The Celebration of Pitcher Plants and Bog Gardening at the NC Botanical Gardens today was really a surprise celebration of Gardens founder Ritchie Bell. Bell had been invited to come and sign copies of the new edition of his book, Wildflowers of North Carolina and to heard a talk about pitcher plants by Larry Mellichamp of UNC-Charlotte. What Dr. Bell had actually been invited to was the announcement of the naming of a special hybrid pitcher plant in his honor. Over half a century ago, Bell was already recognized as one of the world’s greatest experts on Sarracenia (aka pitcher plants). He later prompted and created the Botanical Gardens even to the point of signing the bank note with his home as collateral to pay for the current Totten Center.
As Mellicamp announced the hybrid, he noted that the plant like Bell was hardy, robust, showy and tall. Bell, himself interjected that he noticed that it also has a very big mouth and that that mouth is wide open and gaping.
Mellicamp then treated us all to a slide show of pitcher pictures, puns, personal tales and interesting facts with occasional commentary from Bell.
- Pitchers weren’t discovered to be carnivorous until 1875. Early botanists reported that the plants existed as shelters for small tree frogs. (Mellincamp showeda great picture of a tree frog in a pitcher — not this one).
- Most pitchers, the exception being the purple, don’t like to get rain inside their pitchers. The varieties of hoods act in part to keep out raindrops.
- Pitchers hybridize easily. Hardy hybrids even occur often in nature. Because all species of pitchers have the same number of chromosomes, the hybrids are fertile. The period of maturity assists those, who like Mellicamp and Rob Gardner, specialize in hybridization — only 3 years. “If we had decided to work on oak trees, we’d still be at work on the first generation.”
- The nector found on the lips of the pitcher contains a mild narcotic which both attracts insects and makes them clumsy enough to topple into the pitcher. If, according to Mellicamp, you rub your finger on a nector moist pitcher then rub your lip with that finger, you will feel some numbness.
- Pitchers tend to specialize in which insects they eat. The result is that there are a variety of insects to go around between species in the same area. Also they have adapted ways to keep their food insects separate from their polinators. The hooded pitcher, for example, thrives on ants and is difficult for other insects to enter.
The plants in my own bog garden that have succeeded are Mellicamp-Gardner hybrids, Marti Gras, ladies in waiting and others.