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Wetland Evaluation and Delineation Program

Featured Plants - Florida's Pitcher Plants
 

All of Florida's 6 species of pitcher plants (Sarracenia) are native perennials with hollow leaves modified as passive insect traps. The typical pitcher plant habitat is nitrogen poor, acidic, and at least seasonally saturated. Usually such areas are wetlands or ecotonal areas adjacent to wetlands. In Florida, pitcher plants are most common in bogs, savannas, seepage slopes, hydric pine flatwoods and artificially created sites such as ditches and very shallow borrow areas. Sarracenia produces a graceful curved inflorescence with a single, large 8-3 cm in diameter, terminal, nodding flower atop a stout, recurved scape. The flower is unusual with a rounded umbrella-like "style disc". The stamens are numerous produced around the superior ovary.

Insectivory is an adaptation to the nitrogen limited environment of some habitats. Several other insect trapping plants besides pitcher plants occur in Florida, including butterworts (Pinguicula spp.), sundews (Drosera spp.), bladderworts (Utricularia spp.), and Venus fly trap (Dionaea muscipula) - this last species is native to the Carolinas and has become naturalized in north Florida in limited locations. All insectivorous plants have leaves which have become modified for the active or passive trapping of insects. Pitcher plants have leaves that are hollow "tubes," open at the top and completely or partially covered by a specialized flap or hood. The often brightly colored or patterned hood helps control the amount of rain water entering the tube and in some species may also serve as a flower mimic to attract prey. To further entice prey, the decorative hoods are often enhanced with nectar secretions,and strong odors attractive to insects are often produced from inside the leaf. Immediately inside the "tube," the surface is slick, causing most insects which venture too close to the edge to fall to the bottom of the leaf where a pool of water awaits. Downward-directed hairs on the inside of the "tube" impede the insects from crawling out. Once immersed in the water the insect drowns and decomposes; a process aided by enzymes and digestive acids secreted into the water by the plant. The result is a nitrogen-rich "liquid fertilizer" available to the plant. Not all insects, however, fall prey to the pitcher plant. Some forms of aquatic flies (Diptera) will spend the aquatic larval stage in the watery stomach of the pitcher plant unharmed with the adult of these insect guests being small enough to simply fly up through the tube and escape. These commensal insects live on the myriad of microscopic bacteria and protists which assist with the breakdown of the drowned insects in the nitrogen-rich liquor.

In late March-April, the wetlands in which these plants grow are transformed from wintry browns and grays to the green of spring highlighted by the brightly colored, nodding flowers of pitcher plants. Flowers range in colors from the bright yellow of S. flava and S. minor to the purple, red, dark red or rose of S. leucophylla, S. purpurea, S. rubra, and S. psittacina. The petals are large, dangling, very thin, and constricted at the base so as to flutter in the slightest breeze. This movement spurs pollination by signaling to the early bees, flies and gnats of the open savannas that nectar is available. The petals are ephemeral and only the unusual umbrella-like pistil and five persistent sepals, above and below the warty capsule, remain throughout the summer. The five-parted fruit or capsule matures in late summer and splits open to release the small, brown wedge-shaped seeds.

In the natural state, the habitats of pitcher plants are subject to fairly frequent fire. The frequent fire maintains the open aspect of the savanna and bogs and ensures a high light environment. All species of pitcher plants in Florida require open, sunny positions in the landscape and all are fire adapted. This adaptation is exhibited chiefly in the thickened underground rhizome from which new leaves are produced after fire. The removal of fire from natural communities decreases pitcher plant habitat.

Each species of Sarracenia in Florida has a unique range. Six species are found in northwest Florida, from Franklin County to Escambia County where the world's greatest concentration of pitcher plants species can be seen. Three species have distributions east of the Suwannee River. Only S. minor occurs southward into central Florida. There are two additional species not found in Florida (S. alata and S. oreophila).

Economically, pitcher plants are surprisingly important. The florist industry regularly uses tens of thousands of pitcher leaves annually and the demand is growing. These are mostly from the highly decorative leaves of S. leucophylla. Note: all wild pitcher plants are protected by State and Federal laws; wanton harvesting of the leaves would be detrimental to the plants ability to trap insects and thrive. The pitcher plants and their hybrids are also becoming popular horticultural plants. In England there are gardens dedicated solely to national collections of North American pitcher plants! And in Japan, a park has been designed that features only insectivorous plants, in which our North American pitcher plants are a major attraction. Clearly people are fascinated by pitcher plants. However, pitcher plant habitat in Florida is at risk primarily from lack of fire management and from drainage by ditching. Fortunately the need for conservation of these species in the wild is becoming more well known and the public has expressed concern about protecting these unusual plants in Florida.

The following is a key to the Florida Sarracenia species.

  1. Plants with decumbent or sprawling pitchers, leaves usually less than 2 dm tall; flowers red, purple-red to purple ............. 2
  2. Plant with strongly recurved hoods, leaves reddish with areas of white, green and purple reticulation; flowers dark red to purple-red............................. S. psittacina
  3. Plants with open pitcher mouth, hoods undulate with a pronounced notch at the apex; flowers purple to rose ........................... S. purpurea
  4. Plants with erect pitchers, leaves from 3 to 9 dm tall; flowers yellow or red to purple ....................................... 3
  5. Plants with leaves generally longer than 7 dm ............. 4
  6. Uppermost portion of leaves mostly whitish; flowers red to maroon ............................ S. leucophylla
  7.  Uppermost portion of leaves yellow-green with a conspicuous maroon "collar" between the hood and the leaf tube; flowers yellow to greenish-yellow ................ S. flava
  8. Plants with leaves shorter, less than 7 dm ................ 5
  9. Hoods strongly recurved, uppermost portion of leaf tube with conspicuous whitish blotches; flowers yellow, without fragrance................................ S. minor
  10. Hoods nearly erect, uppermost portion of leaf tube without whitish blotches; flowers red to reddish-purple, fragrant .............................................S. rubra

 

Description Images

S. flava L. (trumpet-leaf pitcher plant) is one of the largest species with conspicuous yellowish-green, erect pitcher leaves, often to 9 dm (35 inches) tall under favorable conditions. The large flared hoods are held high above the mouth of the pitcher which can be pale greenish-yellow or attractively streaked with dark maroon veins. The constriction between the hood and the tube-like leaves is conspicuously dark maroon. The large flowers have yellow to yellow-green sepals and petals. Flowers smell musty. In Florida, this species is restricted to the northwest region from Leon County, west to Escambia County. S. flava can be seen in the cypress sloughs along Highway 65 through the Apalachicola National Forest.

Illustration

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Photos by Dr. John David Tobe

Sarracenia flava, flowerSarracenia flava, habit
Sarracenia flava
, flower and habit

S. leucophylla Raf. (white-top pitcher plant) is one of the showiest species, with large leaves up to 9 dm (35 inches) tall that catch the light and seem to glow from within. The leaves are green with white splotches and purple to green venation. The showy flowers have brick-red to paler rose-red sepals and petals. In Florida, this species is restricted to the northwest region from Franklin County west to Escambia County where it is one of the most conspicuous Sarracenia species in the coastal savannas around Perdido Bay, Pensacola Bay and Choctawhatchee Bay. This species is prevalent in the open savannas of Garcon Point and Tarkiln Bayou. S. leucophylla is also sometimes found in small sphagnum bogs or in floating mats along acidic streams that flow through sandhill.

Illustration

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Photos by Dr. John David Tobe 

Sarracenia leucophylla, leafSarracenia leucophylla, flowers and young leaves
Sarracenia leucophylla

leaf & flowers with young leaves

S. minor Walter (hooded pitcher plant) is the only erect species with a recurved hood that completely covers the tube-like leaves. The conspicuously hooded leaves are often reddish green at the top and spotted white along the upper portion of the tube. Although a smaller species, to only 3 dm (almost to 12 inches) tall, these plants are often conspicuous in early spring when their bright yellow, odorless flowers dot open wetlands. S. minor is our widest ranging species, extending from Gadsden and Gulf Counties south to Highlands and Okeechobee Counties.

Illustration

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Photo by Guy Anglin

Sarracenia minor, flowers and leaves
Sarracenia minor
, flowers and leaves 

S. psittacina Michx. (Parrot pitcher plant) is so named rom the shape of the leaves which in outline resemble a heavy beaked bird. This species is often quite inconspicuous, growing low amongst taller bog and savanna species. The reddish coloration of plants in full sun is typical as is the prostrate habit of the leaves. The hood is modified in such a way that whatever is being trapped by the leaves will have to crawl up into the swollen portion of the leaves and fall into a rather small hole. The flowers are small but showy with reddish-purple sepals and petals. In Florida, S. psittacina occurs in the northwest region, from Leon County west to Escambia County and in the northeast area in Baker and Nassau Counties.

Illustration

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Photo by Dr. John David Tobe

Sarracenia psittacina, leaves
Sarracenia psittacina
, leaves

S. rubra Walt. (sweet pitcher plant) is a medium size pitcher plant with reddish-green to green leaves to 7 dm tall (27 inches) tall, though usually smaller. Variations in the color, ultimate size, and shape of the leaves have resulted in the naming of some populations at the varietal level. Flowers are red, or deep maroon to reddish-purple. The common name refers to the pleasant floral odor. In Florida, this species is of limited occurrence and is restricted to the northwest region from Walton County west to Escambia County. S. rubra frequents small sphagnum bogs, sometimes in floating mats, and along the edges of acidic streams flowing through sandhill.

Illustration

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Photo by Dr. John David Tobe

Sarracenia rubra, habit
Sarracenia rubra
, habit

S. purpurea (purple flower pitcher plant) is a short species with sprawling, bulbous pitchers and erect hoods with undulate margins and a notched hood apex. The flowers are some of the most colorful of the genus, with bright rose-pink to purplish sepals and petals. It is by far the most widespread species of pitcher plant, but in Florida, it is restricted to the northwest region from Liberty County west to Escambia County. S. purpurea is common around the shallow borrow pits dug for the construction of Highway 65 through the Apalachicola National Forest and also in the open pine savannas of Garcon Point and around Tarkiln Bayou. Interestingly, this species has been introduced to the peatlands of the British Isles where it has become naturalized. 

Illustration

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Photo by Dr. John David Tobe

Sarracenia purpurea, habitSarracenia purpurea, habit of flowering plant
S. purpurea
, habit & habit of flowering plant


All six species mentioned above are illustrated in the Florida Wetland Plant: An Identification Manual, available from IFAS publications at 1-800-226-1764.

Additional information about Florida's pitcher plants can be found in the following references:

Guide to the Vascular Plants of the Florida Panhandle. 1985. Andre F. Clewell. Florida State University Press.
Aquatic and Wetland Plants of Southeastern United States. 1981. Robert K. Godfrey and Jean W. Wooten. The University of Georgia Press.
Flowering Plants of the World. 1978. Edited by V. H. Heywood. Prentice Hall, Inc. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.
Carnivorous Plants of the United States and Canada. 1976. Schnell, Donald. John F. Blair publisher.

Written by Dr. John David Tobe
Photos by Guy Anglin and Dr. John David Tobe; all photos are copyrighted by the author, permission to use these must be obtained from the authors.

Last updated: September 21, 2011

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