It’s not easy to look at a bog and think of anything but the smell. And yes, all of that accumulating moist peat and plant matter may not cause the most enticing of scents, but this is a world bursting with life, with interesting processes taking place constantly. In fact, wetlands give us some of the most interesting and exotic plants and animals in the world, especially here in the Northeastern U.S.
The feature of this particular FFG post is the beautiful pitcher plant Sarracenia purpurea. I found this little plant pal along the edge of a pond in western Massachusetts. These little guys are the only pitchers of this genus found in cooler, temperate climates. Everyone knows the Venus flytrap and how it “eats” creepy crawlies, well, these guys also live a life of carnivory, obtaining most of their essential nutrients from capturing prey in their pitchers. This mechanism is necessary in this habitat, where vital nutrients are hard to come by thanks to acidic conditions and often wet environments. In the bog, you’ve got to be creative to survive, and these plants use their carnivorous appetites to thrive in a place that other species cannot.
The pitcher plant also hosts bacteria, protists, and rotifers that aid in its digestion of prey. The water held in these pitchers, called the phytotelma, is the nursery of Wyeomythia smithii, the pitcher plant mosquito. This little guy isn’t a biter like other mosquitoes, in fact he’s the good guy in this story. The presence of the mosquito helps determine the bacterial diversity in the pitcher, which break down prey and make nutrients more available to the plant. Much like the bacteria in our own guts, the pitcher plant needs a little help to get what it needs. In a sense, the pitcher plant creates a mini-ecosystem all its own, bursting with biodiversity filling all sorts of digestive niches.
From a natural history standpoint, these plants have been used medicinally by Native American and First Nations tribes in the U.S. and Canada. The tannins in the plant were known to help with digestive problems like constipation or urinary tract diseases. The extract has even been used in healing and preventing scars! While I NEVER encourage using plants for medicinal/edible purposes unless you’re ABSOLUTELY sure how to use or prepare them, it’s something to think about the next time you’re wandering around a wetland.
Pitcher plants present an interesting example of plant ingenuity in our world, living in a place that many other plants would deem uninhabitable. In a wetland, you’ve got to be scrappy to survive, and pitcher plants have evolved to bring bounty to the bog.