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Sarracenia purpurea
"in the wild" in Switzerland

Article in the German language: Hartmeyer, S. (1996) Das Taublatt (GFP, Heft 28: 11-15

Translation by Mrs. Lois Glass, England

Back in May 1987 in the Brüglingen Botanical Garden (Basel, Switzerland) I was working with some volunteers preparing for the summer season a display cabinet some 2½ x 1½ m (ca. 9x5 ft) with a nice collection of Venus Flytraps, Sundews, big Sarracenias and Utriculariae, when the Head Gardener at that time, Mr. Herbert Dipner, asked me if I had by any chance heard of the Sarracenias growing in the wild in the Jura moutains (Jurassic region in Switzerland). I had indeed had news of them, but the precise locality of these reputedly large and robust carnivores was kept a very closs secret by those in the know, in order to protect them from unauthorized collectors. Mr. Dipner smiled and said that if I was interested, and had some good Wellington boots, we could make an excursion there in July or August of that year. Of course I was intrigued, and agreed with enthusiasm. Unfortunately either the weather or essential work on the house we had just bought at Weil am Rhein, prevented the proposal from being put into execution in 1987. Nevertheless a visit to the location of these secret plants remained firmly in mind.

All the same, a further 6 years were to elapse before this plan became a reality. In 1993 I had invited Ruedi Fürst - well known for his book "Fleischfressende Pflanzen" (= carnivorous plants) co-authored with Thomas Carow (Verlag Thomas Carow, ISBN 3-9801839-1-2) - to show some of his insectivorous plants as well as the book (with signature, if wanted) at both the slide and video shows that year at the Botanical Garden in Brüglingen. We two had known one another for several years, thanks to the meetings of the Swiss Carnivorous Plant Society members at Aarburg, and he was pleased to accept my invitation. In addition to the book and a number of very attractive sundews and pitcher plants, he also brought along a few splendid Drosophyllum lusitanicum in full bloom, as well as Pinguicula agnata and P. x sethos growing on nothing but lava fragments; and last but not least, nice plants of Roridula gorgonias, together with the Pameridea bugs living on them. No wonder the 50 or so visitors claimed the event to have been an outstanding success. It goes without saying that, at its close, there was much animated discussion of CP’s, and the talk turned among other things to the subject of "Sarracenias in the Suisse Jura". Ruedi of course knew the "secret" localities in Switzerland, and volunteered of his own accord to take my wife Irmgard and myself there, so that we could record the plants on tape. We arranged to meet one weekend soon thereafter, and as luck would have it even the weather smiled on us. I must beg to be excused from mentioning details regarding place and route, but secrecy is essential so as to safeguard these unique plants.

About an hour’s drive from Weil am Rhein we all met up punctually at the railway station of a small township in the Swiss Jura. Ruedi had brought his wife Claudia and their two sons, because the entire Fürst family enjoys expeditions of this kind into the country, and usually includes a good picnic meal. Suitably equipped and in the best of moods, we drove on together for another few kilometers until it became necessary to proceed on foot. The two youngsters in particular were thrilled when we had to clamber over a fence in order to reach our goal: a magnificent high-altitude moor.

Here, at some 1000m above sea-level (3.500 ft) the ground was covered with a dense cushion of sphagnum moss interspersed with grasses, into which we sank ankle-deep. Some very stunted pines, growing solitary or in groups, had trunks and branches densely colonised by lichens, a testimony to the raw damp climate. In winter the temperatures can reach -40°C with snow-cover a meter (40 ins) or more. In summer the normal day-temperature is 15-25°C (60-75°F) although even 30°C (90°F) is possible, so that the soil warms correspondingly in sunnier places. Even then the night-temperature can fall to near freezing. Thus the plants here must adapt to annual temperature-fluctuations of about 70°C (160°F), and tolerate flooding after heavy or prolonged rainfall.

On this particular day the temperature was over 20°C (68°F) and very pleasant, with atmospheric moisture, usually very high, within reasonable bounds. Ideal conditions for video-equipment and camera which, within a few minutes, were called on to record all the exiting things we saw around us. Scattered within our field of vision there were over a dozen circular clumps of Sarracenia purpurea ssp. purpurea, each group with at least 100 pitchers. What a sight! The clumps were at least a meter (40 ins) in diameter, the pitchers, mostly erect, being the normal size of 15-20cm (6-8 ins) long. Some of the typical flowers stood out, their dark red petals having fallen a few weeks earlier. The conspicuously swollen ovaries showed that even here the pitcher plants set seed, although we observed neither seedlings nor immature plants. The colouring of the pitchers, all of them healthy, varied from yellow-green to dark green with slight red venetion, to occasional specimens which were dark red. The interior of the pitchers, more or less filled with rainwater, showed a wealth of ants, beetles and other winged insects. We found no trace of live midge larvea such as from Wyeomyia smithii which are found in the pitchers in North America. However, in some cases a spider had settled in the upper part of the trap, so as to benefit from the insects attracted by the Sarracenias.

After taking all the photographs we wanted, we returned to our vehicle and drove on another few kilometers in order to visit a second locality. Once again we first had to go in foot for a distance through the magnificent mountain landscape with all its brilliant colours, until at last we came to a lake where Ruedi immediately discovered a Utricularia - a very small one, just 20cm (8 ins) or so in length. We fished out of the water this rootless and free-swimming plant so that we could hang it up on a low tree branch in order to film the typical traps under the macro-lens. This enabled us to identify the plant as Utricularia minor. In the Swiss mountain lakes one finds not only many of the Utricularias with a European distribution, but sometimes even the rare trapping aquatic Aldrovanda vesiculosa; this likewise is free-floating and rootless, having traps 2-3mm (up to 1/8-inch) long, recalling the way the Venus Fly Trap (Dionaea muscipula) takes its prey. This species was not found at this spot, but a further trip is proposed to another lake which does have Aldrovanda.

A few meters from the lake-shore there occure many specimens of Drosera rotundifolia, the round-leaved sundew, distributed throughout the northern hemisphere. Taken internally, the sap is effective in loosening the phlegm resulting from colds for which reason it is a constituent of some cough-drops (e.g. Herbalpina Ô ). Since our own native plants are strictly protected, the source of this material is now mostly Russia.

Somewhat further on, the ground-cover was again as in our first locality; a dense sphagnum mat, interspersed with grasses, where there flourished the largest plants I have ever seen of Drosera x obovata. This natural hybrid of Drosera rotundifolia and Drosera anglica, with its diameter of 10 cm (4ins) and more, is larger than both parents. The brilliant red tentacles of the trapping leaves, glistening in the sun, were fine subjects for macrophotography. On the other hand the ground under the sphagnum was so marshy that, despite my care in bringing a special foam mat, my feet sank ever deeper as I photographed. By the time I noticed this my shoes were already deep in the bog, and made a loud squelching sound as I pulled them out. But these small contretemps are a part of the adventure, in the same way as the ever-present mosquitoes and the occasional horse-flies which had flown over from the nearby pastures and which can inflict a very painful bite. We spent time looking for the rarer long-leaved sundew Drosera anglica which Ruedi had in fact found here in previous years, but without success. The interesting thing is that Drosera x obovata - a sterile hybrid which can therefore not reproduce by seed - had at this locality reproduced vegetatively so vigorosly that it was the dominant species in both size and numbers.

On this moor also we found further clumps of Sarracenia purpurea ssp. purpurea up to a meter (40 ins) across; and I asked Ruedi how it had come about that these North American pitcher plants, natives of eastern USA and Canada, had reached the Swiss Jura; their size suggested this must have been decades earlier. He told me that there still lived nearby an old woman who - some 50 years before - had as a young girl either received them from America, or had brought them back herself. Since conditions here are similar to those of the natural habitats in the north-east USA, this had presumably suggested the idea of planting these interesting specimens in the local moors. In the meantime this area had been made a protected site and it had in fact occured to the relevant authorities that perhaps these alien pitcher plants should be removed. But after some discussion it was decided that, since other native species had come to no harm from these presence of Sarracenia purpurea in the course of 50 years, they could be allowed to remain in the protected area as an exeptional rarity. And a good thing too, I might add as a long-time fan of the insectivores; but undoubtedly it is right that extreme precautions must be observed in introducing alien species, above all into protected areas!

After we had taken , here too, all the pictures we wanted, we set to our picnic on the lake-shore, and concluded our excursion with a discussion on the CP’s of this area. Then it emerged that in Switzerland there are still several other "wild" colonies of Sarracenia purpurea, not only in the Jura. The question arises as to how long a time is required before an introduced species can be termed as belonging to the locality ? If any of my readers have the answer, please let me know !