North American Pitcher Plant – Sarracenia
The North American pitcher plant is a master of deception. Beautiful pitcher-shaped traps are actually intricate natural adaptations to capture and digest insects in order to uptake minerals otherwise lacking in soil. Through the use of several different luring and trapping tactics, the plant practically ensures that it will be well fed.
There are eight different species of Sarracenia – purple pitcher plants (Sarracenia purpurea), yellow trumpet plants (S. flava), sweet trumpets (S. rubra), pale trumpets (S. alata), white trumpets (S. leucophylla), mountain trumpets (S. oreophila), hooded pitcher plants (S. minor), and parrot pitcher plants (S. psittacina) – and hundreds of cultivars, variations, hybrids, and subspecies.
With so many different plants, the North American pitcher plant maintains a diverse variety of colors, shapes, and trapping mechanisms – making each plant a unique and beautiful addition to any carnivorous plant collection.
Biology of a North American Pitcher Plant
While the North American Pitcher Plant’s trap is simply referred to as a “pitfall” trap due to insects falling into it, it is a highly-evolved multi-part insect-devouring mechanism. Trapping mechanisms vary across the 8 species of Sarracenia, but all leverage passive means of catching prey. Unlike some other carnivorous plants that expend energy by moving to catch bugs, pitcher plant traps are passive, and rely on the clever combination of irresistible lures. Slippery, intoxicating nectar trails lead to the mouth of a pitcher trap, needle-like hairs point towards it, and the opening itself has a slick, waxy surface. This confluence of mechanisms leaves little room for insect error as they drunkly stumble along the edge of death. One mistake, and unwitting insects fall inside a pitcher and become lunch:
Sub-soil biology & requirements
Sarracenia flourish in a generally acidic soil mixture (see below for recipe) that stays permanently damp to wet. Their root system branches off of a main rhizome that becomes woody as old growth dies back. New growth points sprout off of this main rhizome, and can be divided from the parent plant as long as there are a few supporting roots attached.
North American pitcher plants are warm temperate, enjoying warm summers and surviving brief freezes and light frosts during the winter. All require a three to four month winter dormancy. If grown outdoors, cooler temperatures and a shorter photoperiod will frequently trigger Sarracenia dormancy automatically, but greenhouse growing may require human intervention. During dormancy, pitcher production stops, and existing pitchers on most species die back. Come late winter or early spring, the plants will rise-ome (see what I did there?) from their slumber and kick off seasonal pitcher production. Some pitcher plants produce traps consistently throughout an entire growing season while others space out pitcher production into crops during spring, early summer, and late summer.
Sarracenia flowers are in a beauty competition with the rest of the plant and rival showy orchids. But they’re not just beauty – they’re also brains. They’ve evolved a clever trick to promote cross pollination, and a healthier, more diverse gene pool. Bees will land on the sepal of the flower (see 2nd image, above), and crawl down to the stigma. The female stigma is the only entry point to reach the male stamens, and the pollen they produce. If those bees have already visited other Sarracenia flowers, as they crawl over the stigma, they transfer pollen to that plant. Once inside, bees take a pollen bath, and head to the next flower by squeezing under the flower petals and avoiding contact with the same stigmas – preventing self-pollination.
Below, we’ll cover manual pollination, hybridization, and seed production:
Where to find North American Pitcher Plants in the wild
North American pitcher plants used to be native to most of the southeastern coastal plains of North America. Unfortunately, due to man-made developments, drainage of wetlands, and the suppression of naturally occurring fires that clear brush, many pitcher plants are endangered – some like S. oreophila critically so. Illegal poaching is still an issue, so do your part to preserve these amazing plants by purchasing from reputable retailers. Below you’ll find a map of locations where the plants are still found in the wild.