Have you ever been to a greenhouse and observed a carnivorous plant, such as a Venus fly trap or a pitcher plant and thought…where do these come from? Well not only can you find carnivorous plants growing native in New York State, we have four different types and 19 different species (New York State Flora Altas)! Carnivorous plants are plants that have adapted to depend on catching insects to supply the nutrients they need for survival, thereby allowing them to live in nutrient poor habitats. NYS is home to pitcher plants (Sarracenia), bladderworts (Utricularia), butterworts (Pinguicula), and sundews (Drosera); each having different methods for catching insects. All of these species thrive in wet, sunny conditions. Some of the best viewing opportunities for these fascinating plants are boardwalks over bogs or from a canoe/ kayak.
We will investigate the pitcher plant first. We have one species in New York, being the purple pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea). These plants are sometimes called ‘trumpet plants’ because of their shape. The pitcher is actually a modified leaf. In some species, the coloration of the pitcher is a mottling of red, green, and white to resemble raw meat – attracting flies and wasps. The mouth of the pitcher secretes a sugary nectar to draw insects to it, making the lip surface slippery, and downward pointing hairs on the lid make insects fall easily off the lid into the pitcher. Once an insect falls inside it cannot get out due to the slippery waxy surface on the inside of the pitcher. The insect is then digested in the juices that reside inside the pitcher, thereby nourishing the plant. The plant has a single flower on a long tall stalk. This is to keep the flower high away from the pitchers to protect the pollinators from becoming prey to the plant! These plants primarily grow in bog/fen habitats in sphagnum moss. Look for pitcher plants in these habitats throughout parks across the state.
There are 14 species of bladderworts in the state, all of which are aquatic (living in water). Most of them have yellow flowers with one species having a purple flower. Primarily these plants grow in areas of very slow moving water or in pockets of still water off of rivers and brooks. They have a small bladder shaped trap. The plant has ‘trigger hairs’ at the mouth of the trap, that once touched by prey, opens the mouth and sucks the prey inside – where it is slowly digested by the plant. Bladderworts can be found across the state.
New York State has one species of butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris). Though they do not look alike, bladderworts and butterworts are in the same family (Lentibulariaceae) because both have similar flower structure; though the method of insect catching for these plants is more akin to the sundew. The leaves have a greasy look and feel to them because they are covered in a sticky glue substance. Once an insect lands on the leaf, it is stuck and the more it thrashes around in an attempt to escape, the more it comes in contact with the sticky digestive juices of the leaf. The butterwort species we have in New York grows on permanently wet cliffs and can only be found in the central and western parts of the state.
There are 3 species of sundews in New York, the round-leaved sundew (Drosera rotundifolia), thread-leaved sundew (Drosera filiformis) and the spatulate-leaved sundew (Drosera intermedia). Sundews get their name because their leaves look like they are covered in morning dew, however on closer inspection, this “dew” is actually tiny globs of digestive juices created by the plant. An insect will mistake the dew for water and upon landing, become ensnared in the sticky digestive juices of the plant. Large insects may leave legs and wings behind and smaller insects fall prey to the plant. Some species of sundew will curl their leaves around the insect to further trap their prey. Sundews can be found state wide in swampy/bog habitat, often growing alongside pitcher plants and bladderworts.
Conserving bog habitat is important for the survival of the various unique plant and animal species that have adapted over time to live there. This type of habitat faces many threats such as development and road and agricultural run-off. Run-off rich in fertilizer from road sides or farming can be disastrous for these habitats and the species that have adapted for living in nutrient poor conditions. Additionally, always remember to leave nature as it is. Though carnivorous plants are marvelously beautiful and fascinating, leave them where they are! If you wish to cultivate these plants in your own home try your local green house or the vast array of stores on the internet.
Post by Lilly Schelling (OPRHP Wildlife Unit).
Photos by OPRHP and NY Flora Atlas (see citation below).
Weldy, Troy, David Werier, and Andrew Nelson. 2015 New York Flora Atlas. [S. M. Landry and K. N. Campbell (original application development), USF Water Institute. University of South Florida]. New York Flora Association, Albany, New York.