Thursday, May 1, 2008

Not Just a Curiosity

I grow lots of Sarracenias, also known as American Pitcher Plants. I know this raises my "garden geek" factor even higher through the roof than before - carnivorous plant afficionados seem to be the horticultural equivalent of "Trekkies" - but I firmly believe that there are other reasons for collecting and cultivating the plants of this genus besides the "ick" factor. That having been said, I do ferry plants back and forth to school a lot at this time of year for use as a "hook" to lure fourth and fifth grade boys into participation in my music/horticulture integration lesson; nothing beats dissecting a pitcher from the last growing season in order to let kids get up close and personal with the remains of a pile of insects as an incentive to sing and play selections from "Little Shop of Horrors"! To the left is the bouquet I took to Thanksgiving dinner last fall - Sarracenia pitchers, especially those of S. leucophylla, are used extensively in the cut flower trade, often to the detriment of wild populations. I don't cut many, but that late in the season, when they were about to be burned back by frost, I figured their work was done for the year.

In order to keep the plants portable, I grow most of mine in plastic, saucer-shaped containers with holes drilled about 2/3 up the sides in order to drain some, but not all of the water, away from their crowns. These are nestled together in a fake bog, and I fill in among them with a mixture of grit and compost, into which is planted sedums and other creeping plants to help camouflage the exposed pot rims. At this time of year, having been exposed to several weeks of sub-freezing temperatures, the pitchers themselves are not much to look at, and I trim off as much of the dead material as possible to allow room for the new growth to fill in. The big show right now is the floral display.
You never read about the growing of Sarracenias for flower production, and while they don't have much potential as cutting material, a mature plant with a dozen or more flowers can be stunning. These are blooming concurrently with Zephyranthes atamasco, a great native companion plant for artificial bogs. The scent of the Sarracenia blooms is not much to write home about, since they're fishing for flies as pollinators, not bees or lepidopterans, but I'd put their nodding grace and form up against Cypripediums or Hellebores (two of my other favorites) any day of the week. Intricate in design, the flowers don't trap insects, per se, but they do require that the pollinator actually crawl under the broad "umbrella" (I suppose it's actually a modified pistil) covering the stamens in order to obtain whatever nectar is available, thus ensuring that a good amount of pollen will be transported to subsequent blooms. The pendant petals are temporary, hanging downward from the calyx for about a week; after these fall away, the sepals and central disk remain on the plant for the rest of the summer, adding to the visual interest and producing copious seeds.

Above is the blossom of S. oreophila, the endangered mountain pitcher plant. Illegal to purchase for shipment across state lines, I received it as a bonus from a grower in Oregon. Its only peculiarity is its tendency to go dormant in midsummer; its pitchers brown off as it produces phyllodia (flat, photosynthetic leaves which persist all winter); no amount of water seems to prevent this, but the plant always returns in force for the next growing season.

Even the buds are interesting; these belong to S. catesbaei, a naturally occuring hybrid between S. flava and S. purpurea.
Sarracenia rubra, below, exists in numerous forms, varieties, and subspecies, but all share these spectacular red flowers, hence the specific name. Sarracenia flava, named for its yellow (really chartreuse) blooms, is the earliest to flower and produce pitchers, and shows considerable variation as well. Interestingly, the typical variety (below, left, with either Zephyranthes or Cooperia drummondii, depending on what you read and when, blooming in the background) has downward facing blooms like most of the genus, but my plant of the "Copper Top" variety has blooms that face outward (below, right). This brings to mind the trend in Hellebore breeding to produce upright, rather than nodding, flowers. I'd love to experiment with this; however, the seedling growth of Sarracenias has proven too slow even for me. Plants I started growing from seed seven years ago are about the diameter of a quarter now - maybe there's some secret method for accelerating their growth which I haven't yet discovered. These are S. rubra var. Jonesii seedlings, so small that moss often threatens to crowd them out and has to be extracted strand by strand. As the weather warms, most of the plants (those with S. leucophylla in their parentage will tend to produce more pitchers in the fall than in spring) are beginning to produce pitchers, which is the usual reason for growing them. I would argue that the floral show alone makes Sarracenias worth growing, especially given their ease of culture (with the possible exception of S. purpurea - maybe it's not cold enough here?) in zone 7.

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