Not Purple, Not a People Eater
RARE CARNIVEROUS PLANTS IN THE JOHN A. SEGUR WILDLIFE RESERVE
Jill Rundle with Barry Rice, PhD
FROM THE 2017 EDITION OF LAND, LAKES & US MAGAZINE
Cool day in October. Foliage is coming along nicely, migrating wildfowl nattering away in the flyways, water level low. Perfect time to visit the newest Greater Lovell Land Trust preserve with its bog-side trails, easy terrain, and views of the Sucker Brook wetlands.
My walking partner is up ahead, eyes to the sky, looking for the geese. I am mostly looking at my feet, trying to avoid a nosedive over a rock. He’s way up ahead, I’m looking straight down at my shoes and I spot this thing:
For some reason I happen to know that it’s a “pitcher plant.” I’ve never seen one before, and it doesn’t look particularly unusual (although it is a very bright green for this late in the season.) Nevertheless, I know that this is one, and that pitcher plants are carnivorous and rather surprising to spot. Looking more closely, I could just see into one of the pitchers where a little bundle of recent victims were being slowly digested in a pool of noxious liquid.
When I get home I go online to try to identify the plant. It’s easy to find the only variety that’s common to the Northeast, Sarracenia purpurea, but it’s purple. And it’s small. The Sucker Brook pitcher plant is not purple, not even a little. It is most decidedly green, and it’s actually quite tall (for a pitcher plant). The pitchers are as much as 8” tall.
Clicking some more I come across a web site all about pitcher plants. Not a section in a plant site, not even a section in a carnivorous plant site—a pitcher plant site: sarracenia.com. But there still isn’t anything helping me to get the tall green pitchers to fit into the short purple plant description. Ah, but there’s a Facebook link, so I post a question:
Hello. I came across a surprising plant in the periphery of a bog in the mountains of western Maine. It is all green, and the “pitchers” range up to 8” or so long. There were two plants, and they have probably suffered a little cold damage at this time of year, but several pitchers were still upright. It’s not even a little bit purple, so it doesn’t fit that taxonomic type. It’s quite wild and far from any possible gardener gone rogue. Do you suppose it is purura, or some other type?
And just before I shut down the computer for the night, only moments later, there’s a response in the messenger:
Hey Jill, Thanks for your text. You’ve found a morph of the plant called “forma heterophylla.” It’s quite rare, but locally abundant where it does occur.
Would you be willing to tell me the name of the bog, and information about its location? I can keep this in my files for the conservationists who work on this genus.
PS: Please do not collect this plant. It is difficult to grow even in the best of conditions, and is best left alone.
Not only is the Sucker Brook bog home to a pitcher plant, but it’s a rare morph with its own team of conservationists! Our Facebook friend and I worked a little on the fine points of the plant’s location and from there an online conversation started:
BARRY What would you like to know?
JILL There was a little cluster of something that looked like bugs in the pitcher. How does it work and what creatures does it eat?
BARRY This species is one of about ten in its genus, and they all have evolved features to help lure, kill, and digest prey. The leaves are (usually!) colorful and bearing nectar glands—all perhaps to emulate flowers and lure in prey; hairs on the lid point towards the pitcher mouth, guiding prey to the pitcher; the interior of the pitcher is waxy and smooth, preventing the escape of prey. Your species mostly relies upon bacteria to decompose the prey, but most of the species produce digestive enzymes. These plants eat any insects and invertebrates small enough to get trapped. Flies, bees, beetles, gnats, mosquitoes—you name it!
JILL This plant didn’t fit any of the descriptions I read, but you’re sure it’s Sarracenia purpurea. What’s going on with these plants?
BARRY Sarracenia purpurea is the most widespread species in its genus, with many forms. Botanists are still trying to figure out the best way to classify it.
Very rarely, a mutation will occur that prevents the plant from producing its characteristic purple-red pigment (anthocyanin). As a result, the “purple pitcher plant” that you found isn’t purple. Technically, its full name is Sarracenia purpurea var. purpurea f. heterophylla.
JILL Are the pitchers leaves or flowers? Why to the bugs go into them… and why don’t they climb out?
BARRY The pitchers are the leaves! But they kind of fooled you, didn’t they? That’s the point—if it almost fooled you, the bugs have no chance. They’ll think it’s a flower, enter it looking for nectar and pollen, and instead find a slippery-walled pit filled with digestive-enzyme-laced water!
JILL Does the plant flower, and when would be a time to go see it in flower?
BARRY Yes, this plant flowers every spring. A flower stalk emerges from the center of the rosette, bearing a single flower. When it fully opens, it has five dangling petals and is quite lovely in its strange way. Even after the petals drop, the flower is still quite showy for several months longer, as the seeds mature.
JILL Is this plant endangered, and what threatens it?
BARRY Carnivorous plants like this have very specific needs. They need pure water and clean, low nutrient soils, and lots of sunlight. Unfortunately, we are polluting our environment. Pollutants are actually rich in nitrogen-rich compounds that will kill plants like carnivorous plants and bog orchids that need pure water. So, basically, these plants are endangered by land destruction (bog draining) and pollution.
Across the USA, we estimate that 75-95% of the carnivorous plant habitat has been destroyed—so yeah, these plants are in trouble. We’re not talking about trying to protect a slice of the pie—we’re down to the crumbs!
Now, as a geeky side note, the terms “endangered” and “threatened” in conservation have legal definitions related to the Endangered Species Act. This plant doesn’t fall into those categories. But that aside, yes, they’re certainly endangered!
JILL Why is conservation of plants like this important, and who is working on it?
BARRY Carnivorous plants don’t do anything practical, in terms of commerce or the economy. But they fall into the essential category of things that make our planet of life so precious and wonderful.
Also, carnivorous plants are like the proverbial “canary in the coal mine.” I’ve seen habitats that still appear generally healthy but that have lost their carnivorous plants over time, and it is because critical ecosystem attributes are collapsing. These are the same ecosystem services that we find important, like flood control and, oh, oxygen production!
Who is working to protect carnivorous plants? I’d say it’s being done in part by the forward-looking work of regional agencies like the Greater Lovell Land Trust! You’re doing the heavy lifting of actually managing habitat to preserve the critical ecosystem elements. That’s awesome! On a larger scale, organizations like The Nature Conservancy are doing amazing and critical work, too.
JILL You said not to disrupt it, and that it’s hard to grow. That makes sense for our preserve. But it eats bugs. It seems like it would be a great plant to have around the house. Wouldn’t it be good for bug-control in a garden?
BARRY It turns out that only a tiny percentage of bugs that visit carnivorous plants actually get captured. These plants are really cool, but carnivorous plants are pretty ineffectual predators. If you wanted to grow them at home you’d have to have water-filled basins and such and, as a consequence, you would probably wind up attracting more bugs than you would without the carnivorous plants!
In truth, carnivorous plants are easy to grow, but only if you can provide the right conditions. If you tried to grow them without researching their needs ahead of time, you’d kill them.
JILL Are carnivorous plants ecologically important? Do they provide any food or habitat for other species?
BARRY Carnivorous plants only grow in rather specialized habitats and, even then, they don’t usually occur in large numbers. So no, they don’t have much of an ecological footprint.
JILL Are there other carnivorous plants in our zone? Where might we see them and what should we look for?
BARRY This is the only pitcher plant species in your region—although usually you would see the variant with the purple pigment.
There are species of sundews (Drosera), which are small rosetted plants covered with dewy droplets that act both as trapping glue and digestors. Also you should expect to find aquatic bladderworts that are carnivorous, in the genus Utricularia. If you see any floating lake weeds which, when you pull them out of the water, bear countless little bladders, you’ve found a bladderwort. These bladders are small—pinhead sized to as big as a caper—but they are little aquatic suction traps that eat anything tiny they can catch!
Looking at the Sucker Brook bog via Google Earth, I’d be VERY surprised if Sarracenia purpurea is the only carnivore in the Segur preserve.
JILL Are these plants (or any carnivorous plants) dangerous? Do we need to be careful when we find them in the wild?
BARRY Well, when you find them you may discover that carnivorous plants can have a profound effect on people! I find that children (in particular) become fascinated by them and, as a result, may spend more time outside learning about the environment. In the worst of these cases, such children might pursue careers in the sciences!
Just by discovering these fascinating plants in the bog you may attract hikers who might not have visited the preserve. There’s a risk that those folks may become more interested in the work of the Greater Lovell Land Trust!
JILL Thanks for taking the time to chat, one last question. You’re a professor of astronomy and astrobiology at Sienna College, how are astronomy and carnivorous plants related?
BARRY Venus flytrap—need I say more?
Seriously, my specialty is astrobiology, the study of life in its various forms, and the habitats in which it is found—on Earth and potentially many of the thousands of other planets we now know of. Carnivorous plants are just another case of how our conventional and simple definitions of life defy easy classification!
It was remarkable to discover both an expert on our unusual plant and the existence of a community of scientists and researchers that are so interested in our local ecology. The presence of a bellwether plant in our area reinforces the Greater Lovell Land Trust commitment to the preservation of our local environment, and reminds me that there is much to be learned by watching my step!
Barry Rice, PhD, is an American botanist and author of the book “Growing Carnivorous Plants.” He also maintains the website sarracenia.com (with detailed FAQs on the plants) and is co-editor of the “Carnivorous Plant Newsletter, Journal of the International Carnivorous Plant Society.” In addition to carnivorous plants, he studies invasive species and cacti.
Before he found his interest in carnivorous plants he was a researcher at Steward Observatory where his work concerned the formation of young stars in the Milky Way. Today he is both botanist and a tenured professor of astronomy and astro-biology at Sierra College, California.
Jill Rundle, a board member of the GLLT, is Executive Editor and Network Curator for Global Solution Networks, a study of global problem-solving organizations.
When not writing, blogging and tweeting, she takes her camera for walks in the woods around Lovell.