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Pitcher plants at Beaver Lake Nature Center, Baldwinsville NY. Photo: Don Rogers via Flickr, some rights reserved
Pitcher plants at Beaver Lake Nature Center, Baldwinsville NY. Photo: Don Rogers via Flickr, some rights reserved

Natural Selections: Pitcher Plants

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Most carnivorous plants, such as the pitcher plant commonly found in Adirondack bogs, live in poor soils. Unwary insects are drawn to a sweet bait to supplement their diet. Curt Stager and Martha Foley discuss these botanical oddballs, which may live as long as 50 years.

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Pitcher plants are carnivorous, and they eat insects. This is because there are very few other food sources available to them in the Adirondack bogs where they live.

 “You’ll find insect eaters in a habitat like a bog where there’s not a lot of nutrition; there’s not really a soil there, it’s very acidic, and not a lot of microbes there breaking down stuff to make the soil good for plants,” said Dr. Curt Stager of Paul Smith’s College. “So it’s really tough for these kinds of plants.”

Pitcher plants have folded leaves that are sealed into a small cup or cylinder. The top is left open to collect rainwater and to allow insects to enter. According to Stager, the plants attract insects with bright colors or nectars. The pitcher plant’s nectar is about 50% sugar and very sweet, but not sticky. “And there are also downward-pointing hairs and slippery cells,” said Stager.

Insects are attracted to the nectar, and they slide into the pitcher of the plant when they land on its slippery edge. Some carnivorous plants, such as Venus Flytraps, digest the insects. “But pitcher plants don’t,” said Stager. “The actual digestion is done by things that live in the pool. So they made sort of a habitat that attracts bacteria and protozoans and rotifers.”

Organic matter accumulates at the bottom of this tiny, stagnant pond and decays and acts as a sort of mulch for the pitcher plant. Stager said, “The roots aren’t doing a lot of that kind of work. They’re mainly for anchoring. So it’s like making your own little pot of garden soil inside the pitcher on the bottom.”

Pitcher plants have flowers that are on separate stalks than the leafy pitcher. Stager says that the flowers are red and have stalks that curve over the plant. The flowers also have nectar in them so that insects will land on the flowers and pollinate them. Stager said, “It’s pretty neat, the flower makes nectar too. In fact, it can be so concentrated that if you look underneath, sometimes there are little crystals of sugar in there; it’s like candy.”

According to Stager, some field studies have been conducted to discover how insects deal with the potential threat of the plant and its inviting flower. It turns out that the insects that visit the flowers are different from the ones that end up in the pitchers. Stager explained, “In the pitchers, it’s mostly ants that walk around and fall in. Or sometimes we get certain types of flies. The ones coming to the flower are mostly bees.”

The bees don’t fall into the pitcher because if the plant makes a flower, the pitchers wait until the flower is done to make nectar. If the plant is not going to make a flower that year, the new pitchers make nectar continuously. “It’s kind of a neat coordination system going on there where they don’t send mixed messages to the insects,” said Stager.

The plants grow new pitchers throughout the summer, and one plant can have as many as 10 pitchers. The pitchers only last a year or two, but the plant itself can live for 50 years. Stager said, “You can see last year’s pitchers kind of off to the side, and they’re all dried and shriveled. It turns out when that year’s new pitchers first came up, maybe in June let’s say, they didn’t have a lot of nutrition to grow with so they took it all from the old pitchers. They sort of donated their bodies.”

This cycle continues throughout the plant’s life. The pitcher plant is a protected species, and it is illegal to transplant them.

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