What is Sarracenia?

Helga George

Sarracenia is a genus of approximately ten species of perennial plants in the family Sarracineaceae. They are carnivorous plants, native to North America. Thus, they obtain some of their nutrients from trapping and digesting insects. Plants in this genus are part of a larger category known as pitcher plants. The word pitcher refers to distinctive specialized leaves that often contain water and are used to lure insects to their deaths.

Plants in the sarracenia genus are pitch plants.
Plants in the sarracenia genus are pitch plants.

Pitcher plants lure insects by imitating the appearance of flowers. Typically, flies investigate the false flowers and become trapped. The plants have a surface of wax that leads to a pool of water. This water contains a compound that makes the fly’s wings waxy. If one does manage to escape the water, the walls of the pitcher are also waxy, and have hairs pointing down, that help to capture prey.

Also, at least one species of Sarracenia produces a compound that acts as a narcotic to insects. Ants, for instance, are also attracted to pitchers by a trail of nectar on the leaf that leads to its entrance. Once inside, they are trapped in a manner similar to that of the flies. As the insects decompose, they release formic acid into the milieu inside the pitcher.

It appears that the plants do not contribute to the digestion of the insects. Bacteria that live in the water are thought to provide proteases — enzymes that break down proteins — and other compounds to degrade the insects. The formic acid from the ants lowers the pH of the water. This helps to aid in the plant's digestion of the bugs.

Sarracenia lives in wet areas known as bogs, particularly those composed of sphagnum moss, which has a low pH. Most species of Sarracenia live in warm areas of the southeastern United States. The purple pitcher plant, Sarracenia purpurea, is an exception. It can grow as far north as Canada and has been introduced into Europe, where it has become naturalized.

The purple pitcher plant is a commonly sold carnivorous plant. It comes in different varieties. Those with red leaves are especially popular.

The plant's potting medium should be sphagnum peat moss, ground to a fine powder, combined with water. Since bogs have a very low level of minerals, soaking the plants with tap water that contains a lot of them, commonly known as hard water, will gradually kill the plants. The best water to use is rainwater, distilled water, or water from a reverse osmosis filter. The pots should be left sitting in water, so the plants are always wet.

The amount of sunlight required varies depending on the region, but pitcher plants can survive under artificial light. Plants kept inside should be fed insects. These can be purchased at pet stores, which commonly carry crickets. Pitcher plants in the garden will attract plenty of insects and do not require additional feeding. The foliage should be sprayed with diluted acidic fertilizer.

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