29 August 2018

Beautiful murderers: the carnivorous purple pitcher plant

From a Dorset bog to a bed at Kew, these carnivorous purple pitcher plants have been on quite a journey.

By Ellen McHale

Purple pitcher plant

A perfect murder 

Deceptive, patient and deadly; the gorgeous pitcher plant is one of the ultimate deceivers. 

A carnivorous plant, it gets its food from other living things to survive. 

Often found in nutrient-poor bogs, pitcher plants have evolved to supplement their diets beyond what their roots can pull up. 

To catch a tasty insect snack, the pitchers – a deep, pouch-like formation of leaves - function as traps. An unwitting insect is lured by their intoxicatingly bright smell and colour and gets caught into the pouch. 

The walls are waxy and hard to climb, leaving the unlucky bug struggling to escape. 

Exhausted, they drown in a pool of enzymes that gathers at the bottom of the pitcher. Nutrients from their bodies are then absorbed by the plants.

A perfect climate 

The purple pitcher plant is native to North America, but grows in several places throughout Britain and Ireland - brought over by 19th century horticulturalists to study and observe. 

They naturally grow in savannahs, clearings in pine forests and peat bogs, and are well suited to our heather-rich peat bogs. 

In the 1980’s the purple pitcher was introduced to Lower Hyde Heath, a bog in Wareham Forest. 

A naturally invasive species, they blocked waterways and dominated the local habitat. 

The plants began to affect other rare plants inhabiting the area by stealing their food supply – so their time in Hyde Heath was up.

Relocation, relocation 

Tom Freeth and Rebecca Hilgenhof, part of Kew’s horticultural team, wanted to save these fascinating plants and give the purple pitchers a new home at the Gardens. 

Banding together with the Carnivorous Plant Society, they were able to bring some of the species back to our nurseries. 

The intricate and gorgeous pitchers make for striking displays. Thanks to this collaboration, Kew Gardens now has one of the largest outdoor carnivorous plant displays in the UK- saving the Gardens money and more importantly, rehoming many specimens that would have been destroyed.

A new home 

The purple pitchers now have new home in the Rock Garden. We’ve also kept some of the best behind-the-scenes in our bespoke Tropical Nursery, as stock plants to support future displays. 

The rest have been planted up at the south end of the Alpine House around the North American cascade, and despite the recent hot weather seem to be thriving in their new home. 

By saving the plants, we’ve killed two birds with one stone.