The Marsh Pitcher Plants
By Alex Dietrick
From the sandstone plateaus in Venezuela and Guyana, come a fascinating genus of carnivorous plants. South America’s only pitcher plant, Heliamphora is very primitive, but elegant in design. The trap seems to consist of nothing more but a rolled up leaf, joined at a seam in the front of the pitcher. This seam has the purpose of releasing excess rain water that is collected in the trap. This seam also has small, minute, nectar secreting glands that lure insects to the rim of the leaf. The uppermost part of the leaf, called the nectar spoon, or the bell, is shaped just like it sounds. This bell like structure is where the most concentration of nectar is. The bell has a very slippery interior surface that causes insects, attempting to take a sip of the nectar, to loose their foothold and fall into the water below, where they will then drown. There are no known digestive acids that aid in the digestion of the plant’s prey, but it is suggested that bacteria in the water break the insects down. The nutrient laden “bug soup” is then absorbed by the plant.
Its habitat, tall, sandstone plateaus, or tepuis, are located in Venezuela and Guyana, and have vertical sides. They are almost impossible to reach, which has greatly affected the discovery of new species. The tepuis are extremely high, ranging from 3,200, to 9,420 feet above sea level. This high altitude elevation contributes to their cool and humid climate.
The first species of Heliamphora, Heliamphora nutans, was discovered in 1839 by R.H. Schomburgk. H. tatei, the second species, was not discovered until 1931 because of the remoteness of their habitat. Accessibility has gotten better in the recent years, and there are now a total of about ten known species.
H. nutans- The original species, native to Mt. Roraima and Mt. Duida, Heliamphora nutans is also one of the easiest to grow. Plants can reach a height of about six to twelve inches, with the giant form, reaching an average height of about fourteen inches. This giant form has also been known to be easier to cultivate. The leaves, called pitchers, are a bright green hue with red lips, or rims. The nectar spoon is highly developed with this species. It flowers regularly and its spikes are up to two feet in height, bearing large, white flowers.
H. tatei- This highly unusual species is unique in the fact that it grows from an above-ground, woody, upright stem. This stem can reach over six feet in height. The large leaves of this species, reaching up to fifteen inches tall, are tubular, have red venation, and have a highly developed nectar spoon. This species is known to have several varieties. H. tatei var. tatei is the most spectacular in that its large stems branch numerous times. H. tatei var. neblinae, found on Mt. Cerro de la Neblina, was previously thought to be a species by itself, but recent research has grouped it with H. tatei.
H. chimantensis- A recently described species, this plant is restricted to Chimanta Tepui and is very similar to H. tatei. Its leaves are arranged in an upright and slender fashion and range in size from eight to fourteen inches. Similar to H. folliculata, H. chimantensis also forms dense clumps, several yards across.
H. elongata- Also a new species, this plant is native to Ilu Tepui. Its leaves are a lovely red color and are tall and bulky.
H. folliculata- This recently described species is unique for its strangely shaped nectar spoon, which collects copious amounts of nectar. Its pitchers range in size from eight to twelve inches in height and can turn deep red in good light. This species forms dense clumps over time.
H. heterodoxa- Discovered on Mt.Ptari, this species has leaves that average about 10-12 inches in height. This species also has the larges nectar spoon in the genus. H. heterodoxa has been known to colonize the surrounding lowland savannas as well, resulting in heat tolerant clones.
H. hispida- Discovered on Mt. Cerro Neblina, this species is very similar to H. tatei. H. hispida has been known to form large clumps and patches over time, but not as large as H. chimantensis. The leaves or pitchers of H. hispida reach an average of six to ten inches tall.
H. ionasii- Discovered in 1978 on Mt. Ilu-Tepui, this very large species gets to about twenty inches in height and is colored yellowish-green. A red form called ‘Deep Red’ exists in which the outside of the leaves are red, while the interior is a bright green. H. ionasii flares widely at the mouth.
H. minor- Discovered in 1939 on Mt.Auyan-Tepui, the pitchers grow to a
height of about two to six inches and are green-red judging by light levels. The nectar spoon is minute and red. Due to its considerable small size, it is a great plant for a small terrarium. There is also known to be a pubescent form. This species has been found in surrounding lowlands.
Hybrids- Many hybrids have been made and they have the characteristics of both parents. H. x ‘Midoxa’, a cross between H. minor and H. heterodoxa, is the most common.
The Cultivation of Heliamphora
Soil- Heliamphora like open, wet, and well drained soils. A combination of one part long fibered sphagnum and two parts perlite work well with this plant. Add a layer of lava rock at the bottom of the pot for extra drainage.
Containers- All containers must have drainage holes. Plastic pots are the best for Heliamphora, although clay and glazed ceramics can be used also. You should use four inch pots for juvenile plants, and eight inch pots for mature ones. Avoid dark colored pots in areas of intense light, as the heat will kill the plants. Deep pots work best to accommodate the plants’ long and brittle roots.
Water- Water frequently, purified water, at room temperature. Cold water has been known to kill plants. A shallow tray filled with water is also fine. Never let the soil dry out. Heliamphora appreciate a frequent mist.
Light- Heliamphora need high to partly sunny light levels to maintain robust and colorful leaves.
Climate- Heliamphora like cool temperatures, between seventy and eighty degrees, but can tolerate brief extremes up to ninety degrees. There should be a significant temperature drop at night, with temperatures forty-five to sixty degrees. Heliamphora require high humidity
Growing Environments- Heliamphora thrive in the terrarium, cool house, and warm house.
Feeding- Heliamphora take well to a monthly, or even weekly feeding of sow bugs, crickets, and other insects.
Fertilization- Heliamphora appreciate a monthly foliar feeding of orchid and epiphytic fertilizers. Miracid™ also works well.
Transplanting- Best done in winter and spring.
Pests and diseases- Fungus may be a problem in dark and stagnant conditions.
Propagation- There are many ways to propagate Heliamphora. The easiest way is division. Make sure that there are several growing points before you divide them! First, remove the plant from the pot and gently wash away the soil; the roots are especially brittle. Then soak the plants for fifteen minutes in a SuperThrive™ solution of half a teaspoon for every gallon of water. Gently snap the rhizome apart, ensuring one or more growing point per division. Pot the plants in their preferred soil mix and keep especially humid while new roots develop. Remove any developing flower stalks, as they have an exhausting effect on the plant.
Tissue culture has been a great advantage in the recent years and has cut down on field collection dramatically. Plants are introduced into flask by use of sterilized seeds.
Seed also works with Heliamphora, but it takes many years to attain a mature plant. Vibration is necessary to pollinate flowers. The flowers open one at a time over the course of several weeks. Immediately upon opening, the stigma is receptive, but only for a few days. The stigma turns brown when it is no longer receptive. The pollen is not mature until after the stigma loses its receptivity. Therefore, flowers must be cross-pollinated. A tuning fork can be used to collect pollen, which you dab onto a green stigma of a newly opened flower. Ripping a pollen sack and dabbing it onto a stigma also works well. When pollination is successful, the ovary swells and turns brown, then splits open, revealing many, small seeds. No stratification is necessary and the seed can be sprinkled on milled sphagnum. Keep humid, cool, and bright and the seeds will germinate in several weeks. The young plants are not as tolerant to warmer temperatures, so keep the seedlings under 77 degrees F.