Introduction to Sarracenia - The Carnivorous Pitcher Plant
Carnivorous plants are certainly some of the coolest and most exotic plants in the plant kingdom as plant carnivory is extremely rare. The largest group of these plants are the carnivorous pitcher plants and one of the largest genera of pitcher plants is the genus sarracenia. Sarracenias are very exotic, almost alien-looking plants that have unusual leaf shapes and incredible colors. They make excellent garden plants in moist places in the garden or as container or terrarium plants. If you are a fan of growing colorful, unusual, meat-eating plants, then Sarracenias are for you. Whether it's their unique foliage, fabulous flowers, or ability to rid the world of unwanted insect pests, Sarracenias are indeed a wonderful group of plants.
We at Plant Delights Nursery and Juniper Level Botanic Gardens grow 47 accessions of carnivorous pitcher plants in our gardens and we offer around one dozen species for sale. We urge our readers to visit the garden during our Open Nursery and Garden Days to see our collection and to also check out our website to view our offerings.
Sarracenia History and Background
Sarracenias have been known to science since the 1570s, when the first New World plant collections found their way to European botanists. The botanist Carolus Clusius (in 1601) was amazed by the pitchers but was not sure of their purpose. In 1754, botanist Mark Catesby described several new species of Sarracenia and noted that the hollow leaves served as some sort of retreat or asylum for insects. However, it was not until 1815 that James MacBride observed pitcher plants closely and saw that flies, attracted by nectar, entered the pitcher, where they became trapped inside and died. In the 1870s J.H. Mellichamp and W.M. Canby made careful observations of Sarracenia plants and directly observed that the fluid excreted inside the pitcher hastened the decomposition of the trapped insects. Charles Darwin wrote a book in 1875 titled Insectivorous Plants which focused on sundews (Drosera) but also theorized that Sarracenias were insect-eaters. Finally, in 1904, the scientist C.A. Fenner put all of the information together, and proved the carnivorous nature of sarracenias. Sarracenias were very popular in British gardens in the nineteenth century and, as is so often the case with our native plants, were not popular in the US until "introduced" back to America by the British.
Pitcher plants "eat" insects by luring them into a specialized, cylindrical leaf (the pitcher) using a combination of nectar, sweet scent, and conspicuous coloration. The pitcher is an amazing structure that is able to catch insects with no moving parts. This method of luring insects with nectar is normally restricted to flowers, but pitcher plants use their leaves as lures. The insects are forced to walk on a slippery vertical surface in order to get to the nectar. Invariably, they slip and fall down to the bottom of the pitcher into a pool of water. The insects will either drown or die of exhaustion while trying to escape the watery trap. Since the inside surface of the pitcher is very slippery and contains downward pointing hairs, it is very difficult for insects to climb out of the pitcher. Flying insects are intentionally mis-lead by semi-transparent "windows" (areoles) in the pitcher that confuse the insects and lure them away from the real exit. Once the insects die, specialized glands on the inside surface of the pitcher excrete a fluid containing digestive enzymes which liquefies the errant insects. The liquid, nutrient-rich, bug slurry is then absorbed into the leaf providing the pitcher plant with nitrates and phosphates. The main prey of Sarracenias are ants, flies, wasps, bees, beetles, slugs and snails.
Carnivorous behavior evolved in plants that live in barren, nutrient deficient environments. These are typically swampy environments with very acidic soil and little or no nitrogen or phosphorus. Carnivorous plants use insects solely to get access to the nitrogen and phosphorus contained in their bodies. Pitcher "traps" are one of five major types of insect-capturing mechanisms that plants have evolved. The other common ones are: Sticky-Flypaper traps that adhere to and suffocate insects (sundew), Bear traps that quickly twist or wrap around prey (Venus fly trap, Dionaea), Bladder traps that use an underwater vacuum to suck prey into a bladder (bladderwort), and Cork-Screw traps that make an underground structure that insects can enter but cannot exit (corkscrew plants). All of these plants trap their prey and then rely on bacterial decomposition or enzyme action to break down the insect into its mineral components which are absorbed into the leaf. A recent paper by M.W. Chase of Kew Gardens hypothesizes that there are many more carnivorous plants than science currently recognizes. Many plants have structures that kill insects but do not digest them or absorb the nutrients. Instead, the dead bodies fall to the ground and decompose naturally, releasing nutrients to the roots. This type of pseudo-carnivorous plant group includes common garden plants such as silene (catch-fly), tomato, potato and petunia.
Pitcher traps are quite effective, thus several distantly related plant families have evolved them at separate times. Pitcher traps are physically the largest of all the carnivorous plant trap mechanisms; some can hold over a liter of water and catch small animals such as frogs or rats. Some pitcher plants are not carnivorous, but are instead detritivores. They eat the "ahem" excrement of birds or small animals that use the pitchers as toilets (I need to get some of these for my two dogs). Pitcher traps are widely considered to have the most beautiful trap mechanisms due to their amazing colors and shapes.
Author and pitcher plant expert, Stewart McPherson, hypothesizes that the pitcher plant family sarraciniaceae evolved sometime between the separation of dicots and monocots around 150-200 million years ago and the separation of the American land mass from Europe and Africa about 70 to 65 million years ago. Unfortunately there is no fossil record of Sarracenia plant parts or pollen to pinpoint their origin.
Sarracenia species and sub-species colonized the eastern half of America. At the peak of the last Ice Age during the Pleistocene Epoch (18,000 years ago), the current distributions of the various species of Sarracenia were fixed with the exception of Sarracenia purpurea ssp. purpurea. It followed the retreating glaciers from North Carolina to Canada.
Sarracenias are clump forming herbaceous perennials that grow as rosettes. The size of the individual wild species varies from 6" tall (Sarracenia minor) to over 36" tall (some subspecies of Sarracenia flava and Sarracenia leucophylla). The plants multiply into clumps form a slowly spreading rhizome and a single clump can eventually grow to be several feet or more in diameter. The pitchers arise from the branching rhizome which contains fibrous roots 8-12" (20-30cm) long along its length.
The pitcher is the main ornamental feature of the Sarracenia plant. It is a specialized carnivorous leaf that has morphed into a narrow, hollow cone known botanically as an ascidium. The pitcher performs all of the functions of a normal leaf including photosynthesis and water regulation. In addition, it has several adaptations that allow it to passively trap and digest prey. The opening to the pitcher is partly covered by an outgrowth on the apex of the pitcher, called the lid or hood (operculum) which prevents rain water from filling it up. The lid also shades the opening of the pitcher which camouflages it and makes it hard for the insects inside the trap to find the exit. The point of attachment of the lid to the pitcher is referred to as a throat, column, or neck. The inside face of the neck has a section called the nectar bait which may or may not be conspicuously colored. The neck exudes nectar primarily at this location. When insects climb into the pitcher to consume the nectar at the nectar bait they slip and fall into the pitcher.
The color of the pitcher varies widely amongst the subspecies and may be red, purple, white, green, yellow, copper or multi-colored. The lid may be held parallel, perpendicular, at an angle or may curve over the opening like a dome. In addition to nectar, Sarracenia flava produces a paralyzing toxin called Coniine to help trap insects which is the poison found in poison hemlock that killed Socrates. The pitcher itself may be straight as in most species or curved (Sarracenia purpurea). The pitcher is usually held vertically, but may lie horizontally on the ground (Sarracenia psittacina).
Sarracenia pitchers grow over a seasonal cycle. In the spring (April or May) there is a flush of growth following the bloom that lasts through the summer. The plant then enters a dormant state in the fall. Some pitcher plants have a flush of growth in the spring and again in the fall (Sarracenia leucophylla) but are quiescent in the summer and dormant in the winter. When the plants go dormant in the fall, many of the pitchers lie down, turn brown and die back. Sarracenia psittacina and Sarracenia purpurea are exceptions since their leaves stay evergreen for 12 to 18 months. Some pitcher plants produce different sized pitchers throughout the year and may have their largest showiest pitchers in the fall (some less-commonly in spring). The pitchers are often used in cut flower arrangements.
Some species of Sarracenia have non-carnivorous leaves (called phyllodia) in addition to the pitchers. Sarracenia alata, Sarracenia flava, Sarracenia leucophylla and Sarracenia oreophila all produce non-carnivorous sword-shaped (ensiform) foliage adapted specifically for photosynthesis. Which allows the plant to successfully over-winter. In addition, juvenile plants produce short (1"), red, tubular, non-carnivorous leaves for up to 3 years before they mature and produce their first true pitchers.
The flowers of Sarracenia are just as unusual and fascinating as the pitchers. The flowers are formed during a 2-3 week period during the spring April to May (the exact dates differ for each species). The flowers resemble upside down umbrellas atop 6"-24" tall stalks. The flower color may be red,purple, pink, yellow, white, or copper and the stigma may have a color that contrasts with the petals. Occasionally the petals or other flower parts may be multi-colored. Within 1-2 days of the flower opening, the stigmas become receptive and the anthers shed their pollen, which falls into the umbrella-like tray where it is available for insects to traverse on their way to the stigmas. Some pitcher plant species have self-fertile flowers and some do not. Similarly, some species have nicely scented flowers and some have no scent. Bees and other winged insects are the primary pollinators.
The Sarracenia seed pod that forms at the top of the upside-down umbrella is a dry capsule that splits open along 5 seams at maturity exposing from 20-300 small, papery, pear-shaped seeds. The seeds fall near the parent plant but are buoyant and may float away. The seeds will germinate after a cold stratification period.
The largest family of pitcher-trap plants are the tropical pitcher plants in the family Nepenthaceae (order Caryophyllales) with at least 90 species. The Sarraciniaceae (order Ericales) are the second largest family with at least 24 species. The Cephalotaceae (order Oxalidales) is a monotypic family. All of these orders are dicots. There is also a monocot family, the Bromeliaceae (order Poales) that contains 3 species of plants with pitcher traps (Wow ... carnivorous bromeliads!). This wide variation of families having the same convergent evolutionary trait is a testament to the efficiency of the pitcher trap mechanism.
The genus Sarracenia contains 8 species, 20 subspecific variants (subspecies or varieties), 17 naturally occurring hybrid variants and dozens of artificially created hybrids. Members of the genus Sarracenia have the common name "trumpet pitcher plant". The other members of the family Sarraciniaceae are very similar in form including "marsh pitcher plants" in the tropical genus Heliamphora and the monotypic genus Darlingtonia which grows in Oregon and California and is commonly known as "cobra lily" (no relation to Arisaema). The name Sarracenia was given to the genus by the botanist/taxonomist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort to honor Dr. Michael Sarrazin, an eighteenth century Canadian physician who was the first to gather a large collection of them.
Native Distribution and Habitat of Sarracenia Plants
The genus Sarracenia is native to North America. Sarracenia has a horseshoe-shaped natural range that starts in eastern Texas eastward through the panhandle of Florida, moves north along the Atlantic coast states to Newfoundland, Canada, and then west through southern Canada all the way to British Columbia. The plants inhabit any permanently moist site including swamps, lake edges, river banks, boggy pine forests, marl fens, water springs or any other low-lying areas. Although they cannot live in permanently flooded areas, Sarracenias can survive well in areas that experience temporary floods and submersion. It is not surprising that they cannot tolerate long-term drought.
The greatest species diversity occurs between 30° and 40° north latitude. Sarracenia habitats may be coastal, piedmont or montane (mountainous). The individual species typically have small natural ranges, except for Sarracenia purpurea ssp. purpurea which extends from North Carolina and Tennessee north to Newfoundland and west to British Columbia. Where the natural ranges of the species overlap they readily hybridize. Sarracenias are generally tolerant of heat, but there is some variation in cold tolerance within the genus. The southern-most species (Sarracenia minor, Sarracenia alata, Sarracenia leucophylla, Sarracenia psittacina, and Sarracenia rubra) are winter hardy to Zone 6 (with many into Zone 5), while the northern Sarracenia purpurea ssp. purpurea can be grown into Zone 3.
All carnivorous plants in the US tend to be over-collected from their native habitats for sale, and Sarracenia is no exception. One of our missions at Plant Delights Nursery and Juniper Level Botanic Gardens is to preserve endangered and threatened plants through ex-situ conservation. Please refer to our published mission statement for details. As a carnivorous plant nursery we practice sarracenia conservation by propagation ... in other words we hope to preserve endangered species by providing nursery-propagated plants to the public. We grow ethically propagated native plants in our garden and provide them to our customers in order to preserve species that are under pressure in the wild.
Unfortunately, many species of Sarracenia are threatened or endangered in the wild due to the fact that their native habitats are being altered or inhabited by mankind. Sarracenia exists in the places that we like to build homes or farms ... adjacent to bodies of water. Humans have filled in lowland areas and have artificially lowered the water table in the majority of the sarracenia's natural range. It is estimated that over 97.5% of the original native habitat of the genus Sarracenia has disappeared since Europeans arrived in North America. Half of this habitat loss has occurred in the last 30 years according to Sarracenia experts. In the 1750s there were wetlands that extended for hundreds of miles all over the US today, most of these are gone causing many subspecies of Sarracenia to become locally extinct in large swathes of their historic ranges. Humans interfere with fire ecology to protect their property and agriculture but this has had the unintended affect of displacing Sarracenias since they benefit from periodic fires in their native habitats. Fires clear out the undergrowth and prevent the forest canopy from closing over. The Encyclopedia of Life (www.eol.org) has distribution maps of several Sarracenia species that show how few natural habitats remain.
The entire genus Sarracenia is listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Despite best intentions, CITES is a classic example of bureaucratic bungling, where the cure is almost worse than the problem it seeked to solve. The majority of Sarracenia species belong to Appendix II of the CITES agreement which means that the species are not necessarily threatened with extinction, but in which bureaucrats feel that trade must be controlled in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival. CITES fails miserably to take into account horticultural practices such as tissue culture, which have no detrimental affect on wild populations. Currently, three subspecies of Sarracenia belong to Appendix I of the CITES agreement which means that they are threatened with extinction and international trade is permitted only in exceptional circumstances. The Appendix I species are Sarracenia oreophila, Sarracenia alabamensis, and Sarracenia rubra ssp. jonesii.
The same three Sarracenias are also listed as endangered on the United States List of Endangered and Threatened Plants. Four other taxa of Sarracenia are also on the endangered species list as threatened: Sarracenia leucophylla, Sarracenia psittacina, Sarracenia rubra ssp. rubra, and Sarracenia rubra ssp. wherryi. In addition, Sarracenia oreophila and Sarracenia rubra ssp. jonesii are listed as endangered by the Center for Plant Conservation at the Missouri Botanical Garden.
Because of their threatened and endangered status, gardeners who grow Sarracenia should only purchase plants from reputable nurseries that propagate from cultivated stock plants. Look for labels that say "nursery propagated" or "from cultivated stock". Nurseries may sometimes use the ambiguous term "nursery grown" but that may simply mean the plant was harvested from the wild and put into a pot. Feel free to question the nursery about the origin of their plants. If you have any doubts, do not buy the plant. It is best to buy named cultivars, as these are all propagated from cultivated stock so there is no danger of them being wild-collected.
Please support societies that are working to conserve Sarracenia habitats. There are several organizations in the US whose aim it is to preserve and protect wild sarracenias. In addition to their conservation efforts, the Atlanta Botanical Garden in Atlanta, Georgia has a program to restore Sarracenia habitats in Georgia pioneered by ABG Conservation Director Ron Determan. ABG also maintains a large Sarracenia collection focused on genetic diversity. The Meadowview Biological Research Station is doing the same in Maryland and Virginia. The Center for Plant Conservation at the Missouri Botanical Garden has a living collection of Sarracenias that is used in re-population efforts. Dedicated to conservation and cultivation, the North American Sarracenia Conservancy works to preserve habitats all over North America.
Sarracenia Genetics and Breeding
Sarracenias are very easy to hybridize. There are no genetic barriers between the species, just geographic barriers (all Sarracenias have a chromosome number of 2n=26). As a result, natural and artificial hybrids are easy to produce and are common.
Many popular Sarracenia hybrids were developed by the team of Larry Mellichamp, of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and the late Rob Gardner, curator of the carnivorous plant collection at the North Carolina Botanical Gardens. Their goal was to create vigorous, compact plants with an upright habit, whose leaves were not affected by rain or wind, retained color throughout the winter, provided two flushes of growth during the year and had novel attractive colors and venation. The evaluations of their crosses were done in the 1980s and 1990s at the North Carolina Botanical Gardens in Chapel Hill, NC. Their collaboration produced many cultivars including the Little Bugs™ series. Larry Mellichamp is, interestingly enough, related to J.H. Mellichamp, the nineteenth century Sarracenia expert mentioned in the history section of this article.
Two other significant breeders of Sarracenia are author Adrian Slack and nurseryman / author Peter D'Amato who, between them, have released more than twenty cultivars.
How to Grow Sarracenia
Sarracenias are generally easy to grow in a moist garden. In the wild they are bog plants, but in the garden, a bog is not a necessity as long as you do not let the plants dry out. The single biggest mistake in growing pitcher plants in the ground is too keep them too wet. In the wild, pitcher plants grow in areas that are seasonally flooded, but these areas can become extraordinarily dry on the surface during the spring and summer months. The best way to remember proper conditions is: "if dry ankles, moist feet". We have had good luck growing pitcher plants in our garden as long as the soil stays moist at a depth of 4".
The pitchers and other leaves will die throughout the year and the dead foliage may be removed to keep the rosette looking tidy. However, dead leaves should be left on the plant during winter for insulation and not removed until spring. Other than that, no special pruning is needed.
In the wild, pitcher plants grow in sandy soils often containing high levels of organic matter and have an acidic pH between 3.0 and 5.0. In the garden, a 50:50 mixture of sand and peat moss is recommended. If you want to construct your own specialized bog garden for your bog plant collection, visit the Plant Delights Nursery and Juniper Level Botanic Garden website for a great article from the Atlanta Botanic Garden with specific instructions for building a bog.
Pitcher plants can be planted any time the ground is not frozen, providing you can supply enough moisture. If your plants have been grown in a container, plant them at the same depth that they are in the container. If your plants are bare-rooted, position the plant so that the rhizome is just below the surface of the soil. It is okay if a small portion of the rhizome is exposed to light as this may stimulate leaf production. All Sarracenias prefer full sun and open habitats to thrive. If the shade is 40% or greater, the plants lose their bright coloration and generally decline in vigor.
Growing Sarracenia in Containers
Sarracenias can be grown in a container as long as you take steps to keep the soil moist. Without question, the best soil to use in a container is pure peat moss. After planting, it's often best to sit the pot in a saucer of water to keep the peat evenly moist.
Pitcher plants do not fare well indoors and should remain outdoors (where hardy) ... except when used as conversation pieces for wild parties. We have repotted Sarracenias in all seasons with good success.
Sarracenias are very sensitive to dissolved salts so stay away from highly chlorinated water and water with a high nutrient content. Never use chemically softened water. Do not feed pitcher plants with mundane table scraps, chemical fertilizers, or bits of meat (although a fly couldn't hurt). Pitcher plants should be able to get enough nutrients on their own without any artificial help. Since animal meat has a lot more fat in it than insect flesh, and pitchers cannot digest fat, raw meat will cause the pitcher to rot. Fertilizer will burn the plants. Many pitcher plants have died by the hands of over-zealous owners who stuff "food" into the pitcher and douse it with Miracle-Gro.
How to Propagate Sarracenia
Pitcher plants can be propagated at home by division or by seed. If your pitcher plant is happy, the rhizome will grow and new rosettes will emerge close to the parent plant. These clones can be divided carefully from the main clump, but your parent plant may take a year or two to recover from the cutting before it resumes active growth. The best time to make divisions is in the early fall while the roots are in active growth. Modified leaf cuttings may also work if you take the entire leaf with a small amount of rhizome attached to the base. Also, you can stimulate new shoot formation along the rhizome by "notching" which is the process of cutting a "v" a few millimeters deep into the top of the rhizome at an old leaf node. Also, the rhizome may be divided during dormancy into sections containing 4 or more leaves and 5 or more roots.
The seed pods ripen from early summer through fall depending on the species and your location. Sarracenias are easy to hybridize by swabbing pollen from one plant into the flower of another, but if the flowering dates of the two parent species do not overlap, you may collect pollen and refrigerate it in the interim. When the pods naturally start to turn brown and split open, collect the seed. The seeds have a hydrophobic coating on them which requires at least 4 weeks of cold stratification to break down and they can be stored dry in a refrigerator for several years. The seed should be surface sown and the seedling pots placed under florescent lights in a tray of water or inside a zip-loc bag during the germination process. They will germinate best at temperatures from 60°F (15°C) to 90°F (32°C). Sarracenia plants have a long juvenility period and will not form pitchers or flowers for 3 to 6 years after sowing. The seedlings should be hardened off outside in the spring of their second or third year, but be careful not to bring the plants out before the last frost date. Also do not wait too long to introduce them to the outdoors or the summer heat will burn them.
In the commercial plant industry, pitcher plants are propagated using tissue culture techniques starting from meristems or seed. Thanks to tissue culture, Sarracenia are now produced by the millions, relieving much of the collecting pressure on wild populations.
Pests and Diseases of Sarracenia
Occasionally, a pitcher will accumulate so many dead insects that it will start to rot before they are digested. This is called "pitcher rot" and can be identified by pitchers that turn brown and become mushy. Simply cut off the pitcher and discard it. The rot will not affect the rhizome. Some insects (namely wasps) have jaws that are powerful enough to chew a hole in the pitcher which will cause it to collapse. Although this is not attractive, it does not harm the plant.
Container grown pitcher plants may occasionally become infested with scale insects, usually during dormancy. Common insecticidal soaps or dormant oils will kill the scale. In addition, the larvae of the Exyra moth can burrow into the leaves and eat them from the inside out causing them to collapse. This can be controlled with Bt. A black fungus called "sooty mold" can also occasionally occur on the pitchers which feeds off of the nectar. The fungus is unattractive but does not harm the plant and can be prevented by increasing ventilation around the plant. All of these pests are negligible on healthy specimens.
Pitcher plants will go dormant in the fall and remain dormant until the temperatures and light levels increase in the spring. The pitchers and non-carnivorous leaves will stay on the rosette but may turn brown during the winter. It is best to leave the old foliage on the plant until March or April. Remove the old foliage in the early spring before the flowers start to emerge so you can enjoy a better floral show.
List of Sarracenia Species
The various species of Sarracenia are identified by pitcher morphology and coloration, and to a lesser extent flower or lid morphology. The species may be hard to tell apart, but you can use a key in the Flora of North America to make species and subspecies determinations.
Sarracenia alabamensis ssp. alabamensis (Canebrake Pitcher Plant)This rare, federally endangered pitcher plant, native to 3 counties in Alabama, was named by trillium guru Fred Case of Michigan, who discovered the plant on his honeymoon in the 1940s (I'm there for you ... Fred). Sarracenia alabamensis (related to Sarracenia rubra) produces a good, bushy, spring crop of bronzy-red, 18" tall pitchers. As the season progresses, plants will often produce an even showier set of golden pitchers. Topping the clump in early May are stunning red fragrant flowers on a very floriferous clump. (Zone 5-9)
Sarracenia alata (Pale Pitcher Plant) The pale pitcher plant is found in moist bogs from Alabama west to Texas. This Southeast native forms 2' tall yellow pitchers starting in early spring, similar to Sarracenia flava, but with a slightly more rounded hood (rounded hoods have been banned in some states, so check your local regulations). The plants are adorned with bizarrely beautiful, creamy-yellow flowers on 18" pencil-sized stalks in early spring. Moist soil, but not sloppy wet conditions, works best. The specific epithet alata refers to the Latin term for "winged". (Zone 5-9)
Sarracenia flava (Yellow Trumpet Pitcher Plant) Sarracenia flava sports very tall, yellow-green pitchers with red veins, with the pitchers often reaching a height of 30". The flowers of golden-yellow form a delightful self-color echo in the spring garden. Sarracenia flava forms most of its nicest 2" wide pitchers during the spring season. The specific epithet "flava" is derived from the Latin term for the color yellow and refers to the hue of the leaves and flower. There are a number of clones with copper tops and/or red tubes, which have been given an array of names and in some cases subspecies status. These names really are worthless, since virtually each population contains both solid color pitchers as well as these more unusual forms. These are particularly stunning. (Zone 5-9)
Sarracenia leucophylla (White Top Pitcher Plant) This Georgia and Florida native is one of the most spectacular pitchers. The 2' tall pitchers on Sarracenia leucophyllaare green and/or reddish with a unique 2" wide white top with red veining ... SPECTACULAR! Sarracenia leucophylla produces some pitchers in the spring, but the big flush of new pitchers occurs in late summer and early fall ... spectacular red flowers in spring ... guaranteed to stop traffic! Don't worry, we're talking flying insect traffic. The specific epithet "leucophylla" is derived from the Greek for "white" and "leaf" and refers to the fact that the tops of the pitchers a re white in color with dark red veins. This is a remarkable color combination and this species is used often in hybridization programs. This species habitat is limited to southern Georgia, Alabama and the panhandle of Florida. (Zone 5-9)
Sarracenia leucophylla 'Tarnok' (Tarnok's Double White Top Pitcher Plant) This amazing and very vigorous selection of the white top pitcher plant was discovered by Coleman Tarnok in Baldwin County, Alabama, and later propagated by the Atlanta Botanical Garden. While the red-veined, white-topped pitchers look normal (as much as any pitcher plant looks normal), it is the alien-like flowers that boast an extraordinary double set of sepals. In flower, Sarracenia leucophylla ‘Tarnok’ is truly something worth inviting the garden club over to see. Royalties from each plant sold go to the endangered plant conservation program at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. (Zone 5-9)
Sarracenia minor (Hooded Pitcher Plant) One of my all time favorites is the East Coast native hooded pitcher, whose natural range is from North Carolina to Florida. The tops of the 1' tall pitchers are covered by a unique curved green hood with small white "windows" (areoles) in the neck of the pitcher. The accompanying yellow flowers arrive in spring before the new pitchers emerge. Most new pitcher growth on the hooded pitcher is during the summer and fall. (Zone 5-9)
Sarracenia minor Okefenokee Giant Strain (Okefenokee Giant Pitcher Plant) This is the highly sought after form of Sarracenia minor that grows in and around the Okefenokee Swamp region of Florida. Under good growing conditions, this vigorous pitcher plant can reach 2-3' in height. The green-hooded pitchers with "white windows" (areoles) in the back of the hood are identical to the species except for the size. The yellow flying-saucer-like flowers are much larger than the typical species and they are produced in midsummer rather than early spring. (Zone 5-9)
Sarracenia oreophila (Green Pitcher Plant) This very rare federally endangered North Carolina is native to high elevations in the Cumberland plateau (Tennessee south to Alabama). Similar in appearance to a dwarf form of Sarracenia flava, Sarracenia oreophila occurs in sandy clay soils in mountain woodlands instead of coastal savannahs. Sarracenia oreophila grows in areas that are wet in winter with running water, that dry completely in the summer months. The 1' tall green pitchers emerge and open in the early spring, followed close behind by the small yellow flowers. Sarracenia oreophila is a summer dormant species, so don't be alarmed when the leaves start disappearing. (Zone 5-9)
Sarracenia psittacina (Parrot Pitcher Plant) This East Coast native is the really fascinating member of the pitcher plant family. The leaves, shaped like parrot heads (not to be confused with Jimmy Buffet fans), are green with red veins and lie flat on the ground in a perfect circle. While the parrot pitcher is one of the smaller pitcher plants to 12" diameter, this is the one that draws everyone's attention ... even before they see the flowers that resemble red umbrellas, held above the foliage in early spring. (Zone 5-9)
Sarracenia purpurea (Purple Pitcher Plant) This is the most cold-tolerant, easiest-to-grow, and one of the most spectacular of the pitcher plants. The red-veined green pitchers usually turn a lovely blood red in fall. As with Sarracenia psittacina, the pitchers lie flat on the ground forming a 1' wide clump with the pitchers facing upwards. Sarracenia purpurea produces new pitchers throughout the growing season, and is topped with red flowers in spring. As with Sarracenia flava, there have been many subspecies named which are merely clonal forms that should be given cultivar names and do not deserve subspecies status. (Zone 5-9, at least)
Sarracenia purpurea 'Blood Vessel' (Blood Vessel Purple Pitcher Plant) This dramatic selection of our native purple pitcher plant comes from Itsaul Plants of Georgia. The large light green pitchers, which are held horizontally, are streaked with bright red lines, like your eyes after too much late night activity. Each 1' wide clump is topped in spring with the typical (Dare I use that word around pitcher plants) red flying saucer-shaped flowers. (Zone 5-9)
Sarracenia purpurea ssp. venosa var. montana (Mountain Purple Pitcher Plant) The varietal name 'Montana' is derived from the Latin for 'mountain' and refers to its Appalachian mountain habitat. The lid of this variety is more upright than normal too. (Zone 5-9)
Sarracenia rubra (Sweet Pitcher Plant) The East coast native Sarracenia rubra isn't as flashy as others, but it's still a great plant. The small, upright, green pitchers (1/2" wide x 12" tall) are topped with a light red hood and are produced en masse throughout the entire growing season. The clumps are topped with spectacular flying-saucer-shaped red flowers in spring on 1' stems. The specific epithet 'rubra', is derived from the Latin for the color red and refers to the color of the leaves and foliage. (Zone 5-9)
Sarracenia rubra ssp. gulfensis (Gulf Coast Sweet Pitcher Plant) The subspecific epithet 'gulfensis' is derived from the word 'gulf' and refers to the native habitat of this subspecies along Florida's Gulf Coast. (Zone 5-9)
Sarracenia rubra ssp. jonesii (Jones's Sweet Pitcher Plant) Named for the botanist and Sarracenia expert F.M. Jones, these pitchers are generally long and narrow with a slight bulge beneath the lip. (Zone 5-9)
List of Sarracenia Cultivars and Hybrid Groups
The genus Sarracenia hybridizes very easily and the hybrids are always fertile. As a result many naturally occurring hybrid swarms have arisen in areas where habitats overlap. Breeders have also created many complex artificial hybrids of sarracenia. Special hybrid epithet names have been assigned to the offspring of certain natural crosses and certain artificial crosses.
Sarracenia x areolata (Areolata Pitcher Plants)These naturally occurring Sarracenia alata x Sarracenia leucophylla hybrids have tall thin pitchers, lightly mottled with frilly lids. (Zone 5-9)
Sarracenia x catesbaei (Catesbey's Pitcher Plant)This naturally-occurring hybrid pitcher plant is found in the coastal plains region from Virginia to South Carolina. Sarracenia x catesbaei (Sarracenia purpurea x Sarracenia flava) has features that are intermediate between the parents. The 15" tall brick-red pitchers are held upright ... until they fill with water. In late spring before the new pitchers form, the clumps are topped with 15" tall flower stalks ending in bizarre flying saucer-like brick-red flowers. (Zone 5-9)
Sarracenia x chelsoni (Chelson's Pitcher Plant)This rare, naturally occurring hybrid of Sarracenia purpurea x Sarracenia rubra can be found in coastal North Carolina. The 8" tall red upright hooded pitchers resemble a giant red Sarracenia rubra. (Zone 5-9)
Sarracenia ‘Daina’s Delight (Daina's Delight Pitcher Plant) From Kim Magnuson of Hawaii comes this mid-'90s Sarracenia leucophylla hybrid (Sarracenia leucophylla x Sarracenia x willisii) created by Mark Edwards of New Zealand, who named the plant after his daughter. Sarracenia ‘Daina’s Delight (not Dana or Diana) brings even more coloration to the wonderful, white-top pitcher plant. Daina must have really liked rednecks, 'cause the formerly white head and neck on each 2' tall pitcher is sunburn-blister red. (Hardiness Zone 5-9)
Sarracenia 'Dixie Lace' (Dixie Lace Pitcher Plant) One of the first pitcher plant hybrids from Larry Mellichamp and Rob Gardner of NC, this vigorous introduction (Sarracenia leucophylla x wherryi) x (Sarracenia psittacina x Sarracenia purpurea) produces a continuous array of new 1' long pitchers through the season. Each butterscotch pitcher with dramatic red veining is held at a 45 degree angle, producing an 18" wide clump. In April and May, the clumps are topped with 18" tall stalks with rich maroon-red flying saucer-like flowers. (Zone 5-9)
Sarracenia 'Doodlebug' (Doodlebug Pitcher Plant)This vigorous member of the Little Bug Series is a cross of Sarracenia alabamensis x Sarracenia psittacina. The 8" tall, green, upright pitchers are topped with dramatic, tattoo-like, red veining around the white "window" in the neck of the cobra-shaped top. You can tell from all the coloration around the neck that they should have used a higher SPF. (Zone 5-9)
Sarracenia x excellens (Excellens Pitcher Plant)This naturally occurring hybrid (Sarracenia leucophylla x Sarracenia minor). The pitchers are mostly green (like Sarracenia minor) turning purple near the top. The lid is white with purple venation (like Sarracenia leucophylla). (Zone 5-9)
Sarracenia x exornata (Exornata Pitcher Plant)This naturally occurring hybrid between Sarracenia alata and Sarracenia purpurea is only found in small areas of Alabama and Mississippi. In appearance, they are very similar to Sarracenia x catesbaei (Sarracenia flavax Sarracenia purpurea), with 1' tall upright Sarracenia purpurea-like pitchers of yellow and red with brighter red netting. (Zone 5-9)
Sarracenia x formosa (Formosa Pitcher Plant)This hybrid of Sarracenia minor x Sarracenia psittacina is one of the best of the interspecific hybrids. The hybrids are intermediate between both parents with the back "window" of white from Sarracenia minor, combined with the hoods of Sarracenia psittacina. The pitchers are neither flat or upright as they are held at a 45 degree angle. (Zone 5-9)
Sarracenia 'Flies Demise' (Flies Demise Pitcher Plant)This vigorously growing introduction from North Carolina's Larry Mellichamp and the late Rob Gardner is one of their new series of interspecific hybrids involving Sarracenia rubra ssp. wherryi, Sarracenia purpurea, and Sarracenia rubra. The 10" upright pitchers appear a dusty orange with dramatic red veining toward the top of the pitcher and the outside of the cobra-like hood. (Zone 5-9)
Sarracenia 'Judith Hindle' (Judith Hindle Pitcher Plant) Sarracenia 'Judith Hindle' combines the best of both the white-top pitcher, Sarracenia leucophylla, with a bright red form of Sarracenia purpurea. The result is a stunning 15" tall pitcher plant that has white-top pitchers with a dark raspberry overlay. (Zone 5-9)
Sarracenia 'Ladies in Waiting' (Ladies in Waiting Pitcher Plant) From North Carolina's Larry Mellichamp and the late Rob Gardner comes this vigorous hybrid pitcher plant (Sarracenia leucophylla) x (Sarracenia rubra x Sarracenia psittacina) that continuously produces new pitchers all summer long. The rigidly upright pitchers, to 2' tall, are green at the base but change to bright red with white speckling near the hoods. In April and May, the 18" flowers stems are topped with maroon-red flying-saucer-shaped flowers... exquisite! (Zone 5-9)
Sarracenia 'Ladybug' (Ladybug Pitcher Plant)This Sarracenia psittacina x Sarracenia purpurea x Sarracenia minor hybrid makes a great, small, 1' wide clump composed of dozens of fat, little, 8-10" tall, apple-red pitchers, each highlighted with nice white spotting on the back of each "neck". This is the latest Little Bugs Series pitcher plant hybrid from the Dynamic Duo of Sarracenias, Larry Mellichamp and the late Rob Gardner. (Zone 5-9)
Sarracenia 'Lovebug' (Lovebug Pitcher Plant)Sarracenia 'Lovebug' is the latest in the Little Bug Series of pitcher plant hybrids from Larry Mellichamp and the late Rob Gardner. Sarracenia 'Lovebug' (Sarracenia psittacina x Sarracenia purpurea x minor x [Sarracenia purpurea x Sarracenia leucophylla x jonesii] ... whew!) forms a dense, 8-10" wide cluster of narrow, deep-red 8" tall pitchers. (Zone 5-9)
Sarracenia 'Mardi Gras' (Mardi Gras Pitcher Plant) Sarracenia 'Mardi Gras' is another stunning hybrid from the Dynamic Duo (the late Rob Gardner and Larry Mellichamp) of NC. This complex pitcher plant hybrid is a cross of (Sarracenia leucophylla x Sarracenia purpurea) x (Sarracenia leucophylla x Sarracenia psittacina). Sarracenia 'Mardi Gras' makes a vigorous clump of 1' tall upright pitchers that appear like giant cobra heads ... with bloodshot eyes. The bright red pitcher ends with a giant "cobra-like" hood of white with tremendous red netting ... beautiful! (Zone 5-9)
Sarracenia x mitchelliana (Mitchell's Pitcher Plant) Sarracenia x mitchelliana is a hybrid of Sarracenia flava x Sarracenia leucophylla. The pitchers are initially light green netted with red, becoming suffused with red and marbled in a lighter hue. They are about 12" tall. (Zone 5-9)
Sarracenia x moorei (Moore's Pitcher Plant)Sarracenia x moorei is a natural hybrid of Sarracenia flava x Sarracenia leucophylla. It has a pale green pitcher with light red veins. (Zone 5-9)
Sarracenia 'Redbug' PP 13,412 (Redbug Pitcher Plant) Sarracenia 'Redbug' PP 13,412 is amazing both for its vigor and the ridiculously large number of pitchers that it produces. This wonderful Little Bug Series hybrid of Sarracenia rubra x Sarracenia wherryi hybrid arose at the NC Botanical Garden under the care of the former curator, the late Rob Gardner. Each 8-10" wide clump of dwarf, narrow, 8" tall red pitchers stands ready to catch entire hoards of flies. (Zone 5-9)
Sarracenia x rehderi (Rehder's Pitcher Plant)This naturally occurring hybrid from NC combines the best attributes of both parents (Sarracenia rubra x Sarracenia minor). Each extremely vigorous, but compact, clump boasts 14" upright apricot pitchers that are produced throughout the growing season. In May and often into June, the very floriferous clumps produce 14" tall alien-like flowers in the sunset color range ... and they are very fragrant. (Zone 5-9)
Sarracenia x wrigleyana 'Scarlet Belle' (Scarlet Belle Pitcher Plant) This naturally-occurring cross of the white-top Sarracenia leucophylla and the parrot-pitcher Sarracenia psittacina has rapidly become one of our favorite pitcher plants. This fast-growing selection makes a 15" wide clump of horizontal white with red-veined, parrot-head, 10" long pitchers. Bugs beware, as each clump can form up to 100 pitchers! This is a selected superior clone, propagated through the magic of tissue culture. (Zone 5-9)
Sarracenias are worthy plants for any Southern garden. Although they are native to North America, they bring a rare, exotic beauty to moist garden sites with their showy flowers and colorful carnivorous leaves. You can help protect the native habitat of this threatened and endangered species by buying only nursery propagated plants for your garden. Plant them in your garden, sit back, and enjoy the carnage as insects check in, but don't check out.
You may be asking yourself, "What is the best pitcher plant for me?" If you like red and white variegation, then you can't beat cultivars with Sarracenia leucophylla parentage such as Sarracenia ‘Daina’s Delight or Sarracenia leucophylla ‘Tarnok’. If pure red is your color, then look for cultivars with Sarracenia purpurea or Sarracenia rubra parentage such as Sarracenia 'Redbug' PP 13,412. If you like yellow or light green pitcher plants, then try Sarracenia flava. If you like unusual colors, the copper and red hybrid Sarracenia x catesbaei may be the plant for you. Whichever you choose, you will get a winner.
List of Sarracenia References
Ainsworth, J. and Ainsworth, J., (1996), Sarracenia: The National Plant Collection, National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens.
American Public Gardens Association -- Atlanta Botanical Garden Sarracenia (Pitcher Plants) Collection - http://www.publicgardens.org
Atlanta Botanical Garden - www.atlantabotanicalgarden.org
Carnivorous Plant Society -- Sarracenia - www.thecps.org.uk
Center for Plant Conservation at Missouri Botanical Garden
Chase, M.W., Maarten et. al. (2009), Murderous plants: Victorian Gothic, Darwin and modern insights into vegetable carnivory. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 161 (4): 329
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), http://www.cites.org, appendices
CultureSheet.org - www.culturesheet.org/sarraceniaceae:sarracenia
Darwin, C. (1875), Insectivorous Plants, darwin-online.org.uk
Encyclopedia of Life -- Sarracenia - www.eol.org
Flora of North America -- Sarracenia - www.efloras.org
Gardener, R. (1998), Pitcher Plants -- Beguiling New Sarracenia Hybrids, Plants & Gardens News, Volume 13, Number 4 - www.bbg.org
International Carnivorous Plant Society -- The Carnivorous Plant FAQ v. 11.5 - www.sarracenia.com/faq.html
International Carnivorous Plant Society -- Growing Sarracenia from Seed. - www.carnivorousplants.org/seedbank/species/Sarracenia.htm
International Carnivorous Plant Society (1987) -- Cultivar Registrations, 16 (2) Pp. 39-42 - www.carnivorousplants.org/cpn/Species/
Meadowview Biological Research Station - www.pitcherplant.org McPherson, S. (2007), Pitcher Plants of the Americas, The
McDonald & Woodward Publishing Company, Blacksburg VA. Mellichamp, L. (1992), Hybrid Pitcher Plants, Bulletin of the American Rock Garden Society 50(1), Pp. 3-10.
Mellichamp, L. (2007), Bog Gardening with Carnivorous Plants, Lawn & Garden Retailer, 6(6) - www.lgrmag.com/Bog-Gardening-With-Carnivorous-Plants-article8204
North American Sarracenia Conservancy - www.nasarracenia.org
Redfern Natural History Productions - www.redfernnaturalhistory.com/sarraceniaconservation.htm
Sheridan, P (1997), Genetics of Sarracenia leaf and flower color, Carnivorous Plant Newsletter, Vol 26 Pp 51- 64
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Endangered species program - www.fws.gov/endangered/recovery/index.html