Mountain Sweet Pitcher Plant - Sarracenia rubra ssp. Jonesii
Contributed by Sara Green, SCWF Director of Education
South Carolina is lucky to be one of the few places where you can still find the carnivorous Mountain Sweet Pitcher Plant. There are six small populations (some are less than 50 square feet) in Greenville County - five are in the Saluda River drainage, and one is in the Enoree River drainage. North Carolina is home to four populations, located in the French Broad River drainage.
This perennial grows from 21 to 73 inches tall and has numerous waxy green leaves with maroon veins. The leaves grow in clusters and form tubular “pitchers” with a heart-shaped hood. These plants can only be found in bogs and along streams in the Blue Ridge Divide or occasionally near waterfalls. The bog soils are deep, poorly-drained combinations of loam, sand, and silt, with a high organic matter content and a medium to high acidic composition.
The mountain sweet pitcher plant is carnivorous. Botanists do not fully understand how carnivorous plants evolved, but the ability to absorb minerals from insects may allow these plants to compete in nutrient-poor habitats. Insects are attracted to the pitcher plant by nectar secreted from glands near the top of the pitcher, or by the plant's bright color. Just inside the tube's opening is a slippery smooth surface, and the insects fall into the tube or get caught by hairs. These stiff, downward pointing hairs keep the insects captive inside the pitcher. Inside the pitchers, the plant secretes a fluid containing enzymes which digest most insects that are caught.
Due to this plant’s dependence on wetlands, habitat degradation is a major factor leading to the decline of this species. Since being added to the Federal Register of Endangered Species on September 30, 1988, sixteen historic sites of this plant have been eliminated by draining of wetlands, flooding from impoundments, conversion into golf courses, industrial development, and agricultural use.
Occasional, moderate disturbance is necessary to maintain the species' habitat and reduce the encroachment of woody plants. Woody plants create a drier, shadier habitat unsuitable for pitcher plant survival. The role played by fire in this mountain species' habitat is still speculative, but fire may historically have opened areas for colonization. Severe droughts in consecutive years and the channelization of nearby streams also threaten the plant's habitat.
Collection is another serious threat. Carnivorous plants are in demand by amateur plant enthusiasts as well as professional botanists. Recently, commercial florists have been using dried pitcher plants in their floral arrangements. Even through cultivated sources of most pitcher plants are available, are also collecting the species from the wild.
This species is protected by the Lacey Act (P.L. 97-79, as amended; 16 U.S.C. 3371 et seq.) which makes it unlawful to possess any wild plant (including roots, seeds, and other parts) within U.S. territorial or special maritime jurisdiction (as defined in 18 U.S.C. 7); or to import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire, or purchase in interstate or foreign commerce any wild plant (including roots, seeds, and other parts) taken, possessed, transported, or sold in violation of any State law or regulation. It is also unlawful to import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire, or purchase any wild plant (including roots, seeds, and other parts) taken or possessed in violation of any U.S. law, treaty, or regulation or in violation of Indian tribal law. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is responsible for the management/recovery, listing, and law enforcement/protection of this species.
Management in South Carolina:
The South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism owns one of the plant sites, and two others have recently been acquired by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. In North Carolina, a site has been registered as a State Natural Area, and the owners are managing the land to protect the species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is cooperating with conservation agencies in both States to survey potential habitat areas for additional populations. In addition, the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program, the North Carolina Plant Conservation Program, the South Carolina Wildlife and Marine Resources Department, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are working with private landowners to protect and manage their sites. Other plans for the species recovery include reestablishing nursery-bred plants into the species' historic range, developing cultivated sources for this plant, providing for long-term seed storage, and enforcing laws protecting the species and its habitat.