Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge (and Carnivorous Plants)

Mississippi Sandhill Crane. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
As I mentioned in my last post, we had good opportunities to do some birding on our trip to Mississippi, and this is my eight-year-old’s biggest interest.

On our last day of vacation, we made a stop at the Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge, and we were hoping to see these amazing birds at the refuge. They are three to four feet tall and have a wingspan of over seven feet!

I will keep you in suspense for a while as to whether we saw one or not because birds weren’t the only reason we went to the refuge.

I saw on their website that part of the habitat at the refuge – a wet pine savanna – is home to thousands of carnivorous plants. Remember when carnivorous plants were my eldest son’s project? We were seeing pitcher plants along the highways, and that made us excited, but to be able to stop and see them up close, that was amazing.  We still grow them at home, and we see them at botanical gardens, but we’ve never seen them in the wild. I never imagined we’d get to see so many in one place! Look at them:

According to a pamphlet I picked up at the refuge, you can find four different species of pitcher plants, four species of sundew, four species of butterworts, and eight species of bladderworts at the refuge. We found only a few.

Yellow Trumpet Pitcher Plants
flower of Pitcher Plant
Butterwort (The tiny, light green plant with pointy leaves that are curled at the edges.)
Parrot Beak’s Pitcher Plant
The little red plants are Sundews
Flower of the Sundew

My eldest son and I were taking our time on a short trail, admiring all the carnivorous plants while my husband and eight-year-old went ahead, hoping to find the cranes. We all wanted to see the cranes. But, unfortunately, they weren’t right where we were that day, and according to the people who worked at the visitor’s center, they rarely see them either.

But the cranes do live in and right around the 19,000 acre refuge, and this is the only place you can find them in the world. Mississippi Sandhill Cranes are a nonmigratory species that should not be confused with other Sandhill Cranes species who migrate through North America. They are critically endangered, and right now, there are only 135 Mississippi Sandhill Cranes.

We were determined to see a Sandhill Crane for my eight-year-old’s benefit. (Ahem. My eldest son and I saw two of them along the highway on the way to the refuge, but we were so shocked, we uttered a cry that made my husband think we were witnessing a car crash. And while going 60mph, there was no way to stop or turn around. It was one of those “if you blink you’ll miss it moments,” so we didn’t get a good look at them.)

The people who worked at the refuge drew us a map and told us about some nearby residential areas where the cranes are sometimes seen. One of the streets had a pond on it, and the cranes would stop there occasionally. So after we walked on the trail at the refuge, we took off in the car, hoping to find a crane.

And we found one! Only one. But we saw one. He was in the distance and in the shadows of some trees and bushes, but we were able to stop our car and get a good look at him with our binoculars. It was so exciting, and I think you could say that we’re official birders now — this was our first time searching for a bird! We were happy it was successful.

Do you like birding? Please tell me about your adventures.

Garden Time

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on May 20, 2015.

Every year the boys and I buy seeds and a few plants and plant them with good intentions. My boys also enjoy growing sprouting beans in jars and then transplanting them to the garden. We don’t have the best soil or much sunlight on this wooded lot, but I let the boys plant what they want. Digging in the dirt and caring for the vegetables must have more life lessons than I can count.

My eight-year-old wanted to plant pumpkins again. We put them in big pots in our driveway so they can get the most sunlight possible. My five-year-old is growing squash in our garden, and I planted some tomato and cucumber plants. We are all sharing the strawberries and green beans. We have some herbs left over from last year too.

A new garden is a pretty sight. There’s fresh topsoil and no weeds. The new plants have that fresh garden color – a world of promise in a single leaf. Perennials are blooming throughout my yard, keeping promises planted long ago. At this time of year, it’s easy to muster the energy to go out every evening and water the garden. By August, it’ll be another story, but that’s still far off, and I’m going to enjoy this beautiful spring for as long as it’s here.

My son’s carnivorous plants are looking healthy and growing like crazy, and we were thrilled to see his new sundew plant come to life after buying it in its dormant state late last fall. This sundew has long, spindly leaves with a sticky substance on them that insects will stick to, if they land on it. He also has a pitcher plant and Venus flytrap. I think my son’s carnivorous plants are doing a service for our whole neighborhood considering how many dead insects we find in them.

I wish my whole yard looked as fresh and well kept as our garden, spring flowers, and my son’s carnivorous plants, but that’s not the case. Weeds taunt me from under the azalea bushes, and there’s not enough time or money to fix up our backyard or the bare patches of lawn. I found one of my favorite flowering bushes – the name always eludes me – died this year after producing beautiful flowers for many years. It was the same bush where a cardinal family reared their chicks in one year, and we were able to watch the whole cycle right through our living room window. I’m very sad to see this bush stand bare of leaves.

My bay leaf tree, also, has suffered these past two years after growing so well for many years before this. Is it because I’m too busy to go out and pamper it, or did the winters just get too cold for it? I don’t know.

But I see good things happening too. Every year I manage to do one or two small tasks to add to the “perfect yard” that’s in my imagination but slowly taking form around the house. The lead plant I bought two years ago at the botanical garden is hanging in there, and for the first time this year, it’s blooming. Some irises I divided last year are doing quite well in their new spot, and this year I finally divided some monkey grass and planted it in front of the fence on the other side of the house.

We are in this house for the long haul, so I’m patient about getting the yard just right. We are in the season of our lives when we have other priorities, and trying to keep a perfect yard would be a waste of money and time. Keeping it fairly neat and planting slow-growing but lasting plants seems like the more prudent way to go. Besides, when the boys grow up, I doubt they’ll remember the weeds or the lack of lawn. Instead, they’ll remember the flowers, vegetables and freedom they had to run and dig in the dirt. Perhaps this is the perfect garden after all.

Project-based Homeschooling: Carnivorous Plants Update

Those of you who have been reading my blog for awhile may remember when my son was interested in carnivorous plants. It was a long project. We read about them, found them at botanical gardens (we have yet to see one in the wild), talked to experts about them, and my son wanted to grow them. During this time, we found him a venus flytrap and pitcher plant that he could grow himself, but he always wanted a sundew too, which he says is his favorite. These are not so easy to come by locally. Finally last fall, at the suggestion of a local carnivorous plant enthusiast, I ordered my son a sundew from flytraps.com. The man who suggested flytraps.com said this was a reputable vendor, and he also wrote down the scientific name for a couple of sundew that should grow well here in Georgia’s climate.

When I ordered it, however, it was late fall, and the plants go dormant for winter. So what we received didn’t look like much. We put it in the pot outside with the other carnivorous plants, covered it with mesh (to keep the squirrels out of the pot), and I kept my fingers crossed that the sundew would survive the winter. It did! And as you can see, it’s growing very well.

This is either a drosera filiformis or drosera tracyii. I’m afraid I didn’t note exactly which I ordered…these were the two species the local carnivorous plant enthusiast recommended to us.

There are over 500 species of sundew in the world. Many of them are tiny like this one, but some are quite large. They have sticky secretions on their long, thin leaves, and when a bug lands on them, they stick to the sundew. Then the sundew’s leaves curl up and around the insect in order to digest its meal.

My son already had this venus flytrap, and we’re happy to see it’s coming back after the long winter too.

I love the pitcher plants. These will get much bigger and wider as the summer wears on.

Finally, my son said, my collection is complete!

Project-based Homeschooling: Steps I Took to Support My Son’s Interest in Carnivorous Plants

This is a very detailed account of the steps I took to support my sons interest in carnivorous plants. There is much more to project-based homeschooling (PBH) than what I illustrate here, but I hope it gives you some ideas as you proceed to mentor your children.

Since my son was young (7) when this occurred, I did make suggestions to him and showed him how to do research. It’s important to model to children what they can and will do as they become more capable. However, I never forced anything on him. He was beside me all the way, telling me what he wanted to learn. 

To learn more about project-based learning, see my post What is Project-based Homeschooling?

1. Recognizing the interest

I don’t remember when my son first acquired an interest in carnivorous plants, but I remember buying Step Into Reading Hungry Plants and reading that book to him because he wanted to learn about them. We also spent a long time looking at photos on the Internet. We learned that some very big carnivorous plants live in Borneo.

That was probably a year ago.

2. Supporting the interest

Sometime last spring we were shopping at Home Depot when I saw a little Venus Flytrap. I could have ignored it, but I knew it was an interest of my son’s, so I wasn’t going to do that. My son was thrilled to see a real, live carnivorous plant, and making him happy makes me happy. For less than $5, we bought the plant and started a project.

That little plant was fussed over at home. I looked up information about how to care for Venus flytraps on the Internet, read about it to my son, and he took good care of the plant. He had a lot of fun finding bugs to feed it too.

I asked my son if he wanted to learn more about carnivorous plants, and he said yes.

We went to the library and checked out their books about carnivorous plants. Whenever we’re at the library, I make a point of showing my son how I’m finding the books on the computer, and often, I ask the librarian to help us. I encourage my son to ask too, but I don’t force him. I know that if he observes how I use the library, he’ll grow up knowing how to use it!

Unfortunately, before we could read those library books, a family emergency sent us to Chicago for two weeks. We had to return those books, but once we were settled in Chicago, we decided to visit the local library there (wonderful library – sigh). There, we found a very good book about sundews for young adults, and I read the whole book to my son.

(The Venus flytrap came with us to Chicago too!)

In that book we learned all about sundews, including how to grow them. You mean WE can grow other carnivorous plants? This was a new idea to my son and me. I had never considered trying to grow more than the little Venus flytrap, which is a favorite for lots of kids. My son said he wanted to grow them, and I agreed to help him.

3. Field trip

While we were in Chicago, we visited the Chicago Botanical Garden. (Since we are members of our local botanical garden, we got into the Chicago Botanical Garden for free. Since we love nature, and it’s obviously a deep interest for my son, it’s been a no brainer to invest some money in memberships to such places. It has saved us a lot of money. You can read more about saving money with family memberships here.)

We had been to the Chicago Botanical Garden before, and it’s impossible to see it all in one day, so we made a mental agenda. One of our missions was to find their carnivorous plant collection. It was not a disappointment. You can see more photos in the slideshow.

When we returned from Chicago, we checked out the books at our library again. These are all the books we have read regarding carnivorous plants:

  • Hungry Plants by Mary Batten
  • Bladderworts: Trapdoors to Oblivion by Victor Gentle
  • Carnivorous Plants by Elaine Pascoe
  • Sundew Stranglers: Plants that Eat Insects by Jerome Wexler
  • Nature Close-up: Carnivorous Plants by Dwight Kuhn

4. Creating representations of the subject

During this time, my son made several representations of carnivorous plants. I was happy he did this completely on his own. I didn’t know he was drawing these pictures until he showed them to me.

Don’t underestimate any artwork your child does while pursuing a project. To draw, build or sculpt something, the child has to study and observe that something in a way he hasn’t done before. It’s another level of learning.

Venus Fly Traps

He did this one more recently. A big mouth bass swims by a bladderwort!

Yep, those are supposed to be human legs dangling out of the mouth of a carnivorous plant.

This happened a little differently from his first two significant projects. For his Titanic project, I had suggested he make the Titanic out of clay, and when that didn’t work, his dad suggested he try cardboard. For his rocket project, he came up with the idea to build a model of the Saturn V, but I was closely involved. After doing those two labor-intensive representations, it was refreshing for me to have him draw these pictures!

This one I found on the Atlanta Botanical Garden website (click to download).

5. Supporting the project

At the end of each school year, I am going to do a brief end-of-year review and reward my sons with a gift – something educational that supports their studies. (We buy them plenty of fun, non-educational toys for birthdays, Christmas and occasional times throughout the year.)

This summer at my kindergartener’s end-of-year review, I gave him a beautiful poster I found of carnivorous plants. He was thrilled. It’s hanging in his room, and we have read it thoroughly and referred to it a few times.

6. Serendipity

Okay, so serendipity isn’t exactly a step you can take to encourage deep learning, but it is helpful when it happens. And when you start thinking about a subject, it’s surprising how it starts to present itself to you!

The first case of serendipity occurred when we returned from Chicago. My son was enrolled in a week-long summer camp at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia. One day in camp, the facilitators talked about the carnivorous plants at the garden and showed them to the campers.

But that’s not the best part. One day after I dropped my son off, I was walking back to the car with my youngest son, and we passed the gift shop. Outside, there were some pitcher plants for sale! I had been looking on the Internet to find out if any local business sold carnivorous plants, and I was coming up empty. Finding them at the botanical garden was very lucky!

After consulting with my husband, and talking to my seven-year-old, we bought the pot with the white-top pitcher plants (Sarracenia leucophylla) and another bog plant, white-star sedge (Rhynchospora colorata), as an early birthday present for my son.

7. Speaking to Experts

One part of project-based learning is encouraging your children to seek out and communicate with experts on the subject. My son is still young and sometimes shy, so for right now, whenever possible, I speak to the experts. Experts aren’t plentiful, but I got lucky that day. I asked the lady in the gift shop if there was anyone around the garden we could speak to about caring for the pitcher plant. She pointed to a man who was just outside the window trimming some trees.

The man was definitely an expert. He grew carnivorous plants at home and at the garden, and he explained how he cared for them. I asked him several questions even though I had already learned most of the information on the Internet. I wanted my son to see me speaking to him, asking him questions, and getting more information. We definitely learned more! I was very happy that my seven-year-old piped up with a question or two of his own. Hes not so shy when hes talking about something he cares about!

When we got home, my son added his Venus flytrap to the pot with the pitcher plant and white sedge. The Venus flytrap had been losing its trapping ability inside the house – I don’t think the light coming through our windows is bright enough. It recovered and flourished outside in the pot with the other plants. Both carnivorous plants have been catching lots of prey in our yard, so I’m hoping they’ll reproduce!

8. Documentation

An important part of project-based homeschooling is documenting your child’s work. Michelle, at Raising Cajuns, has a great post about documenting, and Lori Pickert has good posts about keeping a journal – this should not be mistaken for a portfolio of your child’s work. In a PBH journal, you document and refer back to your journal frequently, reminding your child of their questions and the goals they have. To be honest, I haven’t been good at doing this intentionally, and I want to get better. But I do document in these ways:

  • As a photographer, I can’t help but take lots of pictures.  I use them on my blog and most importantly, in our end-of-year-review that I share with my son. (He looks at my blog when it’s open in my browser, and he loves to see photos of his projects.)
  • I keep a journal where I write down his progress in his projects, and any questions he may have, but I need to get better at referring back to this!
  • We display his work in the house. Drawings and paintings are hung in our “art gallery” in the kitchen. Sculptures and other creations are displayed in our activity room until it gets too cluttered. Then my son takes him up to his room where he has some shelves to display his treasures.  (I’m in the process of framing some of his art to display in the house too.)
  • Again, I take photos of everything. As Lori wrote somewhere, this simple act of documenting sends your child a powerful message that his work is valuable. Pay attention to what you want your child to do more of!

In our carnivorous plant project, I took lots of photos, and I’m happy to share a slideshow of them with you (and my son).

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9. Follow-up

After awhile, there didn’t seem to be much else my son could do with this project. This isnt to say that there isnt more my son could do, he just wasnt talking about it as much.

Finally I asked my son, Is there anything else you want to do with carnivorous plants?  His answer was that he wants a sundew to add to his collection.  I told him wed get one, but I wasnt sure when.

Then serendipity happened again, and if you read my column last week, you’ll know the rest of this story. We went to Insect-ival, an annual event at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, and there was a guy there with two heaping tables of carnivorous plants! It was an impressive display! And he gave us some sundew seeds for free! That was really special.

We’ve been nursing those seeds for a while, and I gotta tell you, I’m not sure they’re going to grow. I’ve never had luck with seeds! If these don’t grow, I’ll find a sundew somewhere somehow, and my son and I will try to cultivate more carnivorous plants.

At seven-years-old, I have to remind my son to water them because I know he’ll be upset if he loses them. He still doesn’t talk as much about carnivorous plants, and I’ve put the drawings away, but I know it’s something he’s still interested in. He’s going to be happy about having the plants, caring for them, and whenever we go to the Botanical Garden, we’ll take a look at them.

I consider this a long-term project that will happen slowly and in spurts. Maybe hell continue the interest. Maybe itll peter out. Whatever happens, Im here to support him!

If he continues to grow them, and if we can get them to reproduce, he’ll become an expert in them himself. If not, that’s okay too. The kid has me hooked on them, so if he completely loses interest, I’m going to take over!

UPDATE: Two years later (at the age of nine), my son is still caring for his carnivorous plants. (I help sometimes too.) His pitcher plants bloomed for the first time this year. He also has a healthy sundew, and a thriving Venus flytrap. He doesn’t actively read about the plants anymore, but he still thinks they are very cool plants, and he enjoys observing what they devour! 

Project-based Homeschooling: Carnivorous Plants

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on October 9, 2013.

Last year my son acquired a fascination with carnivorous plants. He had been interested in them for a while, but then one day we saw a little Venus flytrap at Home Depot, and right then his interest exploded. He wanted to learn about them and grow them. We brought the little flytrap home, and he kept good care of it.

Carnivorous plants are plants that have a mechanism to trap prey, mostly insects, and they digest the prey in order to receive valuable nutrients that they need to survive. There are over 670 species of carnivorous plants in the world, and in the United States, they are found in every state. They also live on every continent except for Antarctica. Did you know that the Venus flytrap is native to North Carolina?

Carnivorous plants grow in boggy areas with poor soil that is very acidic and low in nitrogen, which is why they need to supplement their diets with insects or other small prey.

I would have never guessed that we could grow carnivorous plants in our yard, but silly me…not only can we grow them in our yard, some pitcher plants are native to Georgia.  Most of them can probably be found in South Georgia or along the coast in boggy, swampy areas, but you can go to the State Botanical Garden of Georgia and see them behind the conservatory in an area where they are growing bog plants. At a glance, it looks like an unkempt area of weeds, but look closer, and you’ll find some beautiful Sarracencia or pitcher plants.

The pitcher plants are tall with leaves that look like tubes. The beautiful colors on the top of the leaves lure insects by looking like flowers, and they also produce a sweet-smelling nectar on the rim of the “pitcher” which slightly intoxicates the insect. As the insect travels down the tube, it’s almost impossible for them to climb back up because of the tiny downward pointing hairs. At the bottom of the pitcher plant is a pool of digestive enzymes and the end of the road for the unsuspecting insect.

One day this summer when my son was at camp at the Botanical Garden, we were lucky to find some white-top pitcher plants on sale in their gift shop. I bought him the plant, and we had a long talk with one of the garden’s staff members who knew a lot about carnivorous plants.

My son added his Venus flytrap to the pot with the pitcher plant, and now they are probably the nicest looking plants in my yard. They must be kept wet with rainwater, so they were very happy with our summer rains. When it doesn’t rain, my son uses water from the rain barrel.

To complete his carnivorous plant collection, my son has been asking for a sundew, which is his favorite. Sundews trap insects like flypaper. They have long leaves that look like fingers with tiny red spikes on them. At the end of each spike is sticky mucus, and if an insect lands on it, it gets stuck. Then the leaf will wrap itself around the insect and devour it.

I told my son that he would have to wait awhile before we found a sundew. They don’t sell those at Home Depot, and I wasn’t in a hurry to order one from the Internet. But we experienced serendipity a few weeks ago when we went to the Insect-ival at the Botanical Garden. We were enjoying the interesting displays of insects, including a butterfly release into the garden when we happened upon two large tables full of carnivorous plants. A young man with a passion for the plants had brought his collection to the festival, and my son’s eyes were bulging at the sight of them.

I asked the man if he knew where we could purchase sundew locally. He told me that the sundew reproduce like crazy, and he was going to throw some of the seeds away that morning, but as an afterthought, he put them in tiny envelopes to give away at the festival. My son was thrilled. Now we’re nursing these tiny seeds in a pot inside our house and hoping that they will grow!

This is a sundew. I took this photo at the Chicago Botanical Garden.

For more information about carnivorous plants and how to grow them, you may enjoy looking at the International Carnivorous Plant Society website at www.carnivorousplants.org.

If you liked this, be sure to read my next post about how I supported my son’s interest in carnivorous plants in a project-based learning way.