I have been fascinated with snakes since I was a child, so I love living in a state where I stand a fairly good chance of seeing one whenever I go for a walk outside. Of the thirty-seven snake species native to North Carolina, at least eight call our garden home. Three of those species are tiny serpents that actually live under the mulch or burrow in the soil of the flower beds. I’ll discuss them here and save the larger snakes (and the single venomous species) for another day.
Eastern worm snake (Carphophis amoenus)
This is perhaps the oddest of the little flower bed snakes. A worm snake has smooth, shiny scales, reduced eyes, and a small pointed head that allows it to burrow rapidly through loose soil hunting for earthworms. They are really very pretty little animals, with glossy scales, dark chocolate brown back, and pinkish belly, brighter in some specimens than others. Worm snakes are hardly larger than a big earthworm, and unsuspecting gardeners might actually mistake one for a worm. In fact, they can burrow and disappear so rapidly that unless you are paying attention, you could dig them up all day and not notice them. To catch one, I usually grab a handful of the soil or mulch that the snake has disappeared into, and then sift it between my fingers to see if I was successful.
I almost never see worm snakes except when I am digging holes for new plants, but very occasionally I find them under rotten logs or flower pot saucers or will uncover one when pulling up a clump of weeds. Once–and only once–I found one climbing through the twigs of an azalea bush on a very damp and warm April morning. I was surprised to find the large specimen shown below hiding in a hot gravel pile in full sun:
When I pick up a worm snake, it usually coils tightly around my fingers and pushes against my hand with its pointed head. I assume it is attempting to burrow:
Smooth earth snake (Virginia valeriae)
Smooth earth snakes are about the same size as worm snakes and have very similar habits, but they not appear to be as specialized for burrowing. Their eyes are larger than those of worm snakes, and they look more like typical little snakes. Their glossy bodies can be either dark gray or pale gray with dark spots.
Like worm snakes, they are very inoffensive and never attempt to bite. They are great snakes for small children to gently catch and examine:
Brown snake (Storeria dekayi)
Brown snakes lurk in loose mulch but do not seem to burrow in soil. Like worm snakes and earth snakes, they are inoffensive and never attempt to bite. One year, the kids and I kept a brown snake for several weeks and fed it slugs, which it consumed enthusiastically. Clearly, this is a useful snake to have around the garden.
Other flower bed snakes
Depending on where in the piedmont you live, you may also find several other small snakes in your flower beds. Rough earth snakes (Virginia striatula) are reported to be common in some vacant lots in Durham and Raleigh, and I have seen a southeastern crowned snake (Tantilla coronata) that was caught in a Durham city park. If your garden is adjacent to a creek or moist woodland, you may find a redbelly snake (Storeria occipitomaculata), which resembles a brown snake with a bright orange belly, or perhaps a ringneck snake (Diadophis punctatus), surely one of the prettiest North Carolina snakes. Keep your eyes open.