Sarracenia purpurea

Pitcher Plant

Sarracenia purpurea, Pitcher Plant, West Fern Lake, BWCAW, 1994, photo courtesy of Lowell Anderson
Pitcher Plant
West Fern Lake, BWCAW, 1994
Photo courtesy Lowell Anderson

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The natural history of the northwoods


Name:

  • Sarracenia, from the Latin
  • purpurea, from the Latin, "purple"
  • Common Name, from the unusual shape of the leaf and its capacity for holding water.
  • Other common names include Common Pitcher Plant, Purple Pitcher-Plant, Flytrap, Sidesaddle Plant, Huntsman's Cup, Frog's Britches

Taxonomy:

  • Kingdom Plantae, the Plants
    • Division Magnoliophyta, the Angiosperms (flowering plants)
      • Class Magnoliopsida, the Dicotyledons
      • Subclass Dilleniidae
        • Order Nepenthales
          • Family Sarraceniaceae, the New World Pitcher Plants; 3 genera and 15 species of perennial herbs
            • Genus Sarracenia, the Pitcher Plants
  • Taxonomic Serial Number: 21993

Description:

  • A native, perennial, carnivorous herb.
  • Leaves evergreen, modified into pitchers and arranged in a rosette. Pitchers curved and decumbent, to 17" and widening prominently toward the mouth. Hood on the pitcher positioned vertically; the pitcher usually being full or partly full of rainwater. Leaf color from bright yellow-green to dark purple and most commonly a middle variation with strong red venation. The leaves, or pitchers, are produced each year from stems arising from the rhizomes and remain evergreen unless unduly exposed.
  • The leaf edges have curled around and fused to form a liquid-holding vessel, similar in shape to a cornucopia. The leaves grow from a basal rosette and a "keel" provides structural reinforcement to each leaf so that the opening is always upright. The modified leaves perform the task of taking in nutrients required for photosynthesis.
  • Pitcher Plant Flowers, Photo copyright 2002 by Earl J.S. Rook
  • Flower petals, sepals, and bracts rose pink to dark red. Flowers solitary, on a leafless stem, 1'-2', arising from the rhizome.
  • Fruit a capsule with laterally winged seeds.
  • Rhizomes under soil may live 20-30 years.
  • Root systems of carnivorous plants tend to be weak and poorly developed. Since the roots function almost entirely as support, the highly acidic bog water doesn't seem to bother them.
  • Insects are attracted to the colorful leaf rosettes that resemble flowers; the red lip of the "pitcher" is particularly attractive as a landing zone. Red veins that lead downward are baited with nectar. Following this lure, prey reach the curve of the tube, which is lined with fine hairs, all pointing downward. The animal falls into the pitcher, which contains rain, dew, and a digestive enzyme that soon dissolves the victim.
  • Classified as carnivorous rather than insectivorous because consumption includes not only insects but also isopods, mites, spiders, and the occasional small frog. While a diet of meat helps the plants remain vigorous, grow larger, and produce more flowers, it does not appear essential for the survival of individual plants. This unusual life style has evolved as a means of obtaining nutrients in places otherwise deficient in them. In addition to phosphorus and nitrogen, pitcher plants obtain vitamins and other trace minerals from their prey.

Identification:

  • Unmistakable; nothing else like it in the North Country
  • Field Marks: upright, tubular, purplish leaf

Distribution:

  • Florida to Mississippi, north to Virginia and Maryland, west to Iowa, and north to Manitoba, Hudson Bay, and Labrador.

Habitat:

  • Bogs, savannas, and flat woods. The very wettest parts of bogs are favored, often restricting the species to the edges of bogs. Forms dense, floating mats on the water at the edges of bog ponds and lakes and across acid streams.
  • Adapted to poor soils deficient in trace elements such as molybdenum. These elements may be obtained from captured insects and amphibians. Soils usually highly acidic and unsuitable for many other plants. However, does not require acidic soils for growth, and occasionally occurs in alkaline marl bogs around the Great Lakes.
  • Plant succession on bogs is toward a sedge-woody species dominated community. Fire, however, retards this succession and pitcher plant bogs are thought to be fire disclimaxes.
  • Several bog species, including Pitcher Plant, have been successfully transplanted to damaged areas using "living mats" from unaffected
  • areas of the bog. Mats included Sphagnum Mosses, Small Cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccos), Pitcher Plant, Spatula Leaf Sundew (Drosera intermedia), and Leatherleaf (Chamaedaphne calyculata).
  • Usually top-killed by fire, but survives by resprouting from underground rhizomes. Severe fires may burn into the peat layer and destroy the rhizomes, killing the entire plant.
  • Periodic, moderate fires are necessary to reduce the encroachment of competing plants and stimulate growth by releasing nutrients bound up in organic matter. Fire suppression also leads to less frequent, severe fires which damage species normally considered to be fire tolerant. Fire is a natural event in carnivorous plant habitats.

Associates:

  • Trees: Tamarack (Larix laricina), Black Spruce (Picea mariana)
  • Shrubs: Leatherleaf (Chamaedaphne calyculata), Small Cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccos)
  • Herbs: Narrow Leaf Sundew (Drosera intermedia), Roundleaf Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia)
  • Ground Covers: Sphagnum Mosses (Sphagnum spp.)
  • Insects: Although carnivorous, is beneficial to several insect species. Ants, wasps, bees, butterflies, and moths are attracted to pitcher-plant by its nectar. Beetles and spiders visit the plants to prey on other insects. Spiders may spin a web inside the pitcher to catch insects which fall inside. Some flies live in the pitchers, feeding on decomposing insects. The larvae of a small, nonbiting mosquito (Wyeomyia smithii) live only in the liquid held by pitcher-plant. Unlike most insects, these larvae are neither killed nor digested in the pitcher fluid. A large number of grasshoppers, crickets, and snails are captured.

History:

Uses:

  • Desirable as houseplant

Reproduction:

  • Reproduction typically by seed but may also occur by fragmentation of rhizomes.
  • Bees are the main pollinators. Though normally polytropic, during the peak of Sarracenia flowering, the bees are effectively monotropic, visiting only Sarracenia species, at least where there are large stands of flowers.
  • Bare ground is vital for seedling establishment

Propagation:

  • By seed, following cold stratification.
  • Fastest establishment is from nursery stock. Set the plants in a bog so that their roots reach down to the moisture but the top of the roots rests at water level.
  • Can also be grown from seeds, sown as soon as they are ripe, in a mixture of equal parts of sand and peat moss. Seeds germinate in about a month, but plants grown from seed take three to five years to flower. Stand each pot in a dish of water and enclose both dish and pot in a plastic bag so that seeds do not dry out. When the seedlings are well established, set them outdoors in the bog.
  • Can also be propagated by division in the spring.
  • Collection of wild Pitcher Plants for sale has resulted in localized extinction in some areas. A number of dealers currently specialize in cultivating carnivorous plants, but collecting is still a problem, since it is less costly.

Cultivation:

  • Hardy to USDA Zone 3 (average minimum annual temperature -40ºF)
  • Cultural Requirements
    • Sun full
    • Soil rich in peat or sphagnum moss, pH of 4.5-5.5
    • Water
    • Fertilization not recommended
  • Good for bog gardens, indoor terrariums
  • Available by mail order from specialty suppliers
  • Larvae of several moth species feed on or burrow in Pitcher Plant, sometimes infesting large areas and severely damaging the population. Highly infested stands are frequently those protected from fire.

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Last updated on 26 February, 2004