Smooth Carnivore: Cobra Lilies

Foolishly turning my back on the carnivorous Cobra Lily.
November 9, 2010 — One of the coldest destroyers of childhood innocence, one of the greatest contributors to adult disillusionment, one of the most disheartening facts of human existence, is that carnivorous plants are just not as cool as they should be.

We grow up with stories of exotic, giant, man-eating monstrosities that move faster than most animals and populate alien worlds and dense African jungles and every once in a while make it into our cities to sing to us in crazy baritones while ingesting sadistic dentists.

And while some of the more exotic species might passively, accidentally, and rarely ingest a small bird or rodent, the reality of carnivorous plants is completely mundane, and usually just consists of a tiny pool of digestive enzymes and insect parts. Even the fabled Venus Flytrap is nothing put a grouping of twitching leaves that can be bought at any Toys R Us.

A lot of species of carnivorous plants are actually pretty common in the United States, and range throughout the country. I once came across pitcher plants in a bog in New Hampshire, of all the non-exotic places. They were just tiny green cups sticking up through the moss with bits of insect parts floating inside of them...relatively boring compared to something with "cobra" in its name\. 

Apparently, bogs are the environment of choice for most carnivorous plants. The general theory on their unique adaptation is that because they cannot cull nitrogen from those low-nutrient swamps, they evolved a mechanism for pulling those necessary nitrates out of the abundant insect life that can be found in that type of terrain. It’s like every single survival show on television. If you can’t find real food, you eat bugs.

However, my trip to Darlington State Park outside of Florence, OR, somewhat restored my wonder at these incredible organisms. I mean, that wonder will never again be anywhere near Triffid-level like in my youth, but at least it’ll be above crab grass and ficus bushes.

Located on Mercer Lake Road, seconds off the Oregon Coast Highway, this relatively small, 18-acre park was created for one purpose only, to protect the rare species of carnivorous plant that proliferates there. Called the Cobra Lily (Darlingtonia californica), this species can only be found on the western coast of the United States. They grow to about a foot and a half tall and feature a flaring hood in mottled green and red from which dangle two fang-like leaves. It is that serpentine appearance that gives them the name "Lily."

The Cobra Lily is a species of the aforementioned pitcher plant, meaning that it uses nectar to entice bugs into the hollow trap that is their death sentence. The insect is then ensnared inside the plant by a system of downward-pointing hairs, slippery walls, and confusing internal topography. Prey can check out anytime they like, but they can never leave.

If you’re driving the Oregon coast, there’s really no reason to skip Darlington State Park...unless it’s not Cobra Lily season, I guess. It’s an extremely convenient stop and takes only minutes to experience. The relevant areas of the park basically consists of a rest area, a parking lot, and a short boardwalk that wends its way out into the bog, where you’ll see large clusters of these tall, tubular vegetables, slowly and surreptitiously digesting their panicked and thrashing meals.

Maybe it’s their large size, maybe it’s the way that they group together like schools of toothy piranha or colonies of voracious army ants, but these Cobra Lilies actually do look somewhat predatory. I can just imagine their hoods turning to follow your movements until, at some silent signal, they attack in unison, wrapping themselves around your limbs, pulling you to the ground, and reenacting that one scene that's hard to talk about from the The Evil Dead. When nature finally runs amok, I’m sure it’ll be the Cobra Lilies that start it.

In the end, though, they’re still just non-threatening flora, even if they do seem to be named after a comic book villainess, and their existence doesn’t help botanists ascend the bad-ass hierarchy even one single ladder rung (if they’ve even been allowed off the waiting list yet). That is, unless “predatory fungi” turn out to be as cool as they sound.