Okefenokee’s Pitcher Plants

Alligator, Okefenokee Swamp

It had been about a half hour of boating along the Okefenokee Swamp’s main channel before we arrived at the pitcher plant area.

 

In that time, several alligators cruised by our boat searching for fish or snakes to devour, their menacing eyes regarding us with dead blankness.

Alligator and Spanish Moss, Okefenokee

 

Our guide was excited to show us the carnivorous plants. Later I would understand why, but for now it was eerie: hungry alligators half-hidden in black water, masses of thick moss hanging from every tree–and we were on our way to see flesh-eating plants.

 

Permanently saturated wetlands, like the Okefenokee, have acidic water; soil is typically low in nitrogen and nutrients. Carnivorous pitcher plants have adapted to obtain minerals and nutrition from the living beings they trap.

 

Pitcher plants, their rhizomes underwater, can be seen hidden in thickets of tall grasses. Look closely in the center of this photo.

 

 

Okefenokee Swamp, pitcher plants in center

 

You look at this elegant plant never thinking it has skeletons floating inside.

Pitcher Plant

 

There are two major pitcher plant families in the world: Nepenthaceae and Sarraceniacea. The genus Nepenthes, found in the Old World, has more than 170 species of pitcher plants; found in many parts of Asia and elsewhere.

 

The Sarraceniacea pitcher plants are found in the New World, and all are native to North America.

 

The plants use chemicals and/or physical properties to attract and ensnare prey. Their shapes, which vary among species, are also a key factor in trapping prey.

 

The various species are known to attract ants, termites, flies, beetles, moths, or butterflies. Some species attract spiders, and still other species extract nourishment from bat feces or forest floor detritus.

 

The Okefenokee species, the Hooded Pitcher Plant, attracts ants and a wide range of flying insects.

 

There are glands near the top of Sarracenia minor that produce sweet-smelling nectar. Insects are attracted to the scent.

 

In addition, the white spots on the back of the hood, areoles, are translucent, allowing light to enter into the pitcher. Insects are lured in by the sweet smell and the light. In springtime there is a flower, also an attractant.

 

Notice the white “windows” in this close-up.

Sarracenia minor, Okefenokee

 

Once inside, the insect is trapped by stiff, down-pointing hairs that do not allow exit. They slide down the pitcher’s narrow shape, and are caught in water at the base, where they drown.

 

Dissolved enzymes in the water eventually digest the insects. The plant absorbs the insects’ soft parts, and the skeletons remain.

 

The hood of this species also prevents the trapped insect from escaping, while keeping rainwater out of the pitcher’s enzymatic waters.

 

A meat-eating plant filled with skeletons…grows in swamp water…attracts, kills, and eats insects.

 

Oh, the endless marvel of nature.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

A Sarracenia rhizome. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Sarracenia minor range.png

Range of Sarracenia minor. Southeast U.S. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

The Okefenokee Swamp

Alligator, Okefenokee Swamp

Here’s a place I have heard about my whole life. Catchy name. I got to visit it this past November, and it is as unusual and quirky as it’s name…and far more exotic and beautiful than I had ever imagined.

 

The Okefenokee Swamp is a peat-filled wetland that straddles the U.S. Georgia-Florida border. A vast and shallow bog, it covers nearly a half-million acres (177,000 ha). In ancient times it was part of the ocean floor.

Cresser Prairie, Okefenokee Swamp

There are hiking trails, a self-guided auto tour, an observation tower, camping, and more. But being on the water is decidedly the best way to experience the Okefenokee.  You can rent boats, take your own out, or pay for a boat tour.

 

We took the guided 90-minute boat tour, and it was excellent.

 

Alligators peered out from beneath the water’s surface.

Alligator

 

 

Pond cypress trees

Pond-cypress trees and Suwannee Channel

 

It is the largest blackwater swamp in North America. The water is characteristically slow-moving, filtering through vegetation and decay, resulting in tannins that make the water appear black.

 

Blackwater generally has less nutrients and more acid, hosting flora and fauna different than you see around fast-moving water.

 

The cypress trees (Taxodium ascendens) (pictured above), rooted in water, have a curious bulbous base that assists in stabilizing the tree.

 

Trees living in water:  not something we see very often.

 

Surrounding the cypress trees are woody projections, tapered stumps, called “cypress knees.” These are part of the cypress root system thought to provide the tree with stability as well as oxygen.

Cypress Knees in front center

The guide steered the boat down the long man-made Suwannee Canal, as we suspiciously eyed the alligators, kept our limbs and digits well inside the boat. Monarchs fluttered along the shoreline, turkey vultures soared overhead, woodpeckers and blue jays dipped among the trees while catbirds shouted their mewing calls.

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Forest trees, thickly draped with Spanish moss, arched overhead.

Moss-draped forest

I studied the faces of canoeists as they glided by, admired their calm as they paddled through the black, alligator-studded water.

Canoeists in Okefenokee Swamp

After we left the main channel, we headed into the Chesser prairie. There are many wetland prairies, or open landscapes, in the Okefenokee and they’re all named.

 

Wading birds like ibis, egrets, and herons dotted the landscape.

 

In addition to the abundant water lilies (Nymphaea odorata), clumps of pitcher plants (Sarraceniaceae) could be seen in a few places. A cobra-shaped carnivorous plant, it eats and digests insects.

 

Its sweet nectar entices the insect in while the waxy inner surface traps the insect, who then drowns in the inner chamber.

Pitcher Plant

The history of the Okefenokee is an interesting one, home to Native Americans and white settlers in earlier centuries. Toward the beginning of the 20th century, opportunists embarked on draining the swamp and harvesting the cypress trees for profit.

 

Fortunately for us, by 1937 the area became protected.

 

In some parts of the Okefenokee there are small islands, called batteries, that you can see floating by.  About the size of a desktop or larger, they are made of decaying organic matter called peat that originates on the swamp floor and floats to the surface.

 

“Okefenokee” is a Native American word of Seminole origin that means “The Land of the Trembling Earth.” It is believed that the long-ago Native American residents probably walked on those floating batteries, and experienced trembling.

 

Trees and flowers that live in the water. Plants that eat insects. Mammals that eat humans. And black water wherever you look.

 

The Okefenokee Swamp is marvelously unique.

Written by Jet Eliot.
Photos by Athena Alexander.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge Wikipedia

Visiting the Okefenokee

Informative overview