Dedicated to Velvet, an old friend who helped me appreciate Newfoundland more than she realized. If I ever develop a unique cultivar of this plant, I’m naming it for her.
When first exposed to carnivorous plants, most people are amazed that they aren’t all denizens of strange exotic jungles in tropical zones. They’re surprised to discover the range and variety of pitcher plants along the Gulf Coast of the United States, or the vistas of sundews and butterworts through Europe. When they learn about Sarracenia purpurea, the purple pitcher plant, and its place in Canadian history, they’re even more surprised. A regular pitch is “Lots of countries put out stamps and other memorabilia involving carnivorous plants. My people, though, are so badass that we made one a provincial flower.”
The provincial flower part is true, and it’s the real reason for the plant’s common and Latin name. Although S. purpurea grows in a wide range of colorations, from deep maroon and purple to a nearly pure green, the flowers are consistently colored a deep royal purple. These emerge in spring when the plant comes out of its winter dormancy and droop over the plant’s crown, and then the pitchers emerge after the odds are pretty good that the flowers have already been pollinated. As with other members of its genus, S. purpurea has no problems with capturing its pollinators if given the opportunity, and blooming before it produces traps is a good way to avoid the opportunity.
When compared to other members of its genus, the first things that stand out are the height and shape of S. purpurea‘s pitchers. Instead of the long, fluting pitchers of other species, S. purpurea pitchers are squat and short. Likewise, the lids that normally protect the mouth of the pitcher in other species acts as a scoop for rainwater. After a good downpour, purpurea pitchers are usually full of fresh rainwater. This rainwater may act as a lens for incoming sunlight, giving a better opportunity for light to hit chloroplasts on both inside and outside of the pitcher. What’s absolutely certain, though, is that the open pitchers provide a habitat for various lifeforms, which feed upon drowned insect prey and any other organic matter that falls within.
As with other Sarracenia, S. purprea has no issues with digesting insect prey, with the assistance of bacterial action and larger organisms such as midge larvae, but that’s not its only option. In the book Gardening with Carnivores: Sarracenia Pitcher Plants in Cultivation & in the Wild, Nick Romanowski noted the high numbers of rotifers living inside S. purpurea pitchers and feeding upon bacterial colonies within, to the point where the potential nitrogen absorbed from rotifer waste alone exceeds the amount needed for plant maintenance, growth, and reproduction. Combine that with S. purpurea‘s tolerance of much more alkaline habitats than other Sarracenia species, this helps explain why S. purpurea grows in a much wider range. All other known Sarracenia species are native to a relatively small area of the southeast United States, with most concentrated within Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and northern Florida. Two subspecies of S. purpurea, S. purpurea purpurea and S. purpurea venosa, grow along the Gulf of Mexico from Louisiana to far eastern Florida, and then north up the East Coast to Newfoundland and Labrador. It then grows due west, through bogs in Ontario, Quebec, Michigan, and Minnesota, and ultimately reaching Alberta. Romanowski also surmises that both rotifer cultivation and tolerance to relative alkalinity helps explain why S. purpurea is often one of the first plants to move into freshly denuded areas after a glacier retreats. Considering that the soil on a glacial plain is little more than rock dust and clay, any plant with the ability to gather its own nitrogen has a decided survival advantage.
All of these factors, with an additional tolerance for lower humidity than what most other Sarracenia prefer, make S. purpurea an excellent plant for bog and container gardens through North Texas. For best results, go with typical basic care for Sarracenia (full morning sun, rainwater or distilled water only, and potting mix comprised of two parts sphagnum moss to one part sharp sand), and S. purpurea responds by spreading out into thick clumps. Once the first hard frosts arrive, the tips of the pitchers tend to brown and burn at the tips, but they generally don’t die entirely with anything less than a week of temperatures remaining below freezing. Any pitchers that don’t die off still collect sunlight while the plant is otherwise in winter dormancy, but the real action starts in mid-March in North Texas conditions, when they start blooming and then producing pitchers.
And now the Canadian angle. Sarracenia purpurea gets its genus name from famed French naturalist and doctor Michel Sarrazin (1659 – 1734), who first described it after he emigrated to what was then New France in 1685. At the time, the plant was used as a treatment for smallpox, and its carnivorous nature wasn’t confirmed until Charles Darwin’s experiments in the 1860s and 1870s. As other relations turned up in North America (and, in the case of Heliamphora, in South America as well), Sarrazin’s name was also given to the whole family, the Sarraceniaceae. Sarrazin died without learning of S. purpurea‘s range and habits, but the purple pitcher plant became a favorite of a famed horticulture enthusiast of the end of the Nineteenth Century: Queen Victoria. She was so taken by the scrappy little plant and its beautiful flower that until Newfoundland entered Canadian Confederation in 1949, the back of the Newfoundland half-penny coin featured a purple pitcher by order of the queen. Even today, it remains the provincial flower of the province, partly because of its previous history, and partly because it’s one of the first plants to bloom in the province in spring. If you’ve ever visited Newfoundland and Labrador, especially in the very early spring, you’ll understand why this is such a big deal.
In a way, S. purpurea could be the Canadian national flower, too. It’s a natural survivor, low-key yet tenacious, humble yet possessed of a unique beauty. If that doesn’t describe every Canadian I’ve ever met, I don’t know what does.