KILLER PLANTS

Several types of carnivorous flora set traps for insects in U.P. bogs, wetlands

Deep in the U.P. wetlands exist several types of plants that set traps for insects and lie waiting to consume them. Pictured at dawn is Abram’s bog, located south of Marquette.

Story and photos by Scot Stewart
When the tables are turned it usually gets everyone’s attention. When a bison or a moose turns and chases off wolf everyone gets wide-eyed. A delicate flower blooming in the middle of a snow drift is head turner too. What about a leaf eating a bumblebee? And not just in the tropics but right here in the Upper Peninsula.
The winter brings a quiet solitude to nearly all of the Upper Peninsula’s plant life. Most of the small plants – mosses, ferns and herbaceous plants with their flowers are buried for the season under a big pile of snow, frozen, still. But the promise of their return will lure bog lovers back to see several truly unique groups of plants the minute the last of the snow is gone next spring. There are plants there that do turn the table on the animals wandering and flying through the bog to find the meals they need to subsist, unknowing of the plants stalking them, the danger awaiting.
Pitcher plants are probably the best known of the three groups of plants here able to extract nutrients from insects and other invertebrates. There is just one species of pitcher plants found in a majority of Michigan counties and all but Menominee, Iron and Gogebic counties in the U.P. in the Upper Peninsula. It is primarily found in sphagnum bogs of the northeastern United States, where cranberries, bog laurel and leatherleaf also grow, but also in some fens and pools lying between the dunes near the Great Lakes.
Pitcher plant leaves have evolved into well designed insect traps to aid plants in their attempts to find nitrogen and other nutrients from their environment. The bogs where they grow are usually nitrogen poor. They have developed strategies to extract important nutrients from insects to thrive there and outcompete other plants unable to obtain these chemicals.
Michigan’s pitcher plant leaves are varying shades of green and red. They are meant to aid plants in their main function, taking the energy from the sun and turning it into chemical energy the plant can store. Small leaves can vary from nearly all green with faint red lines to solid crimson red.
The leaves often resemble flowers – bright red, or green with red, vein-like patterns like those found on flower petals. Some species of pitcher plants have faint odors, often similar to rotting flesh, to attract flies. Other insects are looking for the nectar bounty of their flowers. Insects arriving in search of nectar on the leaves are quickly rewarded by the plants. The leaves contain nectar producing glands found on the lips of the leaves near the water or on the hoods of the leaves.  Both surfaces are slippery, and the inside of the hoods are covered with downward pointing hair-like structures. These adaptations make it extremely difficult for insects to hold on to the surfaces as they often attempt to maneuver toward the hood-tops to leave the plant. Add to this dilemma that some nectars contain chemicals causing disorientation or weakening of muscles and insects have a challenge to avoid dropping into the water below. The water in the leaves can contain damping chemicals further hampering the ability of insects to extract themselves from their trap…

 

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