Floridata Plant Encyclopedia

A Floridata Plant Profile 925 Sarracenia spp.

Common Names: eastern North American pitcherplants, pitcherplants Family: Sarraceniaceae (pitcherplant Family)
Image Gallery

white pitcherplant leaf - back
Pitcherplant leaves are modified to form a container-like structure in which the plant traps its prey. The above photo is a detail of the leaf pattern on the 'hood' of a white-top pitcherplant (Sarracenia leucophylla), below is a side view of the "pitcher" (leaf).

Description

The genus Sarracenia includes eight species. All are characterized by leaves that are modified into tubular funnels which catch and digest insects and other small animals. Pitcherplants grow from branching rhizomes (underground stems) and what may appear to be a colony of pitcherplants might actually be a single clone. The pitchers are marvels of evolution. There is an immobile lip or hood at the top of the pitcher which is held over the opening of the trap in all but one species. The hood secretes nectar that attracts potential prey animals and it also serves to reduce the amount of diluting rainwater that enters the trap - except in S. purpurea, whose hood stands up vertically.

flowers of white-top pitcherplant
In late winter and early spring the white-top pitcherplant's (Sarracenia leucophylla) flowers bloom among last year's spent leaves (the "pitchers").

The pitchers range from 4 in (10 cm) long in the parrot pitcherplant to more than 3 ft (1 m) tall in the yellow pitcherplant. Insects that enter the pitcher are impeded from exiting by downward pointing hairs on the inside of the hood and a slippery wax on the inside of the pitcher above the liquid. Deeper in the pitcher, digestive glands secrete enzymes that slowly digest any prey that are hapless enough to fall in.

Interestingly, there are some protozoans, algae, bacteria, insect larvae and other tiny creatures that have adaptations to resist being digested and actually live and reproduce in the liquid within the pitcher. The flowers of the eight pitcherplant species are all pretty similar. They appear in early spring as the new pitchers are developing. The fleshy five-petaled flowers nod on stalks that stand among, sometimes above, the pitchers.

Location

The eight species of pitcherplants in the genus Sarracenia are native to eastern North America. The California pitcherplant (Darlingtonia californica) and three species of sun pitchers (Heliamphora spp.) from South America, are the only other species in the family Sarraceniaceae. There are some 70 species of tropical pitcherplants (Nepenthes spp.) in the family Nepenthaceae, which occur in tropical Asia, Australia, Madagascar and the Seychelles. At last, but not least, the Australian pitcher plant (Cephalotus follicularis) is the only species in its family.

yellow pitcher plant
This expanse of yellow pitcherplant (Sarracenia flava) grows in Florida's panhandle as does this colony of the red (!) form of yellow pitcherplant (below).

The eastern North American pitcherplants grow in bogs, seeps and wet savannas, habitats that are always or almost always wet and do not have a canopy of trees or shrubs to shade the ground. A bog is a wetland on a saturated acidic peat substrate where the moisture is maintained by capillary action drawing water from below. Bogs are born from the accumulation of sphagnum moss in a depression. In some bogs, called quaking bogs, the substrate may break loose and float on the surface of deeper water.

A seep is an area where water constantly seeps to the surface because its downward percolation through the soil has been interrupted by an impermeable layer of clay or rock lying at or near the ground surface. Seeps are usually saturated, but rarely inundated. A savanna is a grassland with scattered trees. Savannas in eastern North America are characterized by widely spaced longleaf pines (Pinus palustris) and a ground cover consisting of a great many species of herbaceous grasses, sedges and forbes. Savannas can be xeric (dry), mesic, or hydric, depending on the depth to ground water. Pitcherplants are found only in the hydric savannas.

'Scarlet Belle' pitcherplant
The lovely 'Scarlet Belle' pitcher plant is a hybrid of S. leucophylla and the parrot pitcherplant, S. psittacina.

Trumpet pitcherplant, Sarracenia alata, occurs on the Gulf Coastal Plain from E TX to the W FL Panhandle. Yellow pitcherplant, S. flava, occurs on the Atlantic and Gulf Coastal Plains from the FL Panhandle to SE VA. White-top pitcherplant, S. leucophylla, occurs in the FL Panhandle and adjacent S AL, SW GA and SE MS. Hooded pitcherplant, S. minor, occurs from central FL, N on the Atlantic Coastal Plain to NC. Green pitcherplant, S. oreophila, is restricted to a couple small areas in NE AL. Parrot pitcherplant, S. psittacina, occurs from S AL across N FL and S GA. Purple pitcherplant, S. purpurea, has the largest range of the eastern North American pitcher plants, including appropriate habitats in much of Canada from Alberta to Newfoundland, then S to N IA, IL and PA, then along the Atlantic Coastal Plain to GA, with a disjunct population in the FL Panhandle, S AL and S MS. Red pitcherplant, S. rubra, occurs in four disjunct regions: the Coastal Plain of SC and adjacent NC and GA; extreme S Al and the adjacent FL Panhandle; a small area in central AL; and a small area near Asheville, NC.


Culture

Light: Full sun. Moisture: Pitcher plants need to be wet most all the time. Use only rain water. Hardiness: USDA Zones 2 - 9. Most pitcher plant species are hardy in zones 6-8. Only S. purpurea occurs north of USDA Zone 6. Propagation: Divide in spring. Plant seeds after cold stratification in a damp acidic medium.
white-top pitcherplant flowers
Closeup of the white-top pitcherplant (S. leucophylla) flowers.

Usage

Pitcherplants are best appreciated in their natural habitat. Some people do cultivate them, however, and they do so in a cool greenhouse in pots with 3 parts sphagnum and 1 part each of leaf mold and coarse sand in full light. During the growing season the pots are placed in trays of acidic water. It is essential to allow the plants a winter dormant period with cooler temperatures and less water. Outdoors, pitcherplants may be grown in wet acidic soil in full sun.

Features

Pitcher plants are becoming rarer every year as more and more of their habitat is drained for development or polluted by human activity. Several of the species are listed as Endangered or Threatened by various states agencies and conservation organizations, and none should ever be collected from the wild.

Steve Christman 4/26/01; updated 5/12/01, 3/19/03, 12/26/03, 2/2/08



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