Cobra Plant: Belle of the Bog

text by Kyrill Schabert
phototgraphs by Tony Oppersdorff

Cambridge Illustrated Dictionary of Natural History tells us that the beautiful northern pitcher plant of the bog community is alternatively named for its viper-like resemblance. And like a cobra, and snakes as a whole, its nutrition is carnivorously based. Within the liquid of the pitcher, also called the hood, it traps and digests insects and spiders. The downward pointing hairs of the hood’s entry force prey in a one-way direction—again analogous to the cobra’s back-pointing dentition that engorges its prey.

Sarracenia purpurea is a most aesthetically pleasing plant species, its three-dimensional leaf a striking evolutionary departure from the two-dimensionality of most leaf forms.

This “star” species of bogs ranges from northern Canada to Florida as two subspecies, our northern purpurea and the southern venosa.

Extraordinarily, it is a plant that practices both carnivory—through which it gains nitrogen through the breakdown of prey—and photosynthesis to assimilate CO2. During its 30-50 year life span, an individual purpurea, each having 2-8 pitchers, thrives within the complex bog ecology, the basis of which, as opposed to the soil horizon on land, is the floating, two-foot-thick sphagnum mat, the substrate for all bog inhabitants: plants, animals, fungi, and all the microbiota from the comparatively giant protozoa to the tiniest bacteria and viruses.

Purpurea lives also with species within the liquid of the hood: rotifers (microscopic multi-celled animals) and protozoans, and larval insects, including mosquitoes and midges. This is an inquilinous community, an inquiline being in the ecological sense a “lodger” living in or on a larger host, broadly covered under the term commensalism, literally “at the same table.” The lodgers are said to tear apart the chitinous bodies of drowned prey, acting as functional “digesters” that share the resulting nutrients. The plant itself also produces digestive enzymes within the pitcher.

Experiencing this species and all other denizens of the bog should be on the must-do list of any nature enthusiast, with follow-up visits throughout the seasons. Two great preserves are near the Midcoast area:

Hidden Valley Nature Center, Jefferson
Orono Bog Boardwalk

“Cobra Plant: Belle of the Bog” is taken from Best Nature Sites of Midcoast Maine – Volume II, a work in progress and a collaboration between writer and photographer Tony Oppersdorff and writer and editor Kyril Schabert.