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The pitcher plant is actually a catcher

As we get into the warm month of July, I find the bouquet of the roadside botany continues to expand and add a delightful colorful scene to the heat of the days. Whether it is a roadside space or an unmowed field, the sun-loving plants are quick to take advantage of the open sites. Colors range from white to yellow to red to purple. Some grow just a few inches tall; others may tower over those of us who walk here among the blossoms. Many started to bloom by mid-June and some are just beginning now. With more floral additions later in the month, they will continue to give plenty of color until the frosts.

Passersby now will likely note clovers, sweetclovers, birdsfoot trefoil, alfalfa and vetches. Diverse in their colors, they are all in the same family, often called the pea family. Other plants here represent different groups: hawkweeds, daisy, goatsbeard, black-eyed Susans and oxeye (an early sunflower) are of the composite family. Buttercups, figwort and cow parsnip show their type of flowers as well. I look forward to the thick foliage of fireweed, milkweed, primrose and thistle; plants that thrive here in midsummer to be more obvious soon too. With all of these plants flowering now, a walk along the road in early July proves to be one of floral interest.

But today I pass by this thick growth and head for a visit to the bog. Bogs are unique sites that seem to combine a mixture of aquatic with terrestrial plants. They may vary from being very wet — maybe even with open water — to being just a damp place to walk on. They all appear to have a thick growth of sphagnum moss, thriving in these conditions. The bog that I am going to is small and surrounded by woods, but as true bogs go, it has its defining growth of specific plants. I'm here to try to find if any pink lady-slipper orchids (moccasin flowers) are still in bloom. With a large bulbous pink-color flower, it is fairly easy to see — and yes, I find a few, some of which are fading.

But as I walk here (it's a bit hard to do and I need to stay on downed logs), I see plenty more kinds of plants, some blooming and others not. Along the edge and holding blossoms are the white water arums (water calla) and purple irises. Ample rainfall this year has allowed these plants to do well. The forest plant of bunchberry is also flowering nearby. Resident woody plants are Labrador tea, leatherleaf and blueberries. Scattered over the wet sphagnum moss growth, I locate two unusual white flowering plants; buckbean and three-leaf false Solomon's-seal. While the former is done flowering for the season, the latter still holds some white petals. A close by tall and beautiful cinnamon fern stands about three feet high. But it is another flower, not seen at other sites, the grabs my attention: the pitcher plant.

Though the flowers are at least two inches across and may stand on stalks of one- to two-feet tall, the plant is named after its leaves. This foliage grows out from a stalk surrounding the central floral stem. They are green early in the season, but become purplish later. The reference to a pitcher is the fact that the leaf material grows to form a hollow center. Sticking up as they do, they may look like a container of liquids, or a pitcher. And yes, the hollow leaves nearly always do have some water inside.

Despite this appearance, they prove to be not a pitcher, but a catcher. The pitcher plant catches and digests insects in these leaves; it is a plant that eats insects. Apparently, it is the large and showy purple-green flower with five big petals and a huge pistil that attracts the insects. Many get sidetracked and visit the leaves and while here slip inside the hollow chamber. Water, mixed with strong enzymes, subdue and digest the captured prey, leaving only the exoskeleton. These body parts build up in the lower part of the leaf.

Insectivorous plants are fairly well known and many of us think of Venus fly trap, another plant of the swamps, but not growing in our region. However, other plants that dine on insects can be found in the Northland. All grow in wetlands. The tiny sundew uses sticky leaves to adhere to insects. The entire plant could fit on a person's hand; the prey is very small. The slippery, butter-like leaves of butterwort also catch insects and are only found along the rocky shores of Lake Superior. In ponds and swamps, the yellow-flowering bladderworts use bag like leaves to grasp insect prey and pull them under water. Apparently, all of these plants of various wetlands need to add more nutrition to their diets and do so by snacking on the abundant and widespread insects. Pitcher plants, by far the largest of the insect-eating plants of the Northland, are easiest to see at this time. The flowers add more color to the bogs while the hollow leaves show us that a pitcher is actually a catcher.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

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