Curls of Christmas Color

Green fir and pine boughs; red holly berries; green and red yaupon and poinsettia: all display the traditional colors of Christmas. Since red and green abound in nature, plants bearing them often become part of human decorations. In east Texas, pale pitcher plants (Sarracenia alata) probably don’t adorn any dining tables, but they decorate their bogs with an interesting variation on seasonal colors.

One of four carnivorous species found in East Texas, pitcher plants prefer hillside seepage bogs in longleaf pine savannas. Named for the covered pitchers they resemble, they first collect water, then combine that water with enzymes designed to digest any curious insects which become trapped within the plant.

There’s more than water to tempt those insects to explore. Nectar droplets form from glands inside the leaf’s hood, and the brightly colored pitcher lip can be as inviting as a flower. The combination of nectar and color often lead unsuspecting insects to explore the tube, which is easy to descend but nearly impossible to escape because of downward-pointing hairs. Below the hairs, the tube is slick and covered with glands that exude digestive fluids instead of nectar; any insect that lands in that pool is about to have a very bad day.

That said, the colorful transformation of the plants is quite attractive. Some turn a uniform red, as shown in the first photo, while others remain somewhat mottled, like the single plant below.

Especially interesting is the tendency of some pitcher plants to curl as they age. In the summer of 2019, I found this one: a sweet green curve in the midst of a Big Thicket bog.

Last month, this red-and-green curl caught my eye. With luck, one day I’ll find a perfectly red version to complete my set.


Comments always are welcome.

58 thoughts on “Curls of Christmas Color

  1. These plants always have invitations out – party crashers and drop-ins welcomed.
    I didn’t know they curled with age – thought it was caused by water or something.
    Somehow the top image reminds me of Muppets talking.
    Have no doubt you’ll hunt down and locate that red one eventually

    1. I did a little snooping to see if I could find a definitive answer about what causes the curl, and I didn’t. Too much water, a lack of water, viruses, and the natural life cycle all were mentioned. Of course, there could be multiple causation: e.g., an aging plant begins to take up water less effectively. The flowers will turn a beautiful red or red-and-green combination, too, but when I found the reddish curl in late November, I found only one flower that had any color at all.

  2. Carnivorous plants are always a source of fascination, sometimes a little macabre even. I was interested to learn recently that there are crabs collectively known as vampire crabs that make a living invading pitcher plants to feed on the insects and larvae trapped inside.

    1. Now, that’s interesting. I’d not heard of those crabs; I did find mention of Geosesarma malayanum online: a species of small red crab found in Malaysia that makes use of the pitcher plant in that way. What I have found are pitcher plants with spider webbing strung across the opening. I’ve never found the spider itself, so I don’t know its identity, but it’s clearly a very clever and opportunistic creature.

      1. I think I just found a Scottish word that was altered and adopted into our form of English. While you say ‘blether’ — to talk in a long-winded way without making very much sense — we always used ‘blather’ as both a noun and a verb. What fun — and it does look as though the word suits.

        1. I believe that ‘blather’ is also elsewhere too…in English it may often be used to describe what comes from our politicians! I got curious and looked to see that it comes from the Old Norse ‘blathra’, to talk nonsense and ‘blathr’, nonsense. Then there’s the variant ‘blither’, e.g. ‘blithering idiot’ (English). Scots use ‘blether’ to just mean a good long chat between friends, so it can be a bit different to blather.

          1. My mother was fond of ‘blithering idiot,’ and she passed that one on to me. Your mention of the phrase was especially welcome for a different reason. I had a great-aunt named Rilla who was given to malapropisms. I’ve often used one of her phrases: “tempus fidgits,” rather than “tempus fugits.”
            But I’ve had a hard time recalling others, and now I can add “blistering idiots” to the list, along with “fig newton of the imagination” and “the house of the seven Grables.” Thanks!

            1. LOL, you made me laugh with those phrases! ‘Tempus fidgets’ is a good one. I remember my grandmother coming out with a few odd ones. ”Attended with hot dishcloths” is one I never figured out the origin of, but basically means to be too ready to obey someone’s every wish or whim. I’d love to know what was up with those dishcloths!

  3. Carnivorous plants are so strange. We accept animals and insects and birds as carnivorous. I guess plants seem strange because they have no tooth or claw. The lure of sweet nectar and the treacherous descent into the maw, the stuff of horror movies. I do like pitcher plants though.

    1. One of these days I’ll do another pitcher plant post dedicated to some insects giving in to temptation. It’s fascinating to watch insect ambivalence in real time. What’s really fascinating is that the soil where pitcher plants tend to grow is lacking in nitrogen; the insects that they dissolve provide that missing nutrient. Sometimes the complexities of evolution leave me speechless.

  4. I find pitcher plants, themselves, fascinating. But those curls even more so. And the colors of nature are always interesting, how different and varied the color patterns. I find it interesting, too, that some species seem far more consistent in color than others. Or is it just that I’m unable to perceive the varied shades of similar colors in them?

    1. Some species are more consistent: sunflowers are yellow, possumhaw berries are red. But then natural variation shows up. Some possumhaw berries are orange or yellow, and a whole variety of pink or blue plants show up as white. Every time someone posts a photo of a ‘blue’ flower, someone else sees it as violet, and a photo of a violet might be described as blue.Grasses turn from green or blue/green to red as they age, and on and on. In an east Texas bog, some greens are more yellow, and some reds are more orange — there’s quite a variety, that’s for sure.

  5. I never think of plant species as being carnivorous (and then I remember Audrey Two in “Little Shop of Horrors!”) They certainly are beautiful and the colors perfect for the season!

    1. An entire bog filled with them is quite a sight. I’ve always been too late to catch them at the height of their glory, but next year I’m going to try to remember that spring comes early to the bog. Another carnivorous plant, the sundew, is even more unusual; it uses an entirely different method to trap its prey. I have some photos that I just didn’t get posted last year; I’ll have to do that. My former eye doctor used to travel with a rare plant specialist who went all over the world seaching out sundew species — we’d talk about them every time I went in for a checkup.

    1. Absolutely. The thought that a plant would develop the ability to draw nutrients from insects that it traps in order to make up for what’s missing in its soil is astonishing to me.

  6. I glanced at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center page for this species and didn’t notice in any of the thumbnails the apparently distinctive curling that you’ve documented. Perhaps you’d like to donate a few photos to represent that phase of the plant’s life.

    1. When I did an internet image search, I didn’t find any curled plants there, even though I’d assumed curling was relatively common in their life cycle. I know where to turn for more information, though. Have you ever been to Carnivero there in Austin? It’s on 290, just west of MoPac. My eye doctor used to travel with the owner, Drew Martinez, as a kind of photographer’s assistant when Drew would go off in search of rare plants on Peruvian mountainsides or wherever. If anyone would know whether pitcher plant curling is common, and what the cause might be, it would be Drew. I’ll see what I can find out. It would be good to know before contacting the Wildflower Center.

    1. It is the hoods that are curling, but they’re leaning forward, not back. My theory is that the relative weight of the hood pulls it forward; that may explain why some plants curl and others don’t.

  7. I’m still giggling over that first photo, Linda. Those plants look like two people talking about something funny. The green one looks like he’s got his hands folded at his waist, while the red one looks like he’s just offered a terribly funny joke. Great capture, and I hope you can complete the set soon!

    1. Maybe the red one’s explaining how he got that hole in his side. The tale might have begun, “It was a dark and stormy night… ” The more I look at them, the more amused I am. It probably will be next year before I get a chance to look for a nice red curl, though. Their season is pretty much over, and by the time I can get to east Texas again, it will be January, and things will have bogged down in the bog.

    1. Everyone has to eat, even plants. Photosynthesis might be more genteel, but there’s no question that the same spiders, beetles, wasps, and flies that succumb to the pitcher plant’s juices would keep looking for their own dinner if they managed to survive. In truth, I’m fascinated by the evolution of the various ways carnivorous plants provide for themselves, and how many more species there are than I ever imagined.

  8. Oh, these are so magical to stumble upon. At first I thought they were Jack in the Pulpits and went to wondering how they were out of season, but of course, that isn’t what they were at all. And there was more fascinating stuff in the comments! I do love bloggers and their followers!

    1. I think the flowers are magical. I wanted to just focus on the colors here, but in time I’ll show the flowers, too. They odd, and beautiful — as well as being oddly beautiful! What I didn’t realize until I started poking around is that there are so many pitcher plant species, and so many varieties of carnivorous plants. Apparently wherever there’s a bog, they can be found.

    1. I think they’re both laughing, although it did occur to me that the red one might be telling the story of how he got the hole in his side. Who knows what plants get up to when we’re not watching?

    1. Some curl, and some don’t. When I did an image search and discovered not a single online photo showing the same kind of curl, I got curious. I’m going to have to do a little more research on just how common it is. Field research will have to wait, though. By the time I can get to east Texas, it will be January, and whatever plants are left may be shriveled rather than curled.

    1. While I was roaming among them, I found wasps, flies, and beetles doing a bit of exploring, but I never saw butterflies, caterpillars, spiders, or ants being curious. I did find spiders creating webs across the opening at the top; it’s a little amusing to think of the spiders ‘saving’ other insects from pitcher plant death, but doing it for their own purposes!

      The flowers and fruits of these plants are gorgeous–I’ll show them another time. I’ve also learned that there are innumerable species of these plants, both in the U.S. and around the world. And, yes: you can raise them at home!

    1. Too bad they have to subsist on insects rather than Jackie’s fine offerings. I did get curious about raising them, and I learned that while a pitcher plant propagator can feed them flies and such, under no circumstances are they to be fed such things as ground beef. They aren’t that carnivorous!

    1. They sure are. Bogs generally are pretty interesting places; I’m looking forward to doing more exploring in them this coming spring. Pitcher plants are the only unusual plants there.

  9. Pitcher Plants are definitely outdoor plants. If you did keep one indoors, what would you feed it? Bits of ground beef? Shades of the Addams Family! (I had this flash of Angelica Huston in costume feeding one dead flies with these delicate Victorian filigree tweezers with Thing holding the plate of them for her.)

    1. Ah, but they can be grown indoors, along with the rest of the carnivorous crew. There’s a place in Austin called Carnivero: you can guess what they specialize in. Take a look at these new offerings. I laughed and laughed when I read some of the feeding instructions for the plants. These are for Venus Flytraps, but the same guidance applies to pitcher plants:

      “Venus Flytraps get all the nutrition they need from the sun (through photosynthesis like any plant) and from the insects they catch. If they are healthy and if you put them outside sometimes to “hunt,” they will catch insects on their own. You can also feed them captured flies or other insects (but not meat!). It helps to place a captured fly in a jar and then place it in the fridge for a few minutes to make the fly lethargic.”

      All righty, then.

  10. Love these photos, Linda. I like these colors and they are especially complementary with the shape of the plants, the deep vase and welcoming (?) curl.

    1. I remembered that you enjoyed the ‘green curl’ when I published it the first time. It was great fun to find another curl that was equally attractive. I mentioned to Steve that there’s a business in Austin called Carnivero that specializes in carnivorous plants (it’s on 290 west of MoPac). My eye doc used to go traveling with the guy who owns it, as a kind of photographer’s assistant. I’m going to get in touch with the Carnivero owner to see if he can shed some light on this curling: whether it’s odd, normal, whatever.

  11. I was going to mention that the top photo looks like they’re having a conversation, but I see the first commenter beat me to it. Such a cool photo! And the other photos – especially the curling ones – are wonderful too.

    1. It seems like everyone is seeing the first pair that way: conversing, laughing, whatever. When I took the photo I was thinking mostly of the color. It was only after I saw the image on the computer that I saw the human-like characteristics. I wish I knew what they were saying!

  12. Imperfections can be beautiful too so I like that second curl almost as much as the green one. Speaking of imperfections, it looks like someone might have made a break for it out of the side of the red one in the first shot.

    1. Now, that’s interesting. It never occurred to me that someone might have escaped through the side. To the extent that I thought about it at all, I assumed external damage, like a stick breaking through from the outside. Maybe the red one just laughed until its side split!

      1. Most likely your assumption is correct and it might have rubbed against a stick or something else as it developed but the idea of a jailbreak seemed fun. No one was going to climb out so it’d be the only way. Maybe you discovered some new evolution in action.

  13. The discovery of pitcher plants on an outing is always special! They have such “character”.

    Until your post, I had not thought about the reds and greens of these fascinating plants as being in perfect harmony with the Christmas season. Now, I shall not be able to forget it. Thank you.

    (Apologies for late and no replies lately. Our wonderful grandchildren provided us with a special gift during our trip. Germs. We both have been suffering what the Doc says is a “severe common cold”. Recovery is imminent and we have recently been out trying to infect a few ‘gators and herons.)

    1. Ah, yes. Even before the advent of more newsworthy viruses, the common cold got passed around, particularly in families. I’m glad to hear you’re up and taking nourishment, as the saying goes. Apologies never are necessary. For good or for ill, there is life beyond the internet!

      I wondered if this species of pitcher might grow in your state, and it seems the answer is ‘no.’ On the other hand, you have some beauties. This article about your six Sarracenia species really is excellent. There are some fancy ones over there!

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