Wildflowers of the Adirondacks:
Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia purpurea)

Wetland Wildflowers of the Adirondack Park: Pitcher Plant on Barnum Bog on the Boreal Life Trail (21 June 2017).
Wildflowers of the Adirondacks: The Pitcher Plant's large, nodding flowers stand out against the duller greens and bronzes of the peat bog. Its five petals are bright red and rounded. Its five sepals (closer to the stem) are red-purple on the upper side and more pointed. Pitcher Plant on Barnum Bog on the Boreal Life Trail (21 June 2017).

The Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia purpurea) is a carnivorous plant found in peat bogs in the Adirondacks. This habitat is low in essential plant nutrients such as nitrogen, calcium, magnesium, and potassium. Pitcher Plants carry on photosynthesis like other green plants, but supplement their nutrition by capturing and digesting small insects.

The genus name (Sarracenia) is derived from Michael Sarrazin, a physician born in France in 1659. Sarrazin emigrated to Canada in 1685 and later developed an interest in botany. He reportedly was the first to suggest that Pitcher Plants devour insects and the first to write about the properties of Wild Sarsaparilla. The species name (purpurea) is a reference to the dark purple of the leaves.

The common name is a reference to the pitcher-shaped leaves. Other names include Purple Pitcherplant, Northern Pitcher-plant, Northern Purple Pitcherplant, Indian Dipper, Huntsman's Cup, Adam's-Pitcher, Dumb-watch, Frog's Britches, and Whippoorwill-boots. The plant is also known as Side-saddle Flower or Sidesaddle Plant, a reference to the under part of the flower said to be somewhat like the seat of a sidesaddle. Several other names (Fever-cup and Smallpox-plant) refer to the plant's purported medicinal properties.


Identification of Pitcher Plant

Wetland Wildflowers of the Adirondack Park: Pitcher Plant on Barnum Bog on the Boreal Life Trail (22 September 2012).
Wildflowers of the Adirondacks: Although the color of the Pitcher Plant's leaves vary from pure green to mostly red or dark red-purple, the most common coloration is green with red veins. Pitcher Plant on Barnum Bog on the Boreal Life Trail (22 September 2012).

The Pitcher Plant grows about 8 to 24 inches high. Perhaps the most reliable way to identify the Pitcher Plant is by looking for a rosette of tubular leaves growing around the base of the flower stalk. The leaves are up to eight inches long. They vary in color from reddish-green (with purple veins) to purple to purplish red. The reddish colors and veins are attractive to some insects.

The leaves are modified into pitchers, often partly filled with water. Each leaf has five distinct zones:

  • The topmost zone consists of a flared flap, with nectar glands and brightly colored veins to attract insect prey. Each flap has two lateral rounded lobes. The inside of the flap is covered with downward-pointing hairs to encourage the prey to descend into the pitcher. They also make it difficult for the prey to crawl back out.
  • The second zone consists of a smooth rim inside the pitcher. The prey slides down the smooth vertical surface, which is covered with adhesive cells designed to stick to the feet of the prey and further hinder escape.
  • The third zone is the main body of the pitcher, where the prey dies, usually by drowning in the rainwater caught in the pitcher.  The liquid in the pitcher contains digestive enzymes, which begin the digestive process.
  • The fourth zone is located at the bottom of the pitcher. Here the prey is further digested by additional glands.
  • The fifth and lowest zone of the pitcher is the long, narrow stalk, serving as a receptacle for indigestible animal parts.  It has vascular tissue which conducts some of the products of digestion and photosynthesis to the roots, flowers, and seeds. 

The leaves are produced each year from stems arising from the rhizomes. At least a few pitcher leaves usually remain on plants throughout the year.  New pitcher leaves appear only in spring and summer.  Leaves may turn red or a dark red purple at the end of growing season.

Wetland Wildflowers of the Adirondack Park: Pitcher Plant on Barnum Bog on the Boreal Life Trail (26 July 2014).
Wildflowers of the Adirondacks: After the petals have dropped off, the Pitcher Plant is left with five sepals, bronzy red or purple on the outside and yellowish on the inside, with the tips curving over a yellow and green style. Pitcher Plant on Barnum Bog on the Boreal Life Trail (26 July 2014).

The Pitcher Plant's other readily identifiable feature is its single, nodding flower. The flower, which is two to three inches wide, appears on the top of a thick, leafless stalk up to two feet tall. The petals are bright red and rounded, staying on the plant briefly before being shed.

The rest of the rigid flower structure persists all summer into fall. This consists of five somewhat more pointed sepals, with incurving tips. The sepals are generally tinged with dark red or red-purple on the outside and yellow on the inside. The sepals curve around a yellowish-green style, which expands into an umbrella-like structure, sometimes splashed with deep red. The Pitcher Plant has numerous stamens which are largely hidden by the style.

The Pitcher Plant's flower pollinators include bumblebees (Bombus) and honeybees (Apis mellifera). Pitcher Plants are also pollinated by the Pitcher Plant Fly (Fletcherimyia fletcheri), which becomes covered with pollen while seeking shelter in the flowers.

In the Adirondacks, Pitcher Plants generally start blooming in early- to mid-June. The flowers (minus the petals, which are very fleeting) persist through the summer and into early September, depending on the weather.

The fruit of the Pitcher Plant is a round, five-celled seed capsule. The capsule is about ¾ inch in diameter and changes from green to yellow to red to brown, before splitting open to expose the numerous brown seeds.

Uses of Pitcher Plant

Native American tribes reportedly used the Pitcher Plant to treat a variety of ailments, including lower back pain, fever, chills, whooping cough, pneumonia, and kidney problems. Some groups, such as the Algonquin, employed an infusion of leaves as an aid to childbirth; the Cree reportedly gave a decoction of the root to women to prevent sickness after childbirth.

The plant was also used by several Native American groups as a treatment and preventative for small pox, although reports conflict on its effectiveness.

Wildlife Value of Pitcher Plant

Wetland Wildflowers of the Adirondack Park: Pitcher Plant on Barnum Bog on the Boreal Life Trail (28 July 2012).
Wildflowers of the Adirondacks: Ants, wasps, bees, butterflies, and moths are attracted to the Pitcher Plant by its nectar. Pitcher Plant on Barnum Bog on the Boreal Life Trail (28 July 2012).

Pitcher Plants provide benefits to several insect species. The plant hosts a variety of anthropod species who live in the pitchers and feed upon the Pitcher Plant's decomposing insect victims. These organisms are able to survive by relying on anti-enzymes to counteract the digestive enzymes in the fluid. Examples include the larvae of the Pitcher Plant Fly, the Pitcher Plant Midge, and the Pitcher Plant Mosquito. Another common fly inhabitant is the Eastern Flesh Fly.  Some spiders spin webs across the mouths of the pitchers to catch entering insects. 

The caterpillars of several moths feed on the Pitcher Plant. Examples include the Epauletted Pitcher Plant Moth (whose caterpillars feed on the inner surface of the leaves) and the Pitcher Plant Borer Moth (whose caterpillars feed on the Pitcher Plant's roots). Pitcher-plant Aphids feed on the buds and flowers. White-footed Mice, Meadow Voles, and Snowshoe Hares are also said to feed on Pitcher Plants.

Distribution of Pitcher Plant

Wetland Wildflowers of the Adirondack Park: Pitcher Plant on the Black Pond Trail (29 April 2017).
Wildflowers of the Adirondacks: Pitcher Plants can be found in bogs, tamarack swamps, and peaty areas in the Adirondack Mountains. Pitcher Plant on the Black Pond Trail (29 April 2017).

The Pitcher Plant's range includes the eastern seaboard of the United States, the Great Lakes, and south eastern Canada. It can be found from Saskatchewan to Labrador and Nova Scotia; south through New England to Florida; west to Texas; and north to Indiana, Illinois, and Minnesota. It is rare in most of its southeastern U.S. range.

The plant is listed as threatened in Florida and Maryland, endangered in Georgia and Illinois, and exploitably vulnerable in New York State, where it is protected. In New York State, it is listed in two categories: "rare" (21 to 100 occurrences, limited acreage, or miles of stream) and "apparently secure."

It has been documented in all counties within the Adirondack Park Blue Line, except Oneida County.

Habitat of Pitcher Plant

The Pitcher Plant is an obligate wetland species, meaning that it almost always occurs in wetland areas. In the Adirondack Mountains, the Pitcher Plant is found in several wetland ecological communities:

Pitcher Plants can be seen at the Paul Smiths VIC in Barnum Bog, where they may be observed from the boardwalk on the Boreal Life Trail. Pitcher Plants also grow in the wetland areas around Black Pond and may be seen from the Black Pond Trail.


References

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Wildflowers of the Adirondack Park

Copyright 2017