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What are Pitcher Plants?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Pitcher plants are carnivorous plants which trap food by means of a pitfall trap built into them through evolutionary design. They can be found in both of the Americas as well as Africa, Asia, and Australia, and usually grow in bogs, marshlands, and areas of waterlogged, acidic soil. Pitcher plants have developed a carnivorous habit to compensate for poor soil nutrition, but they are also capable of absorbing nutrients through their simple root systems. In addition to growing in the wild, pitcher plants are cultivated in many botanical gardens as a form of natural insect control, and can serve the same purpose in the home, as well as being decorative. In botanical gardens, pitcher plants are usually grown in warm, humid indoor environments.

The term “pitcher plant” is an umbrella name for plants in two families, Sarraceiniaceae and Nepenthaceae. In both instances, the leaves of the plants curl in on themselves to form tall, distinctive, “pitchers.” The pitchers are often streaked with red to attract insects, and are lined with fine hairs and grooves so that once insects fall in, they cannot escape. Water collects in the bottom of the pitcher, drowning unwitting insect visitors, and the plant secretes digestive enzymes to extract nutrients from the insects. In some cases, pitcher plants also live in a symbiotic relationship with insects in larval form, allowing the larvae to eat trapped insects and later consuming some of them.

The insect traps of a pitcher plant can be quite large, showy, and decorative. Some specific varietals are cultivated for use as houseplants, although large scale propagation of pitcher plants is not usually successful. Because pitcher plants grow in protected marshlands, biologists try to leave them in situ, as they form an important part of the marshland environment. The plants reproduce by distributing pollen from their dark red flowers, which grow along long stalks that push the flowers well up above the leaves.

Specialized carnivorous plant nurseries grow and sell pitcher plants to the general public, along with instructions for their care. Along with other meat eating plants, pitcher plants do not need meat to survive, as long as they are offered proper soil nutrition, and they work very well as unusual looking indoor decorative plants. Despite popular fiction, pitcher plants never grow large enough to eat humans, but they will consume insects, small frogs, and sometimes mice and birds as well, if the plant manages to lure them in.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Hawthorne — On Jun 06, 2011

@hanley79 - If you looked up some pitcher plant facts, you'd probably figure out what species your pitcher plant is. Judging by the description, it sounds to me like you have a North American Pitcher Plant. Don't worry, that kind is supposed to be green rather than red.

The North American Pitcher Plant is one of the kinds that stays smaller; if you want to try out a really big one, I recommend something from the Nepenthes genus, also known as "Old World" pitcher plants. Watch out, though, these are climbing-type plants on vines. "New World" pitcher plants tend to stand up on their own, as your North American Pitcher Plant probably does.

By hanley79 — On Jun 04, 2011

@Hawthorne - Whoa, you said pitcher plants can get up to 50 feet long? That's crazy! Mine is this tiny little plant like four inches across, with itty bitty pitchers that can only catch tiny bugs like gnats so far. I wonder if it'll ever get really big, or if the species I have is just a small one? How can you tell what species of pitcher plant you have, anyway? Mine is small and green, and most things I read about pitcher plants swear they're red, so I'm kind of worried mine is sick or something, too.

By Hawthorne — On Jun 03, 2011

@SkittisH - Hey there! When you wonder about stuff like this, remember how your pitcher plant would live if it was in the wild. Pitcher plants are naturally from more tropical and rain forest type of places; they naturally get water dumped inside of their pitchers all the time in the wild, because it pours rain and the tops of the pitchers are open.

So no, pouring some water inside the pitchers won't hurt your pitcher plant. If they're dry, definitely pour some purified water into there -- tap water might be too harsh, use only purified -- but take this as a cue something's off, too.

If you didn't just buy your plant (store bought ones are often dry at first), the dry pitchers are a sign that your plant isn't getting enough humidity. Crank up the humidity if at all possible. When a pitcher plant is in an optimal growing environment and has enough humidity, it will produce fluid to fill the pitchers all on its own.

I've had my pitcher plant for a couple years now, and I've never had to refill the pitchers. Your plant should start making its own fluids within a month if you give it enough humidity. Until then, yeah, add a bit of water to those pitchers so the plant can still eat bugs.

By SkittisH — On Jun 02, 2011

Hey, does anybody here know if its okay to fill up your carnivorous pitcher plant's pitchers if they get too dry? The pitfall trap thing relies on the bugs that fall inside drowning, and my pitcher plant just doesn't have enough liquid inside to make the bugs drown.

Since the insides of the pitchers are basically the "stomachs" of the plant, with acids to break down the dead insects' bodies and stuff, though, I'm afraid pouring water inside will dilute the "stomach acids" and mess up how well my pitcher plant can eat. On the other hand, it's not exactly able to eat well without the ability to drown the bugs in the first place, either. What do you guys think, is it okay to pour some water inside?

By Hawthorne — On Jun 01, 2011

Next to the venus fly trap, pitcher plants are my favorite carnivorous plant. They are beautiful and exotic looking, and I particularly love how big they can get. Venus fly traps only get about six inches across on average, but some species of tropical pitcher plant can get as big as your average house plant! In the wild, the largest kinds of pitcher plant can grow trailing stems up to 50 feet long -- so, the stories you might read about the pitchers being big enough to eat people might not be true, but the plant itself can get pretty enormous!

In addition to being pretty and doing well in soil that nothing else would grow in, my household pitcher plant doubles as a fly catcher -- no need to put up fly strips in the summer, ever. Awesome!

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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