Zigzag Bladderwort (Utricularia subulata) flowerPhoto by Evan Barrientos

Unlikely Carnivores of Central Florida

Author: Leyla Wilson, Maxwell|Hanrahan Plant Ecology Research Intern

When you hear ‘carnivores in central Florida’, what comes to mind? Maybe you think of the iconic Florida Black Bear, Bobcat, or even the elusive Florida Panther. You might be surprised to learn there are some unlikely carnivores that are hiding in plain sight - carnivorous plants! Florida is home to around 42 species of carnivorous plants, 16 of which in Highlands County, including ten species of bladderworts, three species of butterworts, two species of sundews, and one species of pitcher plant, that typically grow in wet environments.

Carnivorous plants obtain their nutrients not only from the soil like most plants, but also from their diets. Carnivorous plants feed on insects and other small organisms because the environments where they grow are often lacking in the essential nutrients they need to grow. Different types of carnivorous plants have varied strategies to catch their prey. For example, sundews have sticky leaves that act like a glue trap, while pitcher plants attract prey to sweet fluid found in their long tubes. Once they catch an insect, the plants will then produce digestive juices, much like mammal carnivores, that breakdown the prey so they can absorb the nutrients.

Summer is a great time to look for carnivorous plants, as they are often blooming. In fact, you may not even know that there are carnivorous bladderworts growing underneath your feet on a trail if they were not in bloom. The most common bladderwort, the Zigzag Bladderwort (Utricularia subulata), is a tiny plant with a small thin stem, and very small yellow flowers, around the size of a pea. The carnivorous bladders, after which the plant is named, are underground structures that trap small insects and other organisms. Tiny hairs that are found on the opening of the bladder act as triggers, so when prey swims by and comes in contact with these hairs it causes the bladder to open and inflate drawing in water and the prey like a vacuum. The Zigzag Bladderwort blooms from mid February to July and can be found in wet flatwoods and boggy areas, often found growing alongside sundews.

The Pink Sundew (Drosera capillaris) is one of the most common carnivorous plants in central Florida, growing low to the ground in sandy acidic soils and in full sun. It has sticky red leaves arranged like a pinwheel, and pink-white flowers that bloom from May to August. Prey come to feast on the sugary substance, which covers the leaves, and get stuck, and the leaves act like tentacles closing around the prey.

A rarer carnivorous plant found in Highlands County is the Hooded Pitcher Plant, which can be found growing in wet pine flatwoods, wet prairies, marshes and swamps. The iconic pitchers, which are actually modified leaves, are 15-25 cm tall fading from yellow-green at the base to pink-red at the top. The hooded pitcher plant is unique among Florida pitcher plants in that it has a ‘lid’ that curls over the pitcher opening. The yellow-green flowers bloom from April to May.

Many of the carnivorous plants native to Florida are threatened due to illegal harvesting from the wild and the destruction of their wetland habitats. The easiest way we can protect these alluring plants is to never collect from the wild, and only purchase from reputable plant nurseries. Habitat conservation efforts for carnivorous plants include: restoring disrupted hydrology, frequent prescribed burning to control woody species encroaching, fencing off areas to exclude feral hogs to minimize digging and soil disturbance. These actions that benefit ‘hidden carnivores’ are also important for other plant and animal species, like large mammalian carnivores, that inhabit these areas.

Pink Sundew (Drosera capillaris)Photo by: Dustin Angell

Pink Sundew (Drosera capillaris). Photo by Dustin Angell.