Photo essay: In pursuit of pitcher plants

This fan documents that they are becoming harder to find

Hooded pitcher plants are widespread in north and central Florida. Hardee County is the closest to us. These plants were photographed in Goethe State Forest in Levy County, a magnificent tract with old growth longleaf pine and rare species such as the red-cockaded woodpecker. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Everyone has a story about them. My sister tells of visiting a greenhouse as a child and sticking her finger in a “pitcher” to see if it would bite!

Fern Mayo grew up with them on a farm in Vermont. “They grew where the quicksand was, so we kids knew to avoid that area.”

Man-eating green carnivores run amok through fertile imaginations, but in truth, they never existed, although some species of carnivorous plants do trap birds and rats.

Why would a plant eat animals? The habitat was low in nutrients, so carnivorous plants expanded their diets to include animals. Beautiful and innocent looking the plants are, but woe to those who fall into the brine.

Catch of the day for this hooded pitcher plant? Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

My tale begins in winter at the University of North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill, where a sculpture catches my eye. Huge metallic flies, captured forever in my mind in mid air, buzz around a pitcher plant. In real life, they would be tempting morsels for the plant should they be so unwise as to light on the leaves and fall in!

Pitcher plants are the Rube Goldbergs of the plant world, with ingeniously constructed leaves that form hollow “tubes,” open at the top. Some of the plants have a hood to keep out the rain. The lip is coated with nectar to attract prey and, once inside, it is a slippery slope for poor unfortunates that struggle to crawl out. Hairs direct the captives downward into a pool of liquid enriched with enzymes, which converts them into food for the plant.

Not all prey succumbs. Ants, flies, moths and butterflies may stop by to feed and move on. Bumblebees can eat their way out. Mosquitoes breed in them. Some insects are even born there, and a number of animals use pitcher plants to hunt their own prey. Spiders may build a web across the lip to trap insects. The pinewoods tree frog uses the plant as a “blind” to catch prey, which is attracted by the bright color of the leaves and the nectar.

Nature’s artistry is apparent in the bloom of this hooded pitcher plant. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Pitcher plants (Sarracenia sp.) are carnivorous plants dating back millions of years. They survived the age of dinosaurs, but now plants in the wild are becoming a rarity. Most of Florida’s six species can be found in the northern part of the state, generally off the beaten track. Masses of them bloom in April in Escambia County, which is as far west as you can go and still be in Florida.

Once they grew in great swaths from the Apalachicola River valley to the Perdido River. Escambia County’s Tarkiln Bayou and Yellow River Marsh preserves have some of the highest remaining concentrations.

Five out of six species of Florida’s pitcher plants are threatened or endangered — their fragile habitats destroyed by development, the draining of the land, over-harvesting or foraging feral hogs. Local extinctions are common.

I fell for those plants that day in North Carolina, so in Florida, I started reading about them. Native Americans called them “owl’s shoe”; children made toys out of them. They were used as drinking vessels and curatives for consumption and kidney problems.

Andre Michaux, the French king’s botanist who explored Florida in the late 1700s, collected the yellow pitcher plant among other southern flora.

Yellow trumpets are bright in a wet prairie in Santa Rosa County in the Panhandle. Trumpets can grow more than 3 feet high. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

In the early 1900s, John Kunkel Small observed them in north Florida and noted they were food for young wild turkeys. The adult turkeys poked holes in the plants so the juveniles could feast on the nutrient-rich “brew” at the bottoms of the plants. Mary Francis Baker, who botanized the state 100 years ago, called pitcher plants the “brigands and highwaymen of the plant world.”

Around the same time, Roland Harper was documenting plants of the Southeastern coastal plain flora. He would survey the landscape from a train window, get off the train and walk back for a close-up view of what he had just seen. Once, riding through the Apalachicola Forest, he passed fields of pitcher plants growing among the longleaf pines and carefully noted the mile markers in his journal.

Endangered in Florida, the white-top pitcher plant thrives in wet flatwoods, wet prairies and wet seepage slopes in the Panhandle. They bloom in spring and can be found in the Blackwater River State Park. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

I am inspired. I get on the road and head north for the pitcher plant bogs in the longleaf pine forests, which Roland Harper explored a hundred years ago. These are places that seem still to be part of a bygone era. One can almost hear the sound of the axes clearing land so people can build houses, plant crops or lay railroad tracks. This is an apt setting for a primeval “creature” such as the pitcher plant.

In Franklin County, along Route 65, part of the Florida Trail and the Florida scenic drive, I find masses of wildflowers and pitcher plants on the edge of the longleaf pine forest. I park off the road, well out of the way of logging trucks, which rush by — their huge loads wafting pine scent — and make my way carefully through saw palmetto.

First, I see a hooded pitcher standing upright in the bright spring sunshine; then, the purple pitcher plant, which resembles raw meat, to attract flies. These areas have been burned recently. Without fire, pitcher plants and many other species would disappear, a fact Roland Harper noted in his explorations.

I drive south from Hosford on Route 20 and at Sumatra, turn right on 379. After I cross Little Owl Creek, I come to Forest Road 106, where a bog full of blooming pitcher plants awaits me.

My quest continues to Escambia County, then to Tarkiln Bayou State Park, which has four species of pitcher plants.

The rare Gulf Coast redflower pitcher plant (on the right in this photo) grows only in Florida in three counties of the western Panhandle. Fire keeps it going. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Near Milton, Garcon Point Preserve — accessible from State Road 281 — is a great place to see pitcher plants blooming in spring.

Now I am always on the lookout for them and other varieties of carnivorous plants. It is a bit of a treasure hunt.

Pitchers like sun in areas that are wet at least part of the year: wet savannas, flatwoods, bogs and even ditches. As we have seen, fire is a necessity. They bloom in spring, but their funnels can be seen through summer into fall.

Parrot pitcher plants grow in the Southeastern United States. They can be found in north Florida and the Panhandle. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

In central Florida, I hit pay dirt — hooded pitcher plants (central Florida has just one species) blooming along the edges of the road in the Goethe State Forest. I plan to check in each spring to see how they are doing.

There are 20 varieties of carnivorous plants in Florida. At home I find one of them — sundews — next door at Oscar Scherer State Park in Osprey, in a boggy area — shining iridescent pink in the sunshine. In this case a spider was the loser.

Thinking of growing pitcher plants? You can buy them on line. Those in the wild are endangered. DO NOT take them. They are difficult to transplant, suited to the habitat where you find them but not to your back yard. Nursery-grown varieties are specially tailored for transplanting.

Widespread in North America but limited to the Panhandle in Florida, the Gulf purple pitcher plant favors wet habitats, like other species of this genus. Dark red flowers resembling raw meat attract flies and other insects. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

How pitcher plants survive hurricanes remains to be seen. The effects of Hurricane Michael’s stampede through the Panhandle will be felt for years to come.