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Pitcher-Plant Family

( Originally Published 1922 )



Pitcher-plant; Side-saddle Flower; Huntsman's Cup; Indian Dipper

Sarracenea purpurea

FloweróDeep reddish purple, sometimes partly greenish, pink, or red, 2 in. or more across, globose; solitary, nodding from scape 1 to 2 ft. tall. Calyx of 5 sepals, with 3 or 4 bracts at base; 5 overlapping petals, en-closing a yellowish, umbrella-shaped dilation of the style, with 5 rays terminating in 5-hooked stigmas; stamens indefinite. Leaves: Hollow, pitcher-shaped through the folding together of their margins, leaving a broad wing; much inflated, hooded, yellowish green with dark maroon or purple lines and veinings, 4 to 12 in. long, curved, in a tuft from the root.

Preferred HabitatóPeat-bogs; spongy, mossy swamps. Flowering SeasonóMayóJune.

DistributionóLabrador to the Rocky Mountains, south to Florida, Kentucky, and Minnesota.

"What's this I hear
About the new carnivora?
Can little plants
Eat bugs and ants
And gnats and flies?
A sort of retrograding:
Surely the fare Of flowers is air Or sunshine sweet;
They shouldn't eat Or do aught so degrading!"

There must always be something shocking in the sacrifice of the higher life to the lower, of the sensate to what we are pleased to call the insensate, although no one who has studied the marvellously intelligent motives that impel a plant's activities can any longer consider the vegetable creation as lacking sensibility. Science is at length giving us a glimmering of the meaning of the word universe, teaching, as it does, that all creatures in sharing the One Life share in many of its powers, and differ from one another only in degree of possession, not in kind. The transition from one so-called kingdom into another presumably higher one is a purely arbitrary line marked by man, and often impossible to define. The animalcule and the insectivorous plant know no boundaries between the animal and the vegetable. And who shall say that the sundew or the bladderwort is not a higher organism than the amoeba? Animated plants and vegetating animals parallel each other. Several hundred carnivorous plants in all parts of the world have now been named by scientists.

It is well worth a journey to some spongy, sphagnum bog to gather clumps of pitcher-plants which will furnish an interesting study to an entire household throughout the summer while they pursue their nefarious business in a shallow bowl on the veranda. A modification of the petiole forms a deep, hollow pitcher having for its spout a modification of the blade of the leaf. Usually the pitchers are half filled with water and tiny drowned victims when we gather them. Some of this fluid must be rain, but the open pitcher secretes much juice, too. Certain relatives, whose pitchers have hooded lids that keep out rain, are nevertheless filled with fluid. On the Pacific Coast the golden jars of Darlingtonia californica, with their over-arching hoods, are often so large and watery as to drown small birds and field mice. Note in passing that these other-wise dark prisons have translucent spots at the top, whereas our pitcher-plant is lighted through its open transom.

A sweet secretion within the pitcher's rim, which some say is intoxicating, others that it is an anesthetic, invites insects to a fatal feast. It is a simple enough matter for them to walk into the pitcher over the band of stiff hairs pointing downward like the withes of a lobster pot, that form an inner covering, or to slip into the well if they at-tempt crawling over its polished upper surface. To fly upward in a perpendicular line, once their wings are wet, is additionally hopeless, because of the hairs that guard the mouth of the trap; and so, after vain attempts to fly or crawl out of the prison, they usually sink exhausted into a watery grave.

When certain plants live in soil that is so poor in nitrogen compounds that proteid formation is interfered with, they have come to depend more or less on a carnivorous diet. The sundew actually digests its prey with the help of a gastric juice similar to what is found in the stomach of animals; but the bladderwort and pitcher-plants can only absorb in the form of soup the products of their victims' decay. Flies and gnats drowned in these pitchers quickly yield their poor little bodies; but owing to the beetle's hard shell covering, many a rare specimen may be rescued intact to add to a collection.

A similar ogre plant is the yellow-flowered Trumpet-leaf (S. flava) found in bogs in the Southern states.



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