Tag Archives: blooms

August Showers (and July Heatwaves) Bring September Sarracenia Flowers

Under normal conditions, Sarracenia pitcher plants bloom once: in spring. Many carnivorous and protocarnivorous plants can bear flowers at different times through the year, and frail triggerplants are so profligate that the trick is to get them to stop blooming. Sarracenia, though, are very consistent. They bloom before producing traps, presumably because Sarracenia pollinators in spring tend to be top prey insects the rest of the year, and the seed pods mature throughout summer before cracking open and scattering seed at the beginning of winter. Once those blooms drop their petals in late April or early May, that’s it, right?

Well, not always. Every once in a while, you’ll see an anomaly. Toward the end of September, as temperatures cool and the pitcher plants perk up for autumn, you might find a bloom or two. The blooms may be full-sized, but the flower scapes from which they dangle are abnormally short, sometimes just a couple of centimeters tall. Any fragrance on the blooms tends to be diminished as well, from the Kool-Aid scent of S. leucophylla to the “last day of an anime convention” stench of S. flava, and the distinctive cap at the bottom of the bloom also shows anomalous development. (The image below shows the bloom cap on S. leucophylla “Compacta”, with unusual deformities and an incomplete cap, with exposed anthers.)

The hypothesis here is that these September blooms are a response to the abnormally hot and dry summer in North Texas, as well as the subsequent low humidity after our torrential rains in August and early September. These seem to be most common on S. flava and associated hybrids, with a few seen on S. leucophylla and S. minor and their hybrids. With the latter, the flower scapes range from short to normal height, with S. minor being the most likely to produce full-length flower scapes. So far, I have yet to see any on S. rubra, S. oreophylla, or S. purpurea or their variations or hybrids.

An interesting correlation, which requires further research, is that the likelihood of September blooms depends upon when the plant blooms in spring. By far, the most common September blooms come from S. flava, which is famed for blooming as much as a month before other Sarracenia species. In North Texas, S. leucophylla is particularly sensitive to late freezes in spring, sometimes only starting to bloom three weeks after all others have finished for the season.

The hypothesis: this trait expresses itself after especially stressful summers, where the plant survives but the seed pods may be damaged from extended heat. The blooms themselves appear to be viable based on the enthusiastic efforts by local bees and wasps to gather nectar and pollen, but gathering and attempting to germinate any seeds from these blooms is the only way to confirm whether the seeds are viable. I am already gathering seed from early-maturing spring seed pods and getting ready to gather ones opening later in the season, and comparing germination and growth of seedlings from each group will be necessary to determine if the September blooms are a useful strategy for a seed do-over after an especially brutal summer. We’ll all find out more for certain next spring.

Interlude: Venus Flytrap Blooms

It’s started considerably later than in most years, mostly because of the late-season freezes North Texas saw in February and March, but the Venus flytraps are finally blooming. They’re also catching considerably more prey than in past years, too: I’d almost be worried if house flies were rare.

Going out like a lamb

Sarracenia bloom (side)

We made it to the end of March. No last-minute snowfall. No end-of-month freezes or frosts…yet. Oh, the trees and weeds are determined to wipe out all animal life with pollen, but that’s not quite the disaster of the big snowfall in mid-March 2010. And what do we get for our reward? Sarracenia blooms!

I once had an English professor who stated that everyone should write as if a new writer were given a total of three exclamation points to use over an entire lifetime. I couldn’t disagree, but I always felt that a better solution was inspired by Harlan Ellison’s classic short story “‘Repent, Harlequin!’, Said the Ticktockman”, with the writer relinquishing a year of life for every exclamation point used. Naturally, if this rather draconian example actually ever saw use, you’d see millions of YouTube and political site commentators dropping dead days after turning 15, but there you go. When it comes to Sarracenia, though, I willingly give up a year to emphasize the joy. In fact, let’s give up another one: THE SARRACENIA ARE IN BLOOM!

Sarracenia bud

The trouble starts with these little flower scapes. They’re usually an excellent guide to air and soil temperatures, and when I tell customers that the Sarracenia generally won’t be for sale until after St. Patrick’s Day, it’s because I’m waiting for these to come up out of their winter dormancy first. Since the various species in the genus Sarracenia usually depend upon the same insects as pollinators as for prey, they generally put out their bloom spikes first, and then start growing pitchers.

Sarracenia hybrids emerging from dormancy

This isn’t to say that this is an absolute. Since many of the Sarracenia are still recuperating from last year’s drought, many stressed plants will forgo putting out flowers and concentrate instead on growing new pitchers. Incidentally, this photo was from a week ago, and the pitcher spike in the background is now nearly twice the size of its neighbor. If our current benevolent and humid weather continues, this one may have pitchers as much as a meter tall by the end of April.

Sarracenia bloom (bottom)

But let’s get back to the blooms. A typical Sarracenia bloom is about the size of a ping-pong ball, with a large cap on the bottom. As with many other flowering plants, Sarracenia attracts pollinators with both color and scent. Sarracenia alata, the yellow pitcher plant, tends to have blooms with a rather cat musk smell, which both seems to attract cats and repel raccoons. Others range in fruity and rosy scents, including several that, as Peter D’Amato noted to considerable merriment, smell almost exactly like cherry Kool-Aid. I don’t laugh at him when he says this, because he was understating the case.

Now, the cap and the petals work together to capture insects, but not in the way you’d expect. The bloom’s anthers are within the cap, so insect pollinators have to force themselves through the petals to get to the flower’s nectar. The petals block the entrances merely by dint of hanging free, so the bug runs into the anthers repeatedly while trying to get out. The cap also captures pollen knocked free from the anthers, so the bug gets a Shake & Bake treatment by the time it finally gets out and goes to another pitcher plant bloom. (Among other things, this may help explain why Sarracenia species produce so many natural hybrids, as visiting insects are simply covered by the time they work their way out.) The plant doesn’t want to capture them permanently for their nitrogen: any carnivorous plant that captures its pollinators before said pollen can get to another plant isn’t going to be in the gene pool for long.

Sarracenia and prey (closeup)

Not that this stops other plants in a clump (or, in this case, a nursery) from taking advantage of another’s pollinators. In this case, the little brown spots on the lip of this hybrid Sarracenia‘s pitcher are ants, all getting drunk and falling into the pitcher. Considering the huge colony of ants hiding out in the roots of a cactus on the edge of the growing area, this Sarracenia is going to feed very well this spring.

And now, back to the nursery. Among other things, it’s time to learn how to use this cell phone camera properly.