Friday, January 20, 2012

The Death of Big Gulp

Sarracenia leucophylla blooming in the Conservation Gardens at the Atlanta Botanical Garden.
Sometimes as a volunteer at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, you’re given jobs to more or less get you out of the way.  I don’t begrudge this, especially on such a beautiful morning.  The potting benches inside were full, so my sister volunteers and I were assigned to work on the Sarracenia growing behind the greenhouses.  They had accumulated more than their portion of weeds and spent growth. Johnette, Jo Ann and I were on the job!  David Ruland also instructed us to be especially pitiless with pitcherplants showing signs of Exyra moth infestation.      
Jo Ann Bertrand and Johnette Brosewood at work behind the main greenhouses at the Atlanta Botanical Garden.
Pitcherplant Moths    Pitcherplant moths can do what no other insect can:  Walk both down and up the slippery walls inside the pitchers.[i]  Young moth caterpillars feed around the pitcher, girdling it so that it topples over. Older Exyra caterpillars weave a silk roof at the mouth of the pitcher.  Almost all the plants we worked on were white-top pitcherplants (Sarracenia leucophylla), so I believe we were encountering the effects of Exyra semicrocea. We saw doubled-over pitchers and also the drainage holes that the more mature caterpillars make to prevent flooding while they pupate.   Exyra ridingsii are only found in the yellow pitcherplant (Sarracenia flava), and Exyra fax colonizes just purple pitcherplants (Sarracenia purpurea).[ii]
Drainage hole likely made by Exyra catepillar.
Order from Chaos
There is something so satisfying about taking a pot that is full of weeds and spent growth and cleaning in up so that it contains only the desired plant species looking its best.  Here are some of the botanical makeovers we performed.
[If I could figure out how to put these before/after pics side-by-side I would.]
Johnette Brosewood is the most experienced volunteer when it comes to working with pitcherplants.  She shepherds them through every stage of life, and I am learning how to care for pitcherplants by working alongside Johnette and Jo Ann. And we have our work cut out for us with a greenhouse full of Sarracenia.  Sometimes I feel like a member of the paint crew on the Golden Gate Bridge:  Once we’ve dragged our brushes over the entire bridge, we cross and start all over again, only in our cases, repotting, weeding, top-dressing and pruning.
Conservation Greenhouse
Why does ABG have so many Sarracenia?   Pitcherplant habitat is some of the most endangered habit in Georgia (and elsewhere).  Pitcherplants grew throughout the Southeast, but land conversion into agricultural fields and residential and commercial developments, fire suppression, and invasive species have drastically cut their numbers.  In fact, in Georgia, pitcherplant bogs have been eradicated from the Piedmont and nearly eradicated from the Blue Ridge Mountains.[iii]
The Sarracenia in the Conservation Greenhouse are a living gene bank of plants grown from seed collected from pitcherplants in all the remaining mountain bogs.  Should something happen to the plants in the wild we have back up plants.  Meanwhile, ABG and its conservation partners (government agencies, academic and botanical institutions, and landowners) work to restore and maintain their natural habitat. 
The Death of Big Gulp One of the white-top pitcherplants stood out among the rest.  It was considerably larger and whiter than its peers, and the mouth of its pitcher formed a yawning maw.  Many of us had stepped out behind the greenhouse just to marvel at this specimen.  I named it Big Gulp.  At a certain point in our labors I looked for Big Gulp and didn’t see him (if I can give it a name, I can give it a gender).  
Big gulp, before the tragic event.
Alarmed, Johnette fished through the bin where we tossed our cuttings and found the decapitated Big Gulp.  She had seen the drainage hole and simply snipped not realizing she had cut down our mascot.  As a joke, I put a stick into the bottom half of the cut pitcher so that we could stake Big Gulp back on.  And I teased Johnette, calling her Black Thumbs.
Big Gulp had his revenge though.  His oversized-gullet was so full of decaying insect carcasses that once opened, he released a terrific smell. And a mass of red-eyed flesh flies descended on his remains.  
A chagrined Johnette

[i] Folkerts, Debbie.  “EPSN Science Fact: Insect and Pitcherplant Interactions.  Insect Profiles by Dr. Debbie Folkerts, Auburn University.”
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Chafin, Linda G. Field Guide to the Rare Plants of Georgia. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007. P. 444.

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