Carnivorous Plant Care: Unveiling the Enigmatic American Pitcher Plant

Sarracenia leucophylla, a tall southern pitcher plant native to the Gulf Coast; photo courtesy of Flickr cc/ incidencematrix

The American Pitcher Plant, known scientifically as Sarracenia, is a fascinating and captivating carnivorous plant. It boasts a uniquely shaped pitcher trap that cleverly lures unsuspecting prey. While initially mistaken for a water-holding device, this plant’s true carnivorous nature was eventually discovered. The first recorded description of the pitcher plant dates back to 1658 by √Čtienne de Flacourt, the French governor of Madagascar. Flacourt described it as a small vase-like leaf that transforms into a hollow, sealed pitcher with a distinctive pop-up lid as it matures.

Entrapping the Unsuspecting Prey

The pitcher plant entices insects with its glistening nectar and vibrant patterns. Insects, intoxicated by the allure, follow nectar trails and find themselves crawling up the length of the pitcher. Guided by intricate color patterns, they eventually stumble into the treacherous parts of the plant’s leaf and fall into the tube-like structure. The fluttering of their wings can create a vacuum that drags them deeper into the pitcher. The interior of the pitcher is either too smooth and waxy for them to escape or lined with downward angled hairs that render their escape impossible. To ensure the plant’s survival, it secretes enzymes in the deepest part of the tube, swiftly digesting its captured prey.

The Varied World of Sarracenia

Sarracenia encompasses numerous species, subspecies, varieties, and hybrids. Among them, the northern purple pitcher plant, scientifically known as Sarracenia purpurea subsp. purpurea, is the sole species found north of Virginia. Another popular member of this family is the yellow trumpet plant, Sarracenia flava, which can grow up to 20 inches and mature to a towering height of 36 inches or more. Unlike S. purpurea, S. flava features a horizontal lid that covers its flared mouth and broad lip, offering protection from rain.

Ensuring Optimal Growth: A Guide for Care

Hardiness:

Pitcher plants thrive in outdoor environments, though some species can be cultivated in greenhouses or indoor settings. Most species prefer warm, temperate climates and can tolerate light frosts and brief freezes. However, S. purpurea subsp. purpurea requires cold, temperate climates and can endure extended deep freezes during winter.

Before purchasing your pitcher plant, consult with your nursery or retailer to ensure that your selected species is fully winter hardy in your USDA zone or suitable for indoor growth. In case your plant is not fully hardy for outdoor conditions, it is essential to provide it with a cold greenhouse, garage, or enclosed porch during winter, where sufficient light and temperatures within the plant’s threshold can be maintained. In warmer regions, providing protection from scorching mid-summer sun is crucial.

Light:

For optimal growth, pitcher plants thrive in full sun conditions. If your plant appears floppy or loses its vibrant color, it may be an indication that it is not receiving adequate sunlight.

Growing taller pitcher plants indoors and providing them with sufficient light can be challenging. However, lower-growing species like S. purpurea, S. psittacina, and S. rosea, which naturally thrive in the shade of taller plants, are more suitable for indoor cultivation. If using artificial lighting, ensure a photoperiod of 8 to 10 hours in winter and 16 to 18 hours in summer. Remember that artificial light is not as potent as natural light, necessitating extended hours of illumination. During winter, most indoor pitcher plants require a period of dormancy characterized by lower temperatures and reduced water intake (see Winter Dormancy).

Water:

Pitcher plants thrive in consistently moist to very wet soil conditions. A common method of cultivation involves placing the plants in pots within a water-filled tray, ensuring that the water level remains at approximately one inch. Avoid completely submerging the pots or allowing them to dry out entirely.

When watering your pitcher plant, it is vital to use only rainwater, distilled water, or reverse osmosis water. Most tap water contains elements that are detrimental to the health of your plant.

Soil:

Transplanting pitcher plants every three to five years during their dormancy period is recommended. Sarracenia species thrive in a potting mix consisting of one part sphagnum peat moss to one part perlite or coarse sand (avoid beach sand). Avoid using potting media with added fertilizers. Plastic or glazed ceramic containers with a diameter of four inches are ideal for starter plants. Terracotta pots tend to dry out quickly. As plants mature, they may require larger pots with a diameter of six to eight inches or more.

Feeding:

Outdoor pitcher plants typically catch sufficient insect prey to meet their nutritional needs. It is unnecessary to supplement their soil with additional fertilizers. However, if cultivating an American pitcher plant indoors, dried crickets can be provided as a source of nutrition.

Winter Dormancy:

Native pitcher plants require a period of winter dormancy lasting three to five months, during which temperatures and photoperiods are reduced. The most significant factor triggering dormancy in Sarracenia is diminishing natural light. As the days shorten, the plant naturally enters a dormant state, regardless of temperature. However, to ensure a fully dormant plant, it is essential to lower both temperature and moisture levels while maintaining slightly damp growing medium.

If your pitcher plant is not fully hardy in your specific region, it may require protection such as heavy pine mulch or relocation to a cold and well-lit space, like a garage, greenhouse, or sun porch, to avoid frost damage.

Propagation:

Propagation of Sarracenia is typically achieved through offshoots produced by mature plants. Sarracenia rubra is an excellent species for producing numerous offshoots. Propagation is most successful during winter or early spring. To minimize transplant shock, soak divisions in a vitamin B1 solution or Superthrive. When replanting, position the rhizome horizontally, roots downward, and ensure that the growing points are at the soil surface. Any emerging flowers that drain resources from the new division should be removed.

Seasonal Care:

Throughout the year, Sarracenia exhibits distinct patterns of behavior. In the spring, these plants may flower and produce new pitchers during the summer. As winter dormancy approaches, new non-trapping leaves may emerge. During this period, it is advisable to trim only the brown parts of the leaves as the living portions continue to provide resources to the plant.

The enigmatic American Pitcher Plant, with its intricate traps and elaborate adaptations, is a captivating addition to any carnivorous plant collection. By following these care guidelines, you can ensure the optimal growth and well-being of your pitcher plant. So, indulge your curiosity and embark on an enthralling journey into the world of carnivorous botany!