Nepenthes or Pitcher Plants

Nepenthes or Pitcher Plants

One of the most interesting studies in botany is the study of plants that live in areas with little or no soil nutrients. Scientists give them the genus name Nepenthes. We commonly call them pitcher plants and they grow all around the Earth. These plants get their nitrogen and phosphorous by eating insects and animals. Darwin called them part of the “carnivorous syndrome.”

Most people don’t realize that there are well over 100 species of pitcher plants. Each species has some unique features, but there are many things they all have in common. All pitcher plants have a cup which is funnel-shaped or tubular with a sticky digestive fluid inside. The top of the tube has a rim called the peristome which is slippery and causes prey to tumble into the cup. There is a shelter over the top of the pitcher to keep out rainwater which would dilute the digestive juices.

There are highly specialized pitcher plants that eat different things. In 2009, botanists in the Philippines found plants that were nearly five feet (1.5 m) tall and had cups that were roughly a foot (.3 m) in diameter. In Borneo there are pitcher plants that can hold three quarts of liquid and trap lizards, mice, and other small rodents. One species secretes sugary nectar on the lid with a perch that attracts mountain tree shrews. The plant doesn’t eat the shrews, but as the shrew sits on the perch eating the nectar, the pitcher servies as what one study called a “tree shrew lavatory.” The shrew’s droppings provide nitrogen-rich food for the plant.

There are many areas where soils are deficient in nitrogen and phosphorous, but for different reasons and in different amounts. Insects provide the missing nutrients for most Nepenthes in North America. The needs in a desert salt flat are very different from the needs in a tropical rain forest. It is quite a challenge to explain how the diversity that we see has come about by evolution. Furthermore, scientists cannot find an intermediate species, either fossil or living, to explain how Nepenthes developed by evolution. We see a common plan design with local adaptations allowing plants to thrive in environments that lack the essential nutrients for them to prosper.

Nepenthes are so unique that people sometimes collect them for house plants. They are a reminder that God has provided well-designed plants and animals for unique locations. The study of the Nepenthes genus teaches us how special needs for life are met by the intelligence of God as plants and animals reflect God’s wisdom.

— John N. Clayton © 2020

Reference: World Wildlife Magazine, fall 2020, page 4.