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The Endangered Unknown – The Mountain Sweet Pitcher Plant

By Peter Kleinhenz
December 22, 2011
File under: Environmental Concerns, Environmental Protection, Healthy Habitat, Poaching, Wildlife

High on a mountaintop in northern South Carolina, a buzzing fly meets a sweet smell. Flying towards the scent, the fly soon finds that the source is on the edge of a strange-looking plant. The fly stops and finds itself in a cesspool of delicious nectar. While following the trail of this nectar, the fly slips on a waxy surface and falls down into the plant. The fly tries to fly out but super-slick surfaces directly underneath downward-pointing hairs prevent any movement.

For several minutes the fly struggles in the water before exhaustion sets in and it drowns. This tale seems like something out of a poorly-written monster movie but, in reality, it’s a common occurrence due to the incredible adaptations of one of the most interesting and threatened plants on Earth: the Mountain Sweet Pitcher Plant.

The Mountain-Sweet Pitcher Plant, Sarracenia rubra ssp. jonesii, lives mainly in habitats that are known as cataract bogs. These consist of exposed slabs of granite with cool mountain water trickling over parts of their surfaces, inundating accumulated detritus and moss with water. It is here that carnivorous plants such as pitcher plants grow.

The reason for this lies in the fact that these plants actually digest insects and utilize their nutrients to combat the harsh conditions they grow in. This incredible evolutionary adaptation can be seen with many plants all over the world, but the Sarracenia genus of pitcher plant only lives in the eastern United States. The subspecies referred to here is restricted to a tiny area along the border of North Carolina and South Carolina. Not surprisingly, this tiny range is continuing to shrink due almost exclusively to human action.

As with most interesting species of plant and animal, the Mountain Sweet Pitcher Plant is threatened by man’s greed. Mountaintop habitats in North and South Carolina are among the first to be developed when new roads are built into remote areas since so many people feel the need to have a perfect view from their back window. Unfortunately, these people are unknowingly destroying unique ecosystems that took thousands of years to form.

In the few protected sites where this pitcher plant still grows, carnivorous plant poachers are digging up plants to sell to unscrupulous collectors for huge amounts of money. Because of this, most sites where the plants grow today are kept very secret for fear that poachers will find them. While this is good as far as protecting plants go, it prevents people who enjoy these stunningly beautiful, captivating plants from seeing them in their natural environment.

Poaching and habitat destruction must be stopped if this plant is to survive into the future and the only way this will be done is if people like you and I continue to spread the word about it. Please do so and please support organizations like the South Carolina Natural Heritage Division and Nature Conservancy who strive to protect this, and many other, threatened species.

All photos taken by Peter Kleinhenz

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