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Deceptive and deadly, the carnivorous purple pitcher plant traps insects in its modified leaves.
Often found in nutrient-poor bogs, purple pitchers rely on insects, beetles, and spiders to supplement their diet.
Unsuspecting prey, lured by bright colours and sweet nectar, enter the purple pitcher’s deep, pouch-like leaves.
Losing their footing on the smooth hairs and waxy covering on the leaf’s inner surface, the prey drowns in a pool of liquid at the base. The nutrients from their decayed bodies are then absorbed by the purple pitcher plant.
Despite being a danger to most insects, the liquid at the base of a purple pitcher plant’s leaves is a valuable breeding ground for some species of mosquito and a midge.
The purple pitcher plant has a cluster of modified, tubular leaves that trap insects and other small prey. The leaves are green, yellow, or reddish with purple veins and hooded open lids. There are also downward-pointing hairs on the upper inner surface of the leaf. Its long flower stalks carry a single, nodding, cup-shaped flower that has deep purple petals.
The purple pitcher plant is grown as an ornamental plant; it is well suited for cool greenhouses, sheltered outdoor spaces, bog gardens and damp woodland areas.
Native Americans used the purple pitcher plant for several purposes, including as a diuretic and remedy for fevers, whooping cough, and smallpox.
Purple pitcher plants, alongside other carnivorous plants like venus flytraps, rely on controlled burning for survival. This eliminates competition, removing shrubs and other vegetation that prevent light from reaching the ground.
The plant was given the common name pitcher plant because its modified leaves hold water like pitchers.
Wetlands, including bogs
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In the 1980’s the purple pitcher plant was introduced to Lower Hyde Heath, a bog in Wareham Forest.
The species turned out to be invasive and the purple pitchers began to block waterways, dominate the local habitats, and affect diversity and rare plants in the area.
In collaboration with the Carnivorous Plant Society, Kew horticulturalists helped remove these purple pitchers and rehomed them in our Gardens.
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While purple pitcher plants are a fairly common species in wetland habitats throughout Canada and north-eastern USA, they are rare in much of south-eastern USA where states have passed legislation to protect native populations.
Prized for their striking appearance and odd insect-eating habits, purple pitchers are widely traded for ornamental purposes. They are included on Appendix II of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), which controls and monitors the international trade of threatened species.
One variety of purple pitcher plant that is severely threatened by over-collecting and poaching is the Southern Appalachian purple pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea var. montana).
According to the IUCN Red List, Southern Appalachian purple pitcher plant is endangered; twelve or fewer populations remain in their native bogs in Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.
As part of the Centre for Plant Conservation (CPC) network’s efforts to save plants, conservationists at North Carolina Botanical Garden have gathered more than 17,000 seeds from Southern Appalachian purple pitcher plants.