.

Charlene is a pitcher plant, a rare carnivorous plant native to wetlands in the Midwest.  

“I went out to see how she was doing, and there was a hole in the ground,” said Dan Mason, botanist and wetland restoration expert at the Indiana Dunes National Lake Shore.

Charlene is a Saracenia purpurera – commonly called a purple pitcher plant or a northern pitcher plant. Dark veins on its tubular green leaves attract insects from a distance. Stiff hairs then trap them inside the leaves so the plant can secrete enzymes to digest the insects.

The wetlands team at the Indiana Dunes had been monitoring Charlene for a decade. They found her in 2002 when they inventoried the plants in her territory.

“She looked very, very unhealthy,” said Mason. Charlene was being crowded by invasive cattails.

“The significance of Charlene is that she was the legacy,” Mason said. Before the cattails arrived there were many more pitcher plants in this wetland. Charlene was the last from her area. “We have planted other pitcher plants that we have propagated from seed, but they’re from other areas,” he said.

Her home was an area called the “quaking bog.” At the turn of the last century ecologists didn’t distinguish between bogs and fens, Mason said. Cowles Bog does not have a high pH balance that typifies a bog. In addition is has mineral rich water and direct access to water through an aquifer – all traits of what is now known as a fen. Yet, the moniker sticks.

The team removed the cattails and Charlene flourished. A couple years ago she flowered for the first time. She was a rare find in more ways that one. “The strange thing about her flowering was that pitcher plants typically flower in the spring. She flowered in the … late summer,” Mason said. She had two or three flowering years before she disappeared.

Chicago area pitcher plant researcher Daniel Fink said poaching tends to be more a problem for the southeast United States because those species are more “flamboyant.”

“Ours are more modest…chubby things,” he said.  

Fink became interested in carnivorous plants when he worked as a volunteer for a local program called Plants of Concern. The group organizes citizen scientists to monitor local plant and wildlife populations. The data they collect is available to researchers to use in their work.

“Poaching in the southeast United States is a massive problem,” Fink said.

Typically people will steal them and sell them. Buyers are not aware of how rare some of the plants are. “They’re so localized. [For] some species, the entire known population occurs within one state.”

Fink’s work with Plants of Concern led him to pursue a master’s degree at Northeastern Illinois University. He is finishing a thesis on the purple pitcher plant. Fink said researchers try to keep the plants safe by not disclosing their location. “Once a population is found, you kind of keep it under wraps. Even in scientific papers when they identify study areas … you have to keep it obscure enough that you’re not saying ‘Right here at this spot is where these plants are.’”

This is the first theft of a pitcher plant within the Indiana Dunes National Lake Shore park system, although Mason said they have lost orchids to poaching in the past.

Joy Marburger administers the permit program at the park. She said that poaching is not usually a problem, but sometimes there are people who collect plants to eat. The permit program limits collection to researchers who study the plants, but everything goes through an approval process.

"If everybody collected plants there wouldn’t be any biodiversity left,” she said. “The parks are meant to preserve and protect the biodiversity for the public. That goes for cultural resources too.”

Charlene’s whereabouts remain unknown. The park does not have any leads on her captor. “Charlene’s gone – kidnapped. I hope whoever kidnapped her is taking care of her,” said Mason.