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I’m Living In My Own Private Tanelorn: Canadian Carnivores

For those encountering carnivorous plants for the first time, they tend to be shocked by the sheer range of environments in which carnivores live. There’s the automatic assumption that they all live in hot, swampy jungles, and express shock at discovering the number of species found in North America alone. The shock spreads when they discover that Venus flytraps can be found a day’s drive from Washington DC, and they really lose it when they discover the variety of carnivores in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. Best, though, is when I tell them about Canada.

Canada may not be as rich in carnivores as the United States or Mexico, but it has considerable charms. The most famous, of course, is the purple pitcher plant, Sarracenia purpurea, the flower emblem (the Canadian equivalent of the US’s state flower) of Newfoundland & Labrador. S. purpurea isn’t isolated to that area: it ranges due west from Newfoundland across Ontario (with that range extending south to Michigan and Minnesota) all the way to eastern Alberta, and then north to just short of the border with Alaska. On the west coast, the cobra plant, Darlingtonia californica, ranges well along the coast of British Columbia and south into Washington, Oregon, and Northern California. Canada also has a wide range of sundews and butterworts in a wide range of habitats, and one of the most interesting places to view carnivores for sheer spectacle is in the Canadian Rockies of Alberta.

Alberta and Texas have a lot more in common than most people would expect. In fact, when getting off the plane in Calgary from Dallas, it’s hard not to wonder if the plane just circled around Iowa and landed where it started, especially if you travel to Calgary in time for the Calgary Stampede. During the Stampede, the only way you can tell Calgary and Fort Worth apart for sure is that one has more cactus and one has more Mounties. If you see lots of mesquite trees, you’re not in Calgary. That similarity stretches across most of the province: driving near Drumheller, for instance, the plains are so flat and the scenery so similar to North and West Texas that the only way to be sure that you’re in Canada is that the highway signs list kilometers and are written in English and French. All that fails if you head sufficiently west: I recommend doing it the way I did, in the middle of the night when the moon is rising, and you realize that something took a big bite out of the moon and won’t give it back. At that point, you’ve hit the Rockies.

When you’re that far west, there’s absolutely no reason not to visit Banff National Park, especially for those of us fascinated with geology and natural history. However, for butterworts, stop in the town of Canmore just outside of Banff, and head out to Nordic Provincial Park in the mountains overlooking Canmore. That’s where you’ll find treasure.

Backstory: my last trip to Nordic Provincial Park was in 2006, as part of a trip with my wife’s family. I’d never been to Alberta before (my grandparents were from Ontario, but I’d never been that far west), but had dreamed about it ever since learning about the gigantic bone beds around Drumheller and Edmonton as a kid. Caroline and I were already outliers in the family as far as cultural markers were concerned, as they looked at us like dogs being shown a card trick when we noticed a new bicycle trail freshly opened that was named “The Riders of Rohan.” The worst, though, was when heading up one trail, we came across the leftover bracket from a long-removed gate still attached to a tree, and Caroline asked what kind of spigot that was. “That’s for collecting pine syrup,” I told her. “Real Canadians eat their waffles with pine syrup, and maple syrup is just the crap we give to Americans who don’t know any better.” My sister-in-law has never forgiven me for telling her that, because she spent the rest of the trip asking for pine syrup and getting angry that the locals wouldn’t share.

Anyway, half of the family split up to take one trail that led to a mountain lake at the highest easily accessible elevation in the park, and the other half went on the other. This trail’s vegetation thinned as we climbed higher, with spectacular views of the valley and the whole of Canmore. Best, though, was the waterfall on an adjoining peak that blasted mist across the gorge and onto our trail.

Finally, at one point, we stopped to admire the waterfall, up against a boulder about the size of an SUV that had rolled down at some time in the reasonably recent past. It was still reasonably clear of vegetation other than some moss, but it also had a flash of blue-violet at the top. I got closer to investigate the blue, and discovered, snuggled in a patch of soil about the size of a toonie, were a pair of butterworts. Pinguicula vulgaris, to be precise.

This was reason to stop alone, but we figured “Let’s keep going up and see what everyone else found.” Well, that mountain lake was just covered with butterworts: the soil was little more than rock dust, with no real nutritive value, so the butterworts were at home, just blooming away.

As it turned out, they were a great example for people who were afraid of raising a carnivorous plant because they couldn’t keep one warm enough. If a P. vulgaris butterwort can survive an Alberta winter, it can definitely survive a Texas winter. And to this day, when doing slideshow lectures for garden shows and classrooms, I still use the same shots of those butterworts to demonstrate that they can be found in all sorts of odd places: