Nature Escapes

Discover the Trickery of Pitcher Plants and the Lure of This Killer Rainforest Plant

"One of the most astonishing productions of the whole vegetable kingdom." Pitcher plants, even in 1850, made people awestruck.

Jungles, mountains and swamps are full of surprises. Trek slowly and find these elegant leaves of art hanging like a rainforest plant mobile decorating the outdoors. Grown in imaginative shapes and color mixtures, the forest scatters these jungle plants like pieces of lost pirate treasure.

When you find one, take a peek inside to observe any victims or maybe a friendly foe. Put on your explorer's or artist's thinking cap and ponder on the nature of these unique plants:

Nepenthes Nepenthes Nepenthes

  • Why do pitcher plants need to eat insects?
  • How many different shapes do these Nepenthes species come in?
  • If you were an early explorer, how would you describe this jungle plant to your friends?

Now let's go see how ants, spiders, bugs, preying mantises and even frogs and lizards fall prey to pitcher plant traps. Are they all lured victims or are some accidents?

"Hanging Abundantly From Their Leaves, And Continually Exciting Our Admiration By Their Size And Beauty"

-- 1854 by A.R. Wallace climbing Mt. Ophir in The Malay Archipelago

Nepenthes Nepenthes Nepenthes Nepenthes

How Do Pitcher Plants Attract Food With Legs?
The Tricks To Getting A Good Meal

Nature acts the same whether a human or an ant. Whatever attracts our senses gets our attention, right? Hmmm ... so what does the pretty pitcher plant offer to entice an insect to crawl onto the edge of its open trap? For a clue, think about the hummingbirds and the bees.

Look at a pitcher plant. Check out its design; usually either a long, narrow vessel or a pot-belly pot. And a wide-mouthed opening rimmed with a fluted walkway. Do you get the picture, yet?

Now everyone knows that flowers give off a fragrance, but pitchers are modified leaves not flowers. Scent attracts insects and some pitchers smell foul to give nighttime moths a smelly cue, and nasty odors also bring in flies.

Did you know that bees, dragonflies, bugs and crickets view things different than humans? Well the mottled color patterns of pitcher plants help guide these insects to contrasting light and color zones during the day.

So that's three ways to attract a meal to your liquid trap: sweet, smelly and colorful. Pitcher plants provide a sugary, high-energy food for those who visit and slurp the nectar oozing from just under the mouth rim.

And what happens to ants gorging nectar on a narrow pathway? Danger! Danger! Watch Your Step! Ahhhh ..... kerplop! Another victim falls for the sweet treats strategically placed in the danger zone.

So tasty is the sweet nectar of pitcher plants that even spiders and beetles are found in the pool of digestive juices at the bottom of the pitcher. Now others like frogs or lizards may not get much from nectar, but could be trying to eat all the captured ants without being able to exit.

The inner walls of the long pitcher plant are wet and sticky, thus keeping insects from crawling back out.

Some speculate that ants and pitcher plants have a mutual relationship. The jungle plant produces nectar for the ants to eat, a few ants end up in the food pool as nutrients for the plant, and the ants defend the Nepenthes by attacking plant-eating animals. Ants get an easy to find nectar energy boost and a few lost members is not a great loss to the colony. So both plant and animal gain from each other.

And that's how these tropical rainforest plants use all kinds of trickery to get food with legs.

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Nepenthes Nepenthes Nepenthes

10 Fascinating Facts and Features About Nepenthes
To Impress Others On Your Next Trek

  • Called 'Monkey Cups' because monkeys often drink the stored liquid
  • Over 120 species worldwide with the majority in Borneo and Sumatra
  • Found in lowland jungles with many growing in the cool climates of montane habitats
  • Two types of pitchers grow, the lower pot on the ground and the hanging upper narrow vase
  • The name Nepenthes refers to a drug that "quells all sorrows with forgetfulness" in Greek mythology
  • Pitchers are true leaves, starting as a bud and forming a globe or tube-shaped trap
  • The plant produces its own liquid pool of digestive juices to kill insects, it's not just water
  • The lid keeps out rainwater and may have nectar glands underneath to attract prey
  • Spiders, crabs, tadpoles and butterfly larvae live inside the plants
  • Some species are threatened, so don't collect wild plants just buy cultivated ones


Peninsular Malaysia - Nepenthes Species

Species Elevation Range
Conservation Status
N. albomarginata 0-2100 m Lower Risk-Conservation Dependent
N. ampullaria 0-2100 m Lower Risk-Least Concern
N. benstonei 450-600 m NA
N. gracilis 0-1100 m Lower Risk-Least Concern
N. gracillima 1300-2100 m Endangered
N. macfarlandii 1000-2150 m Vulnerable
N. mirabilis 0-1500 m Lower Risk-Least Concern
N. rafflesiana 0-1200 m Lower Risk-Least Concern
N. ramispina 900-2000 m Vulnerable
N. sanguinea 300-1800 m Lower Risk-Conservation Dependent
N. sharifah-hapsahii <1000 m NA

Borneo - Nepenthes Species

    N. albomarginata N. ampullaria
    N. bicalcarata N. boschiana
    N. burbidgeae N. campanulata
    N. chaniana N. clipeata
    N. edwardsiana N. ephippiata
    N. faizaliana N. fallax
    N. fusca N. glandulifera
    N. N. gracilis N. hirsuta
    N. hispida N. hurrelliana
    N. lowii N. macrophylla
    N. macrovulgaris N. mapuluensis
    N. mirabilis N. mollis
    N. muluensis N. murudensis
    N. naquiyuddinii N. northiana
    N. pilosa N. platychila
    N. rafflesiana N. rajah
    N. reinwardtiana N. stenophylla
    N. tentaculata N. veitchii
    N. villosa N. vogelii
    N. zakriana N. rajah

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