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Blog pitcher plantMeet Sarracenia leucophylla, the white pitcher plant. I drew this specimen following a day at Splinter Hill Bog, 628 acres of whispering longleaf pine forest and bog at the headwaters of the Perdido River in south Alabama. I felt fortunate to have a real, live pitcher plant to work from — when the first botanical illustration of a Sarracenia was made in 1576 by the court botanist to James I of England, all he had for reference was a dried-up remnant of a pitcher plant collected by Spanish explorers in Florida.

In those days, scientists could only guess about the plant’s strange cupped structure — and after a great deal of study, they concluded that pitcher plants were benevolently designed by God to provide safe refuge for small creatures. (Alas, that’s exactly what the plant’s unsuspecting victims probably think, as well.) Three hundred years later, Charles Darwin was the first to guess at the true purpose of the plant’s unique architecture: not a shelter, but a deadly trap. When experiments showed that pitcher plants digested and absorbed bits of venison dropped into its throat, the mystery was officially solved.

Among all the hundreds of families of flowering plants on the planet, only ten include species capable of trapping animals. There remains much we don’t know about these carnivorous beauties: their lifespan is uncertain, for example, because they sprout from a thick, fleshy rhizome that can spread out underground to give the appearance of multiple plants. In the wild, a large stand of plants may be just a few old — but widespread — individuals. And the intricate patterns on some Sarracenia may extend beyond the visible light spectrum; there is evidence to suggest that they actually have other patterns that can only be detected with ultraviolet vision.

So much to learn, but we may not have that chance — pitcher plant habitat is disappearing at an incredible rate. Wetlands throughout the world are being drained for development. Even preserved wetlands often become contaminated with agricultural and residential runoff. Most of the large Sarracenia stands of the past are already gone.

Fortunately for pitcher plants in my region (and for those of us who like to draw them) a number of bogs are being carefully protected. The largest is Splinter Hill Bog, where this beautiful specimen was growing. There’s also a bog at Weeks Bay Estuarine Reserve┬ánear Fairhope, and at the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge just north of Gautier, MS.

 

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