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  • Writer's pictureAllan Sander

Do you have the "Carnivorous Syndrome?"

Updated: Jan 1

Please do not be alarmed as I am not inferring to a cannibalistic condition of our fellow man, rather the carnivorous diet of certain species of plants!  It is a term used by Charles Darwin to identify this odd florae. Yes, “carnivorous vegetables,” as they were once referred -- the Venus flytraps, sundews, and pitcher plants.  Here I will be displaying various species of the tropical pitcher plants from the genus, Nepenthes

[Note:  The collectors and gardening enthusiasts of these plants continue to cross-pollinate many species resulting in a vast array of hybrids – much like the continued experimentation for creating a different inflorescence in orchids.  Hence my reluctance to accurately identify these images.]  These images were taken at the Wintergardens Greenhouse within the confines of the Auckland Domain (Park), New Zealand. 

Of the 300+ species of tropical pitcher plants, the majority are found in Southeast Asia, including the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia.  My first encounter came as I was hiking around Mt. Kota Kinabalu in Kinabalu Park on the island of Borneo.  Due to its geographic and geologic history, the Malay Archipelago hosts a huge diversity of flora and fauna, and the tropical pitcher plant is no exception.  Cultural history can be even more intriguing:  * "The Toraja people of Sulawesi Selatan (South Celebes), Indonesia, believe that ants killed by the “suke-bombo” (a species of Drosera), housed the souls of dead ancestors (Nooy-Palm 1979, 228). By lighting the plants ablaze, these trapped souls could become rainclouds and bring a plentiful harvest.” 

The most obvious characteristic that makes these plants unique is the modified leaf that grows into this tube-shaped death trap!  What happens is the midrib of a leaf grows as a tendril, like in most vines, and as it extends it morphs into this unusual design.

A lid, the peristome, dangles over the top but is stationary.  It aids in protecting the precious digestive fluid from becoming diluted due to rain entering the funnel.

Underneath sweet excretions of nectar entice insects which then tumble into its watery abyss.  The walls are much to slippery for any attempts at freedom.  One can see the shiny, waxy coating when looking down into the mouth of the pitcher.

The prey submerges further into its final resting place where the plant’s digestive enzymes break it down into chemical components such as nitrogen and phosphorous – the nutrients that allow the plant to thrive. 

This evolved from the plants finding their niche in nutrient poor, highly acidic habitat.  The result of sandy, volcanic soils.  The Sarracenia pitcher plants found in nutrient poor bogs along the southeast coast of the U.S. adopted a similar strategy but the pitchers here sprout from the base of the plant. 

The pitcher is generally shaped like a funnel but can be globular, and as small as your thumb...

...or up to the length of one’s forearm! These giants are known to trap prey as large as frogs and even rats!

The ribs may be smooth or bear spines or... veined and boast beautiful hues of red and green.  Some are freckled with either offsetting colored base.  Still others will subtly blend from green to red, or have combinations of any of thse traits.

The rim, or operculum, offers an even further range of innovative designs from a smooth one-colored edge to irregular barring of browns and reds.  The edge may swell or flare out like wings and the lid has its own creative patterns and color schemes, too. I found one plant resembling the mantle of a cuttlefish with its fins fully spread!

My favorite resembles a nun’s habit hovering over a plum hued pitcher with flecks of white.

Location:  Wintergardens, The Domain - Auckland, New Zealand Date: June of 2016

This is a generic site which sells pitcher plants, however it is a wonderful introduction to the particulars of these unique plants.

*Another interesting site exploring the “…cultural significance of plants in human affairs.”

It is a historical account of this journey that makes for an interesting read.

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