On Gardening

Poring the pitcher plant with Adrian Higgins

The bizarre and beautiful traps of the common pitcher plant.
The bizarre and beautiful traps of the common pitcher plant. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)
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By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, May 13, 2010

Among meat-eating bog plants, the Venus' flytrap gets all the fuss. Okay, so its leaf snaps shut like a monster's mouth. Hold my coffee while I clap. My vote is for another native carnivore, the pitcher plant.

There are a handful of species, some tall and pale, others short and squat, and all producing decorative hooded tubes with a lacelike pattern that gives them a reptilian quality. In short, they are beautiful, and they have made the leap from the sour and soggy peat bog into the garden.

You owe it to the plant and nature not to buy pitcher plants that may have been collected in the wild (hint: for sale cheap on the Internet), but to get them from reputable garden centers and mail-order nurseries. Modern cloning techniques have permitted their responsible reproduction while bringing down the costs. And breeders have been busy creating lovely hybrids.

Like other perennials, the pitcher sends up fresh growth from its dormant crown in the spring, but it also grows leaves that have been modified into the showy tubes. These are devilishly attractive, not just to gardeners but also to insects drawn to the nectar that seeps around the lip. Once a creature has fallen inside the smooth interior of the tube, it is trapped, to be consumed by the vat of enzymes at the base. What the insect thought a tower of ambrosia is merely a stomach. It's not nice, but when you consider how much the plant kingdom suffers at the hands of arthropods such as aphids and thrips, it seems a form of justice.

Many species send up a more benign insect beacon in the spring: a flower. The pitcher plant bloom is unlike any other. Solitary and borne on a wiry stem, it consists of thick petals that fall like rabbit ears around a central pincushion. The flowers of the yellow trumpet species are acid green, those of the common pitcher plant a deep maroon around a green heart.

I have grown a clump of yellow trumpet for years and look forward to its distinctive blossom in May (always just one). I recently bought a potted common pitcher plant, a species with stubbier pitchers. The new pitchers are lime green with red veins, and they cluster amid the previous year's pitchers, now a deep purple. The flower rises regally above the bloodthirsty throng. It is a special plant.

Another recent acquisition is a variety named Scarlet Belle, which produces masses of daintier pitchers that nevertheless form broad 12-inch clumps. The tubes lean and recline, and are a bright yellow-green rising to a white top laced in red.

Scarlet Belle is a cross of two species, the white trumpet and the parrot pitcher plant. The latter is a bog plant that borders on the aquatic, and its tubes sit low on the water's surface to lure small crustaceans, says Bill McLaughlin, a native-plant expert at the U.S. Botanic Garden who started cultivating pitcher plants as a boy.

If I were stylish enough to have a moon garden of glowing plants, I might have a clump or three of the white trumpet. It is arguably the most elegant of the lot, with tall upright pitchers that form in later summer, white with conspicuous red netting. The white trumpet is favored for cut flowers and dried arrangements. McLaughlin says growers stuff a wad of cotton wool at the base of the tubes to keep insects from fouling it. That doesn't seem fair, since pitchers evolved to supplement their diet so they could live in as infertile a place as a bog.

This makes their growing needs quite particular. They won't live in a regular garden bed, or one that gets periodically wet. Nor will they grow indoors happily. They need winter chilling and a sunny location. Not least, they need the bog conditions of high acidity and poor soil that remains moist but not wet. How do you achieve that?

Most growers use a soil mix of one part peat moss to one part play sand, though some growers add peanut hulls and pine needles. Don't use garden soil, topsoil, compost, potting mix or a seed-starting medium.

You also shouldn't use chlorinated tap water on them. Rainwater, distilled water or pond water will work. McLaughlin uses the condensate from his air conditioner.

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