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These New Jersey plants have an appetite for insects

By Michele S. Byers

In the musical “Little Shop of Horrors,” a mysterious Venus flytrap in a florist shop reveals its appetite for human flesh and blood.

Fortunately, there’s no real-life equivalent of Audrey, the diabolical, man-eating plant. But there are many carnivorous plants that trap and digest animal prey – mostly insects – and some of them are found in New Jersey.

This state we’re in has three groups of native carnivorous plants: pitcher plants, sundews and bladderworts.

Carnivorous plants are fascinating because animals usually eat plants. Countless creatures – humans included – feed on the leaves, roots, shoots, flower buds, fruits and seeds of plants.

So why did predator plants evolve to eat animals? The answer is the soil. Pitcher plants, sundews and some bladderworts live in wet, nutrient-poor soils and adapted to get nutrition in other ways.

With its often reddish-purple color and net-like markings, the purple pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea) is the showiest of New Jersey’s carnivorous plants. The plant’s bright foliage and red flowers stand out sharply among the greens of most bog and swamp plants. The plant can often be seen jutting through sphagnum moss.

The pitcher plant’s name comes from its tall, tube-like stems, which resemble pitchers of water. Prey insects, often small flies and ants, are attracted by the plant’s scent. Evidently, the plant’s chemical compounds attract various insects.

The pitcher plant’s frilly leaf tips have stiff, downward-pointing hairs. These hairs prevent the insects from climbing out and they end up in a pool of liquid at the bottom of the pitcher. The liquid contains digestive enzymes that break down the insects and allow the plant to absorb the nutrients.

While pitcher plants don’t need insects to survive, biologists believe plants that get extra nutrients from insects grow larger and healthier, and are more likely to reproduce.

Recent studies show that purple pitcher plants, along with at least 19 other species, lure insects with a florescent glow invisible to humans. The pitcher rim glows blue when placed in ultraviolet light, which appears green to us under normal conditions. When the rim is painted, masking the fluorescence, the plants capture far less prey.

Purple pitcher plants can be found from Virginia to Newfoundland and inland to the Great Lakes region and large parts of Canada. In New Jersey, they are common in the bogs and swamps of the Pine Barrens.

But pitcher plants are also found in other parts of the state, including Kuser Bog, an unusual Atlantic white cedar swamp at High Point State Park in Sussex County. At an elevation of 1,500 feet, this cedar bog is believed to be the highest in the world. The White Lake Natural Resource Area in Warren County is another place with pitcher plants.

Smaller than a pitcher plant, but no less impressive are sundews. New Jersey has three native species of sundews.

Sundew leaves are covered with tiny gland-tipped hairs that act like tentacles. On the tip of each hair is a droplet of a honey-like substance that attracts and holds small insects, including mosquitos, gnats and ants. Once the first droplet of sticky dew catches the insect, neighboring hairs lean toward the victim and add their droplets. Once the prey is subdued, the hairs draw the prey downward so it comes in contact with the surface of the leaf, where nutrients are absorbed.

Sundews are found in many of the same places as pitcher plants: the bogs and swamps of the Pine Barrens, and also Kuser Bog. You’ll need sharp eyes to spot them unless they are blooming, since sundews blend in with surrounding foliage. Threadleaf sundews have bright pink flowers, and roundleaf and spatulate leaf sundews have white flowers.

New Jersey’s third carnivorous plant is the bladderwort; our state has about 14 species of bladderworts.

Bladderworts are aquatic and their leaves are equipped with little water-filled bladders. Each bladder has a flexible “trapdoor” with bristles. When a tiny aquatic creature comes in contact with the bristles, the trapdoor opens momentarily and sweeps the prey into the bladder along with the rushing water. The door then slams shut.

These trapdoors open and shut at lightning speed – about two-hundredths of a second – and within 20 to 40 minutes, the prey is digested enough that the trap is reset and ready for its next victim.

New Jersey’s bladderworts mostly have bright yellow flowers, but two species have purple flowers, and one extremely rare bladderwort has tiny white flowers.

Make sure you get out to a bog this summer and explore our state’s fascinating carnivorous plants. If you are interested in raising these plants, you can find them at places like RareFind Nursery in Jackson. You can also attend one of their “bog workshops” to learn more about building your own bog. These plants should never be removed from their native ecosystems.

Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She may be reached at info@njconservation.org

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