Pitcher Plants of North Carolina

     Most people think of Pitcher Plants as living in rain forests in South America or someplace like this. A few do live in South America, but none in the rain forests. Our Pitcher Plants live almost exclusively in bogs, wet meadows, or pine savannahs, wetlands which are disappearing at a great rate due to development and urban sprawl, notwithstanding the Wetlands Protection Act. In these soggy wet places they are usually accompanied by Sphagnum moss, which acidifies the ground, holds more than thirty times its dry weight in water, and generally makes it hard for any other plant to grow except for some grasses and sedges, plus the occasional lovely Bog Orchid. This combination of wetness and acid organic matter which will not break down makes it difficult for most plants to get any nutrients out of the soil, so the Pitcher Plants have an automatic edge, allowing them to grow in inhospitable places by catching their own nutrients in the form of insects.

The Types of Pitcher Plants

     In North Carolina there are four (possibly five) species of Pitcher Plants found, all in the genus Sarracenia.

Yellow Pitcher Plant, Sarracenia flava L.
The most showy one is found almost exclusively on the Coastal Plain, the lovely Yellow Pitcher Plant, Sarracenia flava, also called Huntsman's Horn, Flycatchers , Trumpets, or Lilies, though there is no relation to lilies at all. There is a good close up of this type of plant at www.pitcherplant.org. It has long trumpet shaped leaves with a wide hood that seems to protect it from flooding during rain. The fllowers emerge in early spring and are borne on a rather short stem that is generally shorter than the leaves. The flowers look like an upside down umbrella with light yellow petals hanging out.DangerousPlants.comPhoto borrowed from http://www.dangerousplants.com/ with permission.

Photo by Carl Mazur, used with permission
     Yellow Pitcher Plants live mostly in Pine Savannahs, which are flat areas of Longleaf  or Loblolly Pines that are very widely spaced, allowing almost full sunlight for the plants growing underneath. The soil surface in these areas is almost at the level of the water table during most of the year, allowing for the growth of the water loving Sphagnum moss. Another common habitat where these can be seen easily are roadside drainage ditches along the Green Swamp in North Carolina. The Green Swamp is host to these plants plus several other species of carnivorous plants.
   Yellow Pitcher Plant, or flava, as many hobbiests call it, uses a pitfall type of trap. The trumpet shaped leaves which stand erect and make a sweet nectar on the edges of the trumpet lure insects into the interior of the leaf where they fall down and are digested by enzymes. They do not use bacterial action as their relative (which we will talk about next) uses.

These, as are all Pitcher Plants, are protected by law state wide!


flava flowers

These are the flowers of the Yellow Pitcher Plant. They emerge before the leaves, probably to prevent the pollinators from getting eaten! This photo was taken in my front yard. These plants were bought from a local greenhouse; I don't make a habit of wild collecting.

Southern Purple Pitcher Plant, Sarracenia purpurea L.  ssp. venosa{(Raf.) Wherry} and Mountain Purple  Pitcher Plant, Sarracenia purpurea L. subsp.venosa {(Raf.) Wherry} var.montana {Schnell & Determann}

     This one is a subspecies of a species which has a very wide range that encompasses a large part of North America, ranging from Canada to Maine, and south through the mid-Atlantic states to Florida and west to the Mississippi. It is not found over most of the central US west of the Mississippi River.Dangerousplants.comPhoto used with permission from http://www.dangerousplants.com/

The two forms of this pitcher plant are found on either end of the state. The Southern is found in many bogs, savannahs and drainage ditches on the Coastal Plain of the state. A good place to look for it is the Croatan National Forest, along with the Green Swamp. The Mountain form is extremely rare, and is seldom seen. It is found in a very few mountain bogs in Western NC. It differs from the Southern by having a somewhat longer pitcher, a less wavy margin on the hood, and a more purple color to over-wintering pitchers. You are unlikely to see this one, as it is found on private land, and folks who know about localities are very secretive about it. In fact (not being rude, just protective), I won't even tell you where I have seen it.
     These plants use a simple pitfall arrangement, and use bacterial action (some say almost exclusively) to digest their prey, unlike the upright types which rely on degestive enzymes.

Red Pitcher Plant and Mountain Sweet Pitcher Plant Sarracenia rubra Walter and Sarracenia rubra (Walt) ssp. jonesii {(Wherry) Wherry)} or Sarracenia jonesii Wherry.

     This lovely little plant is found in the coastal areas of North Carolina, most notably in the Green Swamp and a few other places. The mountain subspecies, which is thought by many (myself included) to be a separate species, is terribly rare, almost as rare as the Mountain Purple Pitcher Plant, and is federally endangered. Though the Red can be found in many localities in the Coastal Plain, the Mountain Sweet can be found in only a few scattered localities in the western part of the state which are either closely guarded secrets, or simply closely guarded; I know of one site that is guarded by a farmer with a shotgun and a German Shepherd! He doesn't want anyone bothering his "Flycatchers".

Red Pitcher PlantPhoto kindly provided by Dangerous Plants

This is the typical form, which can be seen on the Coastal Plain. The mountain subspecies is larger and has a more inflated area around the mouth of the pitcher.
     Though the Red can be found in many bogs and Pine savannahs in the Coastal Plain, its range is slowly shrinking due to habitat loss. Many bogs and savannahs are being turned into golf courses and condominiums, and pinelands ae often cut for the lumber, then "water managed" to keep the water table lower and grow more pines for wood. All this pushes Pitcher Plants further toward extinction in the wild.
     The Mountain Sweet Pitcher Plant is also extremely vulnerable. Many of the historic populations are gone now; creeks were diked to prevent flooding, golf courses were built, and housing developments were constructed over the wet flood plain soil needed by these fascinating plants.As a matter of fact, the largest known population ever of these plants, about 60 acres, was bulldozed in the 1970's to make way for a golf course and country club.Furthermore, all populations in existence are on private land, putting them at the mercy of the whims of the land owners.

Hooded Pitcher Plant Sarracenia minor Walter

Hooded Pitcher PLant

Picture kindly provided by Dangerous Plants

Hooded Pitcher Plants have an unusual adaptation; they have "windows" on the back of the pitcher. Some Botanists suggest that this might confuse insects who fly into the trap into thinking they can fly out through them, thus dropping themselves into the digestive portion of the trap below.
     Hoodeds are found in the far southeastern corner of the state, and are very rare. They reach their zenith both in population density and size in the Okefenokee Swamp in Southern Georgia. In this area, they are like a roadside weed, being in almost every ditch and power line right-of-way. In the Okefenokee, they grow extremely large, far larger than the diminutive North Carolina plants.

Mountain Pitcher Plant Sarracenia oreophila {(Kearney) Wherry}

This is  probably the rarest of the Pitcher Plants, and there is some doubt that it lives in North Carolina at all. There may be one small population in the far southwest corner of the state, but there is so much secrecy surrounding it that it is difficult to confirm. It mainly lives in stream beds or along seeps and springs in Georgia and Alabama. It is subject to drying out in the summer, so unlike its relatives who make trap leaves in the spring and keep them all summer, it makes them in the spring, and when the weather dries up, they die down, and it sends up strap shaped leaves for the rest of the summer.
     This montane habitat gave its latin name of "oreophila", which means "mountain lover".

Copyright 2003, Alex Netherton, the Appalachian Naturalist