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What is Pinguicula?

By Deborah Walker
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Pinguicula is a genus of about 80 known species of perennial plants in the Lentifbulariaceae family. All plants in this genus live in areas with very humid air, stable air temperatures, and wet soil during the growing period. As carnivores, these plants are able to consume insects as big as a large fly. Pinguicula is susceptible to some common plant diseases and pests, and in some areas of the United States, it has threatened or endangered species status. Historically, the vulgaris species was used in homes and on the farm by northern Europeans.

Many people know Pinguicula as common butterwort. Twelve species in this genus are native to Europe, nine to North America, and a few are found in northern Asia. The majority of species are native to Central and South America. They tend to live at high altitudes where temperatures can get very cold. Pinguicula grows best in rocky soil, although some do grow on tree branches, in sphagnum moss, or in bogs that have an acidic pH level.

These plants grow to be 1 to 6 inches (3-16 cm) tall. Pinguicula produces spurred purple or white flowers June through August. The winter-resting buds, or hibernacula, can withstand very cold temperatures. Succulent leaves give off a musty smell that lures small insects. Each 1 to 2 inch (2-5 cm) leaf has a stalked gland and a sessile gland used to trap and digest prey.

Pinguicula is susceptible to crown rot disease, which will easily and quickly kill the plant. The disease is caused by nematodes, the main pest that plagues these plants. Nematodes may be repelled by bright light. Dusting the leaves with ground dried blood worms may also keep nematodes away from the plant.

In the United States, a few species of Pinguicula are in danger of extinction. In Maine and New York, the common butterwort is listed as a threatened species. In New Hampshire and Wisconsin, it is on the endangered species list.

Historically, Pinguicula vulgaris was used by some northern Europeans to curdle milk and as a balm used to soothe the udders of their farm animals. It is said to have been combed through blonde hair to make it more shiny. People on vision quests made a drink known as Vibefedt by mixing the plant with mead. This concoction was supposed to make the visions more vivid. Other than these uses, the plants in this genus do not appear to have any other ethnobotanical uses.

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