Elegant Traps: Carnivorous plants thrive in Red Hills

May 1st, 2015 by Red Hills

Trumpet pitcher  plants by Pierson Hill

by Kim Sash, [published in Tallahassee Democrat April 25, 2015]

The southeastern coastal plain, which includes the Red Hills region of north Florida and southwest Georgia, has the richest diversity of carnivorous plants in the world. Spring loaded jaws, a pitfall, a glue trap, or a sucking vacuum are all methods carnivorous plants use to catch their prey. These fascinating plants typically grow in wet habitats like savannahs, bogs and seepage slopes, although they can also be commonly found in mowed road side ditches. Most of these habitats have acidic soil and lack nitrogen. Therefore the plants have modified leaves to trap nutrient rich insects.

There are four plant genera in our area that all catch and eat insects, the pitcher plant, the bladderwort, the butterwort and the sundews.

The funnel shaped leaves of the pitcher plant act like a pitfall trap; they are lined with downward facing hairs making escape nearly impossible. Once stuck inside the pitcher, the insect is consumed by digestive enzymes released from the plant. A total of six species of pitcher plants found in the region are all within a short drive from Tallahassee. Species include the trumpet pitcher plant, with its tall upright yellowish or red pitchers; it is one of the most common pitcher plants in the Apalachicola National Forest (ANF). The reddish pitchers of the smaller parrot pitcher plant grow laterally from the basal rosette, making the plant wider verses the other pitcher plants that tend to grow more vertically.

In the Red Hills region, the most common pitcher plants are hooded pitcher plants. The hooded pitcher plant can be recognized by its pitchers being covered heavily, curved in at the top nearly closing off the pitcher in some cases. The hooded pitcher plants also have white dots on the backside of the pitchers. This pitcher plant has the widest range of habitat requirements, with the ability to live on drier, sandier sites.

Often found in close proximity to the pitcher plants are the thread dews and sundews. The thread dews have several upright green leaves that are covered in hair; the tip of each hair has a sticky fluid that captures its prey. Sun dews have beautiful, red, spoon-shaped leaves that typically lay fairly close to the ground. Individual plants can be smaller than the size of a dime and grow no larger than 1.5 inches in width. When an insect gets trapped in a sun or thread dew, they struggle to get free, getting caught up in more sticky hairs until eventually fully encased by the plant. Eventually, they are digested by the plants and the nutrients from the insects are taken up by the leaves.

Bladderworts are one of the more interesting carnivorous plants and typically grow in an aquatic environment. As the name suggests, they have a small bladder with a small opening with a door. Each bladder holds suction and when a small insect brushes a small trigger hair by the bladder door the insect is vacuumed inside and digested. These plants can often be found in ditches or small nutrient poor ponds.

Butterworts, found in North Florida’s damp sandy soils, have plump little bright green glue trap leaves. As an insect travels across the leaf they get stuck and digested in place. The butterworts can have a very tiny basal rosette of leaves and can be tricky to find, especially when they are not in bloom in the spring.

A trait of carnivorous plants that is a favorite among botanists is their striking and unique spring blooming flowers. Several varieties are now available from local nurseries and thrive in our climate if protected in winter. If you would like to enjoy carnivorous plants at your home considering building a bog garden, with no more than a liner, sand and peat moss you can get one started. As long as they are kept moist more of these plants are fairly easy to keep and you can enjoy watching them “collect” their food and beautiful spring blooms.

Learn more about carnivorous plants at Florida Native Plant Society www.fnps.org or Georgia Native Plant Society www.gnps.org.

Kim Sash is conservation biologist at Tall Timbers Research Station & Land Conservancy. She relocated to Florida from Wisconsin 12 years ago and enjoys the ecological diversity of the region, especially snakes

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