Plants with an appetite

My youngest child’s most recent favorite book is Elizabite: Adventures of a Carnivorous Plant, by H. A. Rey, author of the Curious George series. The book begins with these words:

“You would not think that plants like meat.
Well, some plants do. They catch and eat
Small insects, such as flies and ants,
And they are called
CARNIVOROUS PLANTS.
One of them came to world-wide fame;
ELIZABITEthat was her name.”

Imagine my surprise upon learning that the Arboretum will carry a native carnivorous plant, Sarracenia purpurea, at the spring plant sale. More commonly known as a Purple Pitcher Plant, the cold-tolerant Sarracenia purpurea is the most widely distributed member of its genus, with a range that spans the entire seaboard of the United States, as well as southeastern Canada.       

purple pitcher plant

Sarracenia purpurea in a bog at Laurentian
Environmental Center, Minnesota

Unlike the ravenous Elizabite, the Purple Pitcher Plant does not eat beards, tails, bottoms, or robbers. It does, however, obtain most of its nutrients from prey capture. A host of insects fall into the pitcher, drowning in the rainwater that collects at its base. In the first year of life, the pitcher plant produces digestive enzymes to consume prey. By the second year, digestion is aided by a community of bacteria residing in the base of the plant.  Mosquitos and midges also make their home in the watery pitcher, where they dine upon flies, ants, spiders, and moths.

Purple Pitcher Plants thrive in full sun to light shade and require acidic, moist soil. Joanne Healey, the Arboretum’s nursery manager, recommends planting them in containers. They are also a good choice for terrariums. To purchase your own Elizabite, visit adkinsarboretum.org for information about the annual spring plant sale. For the first time, purple pitcher plants will be available for sale this spring.

by Jenny Houghton, Youth Program Coordinator

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