01. Cobra Lilies
Carnivorous plants took to eating meat out of necessity to help satisfy their nutritional needs. They often grow in bogs, heaths, or swamps. All of these environments are known for having nutrient-deficient soils.
As a coping mechanism, they evolved ways to add meat to their diets, rather than relying on the more typical ways plants have to “eat.” The result of these adaptations is often a plant that, by conventional standards, is rather weird-looking.
Cobra lilies (Darlingtonia californica) surely qualify as weird-looking, unless you happen to like poisonous snakes, in which case you may find them pretty. Their weird good-looks make them fun plants to grow. They are native to southern Oregon and Northern California. In the wild, a pitcher size of 39 inches long is not uncommon.
02. Purple Pitcher Plants
Some of the weirdest carnivorous plants are the pitcher plants. One type is the American pitcher plant (genus, Sarracenia). Most species are tender plants native to the Southeast. The one exception is the purple or “Northern” pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea subsp. purpurea). It is a cold-hardy kind that is native to the north-central United States and to the eastern seaboard from New Jersey north up into Canada. The pitchers grow 6 to 8 inches long, but the nodding flowers are also quite attractive.
03. Yellow Pitcher Plants
Pitcher plant is so called because its modified leaf structures hold water like the pitchers that you would find in the kitchen to contain and pour liquids. These modified leaf structures serve as insect traps. In some cases, caught insects drown in the water that fills the pitchers are eventually digested by the plant.
Peter D’Amato discusses the various kinds of pitcher plants at length in The Savage Garden, including yellow pitcher plants (Sarracenia flava var. flava). D’Amato alludes to a drug in the nectar of Sarracenia plants that helps them catch insects. In the specific case of yellow pitcher plants, he says, “A drug called coniine has been isolated from the nectar of S. flava” (page 93). Pitcher size is 20 to 36 inches long.
04. White Pitcher Plant
Many find white pitcher plants (Sarracenia leucophylla) the prettiest of the carnivorous plants. The pitchers can have stunning, dark veins in a pattern that stands out nicely against the pure white background. Pitcher length ranges from 20 to 36 inches. As with other American pitcher plants, they are some of the best plants that you can grow in a small water garden.
05. Tropical Pitcher Plants
The tropical pitcher plants hail mainly from lands that border the Indian Ocean. Some are vines, and these may be the weirdest of the carnivorous plants. Their pitchers hang down, reminding you of the powder horn that hung down off Daniel Boone’s shoulder.
Linnaeus, the great naturalist, gave these plants the genus name of Nepenthes. D’Amato (page 287) notes that the inspiration came from “the drug ‘nepenthe’ that Helen of Troy threw into flasks of wine to alleviate soldiers’ sorrow and grief,” as related in Homer’s The Odyssey.
Almost 150 species exist, and both vine height and pitcher size vary greatly. N. rajah and N. rafflesiana have pitchers so big that mammals have been trapped in them.
06. Sun Pitcher Plants
The botanical name for sun pitcher plants, Heliamphora, immediately identifies them as a type of pitcher plant. In Latin, amphora is translated as a “jug.” These carnivorous plants are native to South America. There are many species. Pitcher length on most of them is from 6 to 16 inches long.
07. Western Australian Pitcher Plants
Western Australian pitcher plants (Cephalotus follicularis) are tiny. Pitcher length is just 1 to 1.5 inches. But the stripes on the pitchers make them very pretty. The Eden Black cultivar has a dark enough pitcher to qualify as a black plant.
Sundews (Drosera) are pretty plants that get their common name from the way the hairs that stick out of them seem to be covered in dew drops. These hairs (technically called “trichomes”) are sticky, and that is how insects get trapped on them. The trichomes secrete enzymes to break down the trapped insect bodies, making the nutrients available to this carnivorous plant.
Sundews are native to many lands, both in the Old World and New World. Some types are cold-hardy, while other live in the tropics. They “can be as tiny as a penny or as large as a small bush” (D’Amato, page 153).
09. Venus Flytraps
Probably more people are familiar with Venus flytraps (Dionaea muscipula) than with any of the other carnivorous plants. Not only are they commonly sold as houseplants, but they have also appeared (in exaggerated forms) in numerous science fiction movies, such as Little Shop of Horrors.
Many carnivorous plants just lie there and wait for insects to fall into them or get stuck on them, after which the digestion process begins. There is no movement on the part of the plant. Venus flytraps are different. Their trapping mechanism is active: It moves. An insect is lured in by nectar. Once inside the modified leaf, if it makes contact with the trigger hairs, the trap is sprung, the “jaws” close down, and the insect can’t get out.
Native to just one small area in the Carolinas, the typical Venus flytrap measures about 5 inches high and wide, with a trap an inch long, but larger cultivars exist.
The trapping mechanisms on bladderworts (Utricularia) look like little bladders. Extremely widespread, there are bladderworts indigenous to all of the continents except for Antarctica. Some live in fresh water, others on land, but even the latter are found only where the soil is wet. Those that live on land tend to be smaller and to eat tinier prey, such as protozoa. The aquatic types perform the service of eating mosquito larvae, among other prey.
For a carnivorous plant, bladderwort can bear a rather pretty (albeit slightly weird) flower. Here, the lavender flower looks like a fish wearing a hat, in frontal view. There are 228 species, and their size varies greatly.