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Green Pitcher Plant

Katherine Mincey, Auburn University
The green pitcher plant (Sarracenia oreophila) is a federally endangered carnivorous plant found only in Cherokee, DeKalb, Etowah, Jackson, and Marshall Counties in northeast Alabama as well as the Blue Ridge region of Georgia and North Carolina. The species once existed in Elmore County, Alabama, but is no longer found there. Nearly all of the populations of green pitcher plant in Alabama are found on private property and all are protected by the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working to protect and increase the species in its former habitat. The green pitcher plant's common name refers to its bright yellowish-green leaves.
The green pitcher plant belongs to the genus Sarracenia, which can be found from Florida to Canada but most species are found in the southeastern United States. Pitcher plants are so named for their erect, tubular pitchers that are actually modified leaves that have evolved a deep cup shape. They typically are brightly colored and are attractive to insects. The species was first described in a work by Thomas J. Kearney in 1900 as a variety of a similar pitcher plant, Sarracenia flava var. oreophila. In 1933, American botanist Edgar T. Wherry acknowledged it as a separate species and gave it the name S. oreophila. The green pitcher plant is geographically isolated from other Sarracenia species, but it occurred with S. rubra alabamensis, the Alabama canebrake pitcher plant, in central Alabama prior to 1979.
The green pitcher plant has hollow leaves that appear in spring and reach anywhere from 8 to 30 inches tall (~ 20 to 76 centimeters) and 2.5 to 4 inches (~ 6 to 10 centimeters) in circumference. Leaves are widest at the top opening and gradually narrow towards the base. The leaves range in color from green to yellow-green and sometimes have maroon veins. A similarly colored hood covers much of the opening. The plant also bears flat, curved, and erect leaves at the base, known as phyllodes, that range from 2 to 7 inches (~ 5 to 18 centimeters) tall. These leaves persist through the winter, but the pitchers wither away in late summer. The green pitcher plant's yellow flowers appear from mid-April to early June, each on a single long stem up to two feet tall (~ .6 meters). These fragrant, drooping, solitary flowers have five petals and five sepals with an umbrella-shaped disk in the center of the flower. The green pitcher plant reproduces both sexually (via seeds) and asexually. In the existing populations, asexual reproduction happens through expansion of the rhizomes, the horizontal stems capable of producing shoot and root systems for a new plant. Rhizomes often store starch and proteins and allow a plant to survive an unfavorable growing season. Rhizomes can live for decades, giving these asexually produced plants a low mortality rate.
Like many other plants, green pitcher plants have chlorophyll in their leaves that allows them to manufacture energy from sunlight and soil nutrients through photosynthesis. But carnivorous plants typically grow in acidic soils that are low in important nutrients, so they evolved structures such as pitchers and other traps that allow them to supplement their nutritional intake with prey animals. In pitcher plants, the inside of the pitcher is both slippery and lined with downward-pointing hairs that prevent creatures that fall in from crawling back up the sides. Digestive enzymes in liquid at the bottom of the pitcher allow the plant to break down prey and absorb nutrients from them. Despite common misperceptions, the hood on pitcher plants does not slap closed on prey like a Venus flytrap leaf; rather it acts as a rain shield to keep the pitcher from being overfilled with rainwater.
Green pitcher plants interact with insects in a number of other ways. They are pollinated by bees from the genus Bombus, as well as several other insects. And a number of insects have evolved to inhabit the pitcher plant without coming in contact with the fluid at the bottom. For example, flies, wasps, and mites feed on matter in the pitcher fluid, and moths from the genus Exyra are host-specific to Sarracenia for habitat and breeding sites. Exyra semicrocea is the species that breeds within the green pitcher plant. These moths live above the fluid line and lay eggs inside the pitchers, where larvae damage them by eating the wall tissue and causing the pitcher to topple over. The damage from these insects, however, does appear to be detrimental to the long-term survival of the plant populations.
The habitat for the green pitcher plant varies from moist uplands to seepage bogs to boggy stream banks with saturated, acidic soils. The habitat also requires periodic moderate fires, which help prevent encroachment by competing species, stimulate flowering, and enhance the establishment of seedlings. In streambank environments, flooding serves the same purpose as fire in eliminating competing species.
In 1979, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially listed the green pitcher plant as endangered and developed and implemented a recovery program for the 30 populations (28 in Alabama, 1 in Georgia, 1 in North Carolina). All of the current populations are managed by federal, state, or private owners. The Nature Conservancy, a national organization, has acquired properties with three populations, and DeSoto State Park in DeKalb County protects three other populations from habitat destruction. Voluntary conservation agreements between the Fish and Wildlife Service and private landowners protect 12 other sites. These agreements provide temporary protection for the sites until recovery criteria have been met in order to delist the species and allow for species management activities, such as the continued use of prescribed fires and creating detailed maps of all populations and habitats to update population inventories. With continued protection and conservation efforts, the green pitcher plant will continue to add to the unique biodiversity of Alabama.

Additional Resources

Boyer, Terry, and Robert Carter. "Community Analysis of Green Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia Oreophila) Bog in Alabama." Castanea 76 (December 2011): 364-76.
Troup, Randall L., and Sydney.T. McDaniel. "Current Status Report on Sarracenia oreophila." Atlanta, Ga.: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1980.
Published:  August 23, 2016   |   Last updated:  August 24, 2016