There is something dangerous in the Garden. I’m not talking about the gardeners, although I think they are very dangerous too. At least for me they are. I’ve heard they can be nice to people visiting, but I’ve never had that experience with them, so I can only tell you what I know.
No the real danger is a plant. It may not be dangerous to people, but it can be very deadly to some insects, so for all you creepy guys and girls out there, don’t say I didn’t warn you. That plant is the Catesby’s pitcher plant (Sarracenia x catesbaei). Pretty innocent sounding, but for some bugs they are death traps, literally.
The Catesby’s pitcher plant is a natural hybrid resulting from a cross of the yellow pitcher plant (Sarracenia flava) and the purple pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea). These plants have the more erect habit of its yellow parent while the purple veining in the leaves is a nice touch from the purple parent.
Right now the tall flowers have emerged and dangle gracefully over a few early-emerging leaves. Most people admire the cool funnel-shaped leaves, but the flowers have an interesting architecture themselves. Five sepals form an umbrella over the flower as 3 petals dangle like curtains. The unusual style creates a little basket underneath the anthers to catch pollen. As pollinating bees visit, they deposit pollen from another flower when they brush up against the stigma, then bump around inside, inadvertently collecting pollen from both the anthers themselves and the pollen on the “floor” of the style before leaving for the next flower. A pretty tidy system.
But the real danger comes to the deadly columns of leaves below. The tip of the leaf forms a little hood to help direct its prey into the mouth of the pitcher. Near the mouth, nectar lures the unsuspecting insect to its doom, graciously feeding it a last meal. Nectar glands are nestled amongst a small field of downward pointing hairs so when an ant, for example, comes for a treat the hairs provide unstable footing for the little diner and encourage it to walk further into the trap. Eventually, the insect hits a waxy zone with no footing and – whoops – down it goes to the bottom. Some insects may try to avoid the hairs and lean over to get the nectar, but then they will lose their balance and fall to the same fate. Digestive glands in the waxy pit produce enzymes that begin its gruesome process on the poor insect. Toward the bottom of the pit are more downward hairs that ensure the victim will stay immersed in the liquid as the plant finishes its evil scheme. A black mass of indigestible remains often litters the bottom of these little funnels by the end of the summer.
So why have these plants become so dangerous? I would like to think it is because the gardeners have so mistreated this plant that it has become mean as a result. Then it would be a great cautionary tale for them and remind them to treat me a little better for fear of some similar fate. However, I think it really is a result that these plants grow in low nutrient areas of the southeastern coastal plain. They grow in wet, swampy areas or on grassy pine barrens where the soil offers them a little nutrition, but not enough. In reality, they are clever enough to have found their own dietary supplement.
In the Garden, there are two spots where you can find these beasts of the plant world. In the Holly Garden, along the main road is a wet zone where many of them are clustered together. Some others can be found in the border garden just beyond the Sarah Lee Baker Perennial Garden, facing the canal. Stop by for a visit, just be careful with your fingers and toes.