Spring is nigh and Sarracenia (aka North American pitcher plants) are in bloom. Are you ready to play matchmaker? In this post, we’ll cover the general anatomy of a Sarracenia flower and how to pollinate your pitcher plants so that they produce seed later in the season. These techniques can be used for self-pollinating individual flowers, or for making fun hybrids from the plants within your collection!
Before we get started, I just want to point you to our glossary of carnivorous plant terms, should you have questions about any of the terminology we use, below.
Step 1: Understand your pitcher plant flowers
Sarracenia flowers are beautiful – in fact, I would compare their complexity and beauty to those of orchids. This complexity is the result of clever mechanisms that help ensure cross-pollination among pitcher plant communities. They’re simple enough for pollinators to navigate, but can be a little tricky for humans to figure out. We’ve got you covered.
Above, you’ll see a cross section of a Sarracenia flower with labeled parts. If the pitcher plant is mature enough to flower (3-4 years old, on average), a bud will emerge in late winter or early spring from the Sarracenia’s crown, or growth point. It will grow between 6 inches to 2.5 feet before the tip of the bud “nods,” or hooks around to face the ground. From here, the bud will begin to develop distinct petals, and when ready, the flower will unfold.
If you look at an open, in-tact flower, it almost looks like a little inverted umbrella (the style) with petals dangling from it. Hiding behind those petals, inside the umbrella style, you’ll find all of the baby-making parts. When ripe, anthers produce pollen that drops onto the inverted umbrella, and near the inside tips of the umbrella are downward-hooked stigmas – the parts that you’ll need to deposit pollen on in order to produce seed.
This design is clever because bees, the flower’s most common pollinator, can only enter the flower to collect pollen by first passing over the female stigma on their way in. When they leave covered in pollen, they’re coaxed out a different path – between the petals – that avoids them coming into contact with the stigma. In this way, the plant avoids self-pollinating, and passes its genes along to the next flower that the bee encounters, promoting genetic diversity and healthier populations of plants.
Step 2: Quarantine your flowers if you’d like to selectively hybridize pitcher plants
Many people take Sarracenia hybridization very seriously, and want to try a specific cross between two plants in their collection. If this is you, you’ll want to isolate or quarantine your flowering plants to make sure that natural pollination doesn’t occur via an insect, or even the wind blowing pollen around. Some people bring their Sarracenia inside when flowers are ready to open, and some people “bag” their flowers to keep away pollinators. Bringing them inside is the safer method because bags are susceptible to passing breezes shaking or blowing pollen around within a flower. This can result in self-pollination before you’re able to make your cross.
Step 3: Collect pitcher plant pollen
Become the bee. Between 2-5 days after your flower opens, anthers will ripen and drop pollen onto the inside of the umbrella. When this happens, lift a petal and use a cotton swab or fine paintbrush to dab and collect the pollen off of the umbrella. Avoid brushing the stigma with this pollen if you don’t want to self-pollinate the plant.
By the way, if the flowers that you’d like to cross don’t open at the same time during the season, you can collect and preserve pollen by keeping it dry and storing it in the refrigerator for several weeks.
Step 4: Fertilize your pitcher plants
Take the pollen you just collected and deposit it onto each of the five stigmas of the plant you would like to hybridize with. Be sure to label your pollinated flowers! There’s a great chance, if you have more than two plants, that you’ll forget which flower you pollinated using which other flower’s pollen. Tie a tag or tape a label to the stalk of the “pod parent” you just pollinated. Track the cross by writing down the name of this pod/mother plant “x” the name of the pollen/father plant.
Example: If I place pollen from Sarracenia flava var. rubicorpora onto the stigma of Sarracenia leucophylla purple lips, the tag will read “S. leucophylla purple lips x flava var. rubicopora”.
Step 5: Watch pitcher plant seeds develop
The petals on your flowers will drop off after a little while, leaving the umbrella style and sepals. Frequently, the remaining bits will tilt upwards, and you will start to see the seedpod swell over the next few months.
Step 6: Harvest your pitcher plant seeds
It’s autumn! Your seedpods are turning brown, drying out, and may show signs of cracking. Time to cut down the flower stalk, take things inside, and extract your seeds.
Cut off remaining unnecessary flower parts, and start chipping, or peeling back the pod casing. If you pollinated your pitcher plant successfully, you’ll seed sesame-sized seeds bunched together within the pod. Remove them and prepare for storage or stratification!
Step 7: Preserve or stratify your seeds in preparation for sowing
To preserve your seeds for a later date, keep them dry, and place them in the refrigerator. Using a small envelope helps. Remember to include the name of your cross on the envelope so that you can identify them when the time comes to sow your seeds.
If you’d like to immediately start preparing to sow your seed, you’ll need to pump the brakes a bit. Sarracenia seed require a stratification period of about 2-3 months. The seeds have a naturally hydrophobic (repels water) coating on them that, in the wild, allows them to float away from a mother plant during heavy rains. This prevents direct competition around the mother plant, and allows the seeds to disperse. In order to germinate, this hydrophobic layer needs to be worn down, first.
To do so, wet paper towels with distilled, rain, or reverse osmosis water, sprinkle your seed onto them, and fold the towel in half so that the seed are completely covered. Gently wring out excess water. Place the damp towel in some sealable Tupperware and place this in your refrigerator. The combination of moisture and cool temperatures will mimic wet winters in natural habitats, and cause the hydrophobic layer to wear away within 2-3 months. We’ll leave sowing the seed for another post.
Optional Step 8: Forget the whole thing, and just buy some great seed to grow pitcher plants without the hassle
Yah, it’s a lot of tedious work, waiting, and hoping you pollinated plants successfully. You won’t reallllly know how things went until you harvest the seed. It’s a super rewarding process, but it requires planning and patients. Feel free to cut out the planning and patients portion and just buy some dang good seeds from some darn good breeders with amazing cultivar plants, here, or see a few options, below:
- Sarracenia Seed – S. jonesii x (leucophylla Purple Lips x flava Ornata) (99)Product on sale
- Sarracenia Seed – S. Leah Wilkerson x Adrian Slack (98)Product on sale
- Sarracenia Seed – S. Super Giant Red x flava #12 Rubricorpora Liz (88)Product on sale
I hope this breakdown of pollinating your pitcher plants and making fun crosses helped. Let me know if you have any questions or comments in the comment section, below, and I’ll be happy to respond! Happy growing!