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Predator Plants of Michigan may 30 08

You have to dodge the poison sumac before you can get to the pitcher plants.

Oh, yes, and watch out for rattlesnakes, and bog holes that can swallow you up to your waist…or worse.

But if, like me, you’re a connoisseur of the Michigan outdoors, you take the hazards in stride. They’re just part of the package when you set off in search of some of our state’s strangest, most literally captivating flora: its carnivorous plants.

Yes, they grow here in Michigan. They’re every bit as exotic as you might imagine, but you don’t have to travel to an Indonesian rain forest to see them. In fact, you probably don’t have to venture more than a few miles to find native wildflowers that, in a fascinating reversal of the food chain, lure, capture, and consume insects. The reason you’ve probably never encountered Michigan’s predator plants is simply that most folks don’t normally go traipsing about in the places where they grow. Peatlands are not exactly user-friendly. They’re wet, miry environs with some very real risks for the uninitiated.

But they’re also very beautiful places, home to feathery tamaracks, white-tufted cotton grass, and a broad variety of wild orchids—and, of course, to pitcher plants and sundews.

From late May through early June, you’ll find the wine-red blossoms of the northern pitcher plant, Sarracenia purpurea, dotting the sphagnum bogs and prairie fens. A semi-evergreen, the plant retains its old leaves through the winter and sprouts new leaves around the same time as its flowers emerge.

Look closely at the inside of the lid at the top of one of the tubular leaves and you’ll notice a bed of stiff, curved hairs pointing toward the interior of the trap. These escort ants and other insects downward toward a waxy area, where they lose their footing and plunge into a pool of water mixed with digestive enzymes.

Studies have shown that of the eight species of North American pitcher plant, some—perhaps all—exude a narcotic nectar that attracts and then stupefies insects.

While the pitcher plant uses a passive, pitfall-type trapping mechanism, the sundew employs an active, flypaper approach. This small, jewel-like plant is aptly named. Sprouting in a rosette from the base, the petioles swell at the end into flat discs or blades, each covered with numerous red hairs tipped with a tiny droplet of clear mucilage. In the sunlight, the plants really do look like they’re covered with dew—but don’t let that fool you. Touch a single droplet with the end of a toothpick and watch it pull out like taffy. This is a deadly dew, more than capable of miring fruit flies, gnats, ants, and other tiny insects for the leaf to smother and digest.


Of the four species of sundew that grow in Michigan, the two you’re likely to find in lower Michigan are the roundleaf sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) and the longleaf sundew (D. intermedia). The former grows in sphagnum bogs and fens, while the latter confines itself strictly to the wettest raw peat in bogs.

This Thursday I took a hike in a prairie fen south of Middleville where the predator plants grow thick. It had been a good five or six years since I’d visited the place, and in that time, an infestation of beetles had decimated the once lush ring of tamarack trees that lined the small lake. But many of the trees had survived, and now younger tamaracks were springing up to take the place of the old guard.

Stepping warily around poison sumac sentinels just sprouting their spring foliage, I emerged into a narrow, grassy corridor that opened out onto the marl flats.

The unmistakable, madder flowers of the pitcher plants waved above islands of sedge—here, a solitary blossom; there, a trio; yonder, a quorum, bowing like purple-cowled monks. It was a sight to see, and one I hadn’t seen in a while. Most Michiganders never see it at all—but it’s there for the seeing. Like all of God’s gracious gifts, it comes without charge to those who care to look a little deeper into the rich treasury of our Michigan landscape.







Written by Dave.