Garden Gossip

with Ted Smith

In 1889 the book “Sea and Land” told the tale of giant spiny trees that had the capacity to entrap humans and squeeze them until the tree’s sharp spines could drain them of all their blood. After a period of time a dry husk was all that would remain of the once human form and this was cast away in preparation for resetting the trap. “Under the Punkah Tree” was written in 1881 and recounted horrific stories of South American trees capable of grasping humans with hand-like leaves. The poor doomed soul would be grabbed and pulled into a thicket of leaves. At this point there would be a great commotion accompanied by much screaming and the victim would never seen again. Another account from the 1800s that was widely published in newspapers and reputable periodicals discussed first hand observations of a huge pineapple shaped plant with venomous tentacles that could lure women close with a sweet scent only to ensnare and consume them. As recently as 1960 a tale was circulated regarding a plant with a taste for human blood. This plant grew to immense proportions under someone’s care and was able to persuade its naive caretaker into providing it with human snacks. While we can step back now and look at such tales with a how-could-they-be-so-gullible smirk, for a great period of time these stories were taken as fact. The question is, where could the ideas come from that would lead to such incredible creations of the imagination? The answer is quite simple. They came from real life, simply on a much smaller scale than these morbid tales would have you consider. All around the globe, plants capable of luring, trapping and consuming living prey exist. Fortunately for humanity, the prey in question is seldom more than a few millimeters in length and the plants are generally rather small and nondescript. Many of these plants, no doubt as a result of their unlikely natural history, have found a niche in the hearts and on the windowsills of avid gardeners.

Last week here in Garden Gossip we took a detailed look at the Venus fly trap which is arguably the best known and most commonly kept of the carnivorous plants. Today I would like to take a look at a plant that is cut from the same carnivorous cloth, but which also calls portions of Manitoulin Island home.

One of the most fascinating of carnivorous plants is the pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea). Denizens of acidic and nutrient poor bogs, the pitcher plant long ago realized that it could not survive on sunshine alone. Over time this plant developed an ingenious way of both capturing and digesting live creatures in order to obtain extra nutrition. The leaves of the pitcher plant grow in a tight curl that look just like, wait for it, a pitcher. The top of the “pitcher” faces upwards. Rain water collects in these unusual pitchers. Pitcher plants then release digestive hormones into the small pools of water creating a “soup” capable of dissolving all but the hardest exoskeletons of insects unlucky enough to fall in. Some pitcher plants rely on pure chance to attract their meals while others are a little more proactive and utilize various pheromones or bright colours to make the pitchers seem like a place where either food or prospective mates may be found. In the case of flies and flying insects, entering the pitcher is easy. Getting out is not. The tight confines of the pitcher do not allow insect wings to create a proper lift and they quickly find themselves laying in a pool of digestive juice, wondering what went wrong. Some flying insects may land on the sides of the pitcher and then try to begin the trek up and out. Unfortunately for them the insides of pitcher plant leaves are covered in masses of wickedly sharp downward pointed bristles. There is only one way for these, or any other crawling insect, to go and that is directly down to where they will drown and be quickly assimilated by the plant.

Because of their unusual nature, gardeners around the world love keeping pitcher plants. Interestingly, pitcher plant varieties can be found in just about as many countries as there are gardeners wishing to cultivate them. The most important thing to keep in mind when growing pitcher plants as house plants is that they naturally want to be wet and acidic. A growing container that can hold water is perfect. Use a growing medium such as peat or sphagnum moss mixed with about one third sand. Even indoors, pitcher plants will often attract all the insects they need to survive but you can also occasionally supplement their diet with a tiny insect or two. Never use raw meat as it will rot and can kill your plant.

Hopefully these images do not impact your sleep too badly and if you are up for it, come back next week for more on the fascinating world of murderous, er, carnivorous plants.