Perspectives Online

Caretaker of the carnivores: Alumnus is instrumental in insect-eaters' preservation

Stanley Rehder prepares to gather some seeds from another carnivorous beauty, the Venus' flytrap.
Stepping carefully behind a patch of pitcher plants, Stanley Rehder prepares to gather some seeds from another carnivorous beauty, the Venus' flytrap.
(Photos by Art Latham)
Pitcher plants appear innocent, almost bland. Martha Stewart once made some into a floral arrangement. But in the wild, these benign-looking, long-stemmed flora can reduce unwary insects to bug soup in a matter of hours.

Stanley Rehder, 82, for generations the unabashed promoter of the pitcher and other vegetative carnivores such as the Venus' flytrap, is just as unassuming in demeanor. And like the plants he protects, the amiable Rehder, whose N.C. State education was interrupted by World War II combat duty, conceals a core of steel.

The Venusí flytrap, in bloom (below) and open for the business of consuming insects (above), grows wild only within about 75 miles of Wilmington. Rehder worked to help pass laws to protect the plants from poachers.
(Photos by Art Latham)
The Venus' flytrap, in bloom (below) and open for the business of consuming insects (left), grows wild only within about 75 miles of Wilmington. Rehder worked to help pass laws to protect the plants from poachers.

Rehder, who received his N.C. State horticulture degree in 1947, is known as the "Flytrap Man," not only in his native Wilmington but internationally. His flytrap publicity efforts include newspaper articles and national and state TV interviews, including one by Barbara Walters on the "Today Show" in 1975 and others on "Good Morning America," "That's Incredible" (a 1970s hit show) and "North Carolina People" with Bill Friday.

His Jeep's license plate even reads "FLYTRAP."

Taking shelter from a recent seasonal coastal downpour in his beloved forest-green Jeep, Rehder was at his educational best, revealing the pitcher plant's serious side, slicing open its long stem to expose a dead black ant and a struggling, doomed white wasp grub.

The Venus' flytrap, in bloomAs a horticulturalist by training and preference, he's dedicated his life to introducing to others the flytrap, which grows wild only within about 75 miles of Wilmington. The former florist and commercial real estate broker leads tours, lectures school children, scouts for the plants and observes changes to their landscapes.

To sustain flytraps, which fall victim to poachers, developers and fire suppression policies, Rehder and other plant lovers take extraordinary measures. He was instrumental in helping pass the laws that now protect the plants and fine poachers $500.

For further protection, Rehder created a carnivorous-plant hiking trail and teaching garden on a low-lying, forest-embraced tract of Nature Conservancy land behind an elementary school in bustling Wilmington's heart. The sandy depression - probably one of the sites known as a Carolina Bay - hosts hundreds of flytraps (Dionaea muscipula), pitcher plants (Sarracenia), sundews (Drosera broomensis) and more.

For the past 20 years, he has harvested and then broadcast flytrap and pitcher plant seeds across that moist field, which was donated by another Wilmington native, Hugh MacRae II.

As the Johnny Appleseed of the Venus' flytrap, he is happiest when he has black-stained thumbs and forefingers from the harvesting and cleaning process. He has done much to try to save the plants and share awareness of their beauty and vulnerability, spreading flytrap seeds wherever he can. He and his daughter Julie will work with Airlie Gardens this year to ensure that the gardens have heirloom, good-quality seeds for their insectivorous plant exhibit. He also has located them in their natural habitat on the property of friends.

Each spring he gets a spring in his step when he begins to see the white blossoms. At just the right moment, he harvests, always ensuring that seeds are left in the wild. And he has developed a process to ensure that the seeds produce new flytraps.

He came by his love of plants naturally.

Rehder's grandmother started the first florist business in North Carolina in the 1870s, eventually building a small greenhouse at their home. Stanley's father, Will, continued the family's wholesale and retail operations. Stanley and brother Henry continued the business after Will's death. Henry managed the retail side, Stanley the seven wholesale greenhouses for more than 25 years until he dissolved the business to concentrate on commercial real estate.

In the 1930s and '40s, Rehder accompanied his father on outings into southeastern North Carolina's woods and swamps to pull thorny smilax from native trees to ship by train to fancy Northeastern hotels, including the Waldorf Astoria. He learned to recognize flytrap growing patterns and the elliptical Carolina Bays, a natural flytrap habitat.

"Some say the bays were formed several million years ago," Rehder said, "when a flurry of meteors from the northwest hit earth and bounced back out, forming non-draining lakes such as Waccamaw, the largest.

"So some people," he said with a smile, "say flytraps come from outer space."

The 1940s were also the years of war. He was called up from N.C. State's ROTC program in March 1942 and with several hundred others deployed to England. From there, during the Battle of the Bulge, Rehder barely escaped death when his troop transport ship was torpedoed out from under him. He later saw more active combat as an artillery officer in Europe.

Even after all the intervening years, Rehder remembers the frigid night his troop transport ship was torpedoed. "It blew me out of the bunk," he recounted to a historian in 2001. "Two lifeboats had already been unloaded and were gone. The people who ran the ship had deserted, and 800 of the more than 2,200 on board died, including three officers who went down with the ship. "

Rehder, realizing the ship was sinking since he could see the mast listing, helped many of the men accept that they were scuttled and had to launch lifeboats. He won a combat infantry badge for valor.

Safely back home, Rehder for a while could be frightened even by water flowing under a bridge, but he eventually lost that fear by fishing with friends in boats, he said.

He finally readjusted to civilian life, returning to N.C. State, where one of his fraternity brothers was Jim Graham, the future agriculture commissioner. Later, Rehder escorted the first Azalea Festival Queen and worked with the festival for more than 45 years as a volunteer, including a stint as president.

But these days, it's the flytraps that engage his attention. As the recent rainstorm passed, Rehder stepped out of his Jeep and began to pace the soggy field, gathering flytrap seeds.

"I just come out here," he said, gazing around the dripping greenery, "to be closer to the Good Lord and watch the seasons change."

And that's a lucky thing for the plants.

- Art Latham