Beautiful Butterworts, by Paul Miller
What do you do if you’re a plant growing in soil that doesn’t provide enough nourishment? Well, how about eating insects? Kissimmee Prairie Preserve has several species of plants that actually eat insects: sundews, bladderworts, butterworts, and one species of pitcher plant. Here we discuss the winter/spring blooming butterworts.
Butterworts, or ‘Pings’ (an abbreviation of the scientific genus Pinguicula), are members of an insectivorous plant family called the Lentibulariaceae which includes the bladderworts. It is the most species rich family of carnivorous plants on Earth. By definition, carnivorous plants make their living digesting the protein provided by insects that they capture.
The butterworts that occur in the Preserve are perennial and spend much of their life cycle as a ‘basal rosette’— a cluster of leaves that remain flat on the ground. The upper surface of the leaves have minute hairs topped with glands (best seen with a dissecting microscope) that exude a sticky substance. Small insects such as gnats become stuck to the surface of the leaves and are chemically digested providing nutrients to the plant. The basal rosettes of butterworts remain relatively inconspicuous in the prairie. They spend most of their life cycle eating bugs, quietly hidden from view by grasses and other plants that reach to the sky until it is time to flower.
The Yellow-flowered Butterwort is much more common in the Preserve and folks on a Prairie Buggy tour should keep their eyes on the sides of the trail during these months to catch a glimpse. The Blueflower Butterwort is less common and likely has a more specific habitat requirement. Who knows why the Blueflower is so picky? Perhaps a curious mind will be inspired to investigate the habitat and figure that out.
Guest author, Paul Miller started working at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve in 2002 on the endangered Florida Grasshopper Sparrow. In 2004 he became the Preserve's full time biologist. Since then, he has been casually studying the diversity of prairie plants when he isn’t sitting at his desk frantically trying to stay ahead of paperwork.
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