When I tell friends that 14 species of carnivorous plants grow wild in Connecticut, they go into states of low-key shock and denial. The general feeling seems to be that animal-eating plants don’t belong in Connecticut. They’re too exotic; they’re properly found in tropical rain forests or on remote islands.
I remember my first sight of a bog studded with carnivorous plants in northeastern Connecticut. The bog, a mat of interwoven sphagnum (peat moss) spread across the surface of a body of still water, looked deceptively solid. The mat was artfully arrayed with various plant species, all of them beautiful and strange. Pitcher plants were garishly obvious, each like a cluster of squat, green-and-crimson cobras poised to strike. Their partners in crime, the jewel-like sundews, sparkled and lurked in the moss below. The whole looked like an aerial view of an alien world.
The 14 species of carnivorous plants in Connecticut are broken down into three basic types and designs: pitcher plants (one species), sundews (two) and bladderworts (11). Living alongside one another, pitcher plants and sundews are textbook examples of the different ways in which most carnivorous plants do the same jobs, those being false advertising, trapping insects and digesting them. Victims include ants, dragonflies, beetles and flies.
Carnivorous greenery make fine houseplants. Chances are, a well-stocked nursery or garden ce…
Back to bogs for a moment. These are bodies of still water with inlets but no outlets other than evaporation. Tannic acid leached out of dead plants builds up over time. The acidic milieu prevents the growth of fungi and decay bacteria, which normally would break down dead organic mass into nutrients vital for plants, especially nitrates and phosphates. Concentrated in the state’s northwest and northeast corners, bogs are often difficult to access with sometimes dangerous terrain. The Nature Conservancy, which owns Beckley Bog, a national natural landmark in Norfolk, warns that its bog is a fragile habitat with “extremely poor footing.”
Plants that live in bogs must seek elsewhere what they lack. Carnivorous plants get around the hurdle by digesting insects from which they absorb animal phosphates and nitrates. Thus they are able to colonize a hostile environment off limits to most plants. But how do pitcher plants and sundews attract and snag insects?
Pitcher plants can be up to 8 inches tall, usually growing in clusters from a single root. The vase-like pitchers are modified leaves, rolled up and partly open at the top, green but decked out in vein-like patterns of bright red around the opening. To augment its lethal charms, a pitcher secretes droplets of nectar around the top spout that smell like violets. When an insect flies in or climbs up, attracted by the colors and aromas, its doom is sealed. It follows the bright red streaks and squiggles down into the funnel of the pitcher. The inner wall is slick as wax and covered with downward-pointing hairs to prevent escape. The trapped insect falls into a broth of rainwater and digestive juices.
Sundews are clusters of modified leaves, the whole assemblage about an inch across. Each lentil-sized leaf is covered with a pelt of bright hairs, each hair tipped with a ruby droplet of glue full of digestive juices. The droplets are both traps and stomachs. Insects, enticed by the color and sparkle of glue drops, crawl or fly in to investigate, then end up entangled in one or more drops. The insect struggles, touching more gluey hairs and becoming even more hopelessly mired. Digestion soon follows.
I haven’t seen or photographed bladderworts. Briefly, they are aquatic plants that are either attached to the bottom of a pool or floating freely. Their weaponry is held beneath the surface and consists of tiny bladders, hence the common name. The bladders are kept closed and controlled by a trip hair. When some small water animal swims too close and trips the hair, the bladder opens and sucks in water and the animal, to digest at leisure.
For those who want to see carnivorous plants more often than an occasional bog visit, you can add them to your indoor or outdoor garden. (See sidebar, “Caring for Carnivorous Plants.”) Just be sure to get them from a nursery or garden center and not from a native bog!
The miracle of these little green death traps is that they do their macabre jobs so well, are masterpieces of adaptation, and, with their insolent colors and spun-glass delicacy, are beautiful to behold.
Where can you see carnivorous plants?
- Black Spruce Bog in Mohawk State Forest, West Goshen; 860-424-3000 (Department of Energy and Environmental Protection)
- Flanders Nature Center, Whittemore Sanctuary, Woodbury, 203-263-3711
- Pachaug State Forest, Rhododendron Sanctuary, Voluntown, 860-424-3000
- White Memorial Foundation, Litchfield, 860-567-0857
Bogs of the Northeast by Charles W. Johnson, Vermont’s state naturalist from 1978 to 2000. (University Press of New England, 1985).
- Connecticut Botanical Society, 860-246-2077
- New England Carnivorous Plant Society
- New England Wildflower Society, 508-877-6553
- The Nature Conservancy, Connecticut Chapter, 203-568-6270