Feed Me, Seymour

Sarracenia leucophylla
White-Top Pitcher Plant

Part of the Wild Garden, white-top pitcher plants can be found along the Boardwalk in the Bog area. Upon reopening, pitcher plants and other carnivorous plants will take center stage as part of the “Trapped” exhibit that features larger than life sculptures.

The white-top pitcher plant (Sarracenia leucophylla) is an herbaceous, perennial plant species native to the gulf coastal plain of the southeastern United States. Found in bogs, savannas, flatwoods and cypress depressions, from the Florida panhandle to southeast Mississippi, these iconic carnivorous plants can form large colonies where they create stunningly beautiful vistas. The white coloration atop the pitcher makes this species one of the most striking and readily identifiable. Despite its beauty, the pitcher is actually a modified leaf with a much more practical purpose: to lure, trap and digest insect prey.

The development of carnivory in pitcher plants is an evolutionary adaptation enabling these plants to grow in acidic, anaerobic soils where critical nutrients (e.g., Nitrogen) are severely limiting. Pitchers are passive traps (i.e., without moving parts) and lure insects using a combination of scent and color. Upon arrival, insects are attracted to a nectary at the base of the hood. Insects unable to safely navigate this nectary fall to the bottom of the pitcher where a combination of downward-pointing hairs and waxy (slippery) cuticle prevents escape. Digestive enzymes released by the plant facilitate the decomposition process and critically needed nutrients are absorbed during the process.

The white-top pitcher plant is a fire-adapted species and benefits from periodic dormant season burns. One of the most common pitcher plant species in the southeast, white-top pitcher plant still faces widespread habitat loss from agricultural conversion, residential development, and fire suppression. Several large populations do exist on protected land, but poor management practices (e.g., fire suppression, hydrologic alteration) continue to negatively impact this species. The white-top pitcher plant is also popular in the cut flower industry, and although harvesting of pitchers does not generally kill plants, it is injurious nonetheless and should be avoided.

The white-top pitcher plant is a variable species with pitchers ranging in color from almost pure white to white with prominent green and red venation. Pure white forms are popular among collectors, as are selections devoid of anthocyanin (red pigmentation). While variation in pitcher color receives the bulk of the attention by collectors, the flowers of the white-top pitcher are quite stunning in their own right. Large, single red flowers emerge in March and April and are pollinated by several different bee (and fly) species. ‘Tarnok’ is a unique horticultural selection that exhibits a floral mutation where all flower parts (i.e., petals, stamens & pistil) have been replaced by additional whorls of reddish-green sepals, giving the flower a double or triple effect.

The white-top pitcher plant is not native to central Florida but has performed well at Bok Tower Gardens. This species is also remarkably cold hardy and can be grown as far north as Kentucky and Virginia. This is a relatively easy species to cultivate, provided plants have access to full sun and ample water. Supplemental fertilization is unnecessary and should be avoided, as should tap water, particularly where municipal water sources are alkaline and have a high dissolved salt content.

White-top pitcher plant should do well in a 1:1 Canadian peat and sand mix provided the soil is never permitted to dry out. Conversely, soils should never be inundated for long periods of time either. In colder climates, dead pitchers can be removed during the dormant season and a layer of straw (or pine straw) applied to help overwintering. As always, please remember to purchase your plants from a reputable source.

This blog was written by Patrick Lynch, Plant Accessioning Curator and photographed by Cassidy Jones, Social Media Coordinator.