The Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc.

Plants of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden

The oldest public wildflower garden in the United States

Pitcher Plant

Common Name
Purple Pitcher Plant


Scientific Name
Sarracenia purpurea L. subsp. purpurea.


Plant Family
Pitcher Plant (Sarraceniaceae)

Garden Location
Historical - not extant


Prime Season
Late Spring flowering



Pitcher Plants are perennial carnivorous plants growing from rhizomes, forming clumps, lacking true stems and with leaves modified into insect traps called 'pitchers.'

Pitchers (Leaves) are all basal, forming a rosette and rise directly from the root. In S. purpurea they form an erect hollow tube, somewhat 's' shaped, widest just above the middle, 6 - 8 inches high. The opening of the pitcher is round to oval with a hood that has two side lobes and arches over the opening, but does not cover it. The outside is usually smooth but the inside has downward pointing hairs around the upper part, trapping small insects from backing out. Rainwater collects in the pitcher.

The color of the pitchers varies from green into reddish and purplish with reddish or purplish veins. There are no white areas between the veins on the hood as there are in some other species. The pitchers can appear with or just after the flowers and continue to develop all summer. They will be found erect, to sprawling but with the pitcher orifice facing upward. The pitcher secrets the chemicals that digest trapped insects. The inside of the pitcher contains nectaries that attract certain insects into the trap, whereas some bees, butterflies and moths feed on the nectar without being trapped. Non-carnivorus leaves (phyllodia) can appear on this species, but are rare.

The inflorescence is a solitary flower atop a leafless scape, 9 - 30 inches high, that is held high above the basal rosette of pitchers. (A scape is an aerial extension of the the underground rhizome, in this case, rising from the growing tip.) The scape bends downward at the apex making the flower nodding. There are 3 very small bracts at the base of the sepals, sometimes appressed to the sepals.

Flowers: Members of the Sarraceniaceae are nodding, bisexual, with the hypanthium absent. They have 5 sepals and 5 petals. S. purpurea has sepals more purple than red and the petals shade from red into maroon. Petals reflex inward to cover most of the reproductive parts, the sepals reflex also when the flower is fully open but to a lesser extent. Stamens number 50 to 100. The ovary consists of 5 carpels with one style that has 5 stigmas. Flowers can have a fragrance or have a disagreeable odor.

Seed: Pollination is usually by bees and fertile flowers produce a 1 to 2 cm diameter ribbed capsule containing hundreds of small seeds. Most reproduction is an enlargement of the clump from the spread of the rhizomes.


Habitat: Purple Pitcher Plant has a rhizomatous root system. It is found in moist to wet sunny locations that are acidic, such as fens and bogs although the Forest Service reports that S. purpurea occasionally occurs in alkaline marl bogs around the Great Lakes. The Service also reports from its studies that this species, unlike the others, also captures snails, crickets and grasshoppers. Because it obtains nutrients from insects it can live in poor soils. They can be transplanted but experience at Eloise Butler indicates they are not long lived if moved.

Names: According to Stern (Ref. #37a), the family name and the genus Sarracenia is named for French botanist and physician from Quebec, Michel Sarrasin (1659-1724) who first sent these plants to Europe for botanists to study. The species name, purpurea, is "of color purple", referring to coloration of parts of the species.

The author name for the plant classification - 'L.' refers to Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and the developer of the binomial nomenclature of modern taxonomy.

Comparisons: There are 11 species of Sarracenia in North America. Three have whitish areas on the hoods; of those without whitish areas, six have hood lobes that cover the orfice. The two remaining are S. purpurea and S. rosea. The latter has a shorter scape and the petals are pink to white.

Subspecies: Two are accepted by Flora of North America (Ref. W7): Subsp. purpurea where the pitchers are smooth on the exterior and are over 3.5 times as long as the diameter; subsp. venosa where the pitcher has distinct external hair and the pitcher length is no more than 3.5 times the length. The former is present in Minnesota.

See bottom of page for notes on the Garden's planting history, distribution in Minnesota and North America, lore and other references.

full plant Drawing

Above: Solitary flowerers rise on a leafless scape (an aerial stem rising from the root). Drawing from Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York.

Below: 1st photo - A new growth of scapes rise with flower buds. Below are some pitchers of the prior years plant. 2nd photo - Historical photo of Purple Pitcher Plant - from a Kodachrome by Martha Crone on May 31, 1951.

buds historic photo

Below: A tangle of pitchers, mostly from the prior years plant with some new buds on scapes rising from the root.


Below: New pitchers formed in the Spring. Note the lobes on the hood that surrounds the orifice of the pitcher and the fine downward pointing hairs. The pitcher in the 2nd photo holds water.

pitchers pitcher with water

Below: New pitchers formed in the Spring.

group of new pitchers

Below: A group of new flowers. Note the small bracts on the scape that are appressed to the bottom of the sepals.

plant group


Notes: Purple Pitcher Plant is not indigenous to the Garden but it is to Wirth Park where the Garden is located. Eloise Butler's records show that it was the very first species she transplanted to the Garden when she brought in two plants on April 29, 1907 from Mahtomedi MN; later the same Spring more plants came from White Bear Lake. To illustrate how difficult it is to have a transplant survive for the long-term, we need only look at the planting record of Eloise and her successor Martha Crone. Eloise was Curator from 1907 to the beginning of 1933 and she brought in pitcher plants in every year except 1908, '10, '11' and '17. Martha Crone planted every year from 1933 - 1938; 1947 - 1950, and 1955-56. Later Curators have not attempted to establish it. The wetland may no longer be acidic enough.

Purple Pitcher Plant is found throughout the lower Canadian Provinces, and most of the eastern half of the United States. Within Minnesota distribution is concentrated in the counties NE of a line from Washington County in the metro area, northwest to Norman County.

Eloise Butler wrote of the Pitcher Plant: “A fly seldom escapes from one of these leaf traps when she visits it for a sip of water. For, if she succeeds in crawling up the inner slippery surface, she will encounter a margin of stiff, downward pointing hairs that will hinder further progress. As the insects decay, they are absorbed. In this way the plants obtain the nitrogenous food, more or less necessary for all plants, as shown by the use of fertilizers. But what is novel about the insectivorous plants is that they capture living insects. They can thereby get a living from poorer soil and with feebler roots than can other plants. The flower also has a striking appearance. The calyx is dark red purple. The fiddle-shaped petals of rich wine color are folded over a genuine umbrella - the stigma of the pistil, which not only serves the usual purpose of pollination, but also keeps the pollen and nectar dry - an umbrella in use long before man thought of making one.” Published in the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune June 18, 1911.

Eloise also once wrote of finding the plant in a strange environment. “On an unwooded hill was a spring surrounded by pitcher plants in full flower and all the different Cypripediums again. I had never seen pitcher plants in such a situation before. The soil was peculiar -- a fine gray colored clay, seemingly intermixed with sand.” Finding the White Cypripedium from Annals of the Wild Life Reserve, May 1914. The soil Eloise describes is probably a marl like that the Forest Service mentions up above in "habitat."


References and site links

References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.

graphicIdentification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.