Famed for having insects for dinner, pitcher plants can also make excellent garden plants. Ten or so species inhabit bogs from Maryland south to Florida. They are found where soils are constantly moist but only briefly flooded, and where periodic wildfires remove encroaching trees and shrubs, providing full sun. The soil in such sites is usually nutrient starved and acidic, lacking nitrogen and other elements. Pitcher plants compensate by obtaining these nutrients from the creatures they consume, including insects, spiders, and the occasional small frog.
Growing from fleshy roots, plants form whorls of hollow, modified leavesthe pitchers of the common namethat both carry out photosynthesis and trap insects. Attracted by nectar, victims fall into pools of digestive fluid at the bottom of the pitchers. Depending on the species, the pitchers range from a few inches to over 3 ft. tall; they may be upright and shaped like tubes or trumpets, or they may look like jugs and lie on the ground. Some have lids above the opening, giving the plant a hooded appearance. Colors include green, yellow-green, burgundy, and bright red, and some pitchers also sport dramatic red veiningapparently a ploy to attract more prey. Showy, solitary spring blossoms in red, pink, or yellow, typically 23 in. across, rise on stalks alongside or above the pitchers. Most species and a number of interesting hybrids resulting from complex crosses are available from mail-order specialists.
S. alata. PALE PITCHER PLANT. Native to the Gulf Coast from Alabama west to Texas. Upright, trumpet-shaped, green- to yellow-green pitchers to 212 ft. tall; lid is held nearly erect. Pale yellow flowers in early spring. Some variants have reddish bronze pitchers; those of 'Black Tube' are deep purplish red.
S. x catesbyi. CATESBY'S PITCHER PLANT. Naturally occurring hybrid of S. flava and S. purpurea. Found along the Coastal Plains from Virginia to South Carolina. Upright brick-red pitchers to 15 in. tall; brick-red flowers in late spring.
S. 'Dixie Lace'. Complex hybrid. Butterscotch-yellow pitchers with dramatic red veining grow 112 ft. tall and are held at a 45 angle. Showy maroon-red flowers.
S. flava. YELLOW PITCHER PLANT. Native to Coastal Plains from Virginia to Florida. Erect pitchers to 3 ft. or taller, in yellowish green with striking crimson veining. Pendulous bright yellow flowers to 4 in. across appear on tall stalks. The showiest pitcher plant in bloom.
S. 'Flies Demise'. Complex hybrid. Upright, hooded pitchers to 10 in. tall are dusty orange with dramatic red veining near the top. Maroon flowers.
S. 'Judith Hindle'. Complex hybrid. Upright pitchers to 3 ft. tall are brilliant ruby-maroon, with ruffled lids veined in ruby and pink. Maroon flowers.
S. 'Ladies in Waiting'. Complex hybrid. Vigorous plant with upright pitchers to 2 ft. tall; they are bright red with white speckles on the upper part, fading to bright green near the base. Fluted lids. Showy maroon-red flowers.
S. leucophylla. WHITE PITCHER PLANT. Native to southern Georgia, southern Alabama, southern Mississippi, Florida Panhandle. Considered by many to be the most beautiful speciesand it catches more insects than any other. Upright pitchers to nearly 312 ft. tall sport open lids. Pitchers are green on the lower half; the upper half and lid are white laced with reddish purple veins. Large (to 4-in.-wide) purplish red flowers. 'Schnell's White' has white, green-veined pitchers and pure yellow flowers. 'Tarnok' has a bizarre, beautifully contorted double flower.
S. Little Bug series. Complex hybrids selected for compact habit and prolific production of pitchers. Easy and adaptable. 'Doodle Bug' has arching, 8-in.-tall pitchers marked in red and white. 'Lady Bug' is a strong grower, with stout, red-spotted pitchers to about 6 in. tall. 'Love Bug' has a rounded, red hood that flares outward.'Red Bug' has upright, dark red, fuzzy pitchers to 8 in. tall.
S. minor. HOODED PITCHER PLANT. Native to Coastal Plains from North Carolina to Florida. Unusual pitchers to 1 ft. tall resemble the hooded robes of monks, with the lid forming a domed canopy over the mouth; they are green with coppery red shading on the upper quarter. Yellow flowers.
S. oreophila. GREEN PITCHER PLANT. Very rare species; native to northeastern Alabama and mountainous juncture of Georgia and the Carolinas. Upright light green pitchers with red veining grow 212 ft. tall. Yellowish green flowers bloom in late spring.
S. psittacina. PARROT PITCHER PLANT. Native to Coastal Plains from south Georgia to Mississippi. Jug-shaped, red-veined green pitchers to 8 in. long lie on the ground and form a rosette; their interiors are lined with needlelike hairs. Small, sweet-smelling, purplish red blooms appear over a long period. In the plant's native grassy swamps, periodic flooding allows this one to feed on tadpoles and small fish.
S. purpurea. PURPLE PITCHER PLANT. Native to bogs of the eastern U.S. and Canada. A variable and widespread species. Jug-shaped pitchers to 1 ft. long lie on the ground; they may be green with red veining or solid maroon or red. Flower colors include purple, red, pink, and purplish red.
S. rubra. SWEET PITCHER PLANT. A highly variable species divided into five subspecies; found in the Carolinas, Florida, and Alabama. Upright, trumpetlike pitchers with open lids range from 10 in. to 2 ft. tall; they may be green with red veining or solid red. Bright red to dark red flowers, sometimes fragrant.
Pitcher plants need a dormant period in winter, so they're not suited to indoors or the Tropical South. They grow best in sunny bogs. To create a bog garden, dig out a large depression about 112 ft. deep, line it with a plastic pond liner, then fill it with a mixture of 2 parts sphagnum peat moss, 1 part perlite, and 1 part builder's sand. Keep the soil constantly moist but not flooded. Do not fertilize, and never feed meat to pitcher plants. Propagate them by seed or division.