The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Pitcher Plants - unique garden additions

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
Extension Educator, Horticulture
slmason@illinois.edu

How can a plant be both common and rare? In their native range Pitcher Plants, Sarracenia spp, are found in nearly all states east of the Mississippi River and in most provinces of Canada. With such an extensive native range, why aren't we tripping head first into pitchers? Land fit for pitchers is unfit for stores, cows, and corn. Pitcher plants must have wetlands. The past trend of taking the wet out of wetlands has left pitchers high and dry for a natural place to live.

Pitchers are known for their hollow tubular leaves that can digest insects for nutrients. The leaf morphology confused early botanists. In the Natural History of Carolina, Florida and Bahamas published in 1754 botanist Mark Catesby remarked, "[the] hollows of these leaves ... always retain some water and seem to serve as an asylum or secure retreat for numerous insects." Obviously Catesby was confused by the insect's rapture. The leaves are more morgue than refuge. It wasn't until the 19th century when James McBride, Charles Darwin, and others conducted experiments in fly fatalities from foliage. One can imagine the scientists exclaiming to their dinner guests, "hey watch this," as one more fly perishes.

Pitchers are the pacifists in the diverse group known as carnivorous plants. However they leave little to chance as they lure insects to their death using colors and sweet scents. By land and by air insects are attracted to the nectar especially abundant at the back of the amphitheater lid. As the insects do their best acrobatics to stay on top and get the nectar, many fall to the bottom of the leaf. The leaf's waxy interior and downward facing hairs keep the insects trapped where they eventually drown. Digestive juices reap the benefits of the carnage.

Out of all the species of pitcher plants Purple Pitcher Plant, Sarracenia purpurea, is the easiest for the gardener to grow with its extensive hardiness range of zones 2-9 and its forgiving nature in soil pH. The plant includes 5-20 leaves in short broad rosettes. Young plants are more creamers than pitchers for the plants take a couple years to mature to full size. The green leaves are marked with a crackled glaze of purple veins. Several subspecies are recognized including ones with leaf color variations of all green or all purple. Botanists generally recognize two subspecies, the northern S. purpurea purpurea and the southern S. purpurea venosa. The northern subspecies is more cold-hardy and will tolerate temperature to -25degrees C.

Full sun to light shade is a must, however, not only for good purple coloration but for healthy plants. Pitchers also require water saturated soils and even grow in standing water. No need to fertilize. Plants get plenty of insects on their own. Be sure to tell the kids not to feed them hamburger as is often thought necessary. If your garden doesn't naturally come with a bog, one can be built with judicious use of pond liners and a low fertility sand/peat mix. Pitchers are also perfectly content in containers.

The pitcher plant cycle includes a bloom period of 2-3 weeks in spring. The Scotch bonnet red flowers are held on six inch stalks. Toads and turtles get the best view of the downward facing flowers but we can still enjoy the flower show. Flowers are followed by new pitchers throughout the season.

Pitcher plants are for the true dish collector. Check out the bog garden at the Master Gardener's Idea Garden located south of the corner of Florida and Lincoln Avenues in Urbana.

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