Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
June, 2007
Regional Report

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Pitcher plants have fascinating flowers plus leafy tubes that lure and digest insects.

A Pitch for Pitcher Plants

There's a smug satisfaction in growing plants that devour mosquitoes and flies. Venus fly trap (Dionaea), pitcher plant (Sarracenia), sundew (Drosera), bladderwort (Utricularia), and butterwort (Pingula) are all alien-looking plants that have all sorts of devices to lure their breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Pitcher plants always attract me. Their fantastical appearance quickly grabs my eye -- tall, tubular, and distinctly veined leaves and unique nodding flower heads. Pitcher plants come in many sizes and colors --chartreuse; light green with red veins; burgundy; yellow with red veins; green, white, and red veined. Insects are attracted to the tube's nectar and patterning. They fly into the leafy pitchers, lose traction on the tube's waxy coating, and fall to their demise.

Sarracenia alata x oreophila recently made me do a double-take at a New Jersey nursery. The slender, chartreuse tubes stood 20 inches, flanked by firm green flowers on equally tall stems. Nearby Sarracenia 'Love Bug' was nearly the opposite -- shorter, plumper green leaves with distinctly veined burgundy tops.
At $24.99, I admired them both and shook my head. Not in my budget.

Just as we were leaving though, impulse overtook. I hurried back to the hoop house, picked up both, and carried them to the wagon. Then walked back and got two more for a garden client with a small pond (she was just as enchanted.)

Pitcher plants are engineering wonders: their pitfall trap (tube leaves) holds slippery pools of digestive enzymes that process prey into nitrogen (plant food). Atop the rolled-leaf tube, a flared leaflet covers the opening and protects it from rain.

Potting Up
At home, I transplanted 'Love Bug' into a teal, glazed pot without a hole, and the chartreuse variety into a beige, styrofoam pot. They're bog plants, preferring a moist (not soggy), acidic environment. So for soil, I mixed one part peat moss with one part sand. Pitcher plants need full sun (6 to 8 hours) for good leaf color and flowering.

Carnivorous Plants
Watering is tricky. All carnivorous plants require constant moisture, low pH, and mineral-free water. I water with collected rainwater. Distilled water is an alternative. DO NOT USE TAP WATER; it has chemicals that will kill these plants.

In nature, carnivorous plants have adapted to low-nutrient environments. They get some nutrients by trapping and digesting small invertebrates and occasionally small frogs and mammals. Their leaves photosynthesize and trap. The leaf shape of a good trap makes it a less efficient photosynthesizer. Plants also use extra energy to process prey and to produce hairs, glands, enzymes, and mucilage.

Carnivorous or insectivorous plants are grouped according to trap type:
1. Pitcher plants have pitfall traps with deep pools of enzymes.
2. Sundews and butterworts have flypaper -- leaves covered in glands that exude sticky mucilage.
3. The Venus flytrap and waterwheel plant have snap traps (or steel traps) -- hinged leaves that snap shut when trigger hairs are touched.
4. Bladderworts have suction traps -- highly modified, bladder-shaped leaves with a hinged door lined with trigger hairs.

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