One would think that the purple pitcher, a bug-eating, water-collecting plant — like the Venus flytrap but without its reflexes — could fend for itself.
But the carnivorous Sarracenia purpurea, which is native to portions of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, has been no match for the convergence of factors altering its historic stomping grounds — rapid development, reforestation and re-engineering beavers among them. The plant needed something of a savior or, at the very least, some protected places to call home.
That’s why, nearly 20 years ago, Phil Sheridan founded the Meadowview Biological Research Station, a nonprofit that maintains a pair of preserves in Virginia’s Caroline and Sussex counties as safe havens for the “charismatic carni-flora” and their delicate ecosystems.
The research station’s headquarters is on a much smaller land holding just south of Fredericksburg, where an 18-acre Central Virginia Preserve was established to protect the northernmost pitcher plant population in the state.
The purple pitcher plant can be found as far north as Newfoundland and as far west as the Great Lakes. The plant maintains a presence in the bog environments of the Maryland and Pennsylvania portions of the Bay, though Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources considers the species threatened.
While not officially listed as endangered or threatened in Virginia, the purple pitcher plant is considered at high risk of disappearing from the state, according to a November 2016 list of rare plants compiled by the state’s botanist. The yellow pitcher plant’s status is even more precarious; it is considered to have a “very high risk” of disappearing because only a handful of populations are still known to exist in the state.
Meadowview’s Joseph Pines Preserve sets aside more than 200 acres in Sussex County, VA, for yellow pitcher plants and the similarly imperiled longleaf pines that rely on controlled burning in a bog environment.
“When any organism gets down to a small population size, it’s prone to stochastic or random events,” Sheridan said. An ill-placed beaver dam could, for example, flood a bog and wipe out the last remnants of a population.
“We’re actually predicting total loss of pitcher plants in Virginia in natural habitats and on the Western Shore of Maryland by 2030,” Sheridan said, citing research he first conducted for his Ph.D. in ecological sciences from Old Dominion University. “And we’re well on track.”
For Sheridan, pitcher plants were the gateway to a career in conservation. The name encompasses more than 100 diverse species — most in tropical regions — that deploy colorful, cylindrical leaves to trap unsuspecting insects in their slick gullets, which are lined with downward-pointing hairs that make it difficult to escape. There, enzymes, rather than teeth, do the slow work of digestion. Sheridan became interested in the plants as a teen growing up in Northern Virginia in the 1960s. When he found out that the purple pitcher plant had disappeared from its historical reaches there, he became as interested in its habitat as its eating habits.
The plants, which vary in color from deep purple to a light green with purple veins, grow in the soggy, sandy soils of the Coastal Plain where water tables are high and nutrient levels are low. Too many trees can crowd them out and lower the water table, which is why the pitchers are good partners for tall pine forests that benefit from regular controlled burning. But too much water — or too many beaver dams changing the course of that water — can drown the plants.
The plants could be accused of being picky about their environments, but that also makes their presence an indication of suitable ecosystems. They don’t need as much nitrogen as other plants do from soil or water, because they can harvest the nutrient from eating insects.
After working for years to reintroduce and protect pitcher plants on others’ lands, Sheridan realized, “If we didn’t own the land, we weren’t going to achieve the restoration and conservation we needed.”
He owned the 100-year-old farmhouse and property that is now home to the Meadowview station before donating it to the nonprofit in 2009. The organization then began raising funds to purchase the ecologically important properties that surround it — a painstaking process that is still ongoing.
To help raise funds and generate interest about pitcher plants, Meadowview’s horticulturalist, Richard Curzon, grows dozens of varieties of pitcher plants that are for sale from its onsite nursery. School groups that visit the property can duck into one of two small, 70-plus-degree greenhouses for a lesson in plant biology before heading into the forested preserve.
“Let’s look at the insects it’s caught,” Curzon said as he slid scissors down the side of a slender pitcher plant to reveal its innards, which included a black mass of bugs at various stages of digestion. “You see, it gets juicy at the bottom.”
“This is what a lot of the kids come to see,” Sheridan said, “and it gets them interested and then, hopefully, they graduate into conservationists.”
If bug guts don’t do the trick, Sheridan thinks giving people the chance to see the rare habitat where these pitcher plants still exist in Central Virginia will.
Casey Hu, donor services manager for The Community Foundation of the Rappahannock River Region, said public access is one of the reasons her organization has awarded grants to Meadowview, one of which helped to create a trail leading into the preserve.
“I do believe if they weren’t doing their work, no one else would be doing it,” Hu said. “They’re very dedicated to the (pitcher plant), and I can’t think of another organization in that area that would address that specific aspect of the environment.”
That said, raising funds to purchase more of the properties that could support pitcher plants around the 18 acres the center does own has not been easy. The nonprofit does not own but leases an adjoining 10-acre plot where native pitcher plants still exist and another 15-acre property that contains the habitat’s headwaters. Meadowview has the option to buy that 15-acre property for about $90,000 if the funds can be raised.
Sheridan and Curzon are working to bring purple pitcher plants back from the brink on the plot they lease, where the community reached a low point of just four plants in 2007. They have used those survivors’ seeds to restore dozens of the ground-hugging plants to properties the nonprofit does own, in moist, sandy soils where they likely would have thrived before it was cleared for farming in the 1700s.
Now, 40-year-old loblolly pines stretch high above the spongy earth where a walking path winds through the springs. Regular controlled burning helps to thin the understory and gives the plants a chance to thrive. Clusters of purple pitcher plants dot the ground, which is otherwise painted green by a vivid carpet of sphagnum moss.
“These are native ones,” Sheridan said, crouching down to inspect the cylindrical purple leaves. “They’re from this county, raised from seed and reintroduced here to prevent extinction. If we hadn’t intervened, these may have been gone forever.”